Povilas VAITKEVIČIUS | Spaces within Forms: The Case of Egidija Medekšaitė

How does one explain the art of Egidija Medekšaitė to a layperson, someone who has never set foot into the wilderness of microtonality and similar genera? I shall attempt to do so by allowing myself to travel from one piece to another being led by a free and somewhat adventitious current of associations.

I begin by stating the obvious: the composer moves freely back and forth across the boundaries of the definition I used above. It is true that structurally her compositions are dominated by microtonal techniques, but the music is more than its structure. This is why I prefer to focus on the aesthetic experiences and the stylistic definitions they evoke. Ambient music is the term that serves as a starting point for me. It already implies an attitude towards sound that is different to that of microtonal music. The latter informs us of the principles of organizing sounds, whereas the former avoids references to forms and instead alludes to an atmosphere. I believe it to be essential in Medekšaitė’s piece Phasing (2008), and no amount of counterarguments will convince me otherwise. Internally I justify such a conviction by the presence of elongated, meditative tones. The opposing side would however argue that there are more facets in play. I am interested in the title and will leave the fact that the piece was performed by the Vilnius Bassoon Quartet aside. On the one hand, phasing directly points at a particular composing method; the result, on the other hand, constructs an atmosphere, the ambient-undercurrent, which carries me away. A (post)minimalist association flutters somewhere beside, yet the type of music that ambient is can hardly ever be described as ‘maximal.’ Even though, the aesthetic paradox here lies in the fact that a small number of sounds fill up the space to the maximum. That is why a saying I am very fond of, ‘less is more,’ comes to mind. Essentially, the saying is also the ‘middle name’ of microtonality, is it not? 

In this essay, as can already be seen, I prefer the aesthetic aspects to the stylistic ones (which by no means indicates my dislike towards the latter). Nevertheless, my duty towards logic demands that I at least suggest something that rises above absolute subjectivism. I have encountered proof that somebody shares my opinion. In her article “Influence of Minimalism upon Post-Minimalist Lithuanian Music,” Rūta Gaidamavičiūtė quotes a Polish musicologist Krzysztof Droba. He claims that the Lithuanian variation of minimalism features “a multitude of modal lyricisms, distinct sadness and brooding nostalgia.”[1] Thus, although my innate (or perhaps acquired?) academic imperative seems to be fixated on the tameness of structure, the sentimental keel of mine chooses to stay afloat amidst the whitecaps of lyricism it evokes. At the same time, the notion of phasing has clung with me like the burr of a burdock – the term itself points towards ambient. Synthesizers have a sound synthesis option called phasing, hence this immediate association. After all, the boom of ambient music is tightly connected with the wider use of synthesizers back in the 1960s and the 70s. (Yes, I am still aware the piece is scored for bassoons.)

I noticed that in describing her own music online the author does not avoid the ‘a-word.’ On the one hand that means my above observations are everything but sui generis, however I will almost impudently question the use of this label in some particular instances. Take the piece called Textile 4 (2013) scored for four prepared pianos. The staccato character carries me far away from the sustained, lyrical and spatial sensations and instead highlights the rigid structure. Even the inner semiotics pertaining to the ‘harshness’ of the sound of the piano keys is more related to form rather than space (the qualitative characteristic of the ambient). Continuing the term-play, the surrounding space becomes the form-space. We find ourselves being transferred from the outer space into a structured one – thus I will go ahead and employ the term chamber here. I use it as an antipode to ‘the external’ – contained space, as opposed to the one that is undefined by form. The title further reinforces the structure – for in order not to tear apart, a piece of fabric has to be firmly weaved (and I cannot help but recall a Steve-Reich-esque composition Knitt (2011) here). Nevertheless, another piece from the series, Textile 2 (2007) scored for a choir is infused with a different kind of scenery. The composing method (let me guess) is similar, but so what? It is the elongated tones that contribute to the dissimilar effect. One may think that I could stamp my foot right now and insist on the fact that any legato brings ambient and all the spaces with it. But then pieces like ReMax (2011) contradict such a categorical statement. They are charged with the elements of glitch music, as are the videos by Lukas Miceika that accompany them. The electronic aesthetic of sound and the visuals reinforce such a belief, for the soundscape of glitch is related to computers and technology that together enable manipulation of electronic sound-bits. ReMax is a systematic piece where the ‘first fiddle’ belongs to the organized sound, which allows us to enjoy the very possibilities of sound-construction and the outcomes that are being created. The mathematical structure of ReMax is an aesthetic category unto itself. But the sensation of space has not gone anywhere. Theory reminds us that historically glitch and ambient were aesthetically intertwined, while the perception allows us to experience space in pauses between sounds. For, essentially, the pauses also constitute the form of a composition. The coldness of tones and stoic synthetics seem to be suspended over the infinite stretch of opportunities. Where else can one be suspended, if not in space? Also, the notion of infinity mentioned earlier can be applied to mathematics, which leads us, yet again, back to the mathematical organization of Medekšaitė’s music. And what about the video-work and all that geometry of broken-lines! The second section of ReMax, due to its lengthy tones, could be easily categorized as ambient, but all the aforementioned criteria apply here as well. A bio-atmosphere is evoked with the flickering candlelight, seen in the video. The candles, consequently, suggest images of a meditation session…

