Vita GRUODYTĖ | Happening Instead of Rupture, or Rupture as Happening

We must admit that throughout the whole period after the restoration of independence in 1991, the Lithuanian music scene did not experience any significant aesthetic turn. During the last years of the Soviet era Lithuanian music was far from any kind of a stylistic dead end as the majority of the progressive composers had already formed their musical language in the 1970s and the younger ones were actively experimenting with new forms of composition from the beginning of the 1980s. However, political change undoubtedly had an impact on everyone, and the consequences were inevitably reflected in the music scene through various forms: if not through the emergence of new alternatives, then through certain signs of a new artistic identity that were supposed to signify and articulate the political change in society.

Musicologists started reflecting on the shift of functions and the inevitable political emancipation of composers as early as 1987. Vilija Aleknaitė equated “the aesthetic determination of a composer” to an “act of a civil and moral significance,”[1] whereas Jūratė Landsbergytė invited composers to “acquire a combative attitude” while she was admitting with regret that we “encounter various forms of passivity, indecision, caution,” and that “it is usual to dissociate from the contradictory realities for the sake of musical purity, perfection, and sophistication” and therefore “reality itself becomes opposed through such self-distantiation.”[2]

After looking around the spectrum of the musical scene of the time it becomes clear that this period was ripe with collective activity rather than individual choices, hence the function of rupture was most evidently performed not by separate works but by collective artistic actions. In this respect non-academic music festivals initiated by composers provided the best niche for this kind of creative expression because they drew a line between the space of free creative self-expression and the space of formalist creativity conformed to the still present but barely functioning Soviet ideology of the late 80s. The list of the festivals is as follows: The Youth Festival “Chamber Music Days” [Jaunimo kamerinės muzikos dienos] in Druskininkai (from 1985) founded by Ričardas Kabelis; The Festival of Creative Youth [Jaunimo kūrybos festivalis] in Panevėžys (1987); The Festival of Musical Action [Muzikinio veiksmo festivalis] in Panevėžys and Vilnius (1990–1997) founded by Liutauras Stančikas and Snieguolė Dikčiūtė; The Contemporary Art Festival [Šiuolaikinių menų festivalis]) in Vilnius (1991–1993) organized by Edmondas Babenskas and Tomas Žiburkus; Free Sound Sessions [Laisvojo garso sesijos] taking place at the Lithuanian Conservatory (Vilnius), Panevėžys and Kaunas (1987–1988) organized by Tomas Juzeliūnas, Giedrius Gapšys and Arūnas Dikčius; Happening Seminars in Anykščiai and Nida (AN-88, AN-89, NI-90) organized by Gintaras Sodeika; and The Alternative Music Festival [Alternatyviosios muzikos festivalis] in Kaunas House of Architects (1988–1989) founded by Vidmantas Bartulis.

The very titles of these festivals were already hinting at their content: “youth,” “new music,” “happening,” “free sound,” “musical action,” “avant-garde art.” Despite the fact that the festivals were happily attended by mature and established composers and musicologists, these epithets were obviously referring to the initiatives of the youth. The majority of the pieces played during the festivals still retained the conventional forms (usual in contemporary music), but some of them already reflected the changing attitude towards the creative process (which was considered as a certain open workshop) as well as towards the musical piece itself (as a more or less spontaneous, interdisciplinary performance with the uniqueness of the happening). The intermediary position was taken by the pieces that had theatrical and/or absurd elements; they were different from actions and happenings by being less spontaneous and by not turning the audience into participants of an artistic action. However, their goals were similar: questioning the notions of the artwork, performance space and the reaction of the public. Within the Lithuanian context, things like instruments, musical scores and the relation between music and other disciplines were being treated in unprecedented ways. The audience that was lucky to have been engaged in these artistic experiments not only had a chance to reconsider its own understanding of ideology-free contemporary art, but also helped the young artists to assess their ideas. For the young creators of the time, the genre of performance was like a certain tool that helped them find answers to pertinent questions such as: What are the limits of creative freedom after the restrictions of ideological censorship have been abandoned? What are the boundaries between the artistic disciplines? Can the verbal, visual and musical gestures have analogous capabilities of site-specific expression, and can they collaborate and form a unified content? What is the content of an artwork? What is an artwork itself?

