Contemporary Lithuanian folklore, post-modern in many of its features, manifests itself in a number of ways and through diverse stylistic patterns as part of new music ranging from pop to experimental to nonconventional. As far as musical contexts are concerned, Lithuanian traditional culture usually – and most recognisably – shows itself through folk songs which, used whole or as excerpts, interact in many ways with the structure and content of modern music. This time, though, I would like to uncover the rarer creative layers that usually won’t show instantly.
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One of the ways in which traditional culture enters modern music is through poetic or literary texts, which by no means implies that their links with Lithuanian traditional culture can be easily recognised. Being part of post-modern folklore, they reveal themselves through their matrix of Lithuanian (or Baltic) symbols that become evident only through the analysis of more than one musical piece by the same composer. The texts are applicable to diverse musical styles, while the sound of the Lithuanian language can become a novel and unexpected audio experience for non-speakers. (Online tools are available for those who might want to translate them.) Let’s look at several composers using original literary texts laden with Lithuanian traditions.
Raguvos, a band set up in 2015, launched their debut album Pulsacija (Pulsation) in 2021. According to cultural commentator Domantas Razauskas, the lively wholeness of their musical ideas often fails description. “Outlining or branding their work is a rather tough task. You may be tempted to mark them with a label like experimental post-industrial music or shamanic electronic music or psychedelic tribal folklore, and yet of all these characteristics are, at most, just signposts along the band’s remarkably adventurous musical journey.”
Their electronic music, based on collective pulsation, involves Celtic harp, cello, trombone, Ingula Rinkevičienė’s voice, and lyrics by female poets, one of them being Jurgita Jasponytė, who displays the whole range of Lithuanian and Baltic symbols in her text for Žalčio Močia (Mother of Grass Snake): Ursa Major, Orion’s Belt, Pleiades, a grass snake and his mother. Next to them, tribal images appear (the drawing of an arrow), some of them reflecting the poet’s wish to belong there (the piercing of a stone, memory and idea), others pointing to ever-present links with nature (the thunderbolts, in this case named using a word from a regional dialect; the easily recognisable celestial bodies; the perfectly arranged garden; the mist-covered forest; the Holy Lake, mother of the grass snake crosses). On more general terms, the observation of ties with nature is a key, if not immediately evident, motif in modern folk music based on original texts.
Povilas Vaitkevičius, known by his moniker Vilkduja (the ancient Lithuanian word for gloom), offers a collection of experimental psychedelic music he usually performs in a remarkably expressive manner. His own texts abound with mytho-poetic images the exploration of which resulted in a master’s thesis for culturologist Šarūnas Šimkus, who singled out a number of imagery groups ranging from celestial symbols (e.g., the eroticism of the skies), diverse appearances of the sun (gold, metallic, black, made of bread, etc.) and down to trembling stars, nightly fruit, rutting animals, and other creatures such as cloud fish, blossoming cats, and the nine devils. After discussing the texts in the first part of his work, Šimkus then gets down to the music, analysis of which includes some remarkably insightful observations.
“Erotic, dynamic, vital and sensual aspects of this music,” he writes, “convey an archaic energetic experience of sanctity. Mythopoetic and paradoxical nature and the abundance of trickster-ish figures in the texts by Vilkduja offer an opportunity to speak about the conjunction of oppositions and the seeking of the Self, described by Carl Gustav Jung as a surplus of libidic energy.”
As far as the original song texts are concerned, their close links with traditional culture is evident in the fact that they all are exclusively in Lithuanian. (I would not dare to assert that Lithuanian authors never use Lithuanian symbols in their English-language texts, but I have yet to come across one.)
Sometimes the ties with traditional culture manifest themselves even more profoundly, as the example of Rokas Kašėta, a young independent musician, shows. Since moving to a small village in southern Lithuania, he has used the local dialect for his lyrics and usually speaks and writes it every day, including his social networking online. His album Dzūkodelika (2022) is a clever combination of Dzūkija, the name of the region, and the Lithuanian word for “psychedelic”. Rokas and his wife Eglė, who live in an old wooden house in a village surrounded by forests, have been keen participants of cultural events celebrating local traditions. His music, unsurprisingly, conveys many of their daily experiences.
