Linas PAULAUSKIS | The Interesting and Valuable Goings Astray of the Composer Ričardas Kabelis


It is noticeably the case that up till now less has been written about the music of Ričardas Kabelis (b. 1957) than about the work of other established composers in Lithuania. It seems that it is hard for musicologists and critics (and for the author of this text as well) to get a grasp on any of its specific features. It is easy to write that it is music based on rational formulae, that it is made up of absolutely pure structures, and that it is monolithic and superminimalist. But how can one put into words why it is so ‘different’ from most of the music being composed today?

Of course, it is easier to give into temptation and begin listing what does not exist in his music. At one point there were flashes (and like a persistent ghost which keeps returning) of the illusion of ‘unheard’, ‘disappeared’ music – rests, topping the sound in indescribable and ever expanding proportions (Mudra for symphony orchestra, 2000); ‘cancelled’ rhythm (Cell for violin, viola and piano, 1992 – because how can one call a sequence of 2058 sixteenths of identical duration rhythm?); the lack of melody (not in any of the traditional meanings of the term – no melody at all), harmony, dynamics and with a huge general pause (‘9 Points on the Richter Scale’, according to his colleague the composer Rytis Mažulis) towards the end of a composition (CCC for snare drum, 1991).

And what do you think of a ‘computer’ composer without a computer? Let us remember that Ričardas Kabelis implemented two technological breakthroughs at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre: it was according to his detailed plans that this institution’s first computer music studio was set up in 1997, and in 2014 he also set up the Music Innovation Studies Centre there with a 24-speaker spatial sound sphere hall. And what do we make of the composer’s surname Kabelis which in Lithuanian is very much like a power chord or data cable. However, having at some time in the past tried out algorithmic music composition software and after not finding what he was looking for, he went back to – earlier we would have said to pen and paper. No pen will leave any mark on the hands or on paper since it is all computerized now – at least the final result is to be found in digital files. However, the task to get to the point where each composition has its own unique algorithm and is used to calculate all the sounds falls to a living ‘processor’ – the composer Ričardas Kabelis’s brain.

The composer compares the stronghold the digital medium now has in music with the coming of photography when the art of painting, it seemed, found itself on the brink of disappearing but – did not disappear... However, as he understands it: “... algorithmic software distorts the nature of composition. The stochastic surface manipulation of sound (its formal distribution) does not fit in with the essence and subtleties of music composition. Algorithmic software (at least today) does not create algorithms of a higher level or a composition’s integral structures. However, the sound formations that are thereby generated are particularly interesting and inspire a search for new sounds.” But has it ever happened that the result of some musical algorithm – whether generated by a computer (previously) or thought up in one’s head – has surprised the composer himself because of not expecting it?

He says it’s hard to say. Because he likes those searches for a formula of integrity of sound expression or structure, the view he favours is that “creativity without a more systematic concordance of sounds comes to equal improvisation when the benefits of composition remain in the margins. However, composition is not only ratio or only eruptions of intuition. Both of these poles, distant from one another, in opposition and negating one another (complementary?), are as if two sides of a creative ‘coin’, but their balance in and of itself is no guarantee of anything... However, the search for ‘universal formulae’ is useful, often surprising not just the author. When his majesty PRINCIPLE (or an algorithm) in a blink of an eye uproots the limits of the well-established channel of creativity and opens up incredible transitions of sound, is it interesting to stay in the channel? I would say to those who consider that going astray – that is a valuable and interesting going astray, and probably one of the most effective ways of looking for a new composition. Confirming that this is not engaging in fantasies or ‘artistic inspiration’...”

