What Is the Lithuanian Brand of Minimalism?

Since the beginning of the 1970s, a number of young composers clearly moved in the direction of more or less reducing their musical material. The aim was to revitalize modernism's accessories, and to connect several pertinent ideas: i.e., to oppose the syndrome of the Soviet postromanticism and socialist realism, whilst offering a productive antithesis, one which would, according to the composers, overcome the exhausted idioms of modernism and avantgardism, with their fetish for dissonance, complexity, chaos and anarchy, exaggerated dramatism, and frequently a catastrophistic pathos. On demand was a rather more ambitious originality than the avant-garde models adapted from neighbouring Poland and elsewhere. What was required were new conventions - genetically removed from the ones mentioned above, and expressing a new content, which would convey another vision of the world: not directly related to its own timeframe, but embodying a longing for a more ideal, sometimes even timeless, existence.

Minimalism emerged in Lithuania not as a result of the unrestricted freedom of the hippies and their leftist manifestos, as happened in the United States and the Netherlands in the 1960s. It wasn't a manifestation of clubs or garages, and even more recording studios, with musicians, often nonprofessionals, who liked jazz or rock, or were fascinated by Indian or African music, partaking. At the end of the 1970s, Lithuanian minimalism was being created by academic composers, who had chosen it as a to a degree legitimized (not in Lithuania), refined aesthetic and technology, which allowed the incorporation and fusion of components of a highly diversified nature – from elementary diatonics to complex, multidimensional structures.

There were many musical, psychological, and social reasons determining what was then referred to as the beginning of 'non-conflicting' and 'primitivist' music. These were the times of the disco rage, and composers would admit that they heard fresher things in pop music, than they did on the inert academic stage. The most important, however, was the fact that avant-garde music was excessively cosmopolitan, and had difficulty transmitting relevant artistic messages in an occupied country - not lacking in literature and art, which had mastered the Aesopian language. Perhaps that is why, from its very beginning, minimalism naturally connected with the principal idea of the 20th-century Lithuanian music - which declared the necessity of linking the modern musical language with the features of folk music.

First came eclectically structured preminimalist music, kin to the instrumental theatre, teeming with various allusions to vernacular, church, avant-garde, and popular music. Composers were quite influenced by theatre and film, and by montage techniques - utilizing laconic fragments and (pseudo)quotations from different styles, to weave an entire texture out of delicate ostinato patterns. Feliksas Bajoras' (b.1934) Music for Seven (1975) is composed in the manner of a playful theatre of folk-like intonations, with each instrument practically playing the theatrical character. Bronius Kutavičius' (b.1932) Little Performance (1975) for actress, 2 violins, and 2 pianos is an allusion, in five very ascetic movements, to Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire: used here are twelve-tone melody canons, one-tone drones, subtle ostinato figures, and the Sprechgesang technique.

Lithuanian minimalism took advantage of an interesting historical parallel: an archaic folk music tradition, one might say, protominimalist music - the sutartines (2-4-voice polyphonic songs and 2-7-part instrumental pieces, found in northeastern Lithuania up to the mid-20th century) - was very similar to minimalist music in its sound and structure. Thus it is not surprising, that having heard Louis Andriessen's De Staat (1976), strongly reminiscent of the music of sutartinės, Kutavičius realized what a powerful load of minimalist inspiration sutartinės carry; Lithuanian minimalism did not hang mid-air, like an empty structuralist game, for it was linked to a deep and ancient tradition of ethnic music. More than one composition accreted a dense layer of historical, cultural, religious, and resistential semantics.

The manifesto of Lithuanian minimalism – BRONIUS KUTAVIČIUS' oratorio Last Pagan Rites (1978) for children's choir, soprano, organ, and 4 horns - which could be considered an example of sacral and ritualistic minimalism. The composition is in essence a total reconstruction of sutartinės (or poly-sutartinės), based on elementary diatonics, pulsating rhythm, and the choir's effective movement around the audience. An extended droning of dominant ninth-chord, and endless canons of short phrases are typically minimalist, though the dramatic and romantic climax is achieved via collage - with several different styles of music sounding at the same time. "What’s important, is to make an impression - to stun the person, to 'knock him out' with sound, so that he leaves tottering," - said the composer, who described his original idea with the formula: "monotony–monotony–event".

Kutavičius uses this form of denouement in many of his works: along with live performers in the opera-poem Thrush, the Green Bird (1981), there is a constant sound of recordings of 'invisible' choirs, ensembles and orchestras; and in the finale – fragments of rock music, city noises, and the rural dialect of a talking folk artist. In his oratorio From the Jatvingian Stone (1983), Kutavičius mixes Lithuanian intonations and pseudo-African rhythms, and with the use of ancient folk instruments, derives a sound and emotion which could even resemble techno music. At the end, there is the sound of a thunderous sutartine of wooden horns, followed by a single folk monody.

During the Soviet period, the 'pagan’ rites in Kutavičius' works, perhaps somewhat reminiscent of New Age ceremonies, quite effectively rocked the national consciousness. Similar things can also be found in Estonia: Veljo Tormis wrote ritualistic choral cycles immortalizing the folklore of the vanishing Finno-Ugric people, while Arvo Pärt, with the aid of the Hortus Musicus, mediaeval and Renaissance music ensemble, created an original vision of forgotten rites and a time long-past. In every case, the composers were striving for a contemplative and meditative effect, hypnotizing the listener and dissolving the sense of real time.

