Rasa MURAUSKAITĖ-JUŠKIENĖ | Universals, Heroes and Artisans: Ensembles of New Music in Lithuania
How many ensembles dedicated to modern music does Lithuania, a small nation of just under three million, have? How many does it really need? Do they thrive or just exist, and how successful are they in the search for their authentic identities and audiences? No, this article does not provide answers to these questions, it being instead just a short review of a remarkably dynamic scene accommodating a number of new music ensembles, some of them established years ago, others emerging just recently. In spite of their backgrounds, they are all special in many ways and add their own distinct contributions to the diverse concept of performance of new music in Lithuania. Below is a compilation of some quick accounts about them.
“Simply mad about Lithuanian music,” reads the title, originally in Lithuanian, of one of the articles in a 2019 book published for the 25th anniversary of this Vilnius-based orchestra. It was established in 1994 by Donatas Katkus, a musicologist, conductor and violist, who has dedicated most of his life to promoting Lithuanian music, particularly with the help of the orchestra he led for a quarter of a century. For the orchestra, therefore, a love for new music eventually became part of its DNA, a tradition that its new artistic director, Modestas Barkauskas, continues to foster by including contemporary pieces by both Lithuanian and foreign composers in the repertoire.
In a way, the St Christopher Chamber Orchestra is universal as its concert programmes often feature diverse music. It should be noted that initially it was mainly interested in baroque music and only later the performance of new pieces by Lithuanian composers became an integral part of the orchestra’s everyday life. It was this orchestra that played for the first time a lot of music written by Lithuania’s major composers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, such as Bronius Kutavičius, Osvaldas Balakauskas, Feliksas Bajoras, Algirdas Martinaitis, Onutė Narbutaitė, and Raminta Šerkšnytė. On several occasions, it was Katkus himself who asked the composers to write something new for his collective.
Eventually he started dealing with the Department of Composition at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre directly, an initiative that marked an important breakthrough in the orchestra’s tradition it has been following ever since by performing students’ graduation pieces. For these young composers, this usually turns into their first chance to write orchestral music on a professional level. Interestingly, some of these early efforts have proven to be remarkably successful. They mark a breakthrough not only in the individual biography of a composer but also on a broader scale, one example being De Profundis by Raminta Šerkšnytė, now one of the internationally best-known orchestral pieces by a Lithuanian composer. The St Christopher Chamber Orchestra is a proud first-time performer of the work.
After quitting as artistic director in 2018, Katkus handed the orchestra over to Barkauskas, who has largely followed in his predecessor’s footsteps, at least as far as new music is concerned. In addition to premiere performances of new pieces, the orchestra has launched an international competition for composers and has played a number of concerts featuring new music from abroad, including Poland and as far afield as Oman and Japan. It is important to note that the new compositions often become part of the orchestra’s diverse programmes, appearing next to classical, baroque and romantic music, something that saves the just-written pieces from falling into oblivion after the debut performance.
Apart from that, the St Christopher Chamber Orchestra also sees its mission as bringing to the stage music composed by the more senior generation of Lithuanian composers who often receive less attention from the more recently established ensembles, many of which, comprised of young instrumentalists, prefer music written by their peers to the “living classics”. The orchestra’s close ties and remarkably fruitful cooperation with some of the country’s most renowned composers was revealed in the aforementioned book.
“The St Christopher Chamber Orchestra has contributed very substantially to my music, something I am very grateful for,” said Bronius Kutavičius.
“Even leaving aside the premieres, the performances of student pieces, the Druskomanija Festival and other youthful initiatives, a huge amount of orchestral music written by Lithuanian composers wouldn’t have surfaced over the last two decades were it not for the St Christopher Orchestra, which has saved many pieces from being buried inside drawers,” Onutė Nartutaitė wrote for the book. “This is particularly true speaking of my own music.”
Since Lithuania’s regained independence in 1990, the nation has seen the birth of a number of ensembles committed to new music. Some have left their names in the history of Lithuanian music, mainly through the debut performances of breakthrough pieces. Only a few of them have survived, though, one such example being the Chordos String Quartet founded in 1997.
