Remigijus Merkelys: Fiery Music Sparked by Rational Impulses

Remigijus Merkelys (b. 1964), like many colleagues of his generation inclined to radical experiments, puts his faith mostly in rational methods of composing. In over 15 years, he has more than once tried to change or transgress what had become identified as unmistakably his style of writing. As a result, he has usually constructed either complex, or deliberately stripped-down structures. Perhaps this is why critics often tag the composer as a constructivist, which bothers him not in the least, for he is clearly more interested in how, "without hiding behind modernist clichés, to search for and find new profound energy for musical ideas".

photo: Arūnas Baltėnas

From the very beginning, Merkelys was intrigued to fill certain nichés with his own music. One such ill-provided niché in the context of contemporary Lithuanian music, according to the composer, was articulatory and expressive possibilities of voice as "the least developed of instruments" - which he explored in his early choral compositions (Iter Balticum, 1990, Liber..., 1991, Missa l'homme armé, 1991). A list of his later works features a growing number of instrumental pieces - studies in 'physical and metaphysical space' in earlier works, and manifestations of new pulsating energy in more recent ones (Echosonata, 1988, IMPulse, 1996, Gemma, 1999). Creativity, for Merkelys, remains integrally linked to challenging himself, to risk-taking, and the excitement of seeking new solutions which are constantly ignited by a desire "to discover and 'bring into play' a certain tension, or some special nerve in a work". Merkelys: "Lately I've been trying once again to discover new ways, by using elements of natural harmonic series, and by writing more virtuosic parts for the performers - ones which permit more interesting forms of movement and sound, or which inspire other creative solutions overall. Alongside things like energy and spatiality, I'm now interested in both an extremely complex, as well as effective, language of music."

Such is the orientation of one of Merkelys' latest compositions, Seventh Heaven for two pianos and orchestra, performed for the first time at last year's Gaida Festival. This work - taking into account its attempt to reject traditionality and the reproduction of worn-out ideas - was acknowledged in Lithuania as the year's best orchestral composition.

The expression 'seventh heaven' refers here to the multi-dimensional structure of the composition’s spatial and acoustic spheres, combined with the extraordinary feeling of joy, good fortune and satisfaction which shines through the density of timbre effects (including a totally unexpected glisssandi of the vitaphone's sine wave tones) and firmly geared rhythms. The 'atmospheric' nature of this work is strengthened by cycles of sustained and 'extinguishing' sounds, which end in tutti culminations signalled by the strokes of the bass drum - like discharges of lightning after an electrified quiet. The composer likes to play with words and their meaning (as in the following titles: Axis Tension, TroPia, Politophonia), as well as with the sound vocabulary of his own compositions. He finds his initial impulses in rationally formed structures and more or less developed sound formulas, which in the process of composing are split, cut and pasted, only to be taken apart and constructed anew - like sound anagrams - until some unexpected turn in the meaning, or more unheard of combination of sounds and rhythms, emerges.

His frenzied MiKonst for piano and string quartet, which won first prize at the 2000 Composition Competition dedicated to the 125th Anniversary of Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, is brimming with such a multi-faceted play of sounds. It is, one could say, a 'concept composition' - and its concept is, at the very least, thrice programmed in its very title: first, as a dedication to Čiurlionis (an abbreviation of his first and middle names); second, in the constantly repeated fundamental sound – mi const.; and third, as 'my art' (in Swedish - min konst), created on the basis of Čiurlionis' music.

"...The spirit of the art of Čiurlionis transmigrated into the structure of mechanized music. Merkelys' use of Steve Reich's phase loops technique created a strange illusion of condensed and expanded time. Repeatedly arising out of the structure of coarse harmonies are the first sounds of Čiurlionis' String Quartet, and various fragments of other broken off melodies... Dynamics? Perhaps this is simply a constructive development of the force and tension of numerus sonorus", wrote reviewer Rita Malikonytė-Mockienė after the final Čiurlionis memorial concert in the Reinberger chamber hall of Cleveland's famous Severance Hall. The Plain Dealer reviewer Donald Rosenberg then described it in words which appear with increasing rarity in reviews of new music – i.e., "a most contemporary-sounding work".

It is precisely the nurturing of contemporary, as yet unperformed music in his own homeland, that Remigijus Merkelys has been focusing on for more than a decade. In 1989, he formed the Jauna muzika choir, one of the first to offer a truly professional rendition of a more current repertoire. Several years later (1992), he began to organize a festival by the same name, which was primarily dedicated to creative experiments by the younger generation. His biography also includes leading the third, classical music program, on Lithuanian Radio. Since 1998, the composer has been successfully heading one of the country's most solid contemporary music events - the annual Gaida Festival in Vilnius. Merkelys: "We tried to make it a really high quality event, to invite first-rate ensembles, hoping that their performing here would become a stimulus for our composers to experiment with more complex writing technologies."

Last year saw the debut of a new, festival-based sinfonietta-type Gaida Ensemble, uniting the best forces of Lithuanian performers in order to support and implement similar strategies. The latest work by Remigijus Merkelys, Compass, was written on commission from the MaerzMusik festival especially for this ensemble. It was premiered on March 20 at the Berlin Philharmonic Chamber Hall. In this work, the listener is oriented in the direction of the intuitively perceived four hemispheres of the world. There is no attempt made here to render North, South, East or West authenticity: diverse sound structures, temporal gradations and characteristic elements, divided between the four groups of instruments, are more apt to be connected to abstract associations, such as rationality, vitality, meditativeness, and improvisation. For the present, it is part one of an anticipated cycle founded on the idea of exposing and synthesizing different cultures. Who knows, perhaps this compass will become a new sign-post for the music of Remigijus Merkelys?

© Ramunė Kazlauskaitė & Veronika Janatjeva

Lithuanian Music Link No. 6