“Tradition is a link,” Rokas said in a TV interview. “Traditional ornaments have been created by many generations. Looking from a distance and from higher above, you might notice both the ornaments and the generations. Should we abandon them altogether? It feels good to join them and continue, to be part of this land’s ornamentation and carry on.”
Tokį Rytų (Such a Morning), a song by Rokas Kašėta written to the lyrics – in the local dialect – by poet Romas Sadauskas, is highly recommended as an entry point for those wishing to discover his music.
Although Rokas Kašėta is one of very few songwriters using texts in local dialects, some of his peers have enjoyed instant popularity. Austieja, who sings in the Samogitian dialect of western Lithuania, released in 2020 the song titled ŽGŽ which, reminiscent of Katie Melua in its atmospheric feel, has been heard over one million times on YouTube. Her soft and naturally persuasive voice, accompanied by piano, offers an exclusive experience.
Musicians often maintain that singing in the mother tongue, let alone a dialect, might reduce the number of listeners and the music’s commercial success. One should not forget, though, that for a listener from a different linguistic system, an unfamiliar language offers new and unexpected experiences and is just what someone from the English-language-dominated expanses might be longing for.
Writing music, after all, is a playful undertaking, the aspect certain composers emphasise. For more conservative folks, traditional music is often a kind of heritage that should always remain in its primeval forms and untouched. They consider any improvisation, even a delicate one, that builds a link with the global culture entirely unacceptable. Most folk music performers and scholars, however, agree that tradition should be given a chance to alter in order to survive and flourish in many different forms.
Genre-wise, Lithuania now has only one performer, Lukas Šidlauskas, aka Šventinis Bankuchenas (Celebration Cake), who writes pieces of brainy musical humour. Lukas has become famous for his creative irony aimed at the whole range of absurdities of our daily lives, but in our context it is his project touching on Lithuanian traditional culture that is most relevant. Titled Nykstančių Liaudies Dainų Rinkinys (A Collection of Vanishing Folk Songs), it is based on ingenious improvisations apparently using traditional styles and genres borrowed from folk music. He uses his own texts, sometimes intentionally overloaded with diminutives, to mock and make jokes. Thematically, his texts have nothing in common with folk songs, yet for a listener who doesn’t speak Lithuanian they might sound like one of Lithuania’s traditional tunes, though their texts refer to cryptocurrencies and offices. Here, folklore serves as an open form for improvisation on present-day culture, including ordinary people’s routines and important news. Šidlauskas does this by highlighting dominant stereotypes, mundane skirmishes, and social roles. Folklore, it is important to stress, is a tool for irony rather than its target. The undertaking has been finalised by publishing a collection of Lukas’s songs complete with their music and texts.
Most of the world’s musical instruments belong to more than one nation and can usually be found in several neighbouring cultures. Some instruments, however, reflect just one particular culture, the representatives of which used to play the instrument for their rites, celebrations and other occasions. The Lithuanian kanklės, reminiscent of a zither, has recently become a popular performance instrument played by local musicians, who have released a number of albums in the last few years.
Jausmė, known for her folk, soul and minimal music, links up vibrant singing, a rich voice and recorded natural sounds with poetic texts on her album Namolio (Homeward, 2021). Each of her pieces reveals different tinges of kanklės through alternating rhythms and colours. Her professional, nuanced and playful performance is a pleasure for any listener. Unsurprisingly, the album took first prize at Novus, a national competition for emerging bands. Apart from kanklės, Jausmė builds ties with the Baltic tradition through her lyrics laden with images of home and nature.
In Lina Žilinskaitė’s music, sustained atmospheric sounds are combined with those produced by various instruments, such as the kantele, zither, kalimba, and glass harmonica, all entering in sequence. Her voice joins the overall wavy atmosphere softly and delicately. During live performances, very often Lina asks the sound engineers to place her voice “deeper” in order to arrange a harmonious sphere of sound. Her album Linai (Flax, 2021) is worth mentioning clearly not only for its title directly linked with nature and Lithuanian traditional culture.
