Twenty Fingers Duo release their debut album Performa

  • Dec. 21, 2020

PERFORMA is a debut album recorded by Lora Kmieliauskaitė (violin) and Arnas Kmieliauskas (cello) of the Twenty Fingers Duo and released in cooperation with Music Information Centre Lithuania. The album features six compositions commissioned by the duo to composers Mykolas Natalevičius, Dominykas Digimas, Rūta Vitkauskaitė, Julius Aglinskas, Arturas Bumšteinas, and Andrius Maslekovas. It was designed by visual artist Lauryna Narkevičiūtė who also created six visuals for the project based on primary ideas and conceptual outlines suggested by composers, which complemented the musical narratives recorded on the album. This unique package offers liner notes in Lithuanian and English, a CD, and QR codes for those who prefer to listen to the music online.

We are happy to share an interview with the Twenty Fingers Duo and a promo video (see below), directed by Šarūnas Bartas and produced by Studio Kinema. We want to thank them and all the crew behind this album, also our sponsors Lithuanian Council for Culture, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania, AGATA.

Purchase this album on our online store

Rasa Murauskaitė
‘Cracking’ the Format

A conversation with the Twenty Fingers Duo introducing their debut album Performa

There were countless times during this conversation when our continuous exchange of questions and answers was interrupted by interjections like “Lora, what do you think?” or “Arnas, what’s your opinion?” A warm, fraternal rapport between siblings Lora Kmieliauskaitė and Arnas Kmieliauskas who form the Twenty Fingers Duo is perhaps one of the most distinctive features that characterises their performances of contemporary music for violin and cello, some of it recorded on their debut album entitled Performa. The new release features six pieces written especially for the ensemble by different Lithuanian composers, thus reflecting the diversity of Lithuanian contemporary music scene. It also provided a good opportunity for us to meet and discuss how their duo was formed and changed over time; in what ways the works recorded on their debut album appeared to be similar and different; and, among other things, how they had to learn ‘anti-ensemble’ playing for one of the pieces included in Performa.

Rasa Murauskaitė: Let’s compare what you were playing in the beginning of your activity as a duo and what is featured in your debut album. What changes in style, ideas, selection of works, and maybe even within yourselves have you experienced over time?

Arnas Kmieliauskas: We decided to form a duo while studying at the academy; thus, naturally, we had certain requirements to meet. Back then we mostly performed the repertoire from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries. The pieces we used to play had little to do with contemporary music, with an exception of only a single piece by Anatolijus Šenderovas. It was actually the piece that ‘pointed the way ahead’ and remained among our repertoire favourites to this day. Alongside such academic repertoire, we have always wanted to engage in some kind of experimentation, to explore something that we find sympathetic and interesting. To tell the truth, the programme for Performa was commissioned while we were still students; thus it looks like it was one of our first experimentally-oriented programmes.

Lora Kmieliauskaitė: We made headway as we grew more and more interested in contemporary music. At first it was ‘less tonally sounding’ classical music (the likes of Maurice Ravel), but nothing close to experimental music. Currently, we no longer perform works that we did in the beginning of our activity as an ensemble. Meanwhile the boundaries of contemporary music are very broad: it may encompass even works, in which music is not necessarily the main ingredient but rather ancillary to video, electronics and whatnot. It can be also a purely acoustic piece. Today we happen to sample many different approaches to contemporary music because we collaborate with various composers.

A. K.: Now we focus more on the newly written pieces – 80–90 % of our current repertoire consists of the recently composed music, some of it commissioned and premiered by us. Previously learned compositions became our companions, with which we part little by little. It is mainly in this respect that our repertoire is now different from what we have started.

L. K.: It was kind of awkward for us to perform certain pieces at the academy; so we secretly pored over it at home. It was rather challenging to perform a piece by Andrius Maslekovas next to Ravel’s on the exam and quite ambitious too. Sometimes our professors questioned it, sometimes they approved it, but there has never been as much verve and delight in what we were doing as nowadays. We offered them to listen to something that we weren’t offered to learn.