Spatial move to the periphery

The fact that artists left academia for a non-formal space signified not only conscious opposition towards institutional and official art, but also affirmation of the importance of the historical change that was happening at the time. What was specific to Lithuania and other Soviet Bloc countries, was that this was an expression of an opposition not only towards certain stylistic paradigms, the academization of art or the art tradition as such – the very same concerns were also tackled in the West – but (and this is crucial!) it also marked opposition towards the ideologization of art. The prevailing ideology was easily rejected by young artists because it was not part of their choice, nor was it the choice of the previous generation; it was artificially imposed from outside as an aesthetically limited compositional thinking – “Genghis Khan-style, fascist, normative idealism” (Vilija Aleknaitė)[3] – that the majority had continuously been trying to circumvent for decades.

As far as spontaneous artistic action is concerned during the Soviet era the artistic environment did not exist. Art was legally bound to designated spaces, and its purpose was to reflect the specific aesthetics regulated by the totalitarian system. However, regardless of these restrictions, musical context as a whole was far from monolithic: if we were to analyze the situation of Lithuanian music during the second part of the 20th century we would notice that people lived in a stratified reality, where some were creating ideology-friendly art, others were cautiously critical towards the ideology, while the rest were trying to create music that both reflected on national identity and encompassed the signs of modern and, later, postmodern eras in the West.

During the times of the Lithuanian Independence Movement in the late 1980s, young musicians were not only able to assimilate the public space anew, but they also felt free to rethink their whole environment aesthetically by discarding its neutrality, getting rid of the ideological restrictions, and thus turning statics into dynamics. The figure of an artist had acquired new functions and became, to use Frank Popper’s insight, “more of a mediator rather than creator,” while an artwork lost its previous forms because an “active participation on the part of a spectator stipulated the disappearance of a traditional art object.”[4] Reactive (in the sense of their realization) happenings, performances and actions were turned into artistic heralds of independence precisely because of their abilities to express spontaneous reactions to the changing times. After leaving the institutional environment of Vilnius where development was restricted by governmental censorship, cultural initiatives found new possibilities in the informal peripheries of Druskininkai, Panevėžys, Anykščiai, and Kaunas, where artistic and non-artistic spaces were not predetermined by strict control. This allowed for various symbolic places of art distribution to emerge – a factor that fostered the implementation of new ideas and opened up new perspectives for understanding the function of the art. In the physical sense, the establishment of ephemeral and short-term art spaces was absolutely necessary for the actualization of the essential fact of the time – namely, the dissociation from a hierarchical system regulated by censorship – and the implementation of its critical assessment.

Conceptual thought without the status of conceptual art

The phenomenon of artistic action is a hard one to analyze because it can be both spontaneous and predetermined. However, what is important here is that at the time the very object of art – an artwork – became deprived both of its objectifiable value (it could not be bought nor sold) and its substance, because the aesthetic value became substituted with a concept (and artistic performance was the only way through which it could be realized).

The Sovietism of the 80s was one huge shabby bag with countless holes from which absolutely everything was leaking. The fact that everyone was taking advantage of that had an enormously joyous effect. No contemporary canons or standards can do justice in describing it because it was an era of non-economic relations. We were isolated within the territory of Lithuania but we were not seeking to export our ideas and turn them into some commodities. That was simply impossible. (Šarūnas Nakas)[5]

This era marks a transitory period in Lithuanian history (“we found ourselves caught in some sort of a transition”[6]) – a transition from the State as a sovereign commissioner and customer of art to the world of free market where an artwork became a commodity. That was the reason why that period became for young artists more like a spatio-temporal experience when the material used in artistic action acquired the status not of a form or content, but rather that of experience: this is precisely what can be called a materialization not of an artistic object, but that of artistic concept. “At that time the festival of Anykščiai purposefully engaged in a conceptual discourse with its audience, and that was exactly what the audience needed” (Arūnas Dikčius).[7]

The sign that Lithuanian music came within the proximity of the artistic processes of the West was that it had turned towards its inner purely aesthetic resources instead of fighting with the external ideological imperatives. The conceptual dimension of the performances of that period was firmly established and it had become clear that art as the embodiment of aesthetic value finally found its main justification in the eyes of the public.

