Edvardas ŠUMILA | Considering the Radical and Music in Uncertaint Times

When I was asked to write about and reflect on the notion of the radical, different political turmoils and scenarios were unfolding, which for someone in Vilnius at the time, felt uncanny. A plane with over one hundred passengers was hijacked and diverted to authoritarian Belarus, and a well-known activist, Roman Protasevich, was captured and reportedly tortured. Two days later Lithuania again failed to pass a law for civil partnership, especially important for the LGBTQ+ community, which would have only partially improved the issue of discrimination in the country. This is just a short glimpse into what is going on every day.

The perception of these events could have been much different for someone like me, who has spent the last few years before the pandemic in a geographically distant place and has gained a broader perspective. Yet having had to spend the last year in Lithuania has made me see how different perspectives can relate to each other as if by butterfly effect. And this makes one reflect on how some political gestures and events that seem to have a significant impact can also seem to be far away even with today’s technology and shortened mediation.

There is a type of political event that can seem distant and irrelevant but nevertheless can have substantial influence, even in a place where you would think this does not apply—not to mention how the pandemic has made us rethink things in a way that may be considered radical. And when the social and political start to call for radical thought, questions arise: how aware is art of this tendency? And is it escaping or reflecting on the radical impulse in one way or another?

The radical instantly calls for clarification of what it entails; I would like to invite the reader to give it some thought. The notion of the radical today is extremely ambivalent. It seems that the perception of the concept is twofold. One appears as extremism, in other words, ascribing to the radical a breach of norms in a somewhat destructive way—something wrongly associated with the anarchist political tradition, as well. The other perception, perhaps one that is more informed, relates to the original meaning of the word: something fundamental, pertaining to the roots (from the Latin radicalis) of the matter. In this definition, what we call ‘radical’ should have an awareness of what is below the surface as one of its goals. And when we start thinking about art in this way, we would want to rid it of any naiveté.

Nevertheless, defining the radical might be even more intricate because not all issues have clearly dissectible roots or are intertwined or intersectional. So possibly we should see the radical as having a disruptive, non-conforming quality, which would probably go along with the first criterion since anything complicit is probably careless about the source of the matter.

Further, I think there are many standpoints that could be considered radical, but aesthetically, ‘the radical’ as a concept is somewhat empty—it does not offer a normative standard. Thus, I find the notion of immanence to be one of the most truthful to what we might see as radical if I may invoke some philosophical terminology here. Immanence, understood as a no-way-out insideness, is just an acknowledgment of the limits of our mind and perception and thus offers the only and a very radically emancipatory way of thinking. This comes through the understanding that critique is a constant position to be taken and is at the core of the classical understanding of critical theory. The radical then does not stand in contrast to the world, but rather, assumes a critical attitude of it. Moreover, without an understanding of immanence, the radical could be ascribed to any unconventional viewpoint, and what seems to point to the radical changes in politics could be seen as complicity from another ideological angle, conforming to the narratives put forward by disinformation.

That being so, with the notion of immanence in mind, we could infer that art and music must be aware of the situation they are in at the moment and must question their own terms of existence. This questioning, I think, was often the case with modernist musical concepts and radical art movements, such as Dada, Situationism, and Fluxus. Followers of these movements were simultaneously questioning the political arena (sometimes even having revolutionary goals) and disrupting the traditional understanding of what should be considered an artistic practice. In a way, we have lost the utopian dimensions of this thinking because we no longer have such clear agendas and do not trust the great narratives. Yet, this has also made the second definition, the one of self-questioning, even more important. A quote from “Sentences on Musical Concept-Art” by Johannes Kreidler reads: “Music is only New Music when it raises the question: is this actually music? (Spahlinger 1992)”[1], which, as indicated, is a quote by another older-generation composer, Mathias Spahlinger, who is, of course, echoing 20th-century modernist aesthetic paradigms. Yet, today I think the qualities of self-questioning and artistic introspection remain among the most significant traits of what could be called radical—which brings us back to the etymological meaning of the word, back to its questioning of its own status, back to its “roots”.

I feel I have set quite high demands for art to be considered radical now. These criteria should be taken with a grain of salt however, especially due to the ambivalence and obscurity already mentioned. These criteria have become commonplace in the contemporary art scene but are not always present in music.

Nevertheless, I think another current has been running through Lithuanian music that could be considered as approaching the radical in a peculiar way. While it would be hard to specify examples during the long years of occupation, from the ‘80s onwards, political awareness and the tendency to question the status of artistic practice became a constant parallel to what was happening within the musical establishment.

We could refer to the boom of different festivals that started in the late ‘80s and continued through the early ‘90s. They were launched mostly by young and middle-aged composers of the time and had exclusively experimental agendas, associated themselves with the Fluxus legacy, with happenings, etc. One of the earliest was the Youth Chamber Music Days, which drew the contemporary music community and was always held in the small town of Druskininkai. Its location allowed it to avoid ‘the center’ and also allowed for experimentation and even some transgression, though it was an official festival organised by the Composers Union and the Lithuanian Conservatoire. With many shifts in concept and focus, it has retained its transgressive quality and remains the festival of the younger generations, one after the other, managing sometimes to radically rethink its purpose.

I believe that without the above-mentioned festival acting as a catalyst, occurring on the brink of the Soviet Union’s collapse and of Lithuanian emancipation, other events having radical experimentation and commitment as their primary agendas would not have sprung up. I will name just a few: Youth Art Festival (1987–1988) in Panevėžys, which later became the Musical Action Festival (1989–1997); the Free Sound Sessions in Vilnius (1987–1988); Happening Seminars in Anykščiai and Nida (notably in 1988–1990, but also in later editions); and New Music Festival in Kaunas (1988–1989). I mention these for their more ‘radical’ impulses, as opposed to the more established festivals like Gaida or Jauna Muzika, which may have seemed radically new at the time of their inception, but overall had a more conventional predisposition.

