Ugnius BABINSKAS | Academic Informals: To Perform Music is to Fly. An Interview with Vykintas Baltakas and Liudas Mockūnas

What’s harder: to play music with a straight face according to the canon or treat it like a game and improvise? Isn’t it the case that technical performers in particular have a harder time – after all, it seems that in trying to become a master of your instrument and to practice obsessively takes somewhat longer and is a more monotonous task than to be a wild experimenter who gets up on stage to perform as if for the first time?

This question and various connected matters were swimming around in my head at precisely the time when I was on my way to meet for the first time two artists on the Lithuanian and international scene – the composer Vykintas Baltakas, director and founder of the Lithuanian Ensemble Network, and the jazz musician and composer Liudas Mockūnas.

I made the acquaintance of the academics, who jokingly refer to themselves as ‘informals’, at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre (LMTA) in July 2017, just a few weeks before the conversation you’re about to read. I decided to spend some time in their ‘kitchen’. I closely observed rehearsals, interacted with the students, asked detailed questions about their daily activities, and was an avid listener at their exam performances.

However, at the time of the meeting itself, I understood that I was dealing with individuals whom it would be better to engage in conversation without any preparation since both of them have a preference for the unscripted. The ‘here and now’ mode of thinking is the space in which both musicians feel at ease.

Most probably because of this, the pretext for this interview, the contemporary music performance studies programme now being created and put into effect by the two of them, soon became the introduction to this multifaceted discussion about the problems of contemporary music and its performance, educational institutions, creativity, and, finally, of the relationship between technologies and their users.

Ugnius Babinskas: Tell us more about the newly established contemporary music performance master’s studies programme. Why is it that only now the importance of contemporary music performance theory and practice is being recognised in Lithuania’s academic environment, when in other countries, particularly in West Europe, this was done already several decades ago?

Vykintas Baltakas: Music academies or conservatoires are always conserving something. In Soviet times what was studied at the Academy was exclusively classical, romantic music, at best with the work of Shostakovich or Stravinsky included. That was it. This situation came about for several reasons.

Firstly, the people in charge at the Academy had no understanding that new things should be tackled. Secondly, there was no push from the teachers themselves, who had matured in a space, where no one taught contemporary music and no one played it. At that time, performers normally restricted themselves to Lithuanian music, the style of which was limited – not in the sense of quality but structure.

Liudas Mockūnas: In discussions with Prof. Zbignevas Ibelgauptas, the rector of LMTA, who gave the impetus to the creation of contemporary music performance studies at his institution, we initially were thinking about two programmes: one would be focused on contemporary academic music and the second on improvisational music. In many European music academies, these studies are usually kept separate. However, we acted differently and decided to join forces.

Baltakas: I would regard this duality as a great strength of the programme. Academic musicians during their period of study do not come into contact with improvisation, which would unquestionably enrich them. After all, improvisational thinking is the essence of music. A score means nothing, it’s not music – it’s only a set of instructions. If a musician is really playing well, he rises, as were, above the notation, and during performance it is not so much a case of recreating the composition as interpreting it.

Young jazz musicians, for example, are often not very literate musically speaking, in reading musical notation, in conducting, chamber playing, and so, in beginning to learn these things, they also then improve their skills in a new direction. In this way we learn from one another, grow and find out about new things.

Babinskas: Jazz musicians playing up a storm and meticulous playing seem contradictory, at least from first glance, and not ways or strategies of complementing one another in musical performance. How do you make these two paradigms fit? What goals are you setting for yourself?

Baltakas: From the viewpoint of structure and goals both paradigms become one, but that’s only a formality. A lot depends on the people you work with.

These new studies have been structured in such a way as to widen the understanding of music as much as possible. Classical musicians arrive with the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven firmly fixed in their heads, but having forgotten that music is first and foremost sound. Improvisers arrive with what can only be called other kinds of clichés.