Others, but not the composer himself, have noticed some of the unplanned and surprising transformations of ideas into results. The year is 1996, the composition – Orion’s Belt, and there we have another extreme side to his work, in contrast to that mentioned at the beginning. The instrumentation is given as ‘computer piano’. No, that is not a Yamaha Disklavier type of instrument – they would not be up to the task because what one has there are 24 ‘virtual’ pianos, ‘stepping on each other’s toes’, as it were, fast strings of sound (recorded in separate layers with the synthesizer; at that time there were no virtual software synthesizers with which to render a no matter how difficult a score with one click into a recording). All the more so, since the player pianos used by Nancarrow or Ligeti would not be up to it... And, by the way, 1,254,000 – that’s the number of separate notes there is in the composition. Well, that’s almost an analogue to today’s niche genre of Black MIDI, only the duration is different – here it’s 73.5 minutes. And let’s then remember that the standard length of an audio CD at that time was up to 74 minutes and not up to 80, as it is today. Was the composer preparing to release a CD and adjusted its length accordingly? He says he did not think about that at all – it simply became that long because of the structure that came out of that formula. That’s what happened, there you have it.

It would be possible to give a live performance of the latter composition by transporting those 24 pianos to one place to some medieval castle together with 24 pianists (and nowadays things like that do happen in Europe). But what I want to say is that this synthesizer recording seemed to be sufficiently ‘friendly’ to listeners (despite its duration, the mass of sounds and their ‘attacking’ intensity), that no one booed while it was being performed at the Gaida Festival in 1996. On the other hand, this piece was the pioneer of this kind of genre – massively long, monolithic ‘audio monsters’. Later opuses of this kind received mixed reactions: Rytis Mažulis’s Talita cumi (1997), a calm meditation of live and electronic voices, was received favourably but there was booing at the performance of Šarūnas Nakas’s Ziqquratu-II (1999) with, according to the author, “a roaring flood below and a raging orgy above”...

As for Kabelis’s music, there were all kinds of reactions. For example, Sutartinė of the Mountain for 72 voices (2011, based on the ancient Lithuanian tradition of polyphonic singing – with the use of sutartinė motifs and contrapuntal principles) was not an easy experience for listeners: when they heard how a long, monotonous constantly downward flow of sounds began to climb up again and realized that this would take another nine minutes – no, no one booed or whistled but at that moment one could hear quiet, heavy sighs... Later, the composer with the Italian flautist Manuel Zurria reworked this into two compositions for a flute choir, splitting it into two symmetrical parts. They were separated in the course of the concert as well: at the beginning of the concert one had a large downhill part and at the end a large uphill part – and now as a consequence they were being listened to quite ‘comfortably’.

Here is the composer’s response to that: “It was by no means a difficult experience for everyone. I understood from the feedback that a good number of the listeners were successful in grasping the non-format quality of the work and discovered themselves in the hardly noticeable change of sound and, in as far as the quality of the performance allowed, recognized what was important in the composition, undergoing unfamiliar experiences. I call that sort of music ‘when surface change does not get in the way’. When one listens hard, the external lack of change no longer becomes important, boredom disappears, in the same way as there is none when saying the Rosary. That, most probably, doesn’t work for those who would rather remain in the traditional channel of experience, who see everything that is beyond its limits as not really being music. When the limits of a composer’s mind coincide with the traditional channel of experience there can be no discoveries.”

However, sometimes the composer on purpose tries to make the task of the listener easier with the use of idiosyncratic humour. Take, for example, Farce for six voices (2007) with the poetic text written by Kabelis, choosing words and syllables very easy to intone, as if joining disparate phrases in a stained-glass window, as if they were fragments of glass of different colours and shapes. Now read those phrases: ‘Kam pin tum po’; ‘Birken Laub tin gel tan gel kan ton’; ‘Trampoline Trampoline’; ‘Kasachstan Tumult um Babel’; ‘In Berlin Kurven Ost pirr Ost’; ‘Baby Boom klinken’; ‘Kurzwaren Fax’; ‘Niemals mehr’ and so on. It may not be clear why but one finds them amusing. Sometimes he makes his public a gift of playful ‘instrumental theatre’ type moments (warning: spoilers ahead) – for example, Opus Servus for a prepared piano (1993): the tempo becomes noticeably faster towards the end, then the sharp sounds of the unprepared strings add to the drama, finally a large drum is brought out onto the stage, beaten on by the pianist, while behind the scenes unexpectedly is heard the ‘echo’ of another prepared, invisible piano.