Singer and kanklės player Agota Zdanavičiūtė released in 2021 an album titled Kur Giria Užėjo (Where Forests Have Come To) inspired by fairy tales told by Eugenija Šimkūnaitė, by far the nation’s the most eminent academic ethnographer and an authority in herbal medicine.
“Agota has followed Eugenija Šimkūnaitė’s paths in the forest moss with tender attention. She has recorded original compositions using just her voice and her beloved traditional Lithuanian string instrument, kanklės” (Bandcamp).
Here’s what Agota herself says about her music: “While delving ever deeper into our traditions and folklore, I have discovered a lot of what I now use as a singer and composer. All this, however, reveals itself in my most recent work mostly as a heritage of traditional music rather than directly through the songs.”
She likes to add a personal touch – literally – to each and every copy of her albums by inserting into a purpose-made pocket what she terms “the blessing of nature”, always different: a bit of bark, a tiny dried plant. The album features a lot of natural sounds collected, just like the plants, by Agota. But why has she chosen kanklės among the many other folk instruments?
“I grab my kanklės whenever I feel low, because playing the instrument soothes, balances and comforts me,” she says. “Once I played alone inside a huge empty space and my ears, apparently, caught other players’ sounds. Kankės, I believe, bears some mystery. I am sure I deepen the ties with my ancestors through playing, and yet I never attribute specific spirituality to kanklės in my music. This is my instrument. I know how to deal with it and am tempted to experiment in order to explore it and discover new ways of playing it, all this meaning new challenges to myself. On a personal level, kanklės is an instrument for therapy, while in making music it offers vast opportunities.”
Klajojančios Kanklės (Wandering Zithers) is an important and yet little-known album curated by Agota, a compilation of eleven songs revealing diverse creative relations between composers, performers and kanklės. Eleven musicians, including Algirdas Klova, Daiva Vyčinienė, Evaldas Vyčinas, Gediminas Žilys, Vėtra Trinkūnaitė, and Donis, all perform pieces featuring kanklės and showcase the instrument’s possible roles in today’s music. The album reveals their changing relationship with traditional culture and global context, primarily through the intervals and modal movements that reflect modern or ancient culture depending on the musical context.
Yet one more way, if far from obvious, for Lithuanian culture to become part of new music is through open-air recordings made in nature or urban areas. The recordings sometimes undergo significant modification and become unrecognisable. Audrius Šimkūnas, known as SALA, is a remarkably original composer who experiments with field recordings and uses them in his pieces. The making of his 25-minute Ordo Chiroptea required specific microphones and sound recorders, and even bat detectors. In a 2016 interview with Jurij Dobriakov, he said: “For me, native spirits dwell inside that particular location. This requires certain psycho-geographical knowledge. […] Generalising the mutations of cultural and musical expression is difficult, although on a personal level I have travelled all the way from exhibitionistic pagan black metal to isolationistic drone and listening to bent grass in the wind. The forms of transmission might change, but the essence remains almost the same. This is reminiscent of intimate rituals, the acceptance of the talisman, and the marking of territory that does not exist on the map.”
Through their music, Audrius Šimkūnas and his peers offer – however indirectly – to their listeners, and indeed to analysts of Lithuanian culture, a challenge of re-thinking its essential traits by placing it in line with today’s global music and urban culture. The project by Donatas Bielkauskas titled Mirštantis. Miestas. Gyvenimui (Dying. City. For Living) is a nice example of how present-day urban soundscapes become aural experiences.
“A conceptual album exploring the ecological connections of an industrial seaport city and the natural environment of its residents [...]. One [disc] presents recordings of Klaipėda’s industrial area with dark electronics; another ushers in brighter ethno-ambient soundscapes.” (Bandcamp)
The online project also offers an option, by clicking a link, to merge the two parts which then become a single piece. This, according to Donatas, underscores the interaction between the industrial and natural environment, implying they can coexist.
“While performing in Klaipėda and Kaunas, we stuck to the main concept of the project,” wrote Jurga Petronytė in an interview with Donatas Bielkauskas. “Listeners were free to choose the area and, consequently, the type of sounds to listen to. In one area, soft atmospheric music was dominant, while in another industrial noise prevailed. […] The main idea was to provoke a dialogue by artistic means. We wanted to speak about ecology, the importance of forests next to the sea, the cleaner air, the solid particles, and urban noise which for some surprising reason is not among the statistics determining the ecological ranking of an area, even though noise pollution, clearly, is just as important as any other type of pollution.”
