THEME. A Glance at the Current Situation of Lithuanian Composers, or an Attempted Sociological Survey

The youngest generation of Lithuanian composers is becoming increasingly established in the musical scene and certain peculiarities of this generation are beginning to come to light. Not so much (and not only) from the stylistic point of view, but from the social and economic perspective. Without hesitation the young and the youngest have put aside the question of musical nationality–the key issue that brought about most discussions in the 20th century’s Lithuanian (and not only) music. They are more pragmatic and already belong to the globalised world, where art is not bound to a specific place, where being here and there, this or that, has become an inevitable, not an idiosyncratic feature. The collage-like nature is inherent to the music of the 21st century, since this music no longer pursues stylistic purity and does not feel the former tension between academism and its oppositions (primitivism, exoticism, nationalism, popular music, etc.) that accompanied it throughout the 20th century. The young generation sees the world from above and has few of the periphery artists’ complexes left. Those interested in technologies have mastered them to the necessary extent, either abroad or in Lithuania, at home or in private studios, while those not interested are fairly suggestively defending their right to further remain disinterested. The young composers have also ceased thinking in geographical terms. The present socio-economic music industry environment, open geographically and culturally (Lithuanian festivals began practicing collaborative commissions long ago), has become harder to penetrate. Therefore, the young are seamlessly changing their places of residence (for a week, a month, or a year) and try to enter the newly formed spaces of virtual dependencies, which shape the sound world according to their own laws, employing the commissions as a principal tool. Works are being commissioned in Lithuania and abroad, although the general international tendency of twofold existence, i.e. creating commissioned and non-commissioned works (the latter becoming rare?), is still alive.

It is these emerging changes of the Lithuanian composers’ world that prompted to conduct a more thorough study, rather than sketch the description of an invisible pyramid’s tip. The idea behind the composers’ poll was to obtain first-hand answers to several questions that we considered to be essential: 1. Has the status of the composers changed in the Lithuanian society (bearing in mind that during the Soviet times there was a great deal of attention paid to art, the artist being an important public figure); 2. Has the attitude of the composers towards their activities changed (bearing in mind that during the Soviet times professional stability was relatively warranted, thus people would get involved in the arts for idealistic reasons); 3. How do the composers rate their present economic situation (bearing in mind that during the Soviet times the members of artistic unions were granted particularly favourable living and working conditions); and 4. What do they expect from the state (bearing in mind that during the Soviet times the state not only protected the artists, but at times also tried to impose its will upon them).

Arranging such poll, however, was more difficult than it appeared at first; mainly due to the naive belief that the composers themselves will be actively interested in the reality of their environment. Only 15 composers out of more than one hundred members of the Composers’ Union responded to the circulated questionnaire. Why? I do not know. One might only guess, since none of those who did not answer the questions have given the reasons for such refusal. Artists belong to an original, complex and sometimes hard-to-predict social category. These are the characteristics for which they are loved and (not so long ago were) feared.

Therefore, this report cannot claim to be either a serious or an objective study. It is only a slanted version of the initial undertaking. It might even have not come to light, save for the fact that even though there were few respondents, they involved the composers of all generations, from the youngest to the eldest. And this at least permits to trace some mental or judgment tendencies  characteristic of different generations.

Perhaps everyone will agree that the composer’s craft is among the most complex and least financially secure activities. The composer is dependant upon work commissions (or acquisitions), as well as upon the performance of his/her works, publication of scores and records, distribution, etc. The coordinating role was and still is performed by the Lithuanian Composers’ Union. After the lifting of the political aspect, it turned into a perfectly functioning organisational structure that was in charge of organizing the major contemporary music festivals. For some foreign colleagues, the retained term ‘Union’ evokes strong associations with the repressive Soviet system, and they are startled by the fact that such an institution (or, rather, such a name for the institution) still exists...

For the purpose of comparing the economic situation, let us briefly review the possibilities and conditions of the acquisition of musical works during the Soviet period and today. According to one representative of the elder generation, in the past the Ministry of Culture would acquire all “works performed and recorded at least once, following the logic that the performance of the work means that somebody needs it.” Price was the only difference; some got paid more and some less. It was governed by the political situation and the authorities’ attitude towards individual artists. On rare occasions, advances were paid for works in progress, mostly in case of large-scale opuses. Works were priced as follows: chamber piece–from 100 to 1.000 roubles, symphonic piece–from 1500 roubles, stage work–from 20.000 to 30.000 roubles.

