Lina POSĖČNAITĖ | Some Thoughts about Time, Place, Quality and National Identity: The Music of Rita Mačiliūnaitė in Context

“We are all formed from the same clay,” the thought comes into one’s mind, after listening to the music of Rita Mačiliūnaitė (b. 1985) – a composer and singer (mezzo-soprano) of the younger generation, already a clearly visible presence on the Lithuanian contemporary music scene. All of us, we Lithuanians, after all, have something in common. Something, which cannot very easily be put into words but something which one can feel very clearly in listening to the music of our composers born in the 1980s (Gediminas Gelgotas, Lukrecija Petkutė, Justė Janulytė, Egidija Medekšaitė, Lina Lapelytė, Justina Repečkaitė, Albertas Navickas, Rūta Vitkauskaitė). Yes, all of them have studied Bartók, Berg, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Grisey, Pärt, Sciarrino, Nono... This ‘familiarity’ can be heard in their music. As can a searching for something: a meander through the New Viennese School, dipping into the cultures of the Far East, the sound of sonoristic winds, a shout of liberation, waving around Cage’s name, as well as that of Fluxus, a return to the spirituality of minimalism or rock (depending on how one defines it), deeply philosophical journeys, pushing one sometimes into absurdity, sometimes into irony, sometimes into Dada, and besides that there is also – psychology, the natural sciences, politics, sociology... That is normal in the music of every young composer, searching for, and at the same time creating, his or her own creative path and direction. But I have the feeling based not only on the ‘signals’ of Mačiliūnaitė’s music, but also on those of the other Lithuanian composers of the younger generation, ‘signals’ shining ever brighter, getting louder and going further, that it is not that easy to pull out one’s roots and erase one’s footprints. No matter how important / universal  / clearly individualistic is the musical foundation, no matter from what German / French / British cultural / religious or whatever other traditions it comes from – ideological, constructive, aesthetic, philosophical, structural or whatever other kind, in the music of even the most dissimilar Lithuanian composers (and not only those) born in the 1980s, a Lithuanianness can be heard which is, in spite of everything, indelible and not possible of being mistaken for anything else.

Lithuanianness – that is a question all in itself. Perhaps even somewhat subjective. This is what Mačiliūnaitė has to say about it: “I would think it is natural for a ‘national identity’ to be felt in music. After listening to the music of many Lithuanian composers (even though stylistically different), even without knowing the author, it is not hard to tell that he or she is from Eastern Europe. What specifically differentiates them is most probably hard to put into words. It seems we all grow up in the same cultural, political, geographical environment and are affected by it.”[1] Under the concept of Lithuanianness in music I can hear several principles of music suffused through and through with minimalism. These principles can be termed as ‘Baltic minimalism’ and primarily associated with its pioneer Bronius Kutavičius – one of the most important and most influential masters of contemporary Lithuanian music (next to Osvaldas Balakauskas, Feliksas Bajoras and Vytautas Barkauskas), in one way or another affecting the generation of composers that came to maturity after him. I can hear those principles not only in the music of Rita Mačiliūnaitė but also in that of several other Lithuanian composers already mentioned of the time period under discussion, regardless of how different the forms are that they express themselves in. The sutartinės themselves ‘bring’ with them repetition, canonicity, a limited quantity of musical material, and in the same way also a narrow diapason, mostly of fourths, a broken, syncopated rhythm, a continual repetition of certain syllables, a narrow polyphony of intervals, modality or inter-tonality, a subtle glissando, as if ‘occurring’ naturally in folk singing. Not to mention the continual emphasis on a meditative mood, reflection, calmness, concentration or a peculiar wistful sadness, which is characteristic not just of Lithuanian music, not just of Lithuanian art or culture, but generally speaking of the Lithuanian character. In other words, that which is most accurately characterized by the symbol of our Sorrowful Christ. On the other hand, what is always left is the question which is to some degree historical, to some degree folkloric, to some degree sociological and even to some degree political, and the answer to which one should look for by participating in an open discussion or perhaps everyone’s internal one: how authentic is the Lithuanianness we perceive? What similarities and what differences would we find if we were to investigate the national cultural heritage of Eastern Europe? Going even deeper in this direction, another multi-form question begins inevitably to raise its head, as it were: in order to be interesting to the world is, generally speaking, any kind of musical uniqueness in the national sense necessary, or perhaps just the individuality of every composer will suffice, regardless of which nation he or she is the representative? Can that be the conscious choice of the composer or are we ‘condemned’ (or perhaps ‘blessed’) through our works ‘to transmit’ certain inborn aesthetic inclinations? “Every artist is responsible for himself or herself. Do you want some experiences? In some way to stand out amongst your compatriots? Attend courses, residencies, read, analyze, improve and create your personality yourself. With a change in personality, character and interests, the composer’s music also changes. If you do not like what you are writing, perhaps you should widen your field of interests,”[2] observes Mačiliūnaitė.

The composer herself actively negotiates her way amongst these educational, creative and performative practices. While at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre she studied composition (2004–2010, in classes given by Osvaldas Balakauskas and Rytis Mažulis), as well as solo singing and musical pedagogy (2011–2012); she developed her compositional skills under the Erasmus student exchange programme at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague (in classes given by Louis Andriessen, Martijn Padding, Gilius van Bergeijk, Diderik Wagenaar, Yannis Kyriakides and Cornelis de Bondt); and trained in Latvia, Poland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. From 2013 she has been working on an artistic doctorate project entitled “Composition Methods of Musical Narration in Postdramatic Theatre” (the supervisors are the composers Mindaugas Urbaitis and Antanas Kučinskas) at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. Like many other contemporary composers wishing to broaden their knowledge of music, she has also contributed to the organization of various festivals, as well as of various performative events. Mačiliūnaitė has actively performed in ensembles of unpredictable makeup and genre: R&R Electronics, Muzika yra labai svarbi (Music Is Very Important), Sintezija, Subtilusis trio (Subtle Trio), and ZehrGut. Besides the usual (and sometimes not quite usual) musical format for acoustic instruments, she has in her work firmly introduced electronics, and in addition to which she has recently actively exploited another additional direction – music for dance and theatre performances, as well as for experimental films. Therefore it is obvious that in her searches Mačiliūnaitė is exploring all possible avenues, which, together with her compositional intuition, the baggage of her knowledge and experiences, with her feel for and exploration of the ethnic music of the Baltic region, we can hear in her work.