R. M.: So what are you now looking for in contemporary music, what makes you prick up your ears? New sound worlds? Going to extremes? What challenges do you find for yourselves? Don’t you think it’s hard to find anything to wonder at these days?

A. K.: We are still very prone to experimentation. As I have mentioned before, we have not yet matured as an ensemble – a young formation without a fixed direction. We are eager to try out new genres, forms, techniques… We find interest in (almost) everything. Now we are preoccupied with the extended instrumental techniques and subtle shades of timbre. Certainly, many things have already been explored, tried and tested, but we want to dig into this vast field all by ourselves and look into what the future holds for us, perhaps hoping to find a clearer direction. We also aim to remain open to other media and artistic disciplines. We are drawn to interdisciplinary approaches. Nowadays it is hardly possible to express everything through the medium of music alone; thus, attempts to reflect the present-day world are more successful, at least in my humble opinion, through a combination of different media.

L. K.: Each time I start studying a new piece I expand my horizons. And each time it feels great to meet new artists. I like attending rehearsals where I will be given a lot of questions and will be able to ask myself, and see from the very start how the seeds of a musical work germinate and grow on the palms of my hands. It feels good to be part of the process when you are struck with a feeling, at a certain point of a concert performance, that you have walked all the way and know what you have to say, that you have fathomed not only the idea behind a piece but also the personality of a composer. This interpersonal exchange between a living artist and a performer, which occurs in the process of creative work, is what I cherish the most. It stands in sharp contrast to the classical works that you rehearse from the score and feel basically alone, without any feedback. You often ask yourself, if your interpretation was right. You experience this journey all on your own… While collaborating with the composer and other artists, you come to realize what you are doing. Arnas and I often ask each other the same questions all over again; we discuss and disagree. There is no room for complacency in our work, since we are on the edge of our seats all the time.

A. K.: To put it in plain terms: when we perform classical music we seem to be obliged to interpret it in our individual way. When we perform new music we can become part of a collaborative work. From being merely performers we become, at least in part, co-authors.

R.M.: May I conclude that you sometimes feel like being composers yourselves, don’t you? As though you were crossing over to the other side?

L. K.: I wouldn’t put it as boldly as you just did. We do not become composers but rather catalysts in a certain sense.

A. K.: We do not compose but rather complement and sometimes oppose each other. This continuous communication, discussions make us step out of our comfort zone.

L. K.: We consider ourselves as collaborators, colleagues.

A. K.: It’s so cool. The boundaries are getting blurry nowadays. Composers often take part in our performances, for example, by using laptops and similar devices.

L. K.: Sometimes composers know very well what and how they want to express – how they intend their work to sound – and are capable of specifying very precisely how to achieve this. In that case you act just as a violinist or a cellist and execute exactly what the composer has devised. You are being employed as an instrument. And the next day you may start working with a person who would spend ten rehearsals together, searching for sounds and cadences, and eventually bring a graphic or aleatoric score for you to organize all the material by yourself. There are a lot of different roles, which we find fascinating. It’s like a game.

A. K.: But besides all that, the composer’s position remains clearly defined. There are ‘classically-minded’ composers who don’t particularly like letting anyone poach on their turf and request to stick strictly to what’s written in the score, totally ignoring our comments and suggestions.

L. K.: Even questions.

A. K.: There is also another type of composers who are open to ideas and arguments; then the creative work is equally balanced between the two sides. We also happen to meet those who submit virtually raw material and allow us to mould whatever we want, accepting all our suggestions and discussing matters without bitterness and unwanted emotions.

R. M.: Now let’s turn back to your debut album Performa. Tell us more about what the listeners will find enclosed inside. What was the context of its emergence? What pieces have you committed to disc? What made you choose these particular composers?