The period of interdisciplinary events in Lithuania did not result in a substantial gamut of structurally finished projects that would enable us to highlight the independent trends, like Land art or Body art that emerged in the West. These trends were developed more by Lithuanian visual artists – groups such as Green Leaf (Žalias Lapas) and Post Ars. However, there were hints among composers as well. For example, The Garden of Oracle (Orakulo darželis), The Opening of the Sixth Valve (Šeštojo klapano atidarymas) and Rockabye Stones (Liūliuojantys akmenys, AN-88) were happenings that transformed their environment into an artistic space, while in works like The Last Supper (Paskutinė vakarienė) or Bureaucratic Hitch-hike (Biurokratinis autostopas) the body was used as the central element of action. However, sound remained a key factor in the majority of the site-specific projects by composers that employed the synthesis of disciplines, elements of musical theatre or political caricature. Their aim was not to create and purify certain syncretic tendencies, but to test the forms of artistic synthesis that would reveal the abilities of the forms and materials of parallel disciplines to be absorbed through sonorous thinking. “Was it evident that the majority of the participants were musicians?” – asked Austėja Nakienė when reviewing the First Seminar in Anykščiai. “Yes, because the majority of happenings were constructed according to the principles of musical composition and the actions were arranged according to strict timing. Performers had to join in time, play their parts and finish on time, as if they were in a musical ensemble or a small orchestra.”[8]

Caricature as social therapy

Group activity of the youth enabled radical transformations in the way the musical scene functions and these changes were accompanied by the rapid political changes of the time: the first festivals in Druskininkai obviously signified the ‘abandonment of the ideological regime’ while still paying tribute to the censorship that was still present: the first Concert of Music by Young Composers at the M. K. Čiurlionis Memorial Museum (1985) was dedicated to the 12th Festival of Youth and Students of the World; the festival in 1987 was dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Druskininkai resort, while the festival in 1988 – to the International Year of Peace. If the first two dedications were still referring to the complicated and unpredictable zeitgeist of the time, then the third one was already rather full of irony, which now allows us regard the whole festival as ‘happening’ instead of seeing it as being submissive to the system that had been ceaselessly ‘fighting’ on all fronts for peace since the end of WWII. Thus the Festivals of Druskininkai were the first events to openly articulate the historical transition in various dimensions – acoustic, written (catalogues of Young Music Festival), and verbal (conferences) – and they acted as a certain shield from any kind of censorship that was still threatening all the other festivals that were more radical in the sense of artistic action. Compared to their predecessors, the latter felt way more liberated from the ideological pressure: Anykščiai Seminars and especially the student-organized Festivals of Musical Action and Avant-garde Art were not obliged to present any kind of official justification and thus became truly productive workshops of new ideas and experimental expression.

Most of the works that employed elements of performance, happening, or theatre, were unavoidably marked by the political situation of the times. The happenings of young artists were not openly anti-political. They employed a playful style of caricature – a completely new one in the context of the Soviet art ideology – as a double-edged sword: they were tearing down the established structure of artistic notions and conventions and, at the same time, they were liberating themselves from the psychological pressure of the system, however chaotic and comical it was on the eve of its demise. The emergence of caricature not only foregrounded a critical view towards the environment, but it brought up the importance of self-analyzing thought.

Because of the specifics of bricolage, a non-binding freedom to manipulate the ‘material from different creative areas’ had the traits of both caricature and play. Giedrius Gapšys also highlighted a political dimension of those traits. While reflecting on the Druskininkai Festival ’88 he wrote the following:

Let us not look for some special ‘artistic syntheses.’ There is something else at work: the notion of art as play (obviously, not a novelty) in our culture is associated with the intensifying hope to leave the grip of stagnation. During the last three years it has become evident that we have already caught up with the idea of Homo ludens, and it has now turned into a rational position among the youth who found an alternative for Homo sovieticus – an infamous and angry title indeed.[9]

And further:

However, young composers do play as well. The so-called ‘specialists with diplomas’ should have already put on those concrete ‘young soviet artist’ faces, but they play instead. They play despite the fact that all their silliness should have been gone by now thanks to the grinder of the Conservatory. […] Therefore in play we can obviously see the forms of resistance to the stagnation imposed by the Big Brother.[10]