The slow-flowing, wide layers of sound (how wide depends not only on the quantity of sound or the frequency of how they are placed in relation to one another but also on the intervalics, the sensation caused by it) in the music of Rita Mačiliūnaitė are changed by the combinations / variations of short and constantly repeated sound segments, causing the impression of ‘marking time,’ minimal movement without going in any direction or turning around and slight gesticulation. To create this impression the composer uses broken or strongly syncopated rhythmic figures, which, again, are most probably best grasped indirectly. The function of this, as it were, ‘going astray’ (in fact, the composer’s contrivances ‘in playing’ with the simplest rhythmic values, pauses, dots and ties) is the eradication of the sensation of pulse and regularity. There is an abundant use of micro-intervalics in Mačiliūnaitė’s musical language, however it does not dominate it but most frequently ‘operates’ as a nuance of shades of sound. References to atonality are outweighed by the inter-harmonies that prevail: between modality, free (a)tonality, consonance and sonorism, using clusters and extreme registers. All of that is supplemented by microintervals, sounds of undefined / variable high pitch, noise, bustling, scraping or rustling.

Extended performance techniques have also found their way into the composer’s work but their intention is not connected to indiscriminate, radical novelty – there is no effect here being used in order to surprise or discover / invent a new instrument. Such an effect is not provoked even by the limited use of aleatorics on some of the scores of her works. Perhaps only Mist in Your Hands, created in 2007, sounds to some degree like a cry of the modern – a search for liberation. What is different is the experimental film 59’ Online (2013, the composer received a Gold Stage Cross for the music) where things inseparable from contemporary everyday existence like the computer or a mobile telephone are ‘raised on a pedestal,’ and become symbols of the important themes examined in the performance and are used as sounds objects. Of great interest are the composer’s musical ‘moves’ in the electro-acoustic vocal cycle Letters for mezzo-soprano, baritone and electronics (2012), where the psychological moment of grasping the meaning of words is applied: the order of syllables is changed, even the syllables of different words are mixed up. Using the same principle, ‘conversations,’ having a philosophical (and at the same time ironic) meaning, between the voice of a live person and a voice coming from the electronics are incorporated.

There are references to the music of the Far East in the composer’s music, and nature idylls, and spiritual quests, and philosophical, sociological themes, mixed in, of course, with a dose of good humour. And everything is real, professional and convincing. However, what is most vividly felt (apart from works for the theatre, dance and film, since that is a completely separate area with its own requirements and nuances) is the already mentioned Lithuanianness with all of the feelings of its existence echoing with the canonical quality of the sutartinės, the fragmented melodies of a narrow diapason, harmonies freely migrating between things, polyphonic layers of narrow intervals, meditative moods and asymmetric rhythms. All of that nevertheless can be seen clearly in small reflections already as if in another context. Was this not what at one time Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, and later still Juozas Gruodis, wanted and wished for us, two composers in whose furrow all of us, whether we like it or not, no matter how unique, distinctive and original we are, find ourselves?

Today the generation of Lithuanian composers born in the 1980s are beginning to penetrate the European music scene outside their own country, as did at one time the generation of the above mentioned well-known Lithuanian teachers of modernist composition, which had symbolically ‘invoked’ creative Lithuanianness. And even though Lithuanian names do not often show up on the posters of the important European contemporary music festivals or the catalogues of music publishers, progress is nevertheless being made and, most importantly, is ‘strong’ enough to continue. However, this progress is a process, occurring on at least two planes. On the one hand, thanks to today’s media and the competent management of culture the music being created by composers can reach a much wider audience, even one thousands of kilometres away. One can say that these processes mainly occur in a space or an environment, but in equally the same way, perhaps an even more important aspect is that of time. So, on the other hand, the question inevitably arises whether we all meet in the same time frame, in particular if one takes into account Lithuania’s history and the situation of musical culture, when evaluated in a world context. “In the European context we simply look like Lithuanian composers. And that is neither good nor bad. We are what we are because of the way our country, our school and our family raised us. It goes without saying that the countries which never belonged to the Soviet Union have advanced more quickly but over the last 25 years Lithuania has managed not just to catch up with them but in some respects to surpass them,”[3] believes Rita Mačiliūnaitė.

Every composer speaks in his or her own language or at least imagines that s/he does, since our thinking and ideas are formed and significantly affected by, firstly, our teachers and figures of authority, as well as the environment with all the realities by which and in which we live. But at the same time everyone also has his or her roots whose sprouts, however weak, spring up through all individualities – this is especially evident in comparing the work of contemporaries. But perhaps it is not so bad to have a clear identity? A proper balance amongst two thousand years of the history of music, the maelstrom of the social, technological, political, scientific, the ideological realities of the moment, the traditions of the originality of individualistic thinking, as well as national or regional ones, is most probably the most important task and main goal for the creation of contemporary music that is relevant.

Translated by Romas Kinka
COMPOSER IN FOCUS | Lithuanian Music Link No. 18

[1] From personal correspondence with the composer.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.