Justė Janulytė’s Music Travels Around Germany

  • Feb. 17, 2019

Eglė Gudžinskaitė

Justė Janulytė, one of the most prominent Lithuanian composers and the 2018 winner of the National Prize for Culture and Arts, enjoys unfading interest both in her home country and abroad. A brief look at her concert schedule and trajectories is enough to notice that, considering the importance and intensity of the performances, the coming several months may well be seen as her tour of Germany. Audiences in Berlin, Cologne, Stuttgart and three smaller towns will have a chance to hear her newest piece and several earlier compositions.

One of the key events is scheduled for 28 March when her new opus, Was There a Swan? for organ and orchestra, commissioned by one of Europe’s top festivals of new music, MaerzMusik, will be performed at the main hall of the Konzerthaus in Berlin. There Janulytė will join two other outstanding figures in contemporary music, the widely acclaimed American composer Ashley Fure, and Austrian artist Olga Neuwirth known for her distinct style.

Janulytė’s music has been chosen by the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, the biggest public-broadcasting institution in Germany, for its legendary concert series Musik der Zeit (Music of the Time). On 22 June, her The Colour of Water (2017) is to be performed by saxophonist Markus Weiss and the WDR Symphony Orchestra at the WDR headquarters in Cologne. The concert’s programme notes liken the Lithuanian creator of monochrome music filled with slow metamorphoses to such classical names in minimalism as Steve Reich and Morton Feldman and adds that in this context her music may well be considered a distinctly original manifestation of minimalistic music.

The concerts in Berlin and Cologne will be directed by Peter Rundel who is particularly appreciated as an interpreter of the 20th-century and newest music.

Yet another context opens up looking at Baltikum, a concert series organised by a Vocal Ensemble of the Südwestrundfunk, a public broadcaster for the South-West of Germany, and dedicated to the music from the Baltic countries. In July, the ensemble will perform pieces by eight composers from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in four German cities.

“When Gidon Kremer and Tõnu Kaljuste brought Baltic music to the European concert halls in the 1980s, they made a sensation as the music, both archaic and contemporary, reaching not only the hearts of the concert-goers but also mobilizing new audiences who had never before entered any classical concert hall,” the organisers write about the concerts the programme of which, they maintain, consists of compositions notable for their great sense of sound and sophistication.

The Baltikum series offers vocal music by Justė Janulytė and Rytis Mažulis, who represent Lithuania, with Arvo Pärt and Veljö Tormis standing for Estonia and Maija Einfelde, Pēteris Vaskas and Andris Dzenītis representing Latvia.

Here, Janulytė’s Plonge (2015) for cello and 12 voices may be seen as a significant addition to the treasury of new choral music from the Baltic nations. The piece has been travelling France for the past several months as part of Vocello, a project by the French cellist Henri Demarquette and the Sequenza 9.3 Ensemble. Vocello was released by Decca Records in 2017.

Coming back to the upcoming premiere in March, it should be noted that, although Janulytė’s music was performed rather infrequently in Germany up to now, she made her debut at the MaerzMusik Festival as far as eight years ago. Back then she presented her Sandglasses (2010), a hypnotising multimedia composition that later travelled many top festivals of contemporary music around the world, from Sydney to Paris. Considering its remarkable success, her return to the MaerzMusik was just a question of time, especially given that the festival has been exploring the theme of time for the five past years, the very
theme that is immanently traceable in a number of pieces by Janulytė.

Her new piece, Was there a Swan?, commissioned by the MaerzMusik Festival, may be seen as a yet another paraphrase on the subject of time. The organ which permeates the orchestral field of sounds is central to the composition, according to Janulytė. On the other hand, the two timbral layers reflect different forms of time – a gradual metamorphosis that never returns to its starting point (represented by a single-direction trajectory of the organ, from its highest pitches to lowest), and a cyclical movement of repetitive structures.

In the composer’s words, every living creature lives in different dimensions of time and has its own – and strictly individual – time frame spanning from birth to death. She sees similar phenomena in music as individual instruments exist within their own dimensions of time, a composition being the field of their confluence.

“I perceive my music as a polyphony of forms of time. It has no rhythm, which is a set of artificially constructed figures, yet its natural and regular pulse resembles breathing or beating of the heart. And this is how a tempo is born – a unique evolution of a musical structure within a certain period of time.”

The title, Was There a Swan?, bears a reference to Cygnus, a constellation known as the Northern Cross whose graphic symmetry is an ideal equivalent to the “drawing” of the musical composition, and to Was There a Butterfly?, a piece by another prominent Lithuanian composer, Onutė Narbutaitė. There are no direct parallels between the two compositions and the two composers who represent different generations and styles. The unexpected allusion may be seen as a sign of respect to Janulytė’s senior colleague known for her refined and emotionally charged field of sounds. It is as if by choosing such a reference Janulytė reveals the cultural context in which her visions of monochrome music came to life.

Translated from the Lithuanian by Darius Krasauskas