Povilas VAITKEVIČIUS | The Black-Horned Moon Festival: Change is Life


In trying to describe what the Black-Horned Moon Festival (BHM; Lith. Mėnuo Juodaragis) is the most authentic way to do that is to understand the guidelines forming it not as a set of definitions but rather as poeticized outlines. The participants do not ‘conform’ to them but rather resonate with the event’s mythical space. Over recent years BHM has described itself in public communication as an ‘independent international annual festival of post-folklore, alternative music and contemporary Baltic culture’. This definition has become a particular constant, showing the direction and worldview of the event. In its essence, it’s correct and describes the above-mentioned ideological guidelines, however this event contains within itself more layers. In this text, those layers and the philosophical map emerging from that will be discussed.

From the very first years of its existence, BHM created around itself an aura ‘of spatial time, in which everything happens somewhat differently’. That is now understood as an idealized place transforming the profane into the sacred, in which both the free-thinking festival goers and families with children feel comfortable. However, this perception is incomplete, forgetful as it is of (perhaps more correctly – ignorant of) the fact that the event’s microcosm arises also from other forms of expression. A chthonic origin was quite clearly expressed in the festival’s beginnings (the name itself reminds us of that). The ‘otherness’ was coarser, more spartan and indeed in dissonance with everyday existence.

A night of pagan arts

The first BHM was held in Verbiškės (Molėtai district) at the end of autumn, November 1995, and was called the ‘night of pagan arts’. Those attending were directed to regard this event in a somewhat conspiratorial manner, it being emphasized that ‘the information should only be given out to trusted people’ (a quote from the first BHM information sheet). Such an approach was determined by several factors: BHM was perceived as a very specific kind of gathering, the music of which and the actions related to it are too untypical to be understood by the majority. At the same time, reliance was also placed on authentic social experience, influenced by the realities of the time – wishing to maintain the unique nature of the event, it was deemed necessary to avoid people likely to disrupt the atmosphere. This was even more the case because of the differences in the last decade of the 20th century between underground subcultures and the ‘usual norms’ being perceived as being in greater contrast than today. Lately it has become harder to discern this divide, with fashions successfully incorporating subcultural expressions and turning them into elements of style. Another dimension, determining the event’s closed-off nature, is ritual. An attempt to turn the action into something more than the usual concerts. An absolute majority of the organizers and participants were involved in metal, but in the case of BHM they can be described as people with an open mind, the above-mentioned conspiracy being an attempt to distance themselves from the orthodox followers of this subculture. ‘A night of pagan arts’ emphasized the otherness of this event and the aim to look at reality in other ways with the help of ‘weirder’ music and aesthetics.

Five or six projects with a pagan, nature theme, took place at the first BHM festival, which lasted one night, beginning at exactly midnight, with sub-zero temperatures outside. The spectrum of dominant musical styles ranged from groups playing ambient/ethereal/tribal music (Solus, Sovijus, Wejdas, Sala) to those performing pagan and doom metal music and not afraid of experimentation (Akys, Ha Lela). The event took place in the assembly hall of the Verbiškės House of Culture, in a building built in Soviet times and used increasingly less frequently, and for that reason imbued with an atmosphere of melancholic abandonment. According to the reminiscences of the participants and organizers the frost outside penetrated even the interior of the building. However, this was perceived as a factor giving added meaning to the ‘otherness’ of the event. What one has in mind here is the possibility of the power of music to overcome physical, profane discomfort. A peculiar marginal experience opening up deeper layers.

The tribal Verbiškės rituals

The second BHM festival was put on at a warmer time of year – in May. One has to presume that this decision was related to both the logistics of the festival and elementary comfort (so that, apart from the unheated Verbiškės cultural centre, those coming to it would be able to sleep over in tents). This had an influence on the list of participants (besides local groups, there were also guests from Latvia, that is, King Lear’s Convulsions, who play experimental/dark ambient music) and determined a freer approach to participation, even though the way of looking at things remained similar to before. The hand-written flyers and information disseminated by post testified to the event’s secretive atmosphere.

While the third night of pagan arts, which took place after a year’s break, in 1999, was marked by a more modern approach to the dissemination of information. The flyers were designed and printed professionally, and a festival website set up. This marks the ever-increasing intention of BHM to engage with the present and not avoid contemporary instrumentation, while at the same time invoking the spirit of the place. The amount of groups participating increased to twelve, a number of whom are active to this day – Donis, Sala and Girnų Giesmės. The latter group’s performance using huge sheets of tin with contact microphones fixed to them has survived vividly in the memory of the audience. Also unforgettable was the expressive tribal ritual of Sala, ending in almost the destruction of the instruments used.

