Jūratė KATINAITĖ | In Music You Should Always Ask the Question: And What Does That Mean? An Interview with Donatas Katkus

Donatas Katkus (b. 1942) has for the last five decades been one of the most prominent personalities on the Lithuanian music scene – a violist, conductor, teacher, musicologist, music critic, and manager. From the very beginning of his career he has shown himself to be a person of erudition, a visionary, and a promoter of new music. In 1965 he and some like-minded musicians founded the Vilnius Quartet, in which he played viola for three decades and was responsible for introducing several dozen new compositions by Lithuanian composers. Katkus has also been an advisor to composers, a source of inspiration and someone to assess their work, at times also a shrewd defender against the reproaches of Soviet ideologues. In 1994 he set up the Vilnius City Municipality St Christopher Chamber Orchestra[1] and has been its artistic director ever since. He teaches the interpretation and semiotics of music at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, gives master classes in Lithuania and abroad. In 2013 he published a monograph titled Musical Performance (a second edition came out in 2015). Katkus’s critical and journalistic articles, which number over 400, are distinctive because of their original insights, their broad subject matter, encompassing other artistic and scholarly fields, sociocultural matters, all written in an expressive and witty style.

Donatas Katkus is here in conversation with the musicologist Jūratė Katinaitė.

I remember our interview during the ISCM World Music Days in Vilnius in 2008. You were angry then about the decline of the music scene to the level of pop culture which is usurping more and more cultural fields. You said it was time to come to the rescue of, as you then put in, the Christian tradition on which Western culture is built. And now a decade has come and gone. Has anything changed? What is the situation today as regards the musical scene? Is pop music sweeping everything aside? It sometimes seems to me that universal pluralism and creative work without any taboos have begun to have a debilitating effect on society. Sometimes I have the feeling that soon in art we’ll have a longing for a ‘new religion’, in other words, for a common order and system.

I’d highlight two problems. Firstly, pop has become very uniform. Increasingly, we don’t hear anything distinctive, stylish. Every person is unique. And if they manage to convey this uniqueness in their creative work, we then say that this person is a phenomenon, a talent. But the problem is that nowadays the creators and performers of pop music don’t express their individuality but only produce work that’s similar. Robbie Williams recently performed in Vilnius and at my home I could hear his concert perfectly since we live close by. I was listening to the rhythmic beats which were no different than in concerts by other performers the sounds of which reached my home. And Williams, after all, is a good, professional singer, with ideas and a specific voice, style and taste. What can you say then about other, less talented performers? Many of them remind me of karaoke: the same patterns of rhythm, timbre, and melodic motifs, which you can buy with a digital system or even steal from the internet. And then you can create something. That’s why we have such poor-quality overproduction.

So, what can we, those of us who represent classical music, do? But people listen to us! People want to list to Bach, Mozart… There’s a paradox here. On one hand, pop swallows everything up, but, on the other hand, the same musical cells are present, for example, in Haydn’s music. In some mystical way those cells come through in the dominant pop models and stimulate a longing in people to listen to other kinds of music as well. And that’s important.

But the problem lies elsewhere. It’s an old debate: does art develop or not? I’m reading an interesting book by the art critic Skaidra Trilupaitytė The Power of Creativity? A Critique of Neoliberal Cultural Politics. In it she analyses only contemporary creative work, today’s situation, relationships. Although right here in Vilnius you can turn a corner and see work made in the 16th century. Does it no longer hold any value? Doesn’t it provide a context for what’s happening now? We, who represent classical music, are a context for what’s happening since we don’t allow people to forget what was created earlier. We’re proof that art is changing but not ‘progressing’.

There are lots of things that cannot be measured, that no name can be given to in any theories but which in spite of that work. You can describe what culture is theoretically, what elements it consists of, but, for example, a sense or feel for human culture cannot be reduced to theoretical definitions. Twenty-thirty years ago, it seemed pop culture would destroy everything. But that didn’t happen. The other thing is that pop is not homogeneous. Beside mass overproduction in pop music there are now and there were before interesting things: elements of timbre, texture and of other kinds, especially structural ideas which have had a strong effect on so-called academic music. Compositional ideas are not only the privilege of professional composers who graduated from conservatoires. All of that is in the air. And then another thing becomes important – the human factor. The St Christopher Orchestra and I perform a lot of compositions by Osvaldas Balakauskas and we’re now putting together a programme for his jubilee.[2] When you go so deep into things, you can see the entire gamut of the composer’s structural logic and if you go beyond those structures you can feel the person. And then there is another person who has the right to go out onto the stage and like an actor convey all of that. For me that actorly moment is very important.

