FEATURE. Rytis Mažulis and his 'Art of Acoustic Illusion' Get Contextualised

Rytis Mažulis regards himself, unassumingly, as an “intellectual proletarian” and is his own man to the point of a delirious persistence. He admits to have tried, once or twice, to adapt to the mainstream market demand for a different kind of music by increasing the ‘communicative’ and ‘performative’ qualities of his works, but he has always come to an innevitable conclusion that there is only one way his music should be.

photo: Dmitry Matveyev

Reduced to the basics through mechanical repetition and the obsessive use of canon techniques (not dissimilar to certain European and American minimalist trends) and, at the same time, possessing high level of complexity and density through the use of microtones, complicated isorhythmic patterns and polytemporal ratios (not unlike those used by Conlon Nancarrow), his music often gives an impression of chaos created out of diligently constructed and simple order (be it one melodic pattern, or even one note!). Moreover, such a paradoxical combination of reduction and complexity makes it quite difficult to perform for live musicians, as well as to listen to in a concert setting, which requires specific engagement into a kind of a very concentrated ritual action. With the role of a performer reduced to an almost mechanical state, when voices and/or instruments are used as a mere colouring of the near-inaudible fractions of micro-durations and micro-intervals pre-recorded in the electronic parts, his slowly unfolding or insanely hurling canons may seem completely deprived of human attributes and conventional expression, save for bare intellectual labour. “I write very radically and shamelessly. I’m in agony when the performers can’t play or sing something, but there is nothing I can do about it,” Mažulis once said about one of his most radical compositions – ajapajapam for 12 voices, string quartet and electronics (2002). “The impact is either hypnotic or irritating, depending on one’s frame of mind; but its power to move or disturb is beyond doubt,” responded Hubert Culot, the Musicweb critic, after this composition was committed to disc and released by Megadisc Classics (Cum essem parvulus, 2004).

...to some it will sound like the alarm clock going off and not being able to wake up from a bad dream... Mažulis does not write music for the masses, but he has found a new wrinkle in the fabric of minimalist techniques.

Uncle Dave Lewis, All Music Guide

Whatever the impact – irritating or overly exciting – the result is obvious: Mažulis’ self-imposed labour out of pressing artistic necessity appears to pay off. In the past few years the number of those who came to know and admire his works kept expanding through a series of successful international collaborations. Firstly, a comprehensive coverage of his work – from the early pieces for vocal ensembles and computer-controlled piano to the most recent electroacoustic microtonal works – was offered to the international audiences by the Belgian Megadisc Classics label in three successive releases Cum essem parvulus (2004), Twittering Machine (2005) and Form is Emptiness (2007). Secondly, this important project was not only the first such attempt to bring together the composer’s most distinctive works and their devoted performers (including the long-standing partners, such as the Latvian Radio Chamber Singers under Kaspars Putniņš and the Lithuanian Chordos String Quartet), but it also entailed some new projects, which helped bring Mažulis’ music to the attention of the wider circle of international performers and producers. No less important is the fact that these releases provided a basic framework for understanding and presentation of the composer’s works in contexts other than the local trends of postminimal music in Lithuania.

It was Patrick de Clerck, producer with the Megadisc Classics, who requested Mažulis, in 2006, to write a new piece for a concert in Ghent and decided to put it into a context that would resonate with his style and reveal some of his influences (including works by Josquin des Prés, Phil Niblock, Giacinto Scelsi and Nicolas Gombert). Later that year the same work, called Form is Emptiness, was given its Lithuanian premiere at the Jauna Muzika festival in Vilnius by the Latvian Radio Chamber Singers and Flemish cellist Arne Deforce. That performance became a shot in the arm for the programmer of the Festival 4020 from Linz, Peter Leisch. “This was a real discovery for me,” Leisch recalls, “or, rather, re-discovery because decades ago minimal music was my very first opener/ear catcher to contemporary music. Rytis’ music was something that seemed to have evolved from that and related aesthetics but had undergone a far reaching metamorphosis to come out as something much more sophisticated and quite obviously ‘at the height of its time.’ His pieces seemed to prove for me, that ‘minimalism’ could still produce fascinating as well as innovative results and impacts. I found it promising to pursue this theme, exemplify his aesthetic position and put it in a context with other composers with similar and/or related approaches.”