…Whereas the meditative currents are so discernable in Medekšaitė’s music. They allow the mind to experience emotions that arise from spiritual practices. This explains the etymology of some Indian titles. Nigamagamini (2014), if I am not mistaken, refers to one of the modes of a raga. And so does Sandhi Prakash (2013). As with Phasing mentioned earlier in this essay, the titles here allude to the method of composition, and thus draw attention towards structure. It is not the structure, however, that determines the meditative flow, but rather slow timbral transformations. Their extended progressions provoke visions of slowly slanting lines and gradually release the mind from straining thoughts. At the end of the piece a listener is immersed in a deluge of unwound sound. These changes remind me of that ‘entering into the meditative state’ moment, when the mind transitions from a conscious decision to ease up and slowly moderates the hegemony of thoughts and forgets about itself altogether. Another piece called Dhani (2009), from the opening seconds (that announce the beginning by an imperative call of the gong) evokes an Indian soundscape. Its later tonal developments urge me to view it (paradoxically) as an item belonging to the new music’s equivalent of chamber minimalism. I am convinced I understand the obvious cause and I blame the sound of strings for all of this – for in our consciousness strings are inseparably tied to academic music. In turn, the latter, according to a common (and often dilettantish) understanding is associated strictly with European music heritage. It seems the cultural implications of the two pieces described above (Sandhi Prakash and Dhani) should correlate with the aesthetic associations they raise. And here is evidence of the significance of the actual sound per se – it can either reinforce the intellectual message of the piece or leave the title unaccompanied, sometimes shedding some structural hints for the über-professionals. One more piece by Medekšaitė, Megh Malhar (2015), works in a similar fashion and serves as yet more factual evidence of my reasoning. The sound of Panchami (2006), on the other hand, fits within the aforementioned academic realm, but the vibrating atonality creates an odd spatial sensation and reveals an entirely new direction to me. Being unaware of the meaning of the term, I research it and learn that “Panchami is the fifth day of the fortnight in the Hindu lunar calendar.” I am not sure if this is what the composer had in mind, but I am immediately transplanted to the moon. Amusing coincidence (or is it?), for earlier my attention was caught by the piece called Sinus Iridium (2010). Sinus Iridium (Latin for “Bay of Rainbows”) refers to the particular territory on the lunar atlas of our satellite. To me this piece belongs to pure space ambient. The illustrative nature of the term should not be interpreted negatively – it simply underlines the music’s immediate power to evoke landscapes, and thanks to the spaciousness of sound to enable one’s mind to travel beyond the reaches of our exosphere. The shimmering waves of bluish tones allow a cruise alongside the auroras (the cousins of rainbows), but the rumbling low frequencies heard in a distance remind us of a cosmic darkness and the secrets it holds. As if dumbstruck machinery of the universe were casting shadows onto the craters of the moon. The imagery urges me to state that Sinus Iridium is amongst Medekšaitė’s most cinematographic works. Again, I mean it in the most positive way, where cinematographic qualities help persuade and demonstrate the link between the title and the aesthetic experience. 

In this essay I address expression and form interchangeably. I realize that the moon is round, like a medallion, or oscilla used as offerings to various deities in ancient Rome. This reminds me of the correlation between an extraterrestrial body and an earthly object. The tile of Oscillum (2008) is in Latin, just like the Bay of Rainbows. The sound-forms resemble Sinus Iridium: the same caressing flow, softly absorbing the listener and whirling him/her around. Being aware of the meaning of the term, I think of a concentrated, meditative mood prior to an oblation. Although this fantasy of mine is a worldly one, essentially it leads me back to cosmology. It evokes memories of experiences beyond the mundane, enhancing the tiniest, previously undetected manifestations of space-time. Just like another piece, Scintilla (2008), which unfolds like a flower at a hopeful dawn. I take a tiny step back to Oscillum, for the synthesizers and the related byproducts take me back to the whole ambient talk, while the synthesizers generate sound with the help of oscillators that etymologically lead me back to the title.

At the end of my journey through landscapes and soundscapes I am returning enriched with aesthetical experiences. I can now state that the music I described charms with its form, even if this is far from my point of departure. I call it persuasiveness. And when I look around I see many more destinations that Medekšaitė’s creative spaces have to offer.

Translated by Vanda Gaidamovič
COMPOSER IN FOCUS | Lithuanian Music Link No. 18

[1] Rūta Gaidamavičiūtė. Minimalizmo įtaka pominimalistinio laikotarpio lietuvių muzikai. Menotyra, 2010, volume 17, No. 3. pp. 241–262.