As regards the old controversy you’ve mentioned about whether art is developing or not, I’ll take you back to the beginning of the 1960s. You’ll probably agree that strong artistic individualities are very important for the development of art, which, when they find their way into a well-established order, shake it up. So sometimes things don’t change gradually but suddenly. It seems to me that at the time you were one of those who strongly affected the status quo. You had various ideas, founded a Young Performers’ section at the Actors’ House. Why not at the Composers’ Union? Didn’t the authorities at the time allow it? What were the factors behind this initiative?

Eduardas Balsys was then the head of the Composers’ Union and he certainly did not obstruct the initiatives of young people, on the contrary, I’d say he looked favourably on them. After we formed the orchestra lead by Jonas Aleksa, we didn’t have a place to go to. And then Balsys allowed us into the recently built Composers’ House, even though his colleagues didn’t like that he had done that. We called the orchestra the Composers’ Union Orchestra, but we weren’t needed by them and all kinds of obstacles were put in our way, but Balsys supported us.

At that time the Lithuanian Philharmonic Society (now called the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Society – ed.) didn’t allow young performers to play there. Lots of wonderful pianists couldn’t get into the Philharmonic Society to give recitals, they were only given the opportunity to play once a year at the M. K. Čiurlionis Memorial Museum in Druskininkai. Is it possible under conditions like that to keep up a high level of performance? In those days there was a very strong hierarchy and everything had to be approved by the Communist Party Central Committee. You could only break through if you had some connections there.

That’s why I undertook to form a Young Performers section away from the all-powerful Philharmonic Society and at the Actors’ House where there was a less restrictive environment. After that, the more liberally-mined officials at the Philharmonic Society began to put on concerts at art galleries in Vilnius, Kaunas, Šiauliai, Panevėžys and other towns, and for that they needed performers. There was a large group of young musicians belonging to our section and so we got some work and space in which to improve our skills.

Later I was forming chamber ensembles at the Artists’ Palace. Every year over the course of the whole decade we would put on 5 or 6 concerts of the work of foreign composers. All kinds of composers, from Romanians and Slovaks to English and American ones. The director of the Philharmonic Society used to hound us for playing ‘ideologically harmful’ music. I remember, already at the end of the Soviet period we decided to play the work of the exile composer Jeronimas Kačinskas. We were categorically forbidden to play his compositions at the Artists’ Palace. But this was the dawn of different times, so we went out and put that concert on at what is now the Vaidila Theatre. I later got a letter of thanks from the USA from the composer. That was the first time his music was heard in Lithuania since he’d left for the West during the war.

That’s how I was: I couldn’t stay still in one place, I was always thinking of something. The composer Julius Juzeliūnas would say to me: “Don’t run around doing everything, my lad, it’d be better if you concentrated on writing your dissertation.” I never wrote one.[3]

You didn’t write a dissertation but you’re one of the creators of the myth of Lithuanian music when other criteria of what is of value were being formed at the beginning of the 1970s, when the work of Bronius Kutavičius, Osvaldas Balakauskas, Feliksas Bajoras was acknowledged. You were very active then.

We did all of that not for the good of society or Lithuanian music but wanting to defend those composers since we saw that fantastic things were being given birth to. I’ll never forget when in 1970 Kutavičius’s Pantheistic Oratorio was performed in the Philharmonic Society’s Chamber Hall. The older composers and party activists simply tore into it. After the performance in the corridor I went up to Bronius, who no longer looked like a human being, and said: “A work of genius! Don’t listen to them! They don’t understand anything.” I saw Bronius’s face light up! People like him needed support so they wouldn’t give in, so they would believe in their talent. They only needed a few people whose opinion was important to them.

Balakauskas liked to form groups. While still studying in Kiev he created a group of like-minded composers and when he returned to Vilnius he again became the axis around which we came together, hungry for new things. Kutavičius, whom I’ve just mentioned, would join him, as well as Antanas Rekašius, Feliksas Bajoras… They also invited me. The talking that went on! They were real seminars on aesthetics. Kutavičius would always say that he couldn’t stand pathos. And we were living in the Soviet period, all of official art was pathos. It was in this circle, in a very closed intellectual space that recognition was given to that, and that’s how we defined aesthetic attitudes. Completely other things were happening in the public sphere. I can now reveal that we were very much against Balsys, against his pathos, his theory of emotionalism. But I can now see that his former pupils are repeating their professor’s ideas that music has to be emotional and they embody that in their music in an interesting way. That is a very different approach from that of Balakauskas or Kutavičius.