Sparks of ecstasy by Alaušas lake

The mood of the ecstatic expansion of boundaries took even greater hold in 2000 when BHM moved from the Verbiškės house of culture to the shores of Alaušas lake in Sudeikiai (Utena district). With the action now extending over two days and with a marked increase in the number of the audience members, one could call the fourth BHM one of the stand-out events on the horizon of ‘different’ music of that time. The people making up the core of the event, even though connected with the pagan/black metal scene, emphasized the will to see the musical styles earlier regarded as being ‘inappropriate’ to the actions of that kind as an enriching experience. On the festival’s webpage at that time they were divided into 8 directions: ethno/folk, metal/rock, neo-folk, industrial, tribal-ritual, experimental/avant-garde, and electronic dance. The term ‘electronic music’ was perceived as most likely to garner opposition on the part of the ‘subcultural orthodoxy’. For this reason, no effort was made to avoid emphasizing it, in this way getting across the information ‘between the lines’ that BHM was not inclined to put up with a static point of view.

The fifth gathering in 2001, also in Sudeikiai, could be called the culmination of all the tendencies mentioned above. Having made the venue and its infrastructure its own, it was decided that the festival could allow itself the luxury of printing a booklet with writeups of the participants and installing an outdoor stage for free concerts during the day. The evening concerts, taking place in buildings belonging to the local subdistrict (the so-called ‘house of culture’, the ‘gallery’, and the ‘green house’), were chosen for more sharp-edged, darker and more radical performances. The concept of ecstasy, brought up by the organizers themselves, became the leitmotif of the performances. Musical styles and manners of expression with which most of the audience had previously been unfamiliar were included in the general flow of the event. From emotional darkwave to noise bathed in the intermittent flashing of stroboscopes and the attendant joy of harnessing ‘weirdness’.

The diversity of Baltic culture at Kernavė

With these moods in the ascendant at festivals in other years as well, there is the necessity of defining the phenomenology of the event in more concrete guidelines. Therefore, with Black-Horned Moon moving to near Kernavė (Širvintos district), a specific theme has been chosen every year from 2003. The first theme was the Lithuanian partisans. That is symbolic of the BHM’s ideological direction, opening up in the exhibitions and lectures dedicated to the theme. The lectures are given by ethnologists, cultural activists and believers in the native Baltic religion who have become event’s regular collaborators. Members of Romuva (a community of the ancient Baltic religion) have been taking part in the festival since 1999, while the ritual folklore ensemble Kūlgrinda has been in charge every year of the opening ceremonies. In this way the festival presents itself as the upholder of the continuation of traditions.

The features and strategy of how to present itself were honed during the Kernavė period.  If the first Black-Horned Moon festivals could be seen as elemental events, an understanding of cultural and social responsibility was being formed in the later ones. After the event became known to an ever-larger number of people, closer attention was given to the needs of potential visitors. With an increase in the families of the participants, the festival has diversified its activities, adapting them to visitors of various ages, and children’s care areas have appeared. The non-musical programme is also expanding. There is a crafts corner and more activities on offer (archery, weaving, textile printing, craft beer making, etc.). In this way increasingly more layers of cultural knowledge are being introduced into the microcosm of the festival, offering up various ways of deepening experience.

Musical roots and branches of Black-Horned Moon

From a musical point of view BHM remains a wide-ranging event with guests from Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Finland, France and Belarus. It’s worth mentioning at this point the criteria for choosing groups since doubts are sometimes expressed about the suitability of one or another performer in relation to the BHM concept. A difference in opinions becomes evident when evaluating the formalistic aspect of music style. The organizers say that those playing at the festival should have kept their links with their roots and their natural innate selves. This measure of evaluation is somewhat difficult to give a form to on a logical plane and for this reason the intuitive wellspring plays an active part here. Doubtless, consideration is also given to the relationship of the performers themselves with such a position and to their attitudes to the very idea of the festival.

