FEATURE. Ričardas Kabelis: The Sound Is the Only Reality

In 2008, three of Kabelis’ new works are going to premiere at the Bergen International Festival (NO), the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (UK) and the ISCM World Music Days in Vilnius (LT).

Perhaps it’s not music anymore. Were everything done exactly as conceived, that would be something that just sounds around and doesn’t bother. It belongs to a certain group of my work which could be called an illusion of music which is heard and not heard at the same time...

photo: Dmitry Matveyev

Ričardas Kabelis is enigmatic as always, when talking about his new composition Long Now for hardingfele (Norwegian fiddle) and string quartet, awaiting its first performance at the Bergen International Festival on May 24, 2008. The composition will be premiered by the Engegård String Quartet and Nils Økland, who had performed Kabelis’ Olives for Oliverei for hardingfele solo 14 years ago and has commissioned the composer to write a new work for this year’s festival. The composer finds this instrument well fitting for his micro-tonal explorations due to its four sympathetic strings underneath the four playable strings (in Olives, the sympathetic strings were tuned 1/8 tone apart, to achieve the effect of a ‘wide unison’).

And the trend of ‘dissolved’ and ‘inaudible’ music has been prominent in Kabelis’ work for quite a long time, starting perhaps with Invariations for string quartet (1983), proceeding with Zelle for violin, viola and piano (1992), Ex oriente lux for violin, viola, harpsichord and clavichord (1994), and reaching the breathtaking heights of nothingness in Mudra for symphony (!) orchestra (2000). But there is also an opposite group of his compositions marked with hyperactivity and extreme emphasis on rhythm, such as CCC for snare drum (1991) or Monopoly for trombone and symphony orchestra (2004). What does the composer think about such polarities of his creative self?

Well, the first group of my works – the bare nothing, the non-existent existence – is a cruel stuff. Under the influence of that, the audience is likely to leave the hall (although this has never happened yet, even when performing Mudra, where the rests are of overwhelming span). The second group could be cruel due to the sheer power and physical impact of sound, the adrenaline of the performance. But, while the extremes are not alien to me (like having a whip on the one hand, and a ‘virtual whip’ on the other), there is also something in between, a place where everybody is feeling most comfortable, a zone of fun and prank. And this is the real essence of Kabelis...

An unexpected twist. Is he talking about his vocal works with the comically deranged texts, such as Vierzig Persische Pfirsiche for mixed choir (2000) where the title line undergoes such bizarre (and even obscene for some listeners) transformations as “Pferzisch virsiche piersige”? Or maybe, he is referring to some theatrical moments in his compositions, as in Opus servus for prepared piano (1993), where the bass drum is brought on stage to be hammered by the pianist against the distant sound of another invisible prepared piano from the backstage? Some other compositions could also come close, such as Opus magnum for harpsichord (1993), consisting of nothing more than four tone-clusters repeated at constantly changing tempo; things would get even more perplexing if this piece were presented exactly as the composer wanted: performed on a harpsichord by a kneeling percussionist (not a keyboard player)... Does the composer have any comments to the frequent descriptions of his work as odd, strange, or just indefinable? Is he conscious about putting some dose of strangeness in his music?

For me the most of the 20th century music is utterly strange, I don’t understand why it is still here. Well, I don’t care, let it be and flourish. But it doesn’t mean anything to me, it has suffered a complete inflation of meaning, period. (Although it is still supported by numerous institutions, festivals, and whatnot...) Considering my own work, even those outwardly ‘weird’ pieces still have a clear and intelligible structure. I never do any tricks to affect the listeners in one or another way, nor do I project their expected reactions. I am sure it would be alright if I succeeded to make everything right for me. If I discover some consistent pattern, everything falls into place, makes a form, a structure and all, and then there is a chance that nobody else could elaborate this particular structure better. It’s like discovering some law of nature; perhaps it’s absolutely utopic – to find a different rule, a unique set of patterns for each new work. But nobody could offer me any other, more thrilling utopia; or probably I’m just unaware of it myself.

In the search for a pure and uniform organisation of the musical material, free of any human subjectivity, the composer once tried the possibilities of various algorithmic composition software. However, it is obviously not his favourite route anymore.