In his childhood, Bajoras studied violin under Vytautas Bacevičius’s father and that was where his romantic feel came from. It’s interesting that in our circle he was a fierce opponent of romanticism, while now, when you look at his compositions, romanticism simply shines out from his scores. His music is simply incredible. In 2000 he wrote The Sun’s Path for string quartet. Krzysztof Droba, the musicologist from Kraków who has so markedly contributed to the spread of Lithuanian music abroad, very much wanted to hear that music. Droba is an extraordinary scholar[4], with an enviable knowledge of contemporary music. I remember his first visit to Vilnius when we let him listen to the music of our composers. When he had finished listening to Kutavičius’s The Last Pagan Rites, he got up and asked where the toilet was. It turned out that he went there to cry since he would have been embarrassed to have done that in front of other people. That’s how much he was affected by the music. And now he couldn’t deal with The Sun’s Path! He simply didn’t understand it. That particular composition works on completely different principles. The narrative is on a completely different plane, with colour, articulation playing their part. And it is that form which is quite unexpected, untraditional. I’m convinced that Bajoras will be rediscovered. His time has not yet come.

I’ll now put a question to you that I’ve been thinking about my whole life. How does one discern value, talent in music? The violinist Tatiana Grindenko has partially answered this question for me. According to her, it’s only through experience, through listening to or performing a great amount of music can you learn to separate the wheat from the chaff in music. However, there are people who even when very young, without the benefit of accumulated experience, feel value intuitively. They cannot be deceived when it comes to art, they can immediately point out a masterpiece even if there are a hundred pictures in a room. I very much like Vytautas Landsbergis’s allegory about people like that. It is as if they belong to a secret brotherhood and they can recognise a ‘brother’ in another person, that is to say, talent. What do you think about that? To me at least it seems that you belong to that brotherhood.

No, I don’t. I’m not a mystic. That’s Landsbergis’s idea. I’m familiar with his theories. It is as if he’s trying to encompass the limits of reality. Landsbergis was at one time the axis of another group, to which the musicologists Ona Narbutienė, Edmundas Gedgaudas, and several other intellectuals belonged. I once happened to be amongst them. I was amazed that there was such a group of erudite people in Lithuania. There was a completely different kind of atmosphere than that of the heated debates at Balakauskas’s home. Their talks, their, as it were, exalted seriousness, made a huge impression on me. A lot of good ideas were closely examined there. But I didn’t fit in.

But Grindenko is right in saying that a person’s experience helps in answering questions of that sort. But experience can change. In social and cultural life fads exist, when suddenly some things become valued and then later – different kinds of things. However, there is also a person’s individual experience, which works in situations like that. That experience is not static. People over the passage of years experience a huge quantity of cultural and artistic phenomena which constantly add to the diversity of their experiences. There is one another important thing – music always has a connection with rites. Or with artifice, with acting. That’s why on one day you can like one thing, and on another day that thing can seem boring. So, experience is not absolute. We all have different experiences. What are we talking about now? About values. At some particular moment certain things become valuable, and then their worth recedes and other things acquire value. That is why in this case I would single out one other important thing – a person’s openness to culture.

You’re speaking about values, how they change, while I’m more about trying to get to how to differentiate between talent and craft.

That’s very hard to do. See how many children play fantastically well nowadays! Compositions that one time even the great violinists weren’t able to master, children now play perfectly. Do they understand what they’re playing? It’s all thanks to the teachers. They instil technique and explain the requirements of style. You look at a child like that and you can’t tear your eyes away. You stop thinking what the music being played is about. So what is that? It’s a circus. Even if the virtuoso is an adult. It’s a sociocultural phenomenon, primarily connected to the listener, the person who perceives it. How are we supposed to know which musician is talented and which one can simply play well? There is no way. Either an impression has been made on us or not. That’s a manifestation of individuality.

Someone has said about you that ‘Kutavičius’s music made a musicologist out of Katkus’. Under the influence of his music, you began to write reviews and articles. Do you agree with that? But my question is a wider one: do you need to express yourself as a musicologist? After all, you’re a performer, you couldn’t be more active. But at the same time you’re one of the most perceptive musicologists in Lithuania.