The philosophy of guests from abroad is usually clearly in step with that of the Black-Horned Moon festival. Examples worth mentioning are: the Austrian group Allerseelen (neofolk/military pop), the Belgian Hybryds (industrial/tribal), the Russian band Moon Far Away (ethereal/neofolk), the violinist Sieben from the United Kingdom (neo-classical/ethereal), the British Sol Invictus and Fire+Ice (neofolk), etc. All these projects are connected with tradition or emphasize nature and the natural. In such a way, this ‘festival of Baltic culture’ provides an opportunity for those attending it not just to acquaint themselves with the cultural heritage of Lithuania, but also with that of other countries. The performers are often well-known names in their own specific fields. With the event growing and expanding, the organizers undertook to invite groups, whose concerts would have seemed impossible to arrange previously at the festival. A great example of that is Laibach, the provocative post-industrial group of artists from Slovenia, which appeared at the 19th BHM.

An emerging phenomenon and a wider contingent on the islands of Zarasai

Back-Horned Moon returned in 2007 with the festival this time being held on an island on Lake Zarasas. The usual structure of the event is constantly being added to with various concepts, such as eco-art (objects of ecological and land art). BHM is no longer just ‘a night of pagan arts’ put on by several like-minded people – it is now a phenomenon known both in Lithuania and abroad. The response of musicians and guests from other countries has been very positive, accentuating the uniqueness of the festival. That may be explained by the small number of events of this ideological direction abroad or the autonomy maintained over many years. What is often mentioned is the ‘the wonderful natural environment’, not forgetting the warm reception of the public. BHM has taken place in Zarasai six times and there have been similar responses from groups like Spiritual Front (Italy, neo-cabaret/neofolk), Theodor Bastard (Russia, experimental/ethno fusion), Dakha Brakha (Ukraine, who describe themselves as ethno-chaos performers), Troum (Germany, drone/ambient classics), and Changes (USA, neofolk).

With the local municipality changing the infrastructure of Lake Zarasas, the 18th Black-Horned Moon festival moved to Lake Dūburys located in the same region. It was also there that the festival, celebrating its 20th iteration, took place. Looking back at the path taken, focus was placed on the festival’s origins, the core of the event. It is interesting that the oldest participants, practically permanent ones, are representatives of niche, most unconventional musical directions – ambient, (post)industrial, drone, avant-garde, and experimental. With an ever more diverse audience and as a result the appearance of performers of ‘lighter’ or more popular music on BHM stages, it sometimes seems that the soundscape of the previously mentioned styles is becoming a separate phenomenon within the same festival. Currently, the stage perhaps the furthest removed from the main activities of the festival is dedicated to such a soundscape, considered not infrequently as ‘too weird’ by people who came to the festival later. Perhaps it is something of a paradox but it is the old guard, so to speak, who are seen to be preserving the thread that runs through the festival. In this connection we can mention here local performers like Girnų Giesmės, McKaras, Donis, Sala, Wejdas, as well as somewhat later projects like Oorchach, Driezhas, and others. The most important factor is that they are all the work of the same participants who also appeared at the ‘nights of pagan arts’.

Compact BHM gatherings in special locations

It is worth mentioning that a ‘compact’ version of the festival is held every four years, aimed at a smaller number of people, echoing the first BHM gatherings. That comparison is, of course, relative since the number of people coming even to the compact gatherings is at least a couple of thousand. However, the policy of a limited amount of tickets makes it clear that the event this time round is geared towards the keenest. The locations chosen for these compact gatherings are atypical and present greater logistical challenges.

The thirteenth BHM festival could be considered as one of the most striking gatherings. It took place in 2010 next to a geological monument of nature – the Devils Hole, not far from Aukštadvaris (Trakai district). The daring idea in advance of the event to have one of the stages in the bottom of the hole itself was in fact implemented. The music to be heard was more experimental, niche ambient/industrial, while the performers themselves called it one of the more atypical of their concert experiences. Another compact version of the festival was organized in 2014 at the Skinderiškis Dendrological Park (Kėdainiai district), notable for its specific atmosphere.

In 2018 BHM, probably the longest surviving independent festival in Lithuania, took place for the twenty-first time. The gathering yet again had a compact form. The organizers, who chose the theme of spells, announced the music performers to the audience only on their arrival at the event, in this way creating an atmosphere of secrecy. Even an article several times longer than this one would not be enough to encompass the totality of the multi-dimensional quality of the Black-Horned Moon Festival, and, to end, the only other thing to mention is that this year it took place in Žemaitija, the western part of Lithuania, in the environs of the Molavėnai burial-mound complex (Raseiniai district).

Translated from the Lithuanian by Romas Kinka

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