The subject of sound ecology has also been important for Dominykas Digimas who explores it in his compositions and interviews.
“Certain practices related to the ecology of sound have always been with me as one of my favourite hobbies,” he said. “Most recently, I have seen them from a composer’s perspective. I record ambient sounds and, by delving into the natural rhythms within urban soundscapes, I try to establish the human impact on their changing patterns.”
Dominykas says he usually ponders separate sound layers and their interactions rather than the main theme and how it should be developed.
“I like creating sound textures of varying density and intensity,” he notes. “It’s probably these that help me paint a picture that’s fairly static and yet lively.”
For him, relationship is the keyword that helps him unlock additional layers of experience in music-making. The sounds of his domestic present-day environments, already captured and accepted by him, can usually be heard through diverse relationships, only this time expressed by instruments rather than by means of field recording.
Curiously enough, Dominykas organises walking tours that help the participants listen to sounds our ears usually miss. His music, it has to be said, barely qualifies to the category of post-modernistic folklore. The method he uses to observe the surrounding environment turns into a remarkably conscious effort that inspires contemporary academic music.
This time, we’ve taken a brief look at Lithuanian traditional culture, not always easily recognisable in contemporary music, and its manifestations through song lyrics and poetic texts, the use of instruments, and other layers of sound. Although the article mentions just a handful of musicians interested in the field, their works serve as examples reflecting other potential methods of integrating Lithuanian traditional culture and worldviews into new music. All the works mentioned above also reflect the musicians’ remarkably conscious relationship with their culture, the places they live in, and their personal experiences. Most of them, it has to be stressed, have revealed not only vitally important critical thinking but also courage in relying on their own intuition and freedom of artistic expression.
Bielkauskas, Donatas, 2021. Mirštantis. Miestas. Gyvenimui. (2 CDs), https://dangus-pro.bandcamp.com/album/mir-tantis-miestas-gyvenimui
Dobriakov, Jurij, 2016. Archajiška industrija, LMIC, https://www.mic.lt/lt/diskursai/lietuvos-muzikos-link/nr-19-2016-sausis-gruodis/jurij-dobriakov-archajiska-industrija/
Interview with Rokas Kašėta and Eglė Kašėtienė, 2022, https://www.lrt.lt/naujienos/gyvenimas/13/1737172/pirkioje-gyvenantys-kasetos-dzukisku-tradiciju-puoseletojai-dainuoja-audzia-o-tarmiskai-kalbeti-ismoko-is-babu
Kašėta, Rokas, 2022: Dzūkodelika (CD, MC), https://rokaskaseta.bandcamp.com/album/dz-kodelika
Paltanavičiūtė, Justina, 2020. Įsiklausyti į aplinką: kitoks Dominyko Digimo laiko pojūtis, LMIC, https://www.mic.lt/lt/ivykiai/2020/05/14/isiklausyti-i-aplinka-kitoks-dominyko-digimo-laiko/
Petronytė, Jurga, 2021. Muzika, kuri kviečia dialogo apie ekologiją ir progresą, apie mirtį ir gyvenimą..., Vakarų ekspresas, https://ve.lt/gyvenimas/kultura/muzika-kuri-kviecia-dialogo-apie-ekologija-ir-progresa-apie-mirti-ir-gyvenima?fbclid=IwAR3Zi_EPnmxmtjGrnAu2Qu9rVHg22h_2iXyKASPyXLLlu8IDiURSvUrLHac
Razauskas, Domantas, 2021. Pakartot. „Raguvų“ gyslose pulsuojantis kraujas, LRT, https://www.lrt.lt/mediateka/irasas/2000147116/pakartot-raguvu-gyslose-pulsuojantis-kraujas
Šimkus, Šarūnas, 2020. Mitopoetiniai vaizdiniai ,,Vilkdujos“ dainose, magistro darbas, Šiaulių universitetas, https://www.academia.edu/43368343/Mitopoetiniai_vaizdiniai_Vilkdujos_dainose