Juta LIUTKEVIČIŪTĖ | Say Something Differently with Marta Finkelštein

We meet at the end of June - pianist Marta Finkelstein has just defended her doctoral thesis at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre (LMTA). Shortly after our meeting, Synaesthesis, contemporary music ensemble managed by Marta, announces that it no longer has a financial basis for its continuation. The ensemble, which was founded in 2013 and awarded with national and international prizes, has been led forward by Marta through the world's contemporary music scenes since 2017, and has been successful. And what will happen now? Now it's time for Marta to take a break as a PhD student and Marta as an ensemble leader, as other energetic and idea-packed roles await her. Marta speaks about all of them with her characteristic manner – quickly, enthusiastically, discussing several aspects at once, criticizing not only the environment but also herself. There are no pauses of silence and no sighs in our conversation. It's a good thing that Marta came to the interview with a cup of iced coffee – there was so much to discuss that she wouldn't have had time to drink a warm one. 

You've said in more than one interview that your relationship with the academic community of musicians is quite strained. Both now, in Lithuania, and when you were studying in Manchester. However, you consciously choose to be part of that community. Why did you apply for a PhD, why do you need another degree?

 To be honest, I enrolled into the PhD expecting a different experience than I got. Developing Synaesthesis has always been a very solitary job, based on personal experimentation. When applying for the PhD, I wanted to reflect on what is my and the ensemble's place in the music world. I wanted to connect with others, to hear reaction to my work, to get feedback on the projects I have developed so far. Unfortunately, I also felt lonely during my PhD, as if in a vacuum, I was not a typical pianist defending a thesis, my research focus was very practical - music curation. I missed the artists' approach to what I was doing. And yet another degree gives legitimacy.

It was very difficult to do a PhD, to continue as a pianist and at the same time to lead an ensemble, a cruel schizophrenia. You start the morning as a pianist, then as a manager you answer strange emails, and in the afternoon as a student you try to think about some deep theory. The intellectual, administrative and creative load was enormous. Now I don't even know how I coped with it all. 

You say that you felt lonely when you were running Synaesthesis. From the outside, it seems that you are such a united, directed group of like-minded, supportive collective. Why the loneliness?

It's true that the members of the ensemble are all of one mindset, all open to innovation and alternatives, see music in different ways, are not radical. This is a great strength of ours. When we had to set up the organisation in 2017, and start working as an administrative unit, we tried to work together, but in the end I was in front. I started taking care of the finances, the strategies, the logistics. On stage and in rehearsals, we all met on an idea level, but when it came to planning the season, thinking about strategy and vision, it was just me and I felt lonely. 

And why did you become the person who came to the front of the ensemble?

I have an exaggerated sense of responsibility. At the time, when we talked a lot about creating an institution, everybody was in favour of it, but one lacked time, another lacked motivation, another lacked something else... But it had to be done. So I did it. Creating and developing the ensemble was a very interesting, exciting game that I took up almost fanatically. I gained a lot of experience, a lot of nuances of cultural policy, a broader view of the logic of musical organisations, audiences and funding. I lost my artistic naivety in my leadership position. If you are a responsible person, being a manager is very demanding. Now I feel that this phase is coming to an end, I don't want to be in charge anymore, I want to be more selfish.

The ensemble itself also needs a change, because there is a reason why terms of office exist. Now I feel their importance more than ever, I've started to repeat myself in the 7 years I've been in charge, and a lot of things are no longer interesting to me. I see people who have been in their seats for too long, and you can't be fresh all the time and not suffer from administrative fatigue. When you don't see the big picture anymore, when you start reacting inadequately to failures, when you look at an artist without enthusiasm - that's it, it's time to move on. I've caught it in myself, which is why I want to withdraw and concentrate on what I'm most interested in - curating music and being a pianist.

We'll talk about that shortly, but why the increased sense of responsibility?

There is a funny story. At school, I had migraines. Looking for the cause, my mother took me to Santariškės hospital to have an MRI of my head. The woman who carried out the test told my mother that some curves in my brain showed that I had an exaggerated sense of responsibility.

Wow. But maybe that's how you were brought up? Are your parents similar in this respect?
My parents are businessmen. Growing up, I always saw that they not only work hard, but also have to come up with everything themselves, discuss it, decide when to invest and when to change direction. I'm inspired by my dad, for whom work and career are a game of chance, we often talk on the phone and he's always encouraging me, inciting my ambition. Watching my parents, I understand why I was interested in becoming the head of Synaesthesis, where I got so much drive from. I can't just sit around and wait to be invited, I want to create myself. Sometimes I get angry with artists who are more passive about it. It seems to me that we can create the most interesting environments for our work ourselves.

And did your parents put you behind the piano, too?  

It's a classic Jewish family dream - the child must play something. Although my parents are businessmen, they are also very creative people, and culture in the broadest sense is important to them. My sister and I grew up around books and paintings, and were always taken to concerts and exhibitions, which is probably why we both chose art. My sister was the first to play the piano, and I was crawling around and soon showed an interest in the instrument. At first it took my mother's patience to keep me motivated, but once I learned to play, I just got excited and didn't stop.