And there’s the completely instrumental theatre genre piece Goldfarbig (1988), composed together with Rytis Mažulis. This is one of only a very few of Kabelis’s works which is made up of several separate sections (like Opus Servus), and not homogeneously developed from just one formula. There’s a lot going on there: the parts for singers specify that they should gargle with water and then spit it out into metal buckets, in the piano part – there’s a wind-up toy duck jumping along the strings... One of those sections is considerably longer than the others; one doesn’t know when the monotonously repetitive motif will stop and, it seems, is on purpose meant to wind up the public (no, here again no one booed or whistled)... until suddenly a newly rehearsed for every performance break in action happens: one of the singers (the leader of a well-known choir) cannot withstand the pressure, ‘goes mad’ and begins acting erratically, then both of the authors of the work get up on stage and holding him by his arms take him backstage. Or instead, there’s another mis-en-scène: a member of the audience (a well-known Lithuanian composer), unable to control himself, raises a fuss in the hall, stands up and begins shouting obscenities, finally gets up on stage, takes a score from one of the performers, tears it up and uses it to… I’m not going to tell you for what purpose, use your imagination. After all of this – the stage lights change, music of ethereal tones can be heard coming from the recording, catharsis... Well, these two co-authors will not admit which of them thought up what – but I can make an educated guess and say that the author of the ‘maddest’ mis-en-scène was Kabelis.

And here, for example, is a composition in which there are no external theatrical elements – Bolé.lt for string orchestra and spatial sound recording (2015). All the members of the orchestra play, in crotchets, the same cluster; and the same, it seems, unchanging sound cluster of strings comes from a host of loudspeakers enveloping the public. But no, something seems to change. But no, it’s only the same cluster being repeated; perhaps the disoriented ears of the listeners are creating something? But no, something is changing, something seems to be moving but to where? (In fact, one cluster on the left of the loudspeakers extremely slowly descends from the top octaves, another one on the right moves in the opposite direction until at the very end they meet.) And this moving/not moving sound mass lasts for 19 minutes (and no one was booing or whistling, I tell you!) – until at the end all of a sudden what is then heard being played from the recording at a precise tempo (the players of the orchestra instead of following the conductor follow the tempo shown in numbers on a large screen) is nothing other than the finale of Ravel’s Boléro in all its thundering grandeur.

It is interesting that the composer does not think that such premature revelations of the ‘plots’ could ruin the experience of listeners, since what should attract their attention after all is the integrity of the structure and the constant change of unchanging sound. And, anyway, the composer is playing with his cards on the table, clearly allowing listeners to feel what is happening in the music, stripping it bare and allowing them to follow all those minor changes of structure (apart from perhaps the just mentioned Bolé.lt). “What ‘lean’ but wonderfully pure and clean, structurally refined music,” says again his fellow composer Rytis Mažulis.

And I’m repeating myself by asking the question why does that feeling of strangeness and unusualness keep coming up in listening to his music of extremely clear structures? One more excursion on the other side of the music itself: this will be the last time I’ll be speaking about a particular composition by Ričardas Kabelis, that is, Opus Magnum for harpsichord (1993). In it there are only four ever changing clusters of sixteenths (the first two change, then another two, the first two again and so on). And again, music changing and not changing at all for 15 minutes. And there’s the author’s vision as to how this music should be performed ideally: if the harpsichord is not on the roof of a building (and such a version is portrayed in a film shot at Stuttgart’s Academie Schloss Solitude, a resident of which Kabelis was in 1993–95), then at least the performer (preferably a percussionist rather than a harpsichordist or pianist) would have to play everything on stage not sitting, not standing – but kneeling on the floor.

What is the feeling one experiences while reading this? One very similar generally speaking in listening to Kabelis’s music (without any of the above-mentioned theatrical tricks). However, in answer to that pathetic question as to what the essence of his music is, the only things he says is: “I like the point of view that sound has an immanent nature and that is why compositions should find themselves above and beyond the wishes and desires of the creator, when the structure develops naturally and of its own accord.” There you have it.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka

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