We encourage both kinds of musicians to come to an understanding of what music is, generally speaking, what sound is, what its nature is. Later, all of us together reveal other dimensions of musicality: of music as images, as an undertaking, and as an activity. So, we work with media and electronics. In the final analysis, students are given the opportunity to express themselves freely – they have to create an original project.

Mockūnas: Besides the everyday studies, Vykintas and I try to provide the conditions for students to gain experience from lecturers from abroad, whom we regularly invite to Lithuania.

Additionally, we go with students to other countries and work intensively with them on those trips. Obviously, you can’t teach very much in two years, but you can show them a lot. And that’s the main thing we try to do.

Classical musicians and jazz players coming together is a very positive, important thing. In many institutions throughout the world they pass one another by. In this context, one should mention musicians from other fields of specialisation, theatre people included, who also only rarely get to interact with one another.

Babinskas: From what you’re saying it seems that in the academic environment there are clear contrapositions between improvisational and academic music. However, I’d like to discuss another difference with you. Both in terms of composition and its performance it is possible to speak about two formally separate worlds: the institutional (primarily academic) and the non-institutional (often associated with underground (sub)cultures). In the latter, there are whole ‘traditions’ of experimental music, whereas in higher schools of learning the talk more often is about improvisation. How should one understand the relationship between experimental and improvisational music? And does one differ from the other?

Mockūnas: The phenomenon you’re talking about, at least in as much as I’ve come into contact with it, appeared in Vilnius relatively recently, about a decade ago. In the capital there’s a great deal of underground, rock and electronic music. In this respect, among the places that stand out there’s the Kirtimai Culture Centre, the culture bar Kablys with its own ‘hole in the wall’, as well as other alternative places.

I never saw that before. That was missing. Of course, the generation before me, musicians like Juozas Milašius and others (mainly from the world of jazz) already from the end of the 1960s were experimenting actively, although the expression of contemporary experimental music is now different.

I think that experimental music is now finding its way into the school’s classrooms, and as a lecturer in the jazz department I see quite a few people playing music both in the academic field and outside it.

For example, the academically educated Arturas Bumšteinas, from the younger generation of composers, is very active as an experimenter as well. Another example is the guitarist Dominykas Norkūnas who takes part in a host of rock projects.

Baltakas: Since I lived and worked abroad for a long time there’s a lot I don’t know about the subcultural processes taking place here. However, I do know that creators who have matured in different contexts meet up sooner or later. The greatest attention should be paid not to styles, not to names, not to institutions but to the music itself.

Mockūnas: Absolutely. After all, it’s always the case that in discussing institutions we end up talking about the people creating and supporting them. A diploma, the fact of having or not having one, is far from being the most important thing in music, in its creation or performance.

Baltakas: I’d like to focus on one important thing: there are plenty of great non-institutional musical movements, where there is a lack of knowledge, of high-level technique, and of instrumental mastery. The level of quality in these movements is quite low, even though the musicians have a lot of original ideas, are active and productive. To increase their potential various LMTA programmes provide a professional grounding, including the one we’re working with.

Babinskas: In exploring the differences between institutional and non-institutional music not so much from a conceptual but a practical point of view, I personally was surprised that, in Lithuania at least, the convergence of these two areas is a relatively new phenomenon.

Besides the above-mentioned Arturas Bumšteinas, I’d single out for mention the academic activities of several other activists connected with non-academic music. For example, Dominykas Digimas, who several years back founded Synaesthesis, a contemporary music ensemble oriented to experimental work. There’s also Brigita Jurkonytė and the other like-minded musicians in the ensemble Symphens who devote a considerable amount of attention to the playing of music permeated with elements of performance art.

I completely agree that erasing purely formal boundaries is useful for all musicians, no matter where they matured. However, I would also say this: collaboration without regard to institutions is also beneficial from a broader viewpoint since in the long run that enriches not only the musicians but also all of musical culture. After all, that culture comprises not just the makers but also the users.

Baltakas: There are several problems here. Firstly, there are a lot of people who don’t dare to step into a concert hall since they know they then won’t dare to go out of it – the threshold is simply to big (he laughs).