Another type of minimalism, much closer to its American variety, was chosen by MINDAUGAS URBAITIS (b.1952), the most distinctive ideologue of this trend, who studied and advocated minimalist music in his public lectures. Certain of his compositions overly emulate the style of Philip Glass. Urbaitis composed several purely minimalist works, one of which - Trio (1982) for three melodic instruments - aroused a scandal during its premiere: the audience was shocked by the endless rotation of elementary structures (without any 'events'), which lasted for over an hour. In his works which were not so purist, and ascribed to post-minimalism - Love Song and Farewell (1979) for soprano and digital delay system, and Bachvariationen I (1988) for four violins - Urbaitis maintained a subtle balance between chrestomatic minimalism and classical music, at times approaching the drive of pop music.

Migrating between post-minimalism and so-called neo-romanticism, are composers ALGIRDAS MARTINAITIS (b.1950) and VIDMANTAS BARTULIS (b.1954). The repetitive structure and diatonic harmony in their work submit to various dramatic concepts - often theatrical and romantic. Not infrequently, they wander into other styles (and later their parodies), and at times become simply sentimentally meditative.

Martinaitis' cantata, Cantus ad futurum (1982) for 2 sopranos and baroque ensemble, freely combines the minimalist material of sutartinės, pseudo-baroque and rock motifs, while the text, which laments for endangered birds, in its own way guides the listener to thoughts of a more general ecological, cultural, and existential theme. Bartulis' piece, I'm Seeing My Friend Off and We Are Taking the Last Look at the Snow-covered February Trees... (1981) for cello and piano, contemplates for a long time, via very few sounds which lead to nowhere - until one hears the deconstructed quotation of a Schubert song.

Minimalism caught the attention of composers of entirely different orientations as well, illuminating their creative methods from unexpected angles. The symphonist, and most important ideologue of the merge of national and modernist trends, Julius Juzeliūnas (1916–2001), wrote the symphony Songs of Plains (1982) for women's choir and string orchestra, in which the rhythm and harmony of the sutartinės resemble the music of Steve Reich. Osvaldas Balakauskas (b.1937) created the Spengla-Ūla for 16 strings (1984), in his own way approaching the motoric style of John Adams and Steve Martland.

Minimalism gradually became very fashionable in Lithuania, attracting the attention of a broader public, and the minimalist composers were considered the most exciting. However, in its own way, the nearly sacred aura enveloping cultural resistance obstructed the natural evolution of ideas: minimalist music became valued as a mythological metaphor for freedom and independence, ideally reflecting the nation's expectations, and embodying the very essence of what is Lithuanian.

A new generation appeared in the mid-1980s, professing a different concept of minimalism. Chili replaced vanilla: complexity displaced simplicity; strident dissonances and noise - gentle consonances and diatonics; irony and even aggression - friendliness towards the listener. Young composers were inspired not by folk, but by a variety of music - especially the avant-garde. They were accused of 'lacking sense of history', and instead of mythology and pagan utopias, were interested in virtual and anti-utopian worlds. Muscle-bound and sarcastically mechanical music was soon christened machinism, after the titles of several compositions written in 1985: Rytis Mažulis' (b.1961) Twittering Machine for four pianos, Šarūnas Nakas' (b.1962) Merz-machine for virtual orchestra of 33 instruments and Vox-machine for virtual choir of 25 voices. Works of a similar orientation were written by Nomeda Valančiūtė (b.1961), Gintaras Sodeika (b.1961) and Ričardas Kabelis (b.1957).

Machinism was the Lithuanian equivalent of American totalism. It carried on the further, ever more complex process of minimalist metastases and transformations, which continues in Lithuania to this day. One of the trends to evolve the most distant might be called super-minimalism - taking into account always the same repetitive principles, supplemented with new ideas, and approximating various avant-garde styles.

RYTIS MAŽULIS is considered the most distinctive of these latter composers. Having felt the strong influence of Conlon Nancarrow's and Giacinto Scelsi's concepts, he writes radical monistic compositions, based only on a canon technique, and frequently using computers: Clavier of Pure Reason (1994) for computer-piano, and ajapajapam (2002) for twelve voices, string quartet, and electronics. Though there are relics of Renaissance polyphony in his music, in its compressed sound it is sometimes more akin to rock; in its hyper-dissonance and microintervals – to Scelsi contemplations; and with regard to its form – to gigantic op art compositions, exhibiting very slowly and consecutively alternating constellations. Mažulis' music bears a fairly distinctive mark of laboratory creativity, though it does maintain a balance of academic correctness.

Notable for its structural purism and 'numb' sound is the music of RIČARDAS KABELIS, which is fairly closely related to Mažulis' ideas. Kabelis is very attentive to the symbolism of numbers: he generates gargantuan orchestral clusters by computer, and thereby avoids human interference, as in Int.elon.s (1996) and Mudra (2000) for full orchestra.

Minimalism made a great impact on all Lithuanian music written at the end of the 20th century. In some instances it brought listeners back to concerts of contemporary music (to the highly acclaimed works of Kutavičius, Martinaitis, and Bartulis), in others it propelled the emergence and further evolution of new and individual styles. Interestingly, at the beginning of the 21st century, there are no signs predicting the end of Lithuanian minimalism; many of the composers who came into contact with this style, continue, in one way or another, to make use of the ideas of minimalism - usually transforming and enriching them with new experience. It appears that rational structuralism, having come round more than once already, has not yet unveiled all of its possibilities, and is constantly being revitalized. And so perhaps minimalism can be considered a Lithuanian style - as was proposed by its ideologues more than 20 years ago?

© Šarūnas Nakas

Lithuanian Music Link No. 8