Five years ago, the Ministry of Culture cancelled the system of acquisition of works of art. It was replaced by the Programme for Commissioning Dramatic and Musical Works that has an annual budget of approximately 400.000 Litas. The application is to be submitted by an institution that guarantees the public performance of the work during the same year. Naturally, all present Lithuanian festivals are using this system. The committee of experts reviews the applications and selects the best proposals. According to the approximate estimations of the Composers’ Union, around 20-30 composers get commissions this way at present, most of them–for several pieces at once. The prices of works are as follows: chamber piece–up to 5.000 Litas, symphonic piece–from 10.000 to 15.000 Litas, stage work–around 25.000 Litas.

Both systems have one thing in common–the composer has to ensure that his/her work will be performed one way or another. The difference is that in the Soviet times the composer would sell an already completed work (he/she composes the work, brings it to the Composers’ Union (recorded), the Union evaluates the work and proposes it to the Ministry, and then the Ministry buys it) and at present the composer is commissioned to compose a work. The earlier system permitted pricing variations depending on personal or political tensions within the Union (but not on the actual value of the work, because, as one respondent has put it, “back then you still wrote the way you wanted, it is just that this music did not travel far”), whereas the current advance commissioning system is, in a way, a ‘blind purchase’, since nobody, including the author, can guarantee the final result. From the point of view of the standard of living, the prices were obviously higher during the Soviet times (one should not forget other privileges that are no longer available). Moreover, the individual initiative was the main impulse for the creation of new works in Soviet times, whereas now the creation of a new work most often depends upon the “institutional application”. The previous system provided equal chances to all composers at least theoretically, while the present one only provides for selected composers.

Let us go back to the survey, which will help us to at least partially understand how composers of different generations feel in this changed system.

Throughout the entire world, very few composers manage to make a living solely from composition. What I considered to be of greatest significance was the fact that only one of the fifteen composers who responded to the questionnaire stated that he/she was able to rely on creative work solely, without the need to do any additional jobs, which, along with creative work, is a necessity for the majority of Lithuanian composers. However, from the young composers’ point of view, one has “no chance” to find an occupation ex professo (like writing music for advertising agencies), and commissions for theatre or cinema are possible by “pulling strings” only (in fact, the situation was the same in the old days). That is why the spectrum of occupations the youngest composers have given a try is significantly broader than the pedagogical or administrative jobs that the middle and elder generations were accustomed to. The young work as cleaners, translators, babysitters, guides, event organisers, rock band managers, etc. The difficulties of finding a job are faced by the generation of composers that failed to jump on the train of the assignment system established during the Soviet times, which ensured that everyone got a job after graduating.

Apparently, the agency system has not yet established itself in Lithuania, since all of the respondent composers, without exception, are handling their works individually. The eldest generation finds it difficult to move from the old scheme, where the performers would often search for composers and make commissions, to the present ‘self-marketing’ system and (sometimes vain) attempts to find performers to play their works. The middle generation has found some kind of balance and is functioning in a somewhat twofold mode: they are simultaneously looking for the ordering customers and waiting for commissions, and it seems that they are doing pretty well. Meanwhile, the youngest generation clearly displays diverse forms of expression of personal initiatives in establishing themselves within a fairly small world of music makers. They are self-reliant and expect nothing from anyone.

The geographical landscape of different generations varies as well: the youngest mostly associate their professional future with foreign countries and the eldest generation relates it exclusively to Lithuania, whilst the middle generation has once again discovered the golden mean, seeing their future related to both Lithuanian and foreign contemporary music audiences.

As we know, the formation of the artist’s status in the society is greatly determined by the attitude of the state towards art and artists. In this respect, during the Soviet era the elder composers felt “moral and material support” of the state, while today (with the exception of a few optimists) they are obviously “disappointed by the state,” “lacking attention” and no longer believing that the state will somehow help them. Some of the middle-generation composers either no longer expect any help from the state because they are disappointed with it, or do not expect anything because they treat their work as “any other professional occupation,” with which the state is not supposed to interfere. Others are looking for attention to “culture, art and the artist himself/herself,” for “social protection,” “financial support,” or “no disturbance,” and hope that “the state will abandon some of the absurd bureaucratic attitudes towards art and artists, when they are assessed only based on the economic value criteria or when the piece of art is equated to some commodity (a requirement to arrange ‘public tenders’ when commissioning new works…).”