Historical continuity of happening and performance

As the least restricted forms of artistic expression that came from the West, happening and performance turned out to be the most suitable for the time of Independence. They enabled adequate reflections on artistic intentions and technical possibilities of the time: they inspired spontaneity and uniqueness, eclectics and interdisciplinarity, the simplicity of expression (which is one of the characteristics of the Lithuanian mindset), the search for new sounds, and a more intimate relation with the audience. The striving towards experimentation was also evident in the Free Sound Sessions (Laisvojo garso sesijos): their programmes were “comprised of the dedicated ‘avant-garde-only’ pieces that were asserting the renaissance of electronic and experimental composition. […] Stylistically these pieces ranged from electronic primitivism and free jazz to literary instrumental theatre and metamusic. The latter also involved styles with theatrical elements.”[11]

The forms of Lithuanian performance demonstrate a certain historical continuity of this genre: onomatopoeic poetry or synthetic single-idea actions would refer to futurism; utilization of real space and real objects – to Russian constructivists; concern with the creation of a new society through artistic forms, expressive primitiveness, the insistence on tabula rasa and linguistic purification through, again, onomatopoeia – to dadaism; non-provocative search for spatial possibilities – to Bauhaus aesthetics. Surrealism with its perfected theatrical forms remained the least close to the tradition of Lithuanian performance art (with an exception of, perhaps, some of the opuses by Vidmantas Bartulis). Therefore we might argue that the majority of these works had returned to their origins and held on to the ideas of the early performances of the 20th century.

Happenings and performances allowed artists to rethink and – with the help of improvisational forms – articulate the changes not only in aesthetic realm but also in terms of the social role of an artist. During the Soviet era, we had artists who either performed or imitated their ideological function, or remained neutral. With the coming of independence this state of events was disturbed and, inevitably, the social role of an artist shifted. Those who lost their status of a well-paid functionary of the system were forced to find another – undoubtedly more dynamic and innovative – form of existing in society. The change also impelled artists to become the creators of new values on the crossroad of two opposing trends: tradition (national identity) and the contemporary mindset (Western artistic practices). Each and everyone had to reconsider their creative motivations. Therefore, by establishing new ethical landmarks this period did not, however, change aesthetic tendencies: contrary to the visual artists, none of the Lithuanian composers remained faithful to this transitory period longer than was needed, and none of them capitalized on it in any significant way. Arūnas Dikčius described this phenomenon rather succinctly:

Truth be told, we all admired the fluxus-style ways of life and creativity. However all the composers and musicologists of the time chose academic work. […] [W]e told each other that the essence of our work is not just happenings, but something more. […] Unfortunately, now I am unable to remember what we meant by saying that and what this ‘more’ was supposed to signify. […] All these AN Festivals were like some sort of fluxus sanatoriums for the improvement of our creative health.[12]

During Soviet times the practice of artistic action did not exist at least because the self-expressive spontaneity of these actions was incompatible with the artistic policy regulated by state censorship. However Lithuania still held the memory of the modernists of the interwar period, and the practices of Western music were also known – at least in the form of information – during the whole postwar period thanks to the musicians who had a chance to travel around the world, and – last but not least – thanks to the correspondence that escaped censorship. Audiences were acquainted with the work of the fluxus founder George Maciunas (Jurgis Mačiūnas), partially thanks to his correspondence with Vytautas Landsbergis. Therefore, it is rather logical that during the Druskininkai Festival ’89 Mačiūnas’ letters to Landsbergis were published in the Young Music catalogue, and the Druskininkai Festival ’91 was entirely dedicated to the 60th anniversary of Mačiūnas’ birth. In her review of the aforementioned festival, Živilė Ramoškaitė wrote:

Everything seemed to be clear in the description, however in fact […] there were instances of total misunderstanding. Some examples: during the discussion everyone was sticking to their own song by totally disregarding everyone else – a real cacophony; […] or, say, water swims in the swimming pool by itself as the ‘swimmers’ are skulking in some recreational base, etc. If you want some evaluation of all this, a remark made by one freshman might come in handy: “I didn’t like the most of it, but in general I liked it.”[13]