The initial impulse developed into a carefully devised programme of this year’s edition of the Festival 4020 (to be held on May 7–10, 2008), suggestively titled “minimal::maximal”, in which a special focus is given to three composers sharing similar aesthetics – Greek Dimitri Papageorgiou, American Erin Gee and Lithuanian Rytis Mažulis. Each is presented in a separate portrait concert, combining their music with that of their direct and indirect influences. A portrait concert of Rytis Mažulis, slated for May 9 to take place at the Lentos Kunstmuseum, will involve the Gaida Ensemble and Trys Keturiose singers performing his chamber works – Sans pause (2001) for string quartet, Musica falsa (2006) for cello and tape, Canon mensurabilis (2000) for sextet, a specially commissioned piece Non in commotione for 4 folk singers, 7 instruments and tape – as well as a string quartet piece Panchami by his like-minded student Egidija Medekšaitė, and his arrangements of canons by Josquin Desprez, Piere de la Rue, Guillaume Dufay and Johann Sebastian Bach. Immediately preceding this concert, Trys Keturiose will present a programme of ancient Lithuanian polyphonic songs and hymns, sutartinės, which seem to have some connection to Mažulis’ music as well. As Leisch has pointed out, “for me he incorporates a really fascinating symbiosis between archaic simplicity (repetition, micro-canons; it is through him that I got a clue, what sutartinės are about and thus found a context for his specific aesthetics) and refined complexity (microtonalism, electroacoustic interventions/frameworks). It is sort of weaving an oriental carpet: by close view you can discover ever changing details and accents; it is the art of acoustic illusion on a high level. At the same time, I find a stunning and really inspiring sense for openness and ‘infinity’ in his pieces – particularly in ajapajapam, which will be the Finale of the festival and which I am really looking forward to listening to ‘live’!” This 35-minute microtonal meditation (put alongside vocal works by Kaija Saariaho, Erin Gee and Hermann Markus Pressl) will close the Festival 4020, on May 10 at the Brucknerhaus in Linz, performed by the same Latvian Radio Chamber Singers and members of the Gaida Ensemble.

A somewhat straightforward connection between the repetitive structures found in the sutartinės and a repetitive uniformity of Mažulis’ music became a point of departure for the newly written Non in commotione. The piece involves four sutartinės singers who are given a very simple material that has no connection to the traditional singing: they merely repeat the same notes of even duration for fifteen minutes, as do all seven instruments, with the whole material repeating in the pre-recorded electronic parts. The trick here lies in the simultaneous combination of six different tempos and slow microtonal ‘glissandi’ within narrow range, which create an illusion of fluctuation. The title of the composition is the quotation from the Old Testament, which translates as “The Lord was not in the earthquake” (1 Kings 19:11) and refers to the final scene in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose when all is in fire and commotion and it is no longer possible to communicate any learning or information. “Maybe it would sound psychic,” Mažulis comments, “but I found no better way to respond to that than to make up a list of deceased persons’ names – of those who were dear to me, relatives, acquaintances, congenial personalities, composers, etc. – for the folk singers to recite during the piece. Somehow it seems appropriate to me.”

The Lithuanian premiere of Non in commotione, paired with a new piece by Mažulis, is planned for the coming ISCM World Music Days / Gaida Festival in November. A contextual framework for this concert will be provided by the original project devised by British cellist Anton Lukoszevieze (of the Apartment House Ensemble) especially for the last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. After having performed ajapajapam at Huddersfield, in 2006, together with the Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, the next year the Appartment House made a really adventurous step further by finding a counterpart for Mažulis’ music in the art by the Lithuanian-born founder of the 60s’ Fluxus movement, Jurgis Mačiūnas. Having discovered a vast network of connections between these two Lithuanian ‘intellectual proletarians,’ the ensemble presented their radical art in the programme Bridging the Borders – Two Lithuanians at Huddersfield in November 2007. With a different line-up of works, the same project will be presented to the audiences in Vilnius, thus extending the line of different contextualisations.

© Veronika Janatjeva

Lithuanian Music Link No. 16