The festival culture stood in counterpoint to various other initiatives, such as theatre-like performances by the late Vidmantas Bartulis (especially his works Mein lieber Freund Beethoven and A Lesson), the Vilnius New Music Ensemble (led by Šarūnas Nakas), and many others.

The period also saw the birth of the independent music magazine Tango (1990-2002)—quite radical in its own right—which has been recently digitalised and is available through the Lithuanian Music Information Center. It was established by alternative and experimental music enthusiasts Robertas Kundrotas and Linas Vyliaudas. In addition to many known names, the magazine dug deeper and published interviews, profiles, and reviews of many then-unknown musicians and sound artists in Lithuania. This was a bold and maybe radical gesture in itself. The magazine became a symbol of radical-thinking sound practitioners, many of whom, I believe, saw it as one of the paramount inspirations. This is true especially for those from the emerging noise music scene, like members of the group naj (Darius Čiuta, Algis Mielius, and Rolandas Cikanavičius), whose album Resituation was released in the US after the band’s dissolution in 1995.

This desire for something radically new had its ups and downs and could probably be associated with various sociopolitical issues dominating the discourse. And while I do not see political tensions directly informing the contemporary music scene now, I think the change in approach is a sign of a certain awareness of these affairs and of what is going on elsewhere. Different musical developments in Europe have shifted towards a more curatorial approach to music programming, and this can be seen in Lithuania as well. The AHEAD festival, which I co-founded and directed and which is now on hiatus, had self-questioning and curatorship at the very heart of its mission. Despite the pandemic, we could see Jauna Muzika under the curation of Arturas Bumšteinas as a rethinking of the question of what does the notion of the festival entail and the Druskomanija festival, a direct inheritor of the Youth Chamber Music Days, has altered its identity several times in recent years and thus also presents sometimes indirect radical shifts.

While some of the current practices embrace the critical perspective aesthetically, some of them bring a radical awareness to themselves and enrich it with discourse. This could be said about Synaesthesis, the most prominent Lithuanian contemporary music ensemble, and their recent project Nymphology, which addressed feminist issues in the context of contemporary music composed by female composers (Juta Pranulytė, Agnė Matulevičiūtė, Monika Sokaitė) and performed by female musicians (Diemantė Merkevičiūtė, Monika Kiknadzė, Marta Finkelštein), accompanied by discussion.

Some radical themes are presented in what are seen as opera productions, for which Lithuania has become prominent in the last decade, most notably with the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion-winning opera Sun & Sea (Marina) by composer Lina Lapelytė, librettist Vaiva Grainytė, and director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė. We can look at the work as evoking the radical not by agitating but by directly embracing what is front of us. Quoting an interview with Bruno Latour: “It is so moving because we already know these things [about the anthropocene]” .[2]The text and music do not employ any harsh rhetoric but are radical in their plain straightforwardness. And there are plenty of other examples from Operomanija, an organisation responsible for many interesting productions, most of which make us question the status of opera and musical theatre itself with every staging; this questioning would fit at least some of our criteria for the radical.

There are other examples of radical reflection from other makers. For example, the choir opera Glaciers by director Kamilė Gudmonaitė, playwright Teklė Kavtaradzė, and composer Dominykas Digimas explores the so-called independent generation born in the ‘90s and its dialogue with its older and sometimes younger counterparts. By putting everything into a nuanced and intimate, as well as sometimes social and political, context, the result is a somewhat beautiful and organic unity that nevertheless leaves us uneasy.

I am consciously avoiding subsuming all recent artistic practices to the pandemic situation, which seems to be slowly drawing back but will leave a trace, though our imagination has to be pushed forward. But of course, the uncertainty of the situation gave birth not only to a new awareness and new impetuses but also to the development of alternative mediums, not to mention the spread of online concert culture. One example of an initiative born out of the pandemic situation could be Rasų radijas, which focuses on experimental sound practices and has consolidated a diverse collective of artists, curators, and organisations. Rasos, a neighbourhood in Vilnius, is home to one of the oldest cemeteries, as well as various galleries, art spaces, and studios. A variety of broadcasts, curated by Gailė Griciūtė, are aimed at different sound practices, from sound art and poetry (“Onomatopeia” by Laima Kreivytė) to audio cassette culture (“Kasečių kioskas” by Armantas Gečiauskas), to the noise phenomenon (“Krakatau” by Kristupas Gikas and Arturas Bumšteinas), and even going so far as to discuss issues of critical ecology (“Radijo pievelė” by Aušra Vismantaitė-Silva), and musical theatre (“Antistatika” presented by the above-mentioned Operomanija). While these broadcasts are not an artistic practice per se, it is an important reflective platform, which is just a fragment of the variety we might be seeing in the future.

While there are few direct reflections of the noticeably tense political climate nowadays, they should not be confused with direct political engagement, which in my view is effectively not that radical. I should also point out that probably nothing really stands as purely radical in the examples given because these are only efforts to genuinely answer the question of what the radical should be, and the inability to do so fully is what makes this issue relevant. Hence, this was more of an attempt to map the tendencies and guess where they might lead. Looking philosophically, it is just another perspective, open to criticism, yet it feels worthwhile to start thinking in terms of the radical, as tensions call for radical approaches.

[2] https://bit.ly/3si3f8H (accessed on 13 August 2021)