Already in my second year at the conservatoire I formed an aesthetics group. I was especially interested in philosophy and poetry. But it was Antanas Venckus who ‘made’ a musicologist of me. After graduating from the conservatoire I’d go to him to study the analysis of musical compositions. Sometimes real arguments would flare up between us. And Kutavičius was one of the topics not only because he was interesting, original, but also because, as I’ve already mentioned, he needed support, the authorities were really beating up on him. I remember the people in charge at the Philharmonic Society would forbid us from playing his quartet. But despite that we’d play it. We’d go to other towns and play it there. The bosses didn’t find out. There was nothing personal from their side, they had their orders ‘from above’, from the party’s structures.

I’m not a music theorist, rather an aesthetician. I don’t very much like to delve into structures. I find it more interesting when someone analyses them, goes deeper into what they mean. This was instilled into me by Venckus. He would always say when it comes to even the least important segment of music one has to ask the question as to what it means. He was the one who lead me to semiotics.

How did you come to be an expert in so-called historically informed performance? You did after all write a book about music performance, you know that one can’t play 17th century music in the same way as Mozart’s or Mozart’s like that of Brahms. In the Soviet Union the common style of playing music held sway, supported by the tradition of romanticism and the emotionalism of Russian classical music. Whereas in Lithuania you were one of the pioneers of transmitting historical styles. How did you educate yourself in this point of view? Where did you get your information from?

In those days I was still playing in the Vilnius Quartet. We went to Finland on more than one occasion and it was there that I made the acquaintance of the wonderful violist and conductor Juha Kangas, who founded the Ostrobothnian Orchestra. I think it was in 1978 that he invited me to the Kuhmo Festival to give a seminar. He then visited Lithuania and asked for my advice as to where he should study interpretation. To go to Saulius Sondeckis or to Nikolaus Harnoncourt in Vienna. Harnoncourt had already been working for about a decade with Concentus Musicus Wien, the orchestra he’d put together, and was responsible for a revolution in the performance of Mozart’s music. I advised him to go to Vienna. And that’s what he did. Later when we met, he revealed the secrets of Harnoncourt’s style to me over the course of two days – what the vibrato was like, the articulation and so on. Later several books by Harnoncourt came out in German. In a word, Kang infected me with that bacillus and after that I could no longer play as I had done earlier in the quartet. Musicians are very conservative: whatever they’ve learned, they play in that way for the next 50 years. But my understanding changed, so I had to leave the quartet and start to study compositions with fresh eyes. We speak about Mozart, about his style, but he came from the baroque! With students we read Mozart’s father Leopard’s book about the rules for performing baroque music. And the son was very obedient to his father. I have all six volumes of Mozart’s correspondence with his father and his sisters. I now have all kinds of literature about performance in English and German. Sadly, I don’t read French but I have books on French 17th–18th century music translated into German.

I’ll finish with pathos which you don’t like. If you had the power – some tool of cultural politics or management – where would you direct your energies? What things would you support or initiate to move musical life in a positive direction?

One has to begin with education, firstly to put our schools in order. Knowledge is transmitted in lessons but morality and freedom of thought are not taught. Schools don’t educate pupils, but cram selected knowledge down their throats. That’s one thing. Another important thing is – we have to get rid of capitalism. It’s all about profit, business. Culture is not a business. That’s why we’ve descended into commerce, into mass culture. If no one is going to educate the masses, to instil value-based criteria, then those masses are going to drag us all down. The biggest problem is the ignorance of the authorities. Neoliberalism, which defends capitalist relationships, has forced its way into culture and education. What’s happening with the higher schools of learning? Business plans are being forced on them. But human culture and the development of the mind are not business. War is being waged by the authorities and business against culture. Of course, they like to go to concerts, as long as they’re prestigious, as long as some famous female musician in a fashionable dress is playing, as long as the tickets are expensive. That’s the level of their knowledge, their taste. If society manages somehow to cleanse itself from the inside, perhaps a miracle will happen.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka

[1] Translator’s note. St Christopher is the patron saint of Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
[2] Translator’s note. Osvaldas Balakauskas will turn 80 on 19 December this year. In 1982 he wrote and dedicated his controversial minimalist composition titled Do nata to its first performer Donatas Katkus (the title is a play on the first name Donatas and the note C, or ‘Do’).
[3] Translator’s note. Katkus was a post-graduate student of philosophy at Vilnius University but did not complete his thesis.
[4] Editor’s note. Distinguished Polish musicologist Krzysztof Droba (1946–2017) has passed away on November 10, 2017, after this interview was recorded and while it was being prepared for the publication.