Very few ensembles enjoy the luxury of being able to focus solely on new music, and that was even less likely at the turn of the century. In its early years, Chordos played diverse programmes while gradually turning to new music and becoming one of its most professional and devoted performers in Lithuania. The fact that two members of the ensemble, lead violinist Ieva Sipaitytė and violist Robertas Bliškevičius, have been with Chordos since its very first days, has contributed to the group’s consistency. The second violin, Vaida Paukštienė, has been with the ensemble for more than ten years, while the newest member of the group, cellist Arnas Kmieliauskas, joined in 2020.
In the last few years, Chordos has apparently acquired a second wind. Recently it has been presenting several new programmes each year in an evident contrast to their earlier convention of playing new music on just a few occasions each season, including the Gaida Festival and other regular events. This helps the ensemble to draw in more listeners around themselves and, even more importantly, in adjusting to the standards of present-day communication, which calls for the active use of social networking and eye-catching visuals.
Like Lithuania’s other new music ensembles that have been active for a couple of decades or so, Chordos has put considerable emphasis in its programmes both on the newest music and on pieces that have already become the country’s academic classics. In a recent radio interview for the 25th birthday of Chordos, its members spoke of their unwavering stance aimed at being able to choose among as many composers as possible in order to avoid becoming the ambassadors of just a few of them and, consequently, to remain open to all music. Even a quick visit to their website reveals an amazingly diverse list of music. Those fond of statistics can count that Chordos has played quartets by 73 Lithuanian and 56 foreign composers, and in reality these numbers are even higher.
An association-like body rather than a band, the Lithuanian Ensemble Network may be termed a musical phenomenon that has withstood the test of time by becoming an integral part of the local new music scene. As an organisation for different instrumentalists, the LEN is remarkably flexible and famous for its particular attention to craftsmanship. Its main tasks are the promotion of Lithuanian music abroad and the introduction of foreign composers to domestic audiences, and it achieves these aims like no other. Very often it works with fairly radical artists who, in the constant search for new ideas, stick to their avant-garde standpoints and refuse to obey the dictates of the public as far as artistic taste is concerned.
The LEN’s mission, according to its founder and manager Vykintas Baltakas, lies in gathering individual performers and ensembles to form bigger groups, even a chamber orchestra on certain occasions, capable of bringing to life larger-scale music initiatives.
“Our aim is to unlock opportunities for all those who have similar ideas concerning new music and apprehend its specific features and peculiarities of performance,” explained Baltakas, a composer and conductor himself, in a 2014 interview to the magazine Muzikos Barai. “Secondly, we want them to perform the newest commissions in Lithuania and beyond. Last but clearly not least, we want to help raise a new generation of composers, performers and concertgoers capable of grasping new music in the vein of creativity and assessing it in a professional way.”
As far as the LEN’s operational principles are concerned, they reflect, at least in part, those of its originator, Vykintas Baltakas, a well-known figure on the international stage. By making use of his broad spectre of friends and collaborators around the world, he puts the LEN behind innovative projects that stand out for their conceptuality and sometimes bring both the performers and technology to the limit.
In terms of the use of innovative technology, two of the LEN’s recent projects are worth mentioning, the virtual orchestra (2018) and the speakers’ orchestra (2021). A retrospective programme reflecting the work of composer Osvaldas Balakauskas, which premiered during the Vilnius Festival in 2017, stands out in the context of live performance in new Lithuanian music.
Although its projects are far from regular, the organisation always emphasises quality and offers intriguing programmes. Often it resorts to some kind of provocation to show it wants to counter the prevailing trends in modern music. The compositions the LEN presents often are difficult to grasp, but you always feel intrigued at least to try and listen to them.
The news that Vilnius might soon see a brand-new ensemble committed to modern music caused a considerable fuss among local musicians almost a decade ago. The premier performance of Synaesthesis, quite predictably, remained a hot topic of discussion for weeks on end.
