INTERVIEW. Šarūnas Nakas: A Maverick from the 'Peripheral Village'

The composer in conversation with Asta Pakarklytė

Your music, in different periods of your work, has often presented an intermixture of extremely varied contemporary and ethnic music traditions, cultural codes, everyday life forms, the heritage of the global music history, and personal creative conceptions. Looks like a postmodern approach (which is presently replaced and somewhat modified by the appearance of new designations of ‘post’ existence – like post-history, post-production, post-technology, etc.). Would you attribute your work to this trend, or maybe you are especially nonchalant and sceptical about it? What is your creative strategy or, perhaps, your position: like ‘what new could be created’ or ‘what could be created out of what we already have’?

photo: Algimantas Aleksandravičius

I would prefer to speak about some further steps: how could it be done and who would be the target audience. Strangely enough, we seem to have nearly everything in music; and it has been here for many centuries. From the age of Renaissance, the conventions of Western music have been fairly universal and capable of referring to a widest scope of things.

Participation in a standard concert hall action that was formed in the 19th century is not the most interesting thing, since it would be difficult to discover something even more intriguing for such a peculiar form of performance (performers in concert suits, vivid gestures of the conductor, typical constellations of instruments, and boring décor of the lit stage). The modern life provides a great number of impulses for totally different formats of music and musical presentation, which would not be reasonable to avoid or overlook. Many of the innovations will certainly become established and will be interesting not only during the premieres but also later on.

You choose unconventional strategies not only in your multi-faceted creation, but also in your social life. You do not lecture at the academy; you are not staff employed at any office (something that is typical of nearly all Lithuanian composers). Moreover, you openly criticise the festival industry and do not consider yourself part of the establishment (Philharmonic, Composers’ Union, etc.). In other words, you are the representative of the ‘living culture’, an independent artist. One may think that you lie doggo in some remote suburbs, but in reality you do not avoid the daylight: you host radio programs, write texts, compose intensely for the Lithuanian festivals, your music can be heard at international music forums and finally, you have been recently awarded the Lithuanian National Prize. How would you comment on this ambivalence?

There is no ambivalence; it is just a need to be concentrated. Any public movement demands qualification and quality, good knowledge of the community and the ability to grasp ‘ideas out of thin air.’ The daily routine work at institutions would be an obstacle to that. Besides, such freedom is often more efficient from the perspective of public influence, since you are more flexible and faster than those who spend the best hours serving the institutions. It does not, in any way, proclaim any social or other isolation of the independent artists; to the contrary – the extent of your efficiency to the society is determined by your actual freedom.

In recent years, there has been an increasing level of attention to the Lithuanian identity, its symbols and spreading thereof abroad. In this regard, the Vilnius New Music Ensemble (that existed under your direction from 1982 to 2000) was of utmost significance. Later you opted for individual activity and your own music had found its way into the European music festivals (as well as the stages in North America, Canada and even Indonesia). Can you compare the experiences and significance of the two periods (generally and personally)? Does the recognition abroad provide firm guarantees in one’s homeland?

The ensemble existed in a totally different epoch; it had cultural and political objectives, as if we were trying to prove our ability to achieve something that theoretically could not exist in that system. Starting from 1990, the ensemble toured in different countries and presented Lithuanian music at biggest festivals. No one has done it before and no one appears to be doing it now.

My present activity is entirely different; it is more individual and complex. I need almost no partners to implement my ideas, at least in a sense like it used to be before, with the ensemble.

The recognition here and elsewhere is a fairly momentary matter, which is not necessarily renewable. There are no guarantees in either country, since the activities of the contemporary art nearly always have no spontaneous succession, provided, of course, that one is not serving the interests of some ‘court.’

In the past few years you seem to be more concerned with interdisciplinary genres, like music and video installations. Is this a way of escape from the pure music routine, the breaking of ties with the self-contained, restricted and conventional academicism of a single discipline? Do you think the interdisciplinary approach might become one of the prime models for the 21st century creative thought?

There is no such thing as pure music, nor there is such thing as pure silence – both are abstractions and metaphors, but not the reality. I try to look at it all from a simpler perspective, to treat it like a timeless phenomenon: from the Stone Age to the present day, sound has always been related to a variety of other phenomena and spheres, which, in fact represents the veriest, the essential interdisciplinarity. Let us think of the shamanic procedures, folksong texts, the peculiarities and setting of a performance, the rhetoric of the pianist’s movements or, eventually, the space where you listen to the music: nobody will ever escape these connections, there is a capital and fundamental relation of everything.