Now I consciously reject computer-aided composition; in my opinion, it is against the natural laws of music. Well, you could probably come across some idea or essential element for the composition while fiddling with some software, but then you should work out the whole by using your own brain. Usually, the initial impulse for a new work strikes me as a lightning: suddenly I notice some small pattern, a cell which is just perfect; my further task is to find a way how to derive a composition out of it, how to crystallise the whole form. As in Long Now – the building blocks of all musical material are chord changes when the II 7th chord, either minor or half-diminished, is resolved to the dominant 7th chord. Both chords, the II 7th (in its two varieties) and the dominant 7th, are used in all four inversions, it results in 32 different combinations of this chord change in total. And this very idea was a stroke of lightning when conceiving this new composition: it sounds like a different kind of tonality – ‘liquid’ and elusive. Then there are ratios of numbers (in this case, 3-6-4) applied to different parameters of form, duration, repetitions, etc – the most sacred thing to me! When I find something like this, I am relieved, the circle is closed, the problem is solved. I am always obsessed with thinking up and believing in all kinds of illusions like this...

And yet the composer does not avoid exploring the marvels of contemporary sound technology, such as the Surround Sound Cube at the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (ZKM) – a system of 50 loudspeakers placed on the ceiling in the glass building erected especially for this purpose. Many composers have already took the advantages of this structure, realising their multi-channel electronic works with the help of special software for sound spatialisation, designed by the media technology guru, Sekhar Ramakrishnan. Ričardas Kabelis is next in the queue, preparing the first performance of his new work for trombone (Michael Svoboda) and Sound Cube on August 1 this year. It will be also performed during the World Music Days in Vilnius on November 3, which poses a great challenge – to recreate this mammoth setup in a different space (the new studio of the Lithuanian National Radio and TV).

All technology is just means to realise certain goals more quickly and effectively; usually they don’t create an additional dimension, additional quality by itself. (Although in the case of the Sound Cube, every mediocre and dull composition sounds much better when broadcasted via this structure, rather than played on ordinary stereo...) My new work is based on a single sound of a trombone – a particular multiphonic of A flat which is extremely rich in harmonics, intense and unstable. All electronic parts of the composition are derived from this sound, by shifting the pitch up to 5 or 6 octaves upwards and downwards. It starts from the highest sounds in this range (like a whistling), then moves down gradually and ends with the deepest sounds possible (probably resembling a heartbeat), thus embracing all frequency spectrum of the human hearing (including what is almost inaudible at both ends). When the sound is sinking more and more, it reveals so much unexpected details of its internal structure – you could never think they were here. The possible title of this new composition is (G)As-Kammer – with all things emerging out of nowhere, all turbulences of sound, it could be something similar to an experience of facing death in a gas chamber.

Shrug and shudder... While some of the composers of Kabelis’ generation used to describe their work with similarly boisterous imagery (for example, the “roaring flood” and “raging orgy” once were Šarūnas Nakas’ favourite metaphors), Kabelis himself was never before inclined to any such comparisons. On the other hand, it is hardly possible to define his hyper-abstract, extremely ascetic musical idiom by some compositional method or technique (such as canon in the case of another like-minded composer, Rytis Mažulis). What is the essence of Kabelis’ music?

Well, I think music doesn’t have (or rather, shouldn’t have) any other content inside, any literary programme, etc; it is, however, quite natural that it can evoke many different associations under certain circumstances. What is the essence of my music? If I had to describe it to someone who has never heard it, I would say – it’s a principle. Some universal principle which can be expressed in numbers and equations, or put into sounds. You cannot discover such a principle whenever you want, twice a day – it just comes at a certain moment, and that’s it. Concerning the perception of my music – it simply has to sound, and one doesn’t have to ‘listen’ to it too much. It takes from the listener what it needs, and gives to the listener what is needed. As the rain – it is just raining, that’s all. Of course, you can also pour the water... I don’t. It’s a process by itself; at least I try not to add anything, just letting it be; I don’t know if I succeed in this. For me, the most important thing in music is the sound itself. True, natural sound; it’s the only bona fide reality. Now I’m probably talking as a romantic artist from the 19th century...

And how is he going to fondle the sound in his another new work for cello and electronics, commissioned by the indefatigably adventurous cellist Anton Lukoszevieze for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November 2008?

The electronic part of this composition is made up of the 66 layers of pre-recorded cello sounds. It is indeed typical of my work; I like this uniformity of timbre. Rejecting redundant things (such as ‘narrative’ in music), you should also dismiss all the glitter of instrumentation in favour of a pure unitimbral substance. Let’s take a look at the results of spectral analysis of different timbres, such as flute and violin – I don’t understand how in the world could they fit together?

We cannot give an answer all the more.

© Linas Paulauskis

Lithuanian Music Link No. 16