It was in 2013 that conductor Karolis Variakojis and composer Dominykas Digimas came up with the idea of bringing together several musicians interested in playing new music. Since the very first days, Synaesthesis was an ensemble of changing formation yet stable musical orientation. It has been attracting ever since scores of listeners, young and modern people engrossed in cultural life. Its concerts, featuring plenty of minimalist, post-minimalist and post-modernist music, including pieces by ascending Lithuanian composers, have always enjoyed great interest, partly due to their spirit of freedom, specific energy, and ingenious visualisation.
With the arrival of Marta Finkelštein, the pianist and artistic director, Synaesthesis got a fresh boost thanks to her interest in modern trends in curatorship leading to the group’s broader profile aimed at greater conceptuality. Governed by democratic principles, the ensemble often relies on commonly accepted decisions and encourages various creative ideas, especially those requiring smaller formations.
Despite the pandemic that raged from early 2020, Synaesthesis embarked on a period of significant success that has lasted for more than two years. In November 2020, it was awarded the Ensemble Prize by the Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation in Germany. Prior to that, it was named the Vilnius City Ensemble by the municipality. This recognition both at home and abroad has affirmed the group’s leading position within the Lithuanian new music scene, a fact that signifies a certain breakthrough not only for the ensemble itself but also for the entire field of modern music in Lithuania in that it is gradually emerging from its tiny niche to become something that is capable of intriguing, appealing and, sometimes, even being somewhat trendy.
Leading the breakthrough, Synaesthesis is not afraid of taking risks. In 2021, the ensemble played at Midsummer Vilnius, an upscale traditional festival rarely associated with contemporary music, in an attempt to show just what this mysterious “new academic music” is.
Regardless of the wave of success, Synaesthesis remains faithful to conceptual ideas and the search for good music. Recently, it took part in several remarkable projects driven by the ideas of conceptuality and close cooperation with composers. Miške. Garso ekologija (In the forest. Ecology of Sound) explores human ties with nature through music. Nymphology was meant to discuss forms of femininity. Why Does This Appear? is a unique silent film that also employs the musicians as actors. Posh Underground Workers is one of the ensemble’s longest-living programmes which, in an attempt to forget the pandemic, has been transformed into a film showing the group’s live performance at a long-abandoned sports and concert venue in Vilnius, flooded for that occasion with sound and light. The film was later broadcast by state TV.
Cool People Playing Strange Music is the title of yet another programme. Most probably, this is what the ensemble really is, a group of cool people playing strange music.
Lithuanian Music Link carried in 2021 an article, Talented, Bold and Stylish Lithuanian Contemporary Music, about a duet established by a brother and a sister, yet another Lithuanian success story as far as new music is concerned. Violinist Lora Kmieliauskaitė and cellist Arnas Kmieliauskas, known as Twenty Fingers Duo and widely regarded being among the country’s most gifted instrumentalists of their generation, have been radiating an unmistakable energy born out of their kinship and unreserved artistic passion that allows no compromises.
It is their active involvement in the creative process that best defines their identity. Twenty Fingers Duo has, at least until now, mostly played music by Lithuania’s young composers. In addition to that, the siblings approach composers with their own ideas and sometimes even take part in the creative processes themselves. The duo represents the youngest generation of Lithuanian ensembles who no longer observe the seemingly strict border separating composers and performers, with the latter no longer wanting to be mere interpreters of music – they want to become co-composers too.
The most ripened fruits of Lora and Arnas’s musical work have been stored in the form of two recordings. A debut album, Performa, offers their audio-visual project based on the music of six Lithuanian composers. The second, Dualitas, features pieces by two very different young composers, Rita Mačiliūnaitė and Kristupas Bubnelis. It’s worth mentioning that the duo continues performing and promoting both programmes.
It took a relatively short time for Twenty Fingers Duo to bring together a considerable fanbase many of whom wouldn’t necessarily call themselves aficionados of academic music. Concertgoers find Lora and Arnas appealing not only for their innovative programmes but also for their friendly communication and focus on interdisciplinary collaboration. In 2021, the duo took part in Toks jausmas, tartum važiuočiau namo (Feels Like Going Home), an audio-visual installation inside a tiny beekeeper’s shed, and is ready to join other creative initiatives aimed at combining diverse artforms.