To me, it is very important to be able to perform everything – music, visuals, texts, directing, montage, spatial setting – by myself, with no middlemen. Were someone else to handle any of these things, the result would be totally different and it would not be completely mine.

How do you perceive historical facts and how do you ‘handle’ them? Obviously, you do not work with them in a traditional sense, when everything is classified into data or categories and locked into boxes. It seems that in your perception of history, especially the history of Lithuanian music, you doubt and rethink all authorities, attempting to construe a history of your own. What are your motives?

A historical fact is a tool used to provoke a thought and to stimulate the imagination. And nothing else. As the supposed reality originates subjectively and selectively, it is impossible to even think about some existing common reality and past that would be adequate for all. The one who assembles a more interesting and compelling collection of facts, is the one who projects his/her construed opinion upon others and often such projection is accepted as an authentic reality. All that is an important and subtle creation, always bearing certain background of values and ideologies. It is quite close to the artistic creation, but the material it operates is different.

Thinking of numerous transformations and expansions that the understanding of music underwent in the course of the 20th century – from Eric Satie, Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage and, eventually, to Brian Eno and Merzbow, who just like the first Greek pre-Socratic philosophers attempted to contemplate the fundamental question: what is music? – I would like to ask: what is music for you? How do you perceive and define it? And on the whole – is this question of any importance and interest to you?

Everyone has a personal answer to what music is. And that is sufficient, that is what counts. No one, at no time has managed to master and review the boundaries and the entirety of the phenomenon of music. I might compare this with the journeying through multiple galaxies, which no mortal is ever likely to achieve.

The composers’ insights into the issue are mostly concentrated within written or outspoken manifestations, rather than within the sound matter they produce. They practice in small segments of the sound ocean; therefore, all declarations represent fairly narrow parts of the entire range. I would assume that there have been no radical revolutions in either the musical creation, or in the fundamental contemplations: only certain evolutions to one or another direction, resulting in fetishising or defiance of certain aspects.

You have written about the centre-periphery effect, which keeps vanishing day by day. This reminds me of Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” which refers to the tightened space where all communication barriers and information restrictions collapse. Do you feel like an inhabitant of such village and how do the various media affect you as the creator? (By the way, the same Marshall McLuhan ‘admonishes’ that such “global village” situation will shift us back to the collective identity with a “tribal base,” destroying all individualism and fragmentation).

It appears to me that for quite a long time the said village effect kept functioning in somewhat different, unexpected direction: we are often unaware of the possibility to know something. First, there is no information about such possibility; second – the big brothers’ arrogance syndrome is still in place. The colonial thinking is indeed alive, using such concepts as ‘exotica’ and ‘periphery.’ All arguments are repeated, based on the extremely narrow and often ludicrously outdated experience. Other angles of view simply do not find place in the active circulation. Like in a poor village store: just a few items for sale, the same all the time.

Many ‘peripheral villages’ are more flexible than the nearly autistic ‘villages of the metropolitan megapoleis,’ the residents of which most often have no actual knowledge of geography. It seems likely that we are on the verge of the age of certain ‘global deafness,’ when the emigrants from the megapoleis are incapable of adequate perception of any other cultures, except that (or those) of their ‘village.’ But let us not be pessimistic!

And how could one be, after being awarded the National Arts and Culture Prize earlier this year for his singular artworks that continue to question the established views and thus appear consequential for the development of Lithuanian music. Active in many domains besides music, including radio broadcasts, musical criticism, writing, photography and video art, Šarūnas Nakas has been always concerned with the critical assessment of history and, first of all, with that of his native culture. His recent audiovisual installations – Aporia (2006) and The Gospel According to Blacksmith Ignotas (2007) – deal particularly with this subject, presenting a dense cluster of carefully structured images (ranging from the national symbols, architecture and documentary films to the scenes from his personal life) and sounds (both are accompanied by the recordings of his large-scale instrumental works) that appeal not only to the senses but also to the minds and ‘cultural memory’ of the public. This year an opportunity arrived to implement his ideas and sensitivities on a really grand scale: Nakas’ new multimedia installation 100 HI-STORIES: The Museum of National Music Legends will be shown at the Contemporary Art Centre from October 24th to November 6th this year, as part of the ISCM World Music Days 2008 in Vilnius.

Lithuanian Music Link No. 16

This interview is being published with kind permission of the Lithuanian Institute