In addition, in my family I clearly saw the difference in scale between the art and business worlds. I remember after one of the first Synaesthesis concerts, I called my dad to tell him how happy I was that we had earned 900 euros. And my dad says to me: 900 euros each? No, I said, all together… That's the difference. It motivates to look at the field of art pragmatically.

Let's go back to your many roles.  Tell me, how does the pianist Marta feel, with her PhD on the one hand and her duties as ensemble leader on the other? Does that pianist have no grudges?

I think it's only now that the pianist has started to hammer, to say wait a minute, wait a minute... And when can I play, where is my time? Although I see a lot of potential in the constraints, it's interesting to create in less-than-ideal conditions, but the inner pianist really suffered. I envy the performers who have time to discuss all the variations of playing, because I couldn't prepare well for the performances - some of my thoughts were always spinning about administrative things. There was definitely some resentment because I was creating a space for other performers to express themselves, and I didn't have time to take advantage of that myself.

Recently, Music Information Centre Lithuania invited me to go to Israel, and I made a programme for piano. We travel a lot with the ensemble, but this trip was a complete cosmos, because I was just a performer, I didn't have to worry about where to go, where the hotel was, who to arrange with, who to greet, who to take the gift to. I remember the pleasure on stage, when you can concentrate only on playing, it's such a luxury!

I hope you will have more and more of that luxury. What interests you most as a performer now? Are there directions, techniques or pieces you want to try, venues you dream of performing at?

As a pianist, I want to take a few steps back and return to the motivation that led to the fanatical desire to create an alternative. There are already a few ideas waiting in line to be implemented. Until now, some nasty bureaucratic business or a pile of e-mails has distracted me from these ideas. Ideas cannot be abandoned, as if they clog up that way. I feel that unless I implement older ideas, there is no space for new ones. For example, for several years I wanted to play a programme of works by R. Sakomoto. When he died in March this year, I realised very clearly that some inner impulses should not be postponed.

At the moment I am scrabbling programmes of solo works close to my heart, and I am returning to collaboration with my inspiring creative partner Agne Matulevičiūtė. Together we have already done the project "white keys black keys inside out" (and worked on Nymphology and Sonic Fiction projects), also discussing solo works with a few other composers with whom I am ideologically close.

I keep thinking that creative work is basically a product of imagination, curiosity and communication with other people. I want to put all three of these components on a stronger mode and see where I end up.

Do you think about the balance between solo work and being in a collective?

In a way, even soloists collaborate with others - composers, concert organizers, venue hosts, people who write about concerts. The context never comes from one person, every detail in the encounter with the audience becomes part of the music event. It's not about the lineup, it's about the people who accompany the creative idea. Whether there are fifteen people on stage or one - if you prepare for a performance with a common impulse, with the right task, everything will happen organically, both the audience and the performers will feel it. It doesn't matter to me now what lineup I'm playing in, I'm just looking forward to stimulating, creative environments.

The excitement of starting a new phase! But doesn't leaving the position of ensemble leader give you feelings of ownership? You've worked and strived so hard, it will be much easier for your successor, and you'll have to start all over again in a different field.

I don't plan to separate myself from Synaesthesis completely, I want to create music projects and perform as a pianist together. It's true that it will be easier for the new leader - the path is already paved, and in the beginning I had to explain a lot about the ensemble. But Synaesthesis is more than my ambitions. I already want other challenges, to work in collectives, to get out of lonely isolation. I'm self-critical and I'm interested to see how another person would deal with the same issues. There have been so many projects in the last 4-5 years with the ensemble, and the pace of development is so fast, that I need to stop, to understand what's going on around me and what's relevant to me.        

It's a serious task to understand what is relevant. In the calendar of events, it seems that everything is relevant - the performance of this "cult artist", and that "one time this season" concert...

Projects, projects, projects... It's scary, I see so many repetitions of themes and form. This overproduction is one of the biggest problems on the music scene. It's very bad for musicians who don't have enough time to prepare. Everybody is going through a lot of different projects. I feel this distraction in Synaesthesis. There is a lack of quality time when everybody can meet and work in peace, it's hard to coordinate everybody's schedules, let alone have quality discussions about creative activities in general. It is very frustrating. You work for half a year for one rehearsal and still somebody can't attend. I am ambitious, but such system does not allow me to realise those ambitions. I think, so why torture myself... And at the same time, how many organisations that work on such a project basis sometimes torture the audience - they have to experience so much bad, ill-considered work.

Help me understand, how do you formulate music visions? Whether it's an artistic project or an ensemble strategy. Is there a formula for what questions need to be answered? What is the balance between inner intuition, artistic ambition and global trends?

You are right, all three of these aspects are important when starting to strategise. A successful ensemble vision has to strike a balance between important formats, global trends, a focus on the work of local artists, and the need to present in Lithuania what has not yet been performed or explored in depth. But here I have a funny conclusion - if it hasn't been explored or presented, it might not be for nothing. Really relevant content is coming to people's attention through various cracks.