A. K.: Our choice probably fell on those, with whom we had or didn’t have a chance to collaborate and what we then considered interesting to try out. At the time when we began to compile this programme we had already performed quite a few works by young Lithuanian composers at various festivals and concerts and formed an opinion about them. That’s how we selected our ‘lucky six.’ All of those to whom we have extended our invitation instantly agreed to collaborate and expressed their eagerness. We had no intention to control their expression in any way because all of them are distinguished for individuality. Some use limited aleatory techniques, others demonstrate neoromantic tendencies – it is this colourful and stylistically varied array that is a major part of the appeal for us. We wanted to bring this diversity to the fore and show how broad is the range of work by Lithuanian composers. Meanwhile speaking of the context in which this album has arrived, the primary reason was quite predictable: the repertoire for violin and cello is rather scant not only in Lithuania, but in Western Europe as well; thus we aimed to expand our repertoire. We hope that by doing so we have contributed new works to the repertoires of other ensembles as well. In addition, it should be mentioned that our project Performa was initially audiovisual, developed in collaboration with the visual artist Lauryna Narkevičiūtė. Visuals add an extra dimension to the Performa, help stretch the boundaries of perception and sometimes even facilitate the understanding of music. In fact, Performa was our first project that has led us in new directions.

L. K.: It is also important to note that this programme is a dedication to Lithuania. At the time when it was in preparation, Arnas and I have been travelling extensively. Our geographical boundaries have widened substantially, while Lithuania remained so small and cute. Our wish was that the invited composers would choose some historical personality of a natural monument related to Lithuania. We sought to create a genuinely Lithuanian ‘product’ and hoped to represent the diversity of our contemporary music scene. Therefore our choice deliberately fell on both performative artists, like Arturas Bumšteinas, and more traditionally oriented composers.

A. K.: But the composers came first and only then we came up with the aforementioned idea. We have formulated the theme to provide a unifying thread, running through all these works – free enough to spark off creative impulses. As a matter of interest, Narkevičiūtė joined the project without hearing the pieces and created visuals based on their ideas. We haven’t seen the final picture of the whole project before the last rehearsals.

R. M.: You have mentioned, at least several times during this conversation, that the composers featured on this album are very distinct. As it often happens, they differ mostly in their ideas, ‘starting points,’ but the resulting sound, especially when viewed from the perspective of an outsider who is less familiar with the local music context and nuances, seems very similar – somewhat melancholic, postmodern, etc. What is the case with Performa? Does this resulting sound here vary that much?

L. K.: This question is hard to answer. Performative, atonal, experimental sound world of Arturas Bumšteinas is very distinct from the minimal style of Julius Aglinskas whose music fares well with but a few sounds. Mykolas Natalevičius and Dominykas Digimas might seem similar in some ways: both composers employ electronics as their main medium, from which all other kinds of music stem. I can easily audialize the ultra high pitched tones used by Rūta Vitkauskaitė, which may be painful to the ear, unlike the consonant tranquillity of Aglinskas.

A. K.: In case with Lithuanian music, just like with Lithuanian cinema, there is a widespread clichéd view that it is predominantly uniform and monotonous. True, some southern people, like Spaniards and Italians, are known to possess quick temper and their music is distinguished for fiery rhythms and powerful expression. Our composers may lack these qualities, but it doesn’t make their music sound the same. Overall, all works in Performa form one continuous mood, even though each was written using different techniques and placed in the album according to the principle of contrast that accentuates differences and with a thematic arch between the beginning and the end. Of course, we may notice certain similarities between Digimas and Natalevičius, or maybe also between Vitkauskaitė and Digimas. For me there is also a thread, binding works by Vitkauskaitė and Aglinskas, experimental techniques employed by Maslekovas and an ambient quality of Natalevičius’ music. But people will listen and decide for themselves whether these works are different or not for them.

L. K.: Well, there is no place for character dances in this album, that’s for sure.

A. K.: This probably corresponds to our national character: generally, we are more even-tempered, closer to the Nordic impassivity.

R. M.: Don’t you think Performa would intimidate people without any background or prior experience in contemporary music?

L. K.: I believe those who have no knowledge of contemporary music will be pleasantly surprised and roused to learn more. Even an expert assuming that he or she is knowledgeable enough in contemporary Lithuanian music may be startled by the experimental extravaganza of Bumšteinas. But no, we had no intention to intimidate our listeners while choosing works for this album.

A. K.: We have put the works in order of increasing novelty: works distinguished for the novelty of expression are placed towards the end of the album. We wished that our listeners would inure to it gradually, taking their time and short moments of repose, and only then grab the bull by the horns (laughs).

R. M.: In the beginning of our conversation you have pointed out that you have always been interested in extended techniques and novelties that you can master and add to your knowledge. Were there many things you had to learn anew while recording this album? Did you feel like making an improvement, taking a step forward, or did you draw on your prior skills and knowledge?

A. K.: It was tricky because all composers nowadays use their personal musical language and notation. Instead of using a universal system of notation, the majority of composers throughout the world invent new vocabularies, terms, systems of notation, which require a lot of time to accustom, learn to read it and react to it with appropriate fluency. It is more of a general observation. Speaking about the Performa in particular, I can conclude that difficulties mostly arose while rehearsing works by Maslekovas and Bumšteinas. The former uses a very varied, extensive nomenclature of extended techniques. We had to learn new skills physically, to improve coordination that was unusual for us, and then integrate everything within the ensemble. What seemed hardly surmountable at first now seems completely opposite to the ear – as simple as that. Meanwhile Bumšteinas includes many episodes of aleatory and improvisation. And we are not very easily induced to improvise. We had to abandon all the clichés in our minds. We had to learn a lesson that allowed us to expand the range of performance techniques.

L. K.: Arnas said it all. I can only add that it was for the first time in our lives that we had to learn ‘anti-ensemble’ playing, while working on the piece by Bumšteinas, which means not to listen to your partner while playing together, contrary to what we have been taught to do all our lives. It was the first time we had to play in tune and out of tune at the same time. Isn’t that a paradox?

A. K.: Not to be guided by each other but by the soundtrack that triggers us to action. Lora and I couldn’t rely on our instincts but try to respond to what was recorded on the electronic soundtrack instead.

L. K.: The soundtrack was a kind of score for us. The ‘format’ of a classical musician, the whole system, in which we were educated, stipulates the contrary. Therefore we had to destroy that foundation, methodology, according to which we have ben schooled. Usually we don’t even question this, it seems natural for us to listen, coordinate and tune in with each other. And here we had to shift our perspective 180 degrees – that was a very exciting lesson for me.

R. M.: What does the appearance of your debut album mean to you? Could you describe it as a summary of all your prior activity? Or maybe you just thought it would be nice to have some material memento of your creative work?

A. K.: To put it plainly, it is our first album, something exciting, not yet experienced. When I come to think about it, I’m getting sentimental. But the aim of this album, above all, is to prevent this music from being forgotten, to make it performed and heard. It is very likely that we will play the same pieces very differently in the future; we will move forward and veer away from what we are doing now, our interpretations will inevitably change. This is the first stop on our path, a summary of our early achievements, a point of reference for comparisons with our future selves. Besides, it’s cool to have an album. Lora, what do you think?

L. K.: I caught myself thinking the other day: “oh how sad that I have never been recording anything.” My life basically consists of rehearsals and individual work, and then again, rehearsals and individual work… These daily routines only acquire meaning in concerts: the sounds, my self-expression continues to live on in the ears of past audiences. Then I realized how great is to have a physical object – an album – that recaps everything and helps figure out certain things for myself. Now that a year has passed since the project was over, I listen to the recordings and look at them from a distance – I can see how we were back then. Performa is our point of reference, indeed.

A. K.: This album is yet another intermediate stop. We’ll see where it leads. We may incidentally come up with the Performa 2 featuring another six composers, who knows. Let’s leave it to our imagination.

Recorded, mixed, mastered by Julius Aglinskas
Design, visuals, photography: Lauryna Narkevičiūtė
Texts: Rytis Masilionis
Translator: Veronika Janatjeva
English language proofreader: Howard Jarvis
Producers: Twenty Fingers Duo, Radvilė Buivydienė
Released by Music Information Centre Lithuania, Twenty Fingers Duo
Supported by Lithuanian Council for Culture, Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania, AGATA