Secondly, the academic environment is often unsuitable for contemporary music – it sounds there completely differently than it does in a café, cellar or somewhere in a railway station. The best performance hall for Steve Reich’s string quartet Different Trains to my mind is in fact a railway station.

Both in my creative and pedagogical work I constantly try to ‘pull’ the potential matured in the academy out of the usual spaces and look for new, non-traditional places in which to play. In those places people listen to contemporary music completely differently – in a more open, more free way.

Babinskas: And it is indeed true that many people listening to music in traditional spaces feel as if they’re shackled. You can see that with the naked eye. It’s good that you’re trying to go beyond the academy’s environment not just conceptually but also physically.

Baltakas: At the academy, there is an elitist viewpoint being subtly expressed, a looking down from above, as it were. Both from the lecturers and in general from the institution itself. In this regard Liudas and I are academic informals (we all laugh).

Mockūnas: I have a question (it’s directed at me). And how did you feel when you came to the Balcony Hall (for the LMTA contemporary music master’s degree concert-exam – ed.)?

Babinskas: I felt great – the concert left an indelible impression on me! It was the first time I saw a sweating professor (V. Baltakas – ed.) in an academic environment dressed not in a suit but a sports shirt, enthusiastically conducting casually dressed students taking an exam.

It was hot. Not only because of the high temperature in the packed hall but also because of the environment suffused with musical passion and freedom. It was great. And not just to me. You could see that from the faces of the listeners sitting in the hall.

It’s true that the reaction was mixed. A very old man dressed in a suit had been expecting something completely different – during a break he muttered that “this is absurd, it’s not music”, stood up and left.

Baltakas: With music, it’s like with wine – if we were to remember what it was like the first time we tasted it, we probably wouldn’t be flooded with very warm feelings. The first wine tastes bad and perhaps we even spat it out. However, after you discover the variety of flavours this drink has you understand that it’s something completely different than how it seemed to be initially.

I’m talking about the cultivation of taste without which the experience of music is very limited. Being open is very important to both the listening of music and its creation, and being open is something we often lack. Europeans have ‘eaten’ so much and so much has been ‘stuffed’ into us from early childhood that we sometimes are unable to hear other kinds of music.

Mockūnas: I just remembered a story I was told by some friends about a well-known composer’s five-year-old daughter who was in the preparatory class at the Čiurlionis School of Art. This is roughly how the teaching went.

(Liudas gets up from the table at which we’re all sitting, goes to the end of the room and stands next to the piano there.) The teacher is explaining things to them – this, children, is (Liudas plays one note)… beautiful. This is (another note is played)… sad. And this (a third note is played)… this is not beautiful! (While everyone’s laughing, Liudas comes back to the table.)

Children have no preconceived ideas but they acquire them. Why is one thing beautiful and another thing not? Who thought that up? After all, it’s a very individual thing!

Babinskas: We’ve begun to talk about what’s beautiful, let’s talk about how something is judged. Is it possible in the widest sense to speak about a good or bad performance and, if it is possible, what criteria should one use, in your opinion, to do that? Isn’t it the case that the technical aspect of performance loses its meaning in those concert situations in which all the attention is focused on the process, on improvisation and the situational relationship with the audience?

Baltakas: I don’t agree. A good performance – that’s not only technique but also the precision of the expression of a thought. In raising the question of how to perform a work well, we’re talking about how one should express a certain thought or idea precisely and incisively. These days it’s somewhat harder to do that than before since music today is much more complex and it’s more complex to write it down.

There are certain boundaries beyond which the performance situation you’ve mentioned or the factors influencing the performer become decisive. If the expression of the musical thought is precise, clear and to the point, only then can we talk about the differences, interpretations and the pluralism of the expression of thoughts. How music is performed has never been more important than it is today.

Mockūnas: Personally, it makes no difference to me if music is written down or improvised. Performing should be like a flight. In repertoire music, it’s on the level which Vykintas was speaking about – first we need to talk about understanding the text and only then about flights of improvisation.