From the perspective of time such critique (bordering on desperation) looks almost like the highest compliment and proof that the festival was a success because it reflected the zeitgeist so effectively. This situation only affirms the polyphony of the different values and views that existed simultaneously at the time. We clearly see it in the reminiscence of Arūnas Dikčius who recalls the artistic action by Oracle’s Garden in Anykščiai:

[W]hile demonstrating the new almanac published by our young philologists, professor V[ytautas] Landsbergis gave an evaluation of our action: “Here’s what your colleague philologists accomplished while you were tangling your little bells.” At the time I was impressed by this remark, I felt a gust of pathos of civil affairs. A new tone. But now I think – maybe it wasn’t worth it.[14]

“Coming under the sign of generation” or individualists?

Lithuanian music was concerned with the questions of identity throughout the whole 20th century. If previously they were related to the stylistic identification with a certain school of composition and its problems, then during this transitory period that has been discussed here, ethical questions became way more important than the stylistic or aesthetic ones. The concern was not how to say, but what to say. For example, in the invitation to the first Anykščiai “happening seminar” we read:

[We invite] everyone longing for spiritual experience. […] During the event we will try to oppose the traditional concert both in theory and in practice. After having wrestled a bit with that little linguistic barrier that lurks in the structure of musical compositions, we will explore new information, new revelations and meditations. It might be useful for everyone, even rockers and metalheads. They will be able to remain honest with themselves while at the same time they will receive a qualitatively appropriate emotional and mental charge.[15]

The necessity of an ethical position in art, and the critique of the creative expression of young artists are two key themes emerging in the texts of the time. They mark the ‘discomfort’ in understanding this chaotic period, which is, according to Osvaldas Balakauskas, characteristic in “all cases of rupture.”[16] In her article “Coming under the Sign of Generation” (Ateinantys po kartos ženklu) Rūta Goštautienė named the conflictual situation between the two generations:

Last year’s debutants were accompanied by a conflictual situation as they found themselves in confrontation with the previous debutants and the creatives from other disciplines (in the work of the young composers the latter saw things like efectomania, cosmopolite overtones, elitism, and the forced pursuit for novelty and originality).[17]

If we would compare the advice and wishes that the young creators received, we would encounter the same contrast: “May the wish to go higher be always with you together with the ideals of art and truth” (Vytautas Landsbergis)[18] and “Expound the truth and celebrate” (Algimantas Švėgžda)[19] against “The young are obviously caught in egotistic and mercantilist overtones” (Donatas Katkus)[20] and “The mindset of the young […] is venture-oriented and ironically rational. They are but whippersnappers – cello is on the table, alarm clock in the pocket. They take a glance at it, have a listen, and execute” (Aija Živiterė).[21]

The question is: Did this generation already have a manifesto when it emerged, or was it simply driven by a general intuition about the times that were lived through together, but realized separately? In the “Manifesto” published at the Young Music catalogue in 1989 we find a description of an individualist stance: “Music is the goal in itself / Everyone finds her way back to it individually” […] “Perfect music has a virtuous cause / It is born from equilibrium / Equilibrium is brought by justice / Justice comes from the meaning of the world” […] “[T]he only fate and meaning / Is to sprinkle sugar in the sea.”[22]

It only shows that this generation that survived the rupture as if it was a happening was more interested in action instead of articulation. They were concerned with personal expression of musical and artistic ideas without relying on any kind of palpable signs of collective identity, even though they were realized collectively: the participants of those events did not demonstrate any specific ideological directions, it was unclear how many of them were actively engaged, they did not specify any kind of hierarchical or administrative structure. All the festivals were organized and attended by more or less the same people who were of a similar age group (students, composition and musicology graduates). Thus we might rightfully distinguish them as a certain ‘group’ that had if not the same goals, then a similar perception of their epoch, and that was unified by the same thirst for experimentation, concerned with its stylistic explorations and drawn towards the aesthetically non-academic forms of expression. According to Šarūnas Nakas, “many things resulted from a collective effort. All the participants of the camp – several dozens of people – were almost everywhere and at all times (I am talking about the seminars in Anykščiai).”[23] This group was also unified by a ‘situationist’ element: their base of experimentation was exclusively determined by the frameworks of festivals and seminars.