Despite the youngest generation’s fairly pragmatic attitude towards their occupation, some of them would also like to have a “status of a full-fledged artist,” while others think that it is “better not to trust the state, and to work by oneself.” The latter think that “writing music is just a profession.” Maybe that is why they are not intimidated by professional insecurity (“we are not afraid”). Should it be necessary, this generation is prepared to change their profession, because “any new activity brings benefits these days”; however, they also regard composition as a “way of life.” From this point of view, the middle generation does not (and never did) feel secure, but the future prospects do not appear frightening to them either. They have figured out “the rules of the game” and are quite optimistic (“if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen”) and pragmatic about their future (“the activity of the composer is subject to the market laws and one cannot escape it. One has to learn to recognise them and act accordingly”). The eldest generation has a more critical attitude towards the issue. It is evident that the privileges the composers enjoyed during the Soviet times are gone (“all my material belongings were acquired before the regaining of Independence”). All that is left is a chance to go on holiday to the composers’ cottages in Druskininkai health resort. The composers of the young generation have to earn money to buy an apartment, a car or a refrigerator. Therefore, it is quite natural that the elder generations of composers felt more financially and professionally secure in the past.

The responses to the questionnaire revealed that, along with the commissions for works, the annually granted state scholarships are an invaluable support to the composers. Not everyone requesting such scholarship is granted one. Some receive them often, others – seldom, and there are some who have never received such state grants. Therefore, some regard these scholarships as useful yet temporary financial support, and for others they are simply a long-term financial backup, lasting from the very establishment of these allocations, right after the regaining of Independence. Some composers wish that more funds were allocated, since “the insecurity of compositional activity is very intimidating and it hinders creativity.” Summarising the economic situation, the youngest composers state that their financial standing is improving, and the middle generation composers regard their financial situation as stable and gradually improving. Noticeable economic decline was reported by the eldest generation only (the situation is good only for those who are at the same time receiving the pension and the commissions for works).

All three generations discussed herein are consolidated by the stimuli that determined the choice of the profession in the first place: they became composers led by high aims, vocation, curiosity, wish to fulfil one’s potential, and for idealistic reasons. It is uncommon that one would select the composers’ career accidentally or without knowing the reasons for such choice. All three generations perceive music composition as a profession, vocation and mission, while the composer is first of all perceived as an artist.

One of the most pressing issues of the composers’ world known without any polls is related to the nearly discontinued publication of the musical scores. The Composers’ Union did a tremendous job in recording the contemporary Lithuanian music, so one can only hope that in the nearest future it will proceed to the economically unprofitable publication or digitalisation of musical scores, so that they would somehow become available to the interested public. This issue is not new in Lithuanian music – it existed from the very beginning of Lithuanian professional music, i.e. throughout the 20th century. There were many discussions concerning this problem in the pre- and post-war times, but the situation remained unchanged.

As for the performance of works, there are no great differences between the Soviet times and the period of Independence. Some composers had all of their works performed then and they are being played now, whilst others had and still have works awaiting performance. Perhaps the best indicator showing the viability of the composers’ environment is the fact that the majority of currently composed works are being performed. All of the 15 respondents are either writing something at present or have recently completed their newest piece, and the last performance of their works took place within the last year. This creates an impression that the present-day world of composers is functioning remarkably well, with no signs of depression.

What conclusions might be drawn from this (not very successful) survey? First of all, the composers’ responses were not expected to amaze or reveal something implausible to someone who has had at least a brief encounter with the reality of today’s Lithuanian music sphere. Yet this poll did reveal that the composers are not that distinct as they might (or want to) appear; that the façade of stylistic individuality often masks a uniform or only slightly differing worldview and perception of the changing situation. It also shows that we indeed have generations of composers who think differently and have diverse perceptions of themselves and their environment. As anticipated beforehand, the poll also demonstrated that the changes that are to come with the youngest generation of composers have the power to transform the very near future of the composing world. How? We shall see. And the last conclusion: artists from all around the world, now and ever before, everywhere and in Lithuania, are still solving the same unsolvable dilemma, which permanently creates (creative?) tension between the economic dependence and the freedom of existence.

© Vita Gruodytė

Lithuanian Music Link No. 15