On the other hand, we can ask what is improvisation when playing music that’s been written down? I’d answer the question in this way: it’s the unique presence of a musician in a performance space. A room, a hall, a concert venue, each has a direct influence on what is performed.

To play the same work in different spaces always with regard to the specific nature of the space, adapting it to a specific audience – these aspects of performance show the ability of a musician to improvise.

That’s how I also think about pure improvisation. For me as a performer the space is the most important thing. In playing free music, I always try to pay a lot of attention to that. Often when I’m getting up onto the stage I don’t know what I’m going to do, I always try to find inspiration in the place I’m in – in that specific place.

In analysing my unsuccessful concerts (and there have been more than one), I’m always sure that their failure was due to my preconception about how the performance would go – with various constructions in my head formulated without reference to the specifics of the particular space.

Space, of course, is only one of a host of other factors. The sharpness of the expression of thought mentioned by Vykintas, a feeling for form, other aspects – all of that is common to both an improviser and a performer of written music. It can be clearly seen when an eclectic person has something to say and can do that or when he or she simply isn’t able to.

Babinskas: The evolution of music as a form of culture has been directly influenced by the development of technology which I see as the continuation, even though marked by interruptions, of an essentially inexorable process. From this perspective the wind instruments used by our ancestors and made from the bones of animals are in no way different from today‘s computers and the software in them. However, new technologies are often understood as a threat to the performance of music, its survival and its authenticity. What do you think about such a point of view? What are your thoughts about the influence of today‘s musical instruments on the performance of music?

Baltakas: I would describe the relationship between the development of technology and the development of music as two-pronged and inextricably linked – with one having a determining influence on the other and vice-versa. That’s obvious if we analyse this difference from a historical point of view. On the one hand, the wishes of composers, and the impetus arising from their creativity, had a huge influence on the advance in instruments and on those who made them. On the other hand, with the appearance of new, advanced instruments new creative opportunities opened up and that directly changed the expression of music.

Why did string instruments dominate in early music? The answer is simple: because those were the only instruments on which one could play well. Later (from the times of classicism) the development of music was strongly influenced by wooden wind instruments. We can justifiably connect the advance in brass instruments that took place at the end of the 19th century with Wagner’s rise. The invention of the computer was a determining factor in the rise of electronic music.

However, the development of musical instruments was far from over with the appearance of computing machines. Today not only modern musical instruments but also those used in playing classical music are being developed and improved. Liudas, for example, often plays the bass saxophone which is a comparatively recent invention. No less interesting is the contraforte – a new variant of the contrabassoon.

As for performance, I have to admit that a living person and a live interaction are important factors. However you want to put it, listening to a recording is not the same thing as listening to a person playing live – that is an objective fact. But that has no determinant influence on the music itself – it existed before, exists now and will exist in the future.

Mockūnas: In speaking about the response by the public and professionals to the instruments used in a performance, we have to admit that there have always been different reactions, reactions of both rejection and acceptance. If you want evidence of that, you don’t need to go very far back into the past. “Today they’re playing jazz, tomorrow they’re going to sell the motherland,” that’s what was said during the Soviet period about the musical genre that is now accepted at the highest institutional level.

Perhaps for some it’s unacceptable to be at a concert where a musician controls his instrument with a mouse, sitting quietly at a computer. And so what? When the saxophone was invented, I don’t doubt there were people who thought that the instrument was a complete absurdity. People thought the same thing about experiments with copper, whereas Wagner saw a huge potential in it. One generation was negative about the other one, and another generation was negative about the latter. That’s a normal historical process.

The instrument means nothing. The person means everything. A musician is always something bigger than his tool. Of course, it’s important to grasp the fact that we are slaves to our instruments, and for that reasons it’s necessary to constantly improve them, while constantly improving our skills in our mastery of them. We become free only after we get to know our tools well and have mastered them. Only when a composition becomes, as it were, a flight, do musical instruments and texts lose all meaning. However, you have to grow to get to that stage.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka