Antanas Kučinskas: Music Without Make-up

"I am an omnivorous parasite and make music, which feeds on existing music, grows at its expense and finally destroys it", says the composer Antanas Kučinskas. This rather provocative statement not only lays bare one of his essential composing principles, but also reveals his general stance, especially when speaking about the secrets of his creative laboratory - he lays out all his cards on the table at once. In his works, Kučinskas remains unabashedly open and straightforward, so that one can instantly grasp how the music is done, and what it's all about. He doesn't hide behind sophisticated structures or superfluous comments; instead he sets forth simple concepts in a clever and elegant way.

photo: Gintaras Mačiulis

Things are simply what they are. If there is a circle of fifths, you can move around in the circle, clockwise or counterclockwise. As the performers in Kučinskas' Circle of Fifths do: three violinists move in concentric circles at different speeds, just playing the keynotes of all related tonalities along the circle - at different speeds, respectively - until this strange canon returns to its point of departure - the C tone (apparently). Or in the case of a grand piano: it's a musical instrument (apparently), but at the same time it's a luxurious piece of furniture, ideal for putting something on top of (e.g., a vase with flowers), or simply for stylishly decorating a living room. Thus, in Grand Piano for piano four hands, Kučinskas reduces the musical instrument to a sheer piece of furniture, including through the act of carefully wiping the dust from its surface. Next, let's imagine an orchestra (a string orchestra, to be precise) playing. What do we see first? Probably dancing bows, with their well-coordinated up and down movement... Kučinskas' Twelve in Line hyperbolises this image by lining up all twelve violinists (as the title suggests) to face the audience. The musical material is designed for a strong visual effect, with simple and regular undulation from left to right, and back again - almost like the 'wave' in a stadium. Ultimately, the moment comes when the sound itself is turned off - what remains are graceful waves of bows playing imaginary music.

While this might be akin to New Objectivity, conceptual art, or the ideas of the Fluxus movement, Kučinskas' music has always had something intrinsically theatrical about it. Kučinskas has ten years' experience as a theatre composer, and since 1998 has been head of the music department at the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre. He singles out his opera-drama King Ubu as one of his most successful compositions for drama productions. The anarchic and hallucinatory work of Alfred Jarry, an infamous precursor of the theatre of the absurd, fits well the composer's frame of mind. He admits that he can't help throwing a healthy dose of absurdity into his work here and there: "The absurd is a hopeful attitude towards the world, and the means of destroying an illusion to create a new one."

In his most recent works, however, Kučinskas is less concerned with the theatrical and visual aspects of music, and now regards deconstruction-reconstruction and loop music as his key concepts. "The music of the present is marked by the abundance and popularity of loop-based music, so it seems that the time is ripe to 'loop up' the loop music itself", asserts the composer, who describes his new trend as a certain blend of minimalism, DJ'ing, and great (or 'genuine') historical traditions. His first endeavour to achieve this was implemented in Loop Catalogue, a large electronic suite, in which he cuts, shuffles and loops very short samples of Robert Schumann, Steve Reich, Bronius Kutavičius, his own music, etc. A kaleidoscope would be a very close analogy to what happens in this music, which is made up of tiny bits of everything, endlessly mirrored and permuted. The composer admits that he is often unaware of what will come out of this experimental looping of different material - perhaps a kind of a resultant style (like the resultant harmony in Renaissance music) - but once again, he always enjoys the deranged and humorously absurd connections, which appear when he deconstructs and restructures existing music. The great traditions mentioned previously, which provide the composer with source material, could be classical as well as ethnic music: In Lithuania for two concertinas and tape is based on a Lithuanian folk polka, snippets of which are layered and looped, until it becomes somewhat similar to Terry Riley's In C; a few bars of Mendelssohn, in Loop in D minor for piano trio, result in something reminiscent of Michael Nyman. Perhaps the most bizarre instance of such recomposition can be found in the audiovisual installation In the Forest, which is based on and named after the symphonic poem, written by the Lithuanian classic M. K. Čiurlionis. No cut-offs and loops this time, only a layering of different LP recordings of this symphonic poem, resulting in the feeling of a real forest: the visitor to this installation ultimately gets lost in the midst of numerous turntables and loudspeakers, and in the murmur of the phased-out orchestral passages.

Antanas Kučinskas received the largest commission of the upcoming Gaida festival to write Make-Up Opera (libretto and staging by Birutė Mar), a work that seems to synthesize the above-mentioned tendencies, including 'objectified art', music theatre, and recomposition. In this chamber opera for a minimalist setting of performers (three voices and sampler), the composer plays with the very concept of opera: à la opera, anti-opera, soap opera, etc. The singer, the actor and the ballerina tell their life stories, as if being interviewed for TV. Their faces are enlarged and projected on screen, with different make-up for every scene. The actors change their manner of speech along with the new characters appearing on the screen, as if they were different persons. Yet they are the same individuals, only playing different roles, or simply aging. The final scene depicts the removal of all make-up - the characters appear as they are in real life. The libretto was compiled from celebrity interviews in lifestyle magazines, as well as from advertisements and make-up lessons. With respect to the music, the idea of make-up is underlined by using different 'character voices', through their multiple transformations and 'make-ups'. Make-up is also a symbol of theatre in general ("I put on my make-up and enter the stage. The performance begins..."); at the same time, the whole Make-Up Opera is a reflection on the existential journey through life - until one removes all make-up at the very end.

© Linas Paulauskis

Lithuanian Music Link No. 9