The all-female vocal ensemble Melos vowed to sustain its tradition of performing new vocal music in Lithuania soon after its debut in 2016. Initially, the group brought together a handful of former singers of the Vilnius-based Liepaitės Girls Choir and was led by Jolita Vaitkevičienė, the artistic director of the collective, and later by Dalia Krapavickaitė, a former member.
After a short break due to organisational changes, the ensemble has been remarkably active on the local scene recently. Unlike many other vocal groups, Melos sees new music as its primary field of artistic expression which includes innovative experiments, new vocal techniques, and involvement in the process of music writing.
For a certain period, Melos was curated by composer Juta Pranulytė. Simultaneously, the ensemble made friends with her more senior colleague Rytis Mažulis whose many vocal works had been more or less forgotten. Melos has sung a number of his older and brand-new pieces ever since. More than that, Mažulis’s music has become one of the distinctive centrepieces in the ensemble’s recent biography. Observed from a broader perspective, the group seems to be particularly fond of singing minimalist and post-minimalist music, evidence for that being the 2020 debut album Minimal Voices, which features compositions by Mažulis and three of his younger colleagues, Agnė Mažulienė, Karolina Kapustaitė and Dominykas Digimas.
More recently, one of Melos’ members, Karolina Macytė, has taken over as artistic director. The group’s key focus in music remains unchanged, though, as Melos takes part in performative actions and unconventional projects linking composers and sound artists. In December 2021, Melos presented Listening Stock, a joint project with one of Lithuania’s leading sound artists, Arturas Bumšteinas.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the ensemble made its voice against it heard – literally – by reviving AAA-AAA, the 1978 aggression-and-yelling performance by Marina Abramovic, the world-famous Serbian-born conceptual artist.
Melos has made a name for itself within the new-music niche in Lithuania but remains ready for new ideas and challenges in exploring the limits of the human voice, a path that could lead to some exciting discoveries.
Perhaps it was the success stories of certain new music ensembles, or maybe a display of contempt toward them, and most likely an expression of love for modern music that have prompted the birth of a number of ensembles in Lithuania committed to new music set up by representatives of the youngest generation of musicians, most of them still students. While the pandemic thwarted their enthusiasm somewhat, it was unable to annihilate their desire to speak to the world – through music.
Fluorescence, launched in September 2020 by composer Beata Juchnevič, is one such new initiative. Led by her conspicuous personality, and despite the frostiness of the pandemic, the ensemble has since taken part in two festivals, Muzika Erdvėje (Music in Space) and Druskomanija, and released a debut album, Dream, in spring 2022.
Fluorescence, according to Beata, has come into existence to help Lithuania’s youngest composers, many of whom are at the starting point of their careers and rarely attract the attention of the nation’s “grand ensembles”. They learn and sometimes make mistakes, just like Fluorescence, but the key thing is that together they form a safe space where all kinds of creative ideas might be tested. One should not, therefore, be surprised to find out that all the names in Fluorescence’s concert programmes are unfamiliar; somemay become prominent a little later.
Established in 2019, Artisans is yet another new music ensemble launched by composers and instrumentalists studying at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. By now, the group has become known not only for the music it plays but also for its members’ delicious irony and humour. This permeates all of Artisans’ concerts, often laden with elements of performance art.
“We are not a successful ensemble, and we stress this,” the members of the group said in their first-ever interview for the Music Information Centre Lithuania, revealing, among other things, their hearty self-criticism.
The ensemble follows the trend of blurring the boundaries that separate genres and styles and treats some popular topics, such as social responsibility and project-based thinking, with bittersweet irony while maintaining its openness to conceptuality.
Very much like Fluorescence, which focuses mainly on music written by its members and peers, Artisans primarily looks at its own generation. Its debut album, Paribys (Fringe), is nevertheless the result of a collaboration with scientists. Artisans also plays music by Lithuanian composers representing mature generations, such as Ričardas Kabelis and Rūta Vitkauskaitė. In addition, the group sometimes includes pieces by foreign composers in their programmes.
“We are like pendulums showing existential exaltation that reaches the definition of anxiety by Kierkegaard,” the members of Artisans said in another interview.
They are amusing, ironic and, apparently, aware of their goals.