I don't know if I can be objective when it comes to visions, I think about how to see my ideas from aside. It's rather ugly when, in the middle of the development of an idea, you suddenly realise that, damn it, somehow things are moving in the wrong direction. But mistakes are necessary, and often difficulties lead to another idea, form, technical solutions. I often think that eras filter out the best, but they only come out under certain circumstances. Cultural cultivation cannot be focused only on a perfect result all the time, that is unrealistic. That is why unfortunate works are a very beautiful, vital thing, you just have to know how to accept them philosophically.

I'm not a dictatorial curator, I'm interested in impulses, ideological guidelines, new combinations of artists, playful rules, dialogue. I couldn't allow myself to explain to a professional in another field that he didn't get my vision, it's utterly incompatible with my approach to hierarchy in the creative process. Curating is such a delicate thing, it's very difficult to explain its processes pragmatically. I can launch from an idea, a building or a theme, but that's only a first step. Then you need space and people, well-matched artists who fill everything with their own meanings.  

There is the impression that curatorial work can be lonely... Has this theme been developed to any extent in Lithuania?

I started talking about it to everybody when I was doing my PhD, and I felt crazy because I kept hearing: no, no, Marta, you're talking about music management, why this new term of curatorship... I started to doubt myself. However during my quarantine, I saw that there was a Curating Contemporary Music programme at the (University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Northwestern Switzerland. I enrolled and started studying with a great team of teachers - festival directors and music curators from all over the world. For the first time, I felt that I had found my tribe, that I was talking and everyone understood me, even giving me advice because they had already gained experience. Whereas in Lithuania I often feel that my role is always to be unhappy, but nobody understands what is not right for me. In that course I felt that a group of like-minded people does not have to be in Lithuania.

Here I will I ask for help. So what is the difference between a manager and a curator? 

It's very interesting because the terms are really vague. On the same shelf, there is also the producer. It's all about personalities. Ana Ablamonova, the manager of Operomania, is a very inspiring example for me. She presents herself as a producer, as if to say that she does not focus on the creative process. However, she approaches the cultural field itself in such a creative way that there is a very subtle curatorial element to her work, curating creative connections and shaping the media necessary for original content to emerge.

For me, it's not the professional definition that is important, but the focus on curatorial discourse, which doesn't shy away from a political angle, critical theory, talks about the representation of different identities, themes of the climate crisis. No one questions the importance of curatorship in contemporary visual art anymore. We come to a museum and are greeted by an exhibition with its own history. Why should it be different from concerts? Concerts must also have a curator and those names must be announced so that the audience knows who is responsible for the experience.

You mentioned that music concerts should follow the example of other arts and tell a story. As a curator, where would you start with this kind of work, what is the starting point - the theme, the ensemble, the work, the performance space?

Any detail can be a starting point. Let’s say with the ensemble it was often a desire to fill in the blanks in the music sphere - issues of female representation (Nymphology), the theme of war and historically dark periods in different countries (Dark Times. Point Ones), the performativity and experiments in music (Sonic Fiction), the ecology (Forest. Sound Ecology).

But I feel that these topics don't have much impact on the music community, there is no broader institutional critique, and the topics that are important in the field of art are not interesting. I am losing any need to try to speak from an institutional perspective, because the music projects have no effect. It's better to speak through other forms - articles, conversations with colleagues.  

When I think about curating, for the time being, I want to step back from current affairs and just follow ideas, which don't have to be logical, institutionally responsible or globally relevant. I remember Šarūnas Nakas' idea in an interview about festivals. When asked why he no longer organises them, he talked about the managerial aspects that weigh down a manager and how they end up banalising one's own thinking. I have experienced that first-hand, therefore now I encourage myself not to think about productivity and relevance.

The art world is reacting to current affairs, there are many concerts, exhibitions, performances about climate, political and economic challenges, changing gender roles, generational conflicts. What happens in life happens in art. How to say something new? 

I would suggest to distinguish between two goals: to say something new and to say something in a new way. The former seems impossible to me - so much has been done and said in so many different ways, cultural content is easily accessible globally. And the second - to say something in a new way - is the goal of all those who create in the present. Here reveals why authenticity is so valued nowadays - it is the best way to find a truly comfortable creative existence, even if such openness seems a bit scary. But I remember at school I went to a screening of a film by the director Audrius Stonys, where he told a story that really stuck with me, about a director who made atypical films. When he was asked if he was afraid that nobody would go to see his films, the director replied that he was not so unique for anybody at all not to understand him.

As far as curatorial impulses and the search for them are concerned, I want to observe curators from other disciplines and experiment with different strategies in the medium of instrumental music. Storytelling is definitely one of the key starting points. The history of academic music is still told in a clichéd way, using the same stencils about heroes and brilliant opuses formed in the 19th century.

And current affairs... Today, we can no longer think outside the news, we are very much influenced by politics, pandemics, public debates, wars, fires and other things. This also determines the possibilities of interpretation, because we can't detach the work from what is happening around us. Sometimes trying to talk about the most pressing issues is misleading, because the art fades away before the real phenomenon. And there are times when a subtle work can be in the right place at the right time and become a cult piece.