The lifespan of the festivals was different: the happening seminars in Anykščiai and Free Sound Sessions exhausted themselves rather quickly (“the first ones were the most impressive. […] After that the audience got tired. We became exhausted. […] To put it briefly, each idea has its time to live, and its time to die” – Arūnas Dikčius[24]). After Tomas Žiburkus took over the wheel, the festival in Panevėžys received a new impulse and turned into the Festival of Musical Action which was held up until 1997. They started inviting artists from abroad which put Lithuanian work into a different context. The Festival of Druskininkai is still held up to this day. By being quite polyvalent from the very beginning the latter was able to adapt to the changing times. Because its organizational committee constantly renewed itself, it was able to reflect the expectations and creative intentions of every ‘young’ generation.

After wondering around the paths of happenings and performances, Lithuanian academic music returned to purer forms. It is important to note that the period of artistic action helped Lithuanian music to escape the system by giving a sense to the political changes and thus enriching the language of contemporary music without fully drowning in conceptual art.

Translated by Tomas Čiučelis
HISTORY & CONTEXT | Lithuanian Music Link No. 18

[1] Vilija Aleknaitė. Ar pajėgsime šviesti? Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1987, p. 13.
[2] Jūratė Landsbergytė. Gyvenimo kelias į kūrybą. Op. cit., p. 7.
[3] Vilija Aleknaitė. Atoveiksmio punktyras lietuvių muzikoje. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1989, p. 13.
[4] Frank Popper. Art, action et participation. Paris: Klincksieck, 1985, p. 13.
[5] Kęstutis Šapoka. Pokalbis su Šarūnu Naku. (Ne)priklausomo šiuolaikinio meno istorijos, ed. by Vytautas Michelkevičius, Kęstutis Šapoka. Vilnius: LTMKS, 2011, pp. 141–142.
[6] Idem.
[7] Kęstutis Šapoka. Pokalbis su Arūnu Dikčiumi. (Ne)priklausomo šiuolaikinio meno istorijos, op. cit., p. 151.
[8] Austėja Nakienė. A.N. apie AN-88. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1989, p. 123.
[9] Giedrius Gapšys, Jūratė Burokaitė. Apžvalga. Plenumai, festivaliai. Gaida Nr. 1. Vilnius: Lietuvos kompozitorių sąjunga, 1988, p. 40.
[10] Giedrius Gapšys, Austė Nakienė. Jaunieji kviečia nesenti. Druskininkų pavasariai ir muzika. Vilnius: Lietuvos muzikos ir teatro akademija, 2014, p. 168.
[11] A. Bareikytė, Monika V.A.-A. Truputis konteksto Laisvojo garso sesijai. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1988, p. 25.
[12] Kęstutis Šapoka. Pokalbis su Arūnu Dikčiumi. (Ne)priklausomo šiuolaikinio meno istorijos, op cit., p. 151.
[13] Živilė Ramoškaitė. Akcijos ir opusai. Literatūra ir menas, 1991-05-18. Quoted from: Druskininkų pavasariai ir muzika, op. cit., pp. 176–177.
[14] Kęstutis Šapoka. Pokalbis su Arūnu Dikčiumi. (Ne)priklausomo šiuolaikinio meno istorijos, op cit., pp. 150–151.
[15] Invitation to the 1st Anykščiai Hapening Seminar. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1988, p. 138.
[16] “Menas – per brangi priemonė”. Su Osvaldu Balakausku kalbasi Rūta Gaidamavičiūtė. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1989, p. 34.
[17] Rūta Goštautienė. Ateinantys po kartos ženklu. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1987, p. 9.
[18] Vytautas Landsbergis. Jaunai muzikai II. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1988, p. 79.
[19] Algimantas Švėgžda. Jaunai muzikai III. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1989, p. 22.
[20] Rūta Goštautienė. Kelyje. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1988, p. 16.
[21] Aija Živiterė. Apie dvasią ir dvaseles. Op cit., p. 24.
[22] Manifestas. Jauna muzika festival catalogue, 1989, pp. 9–10.
[23] Kęstutis Šapoka. Pokalbis su Šarūnu Naku. (Ne)priklausomo šiuolaikinio meno istorijos, op cit., p. 143.
[24] Kęstutis Šapoka. Pokalbis su Arūnu Dikčiumi. Op cit., p. 150.