Ramblings from (non-)compulsory activities. A conversation with Šarūnas Nakas

  • June 7, 2023

Interviewed by Jurgis Kubilius

In June, Šarūnas Nakas' vinyl album Ramblings was released, featuring recordings of a composition composed almost 40 years ago. Originating as theatre music, the composition, together with its composer, has undergone various perturbations and hostile circumstances, but also an unexpectedly blessed turn of events. After decades of languishing on tapes and discs, the nine-movement composition, which emerged spontaneously, has also appeared unplanned in a new light, in which, if you look closely together with the composer, you can see (a)symmetrical reflections of the past. I invite you to read about the epic of the emergence of Ramblings, the machine-like poeticism, and the contexts of the Soviet camp and composition that were dissected with a critical eye in a conversation with the composer Šarūnas Nakas.

When and how did the music of Ramblings come about?

In 1985. The instrumental part was written in January, the vocal parts in May and the beginning of June, and then everything was combined into one cycle.

Do I understand correctly that the music started with a commission, it was for a performance?

In Jonas Vaitkus's performance Literature Lessons, only the instrumental parts were used. I got my first commission to write for a drama performance, for the National Kaunas drama theatre. Why did I do it? Because writing for the theatre gave me a recording studio - for a student (I was a fourth-year student) it was unbearably expensive, even impossible: up to that point, all my recordings had been made on a home tape recorder. You could get the best musicians, you could have a one-night collective that would play whatever you wanted.

For a couple of years, I had the New Music Ensemble (later called the Vilnius New Music Ensemble), with about 20 people. I was able to record with them alone, but I also invited new partners: the saxophonist Vytautas Labutis and the pianist Birute Vainiūnaitė, who was a bright player at the time. It was a great time for such experimentation - the musicians were kind and often didn't even charge money. In that sense, the times were favourable - but only in that sense. The tough political and social environment of the period was like a wall, which we wanted to tear down, spit on and kick. On the other hand, that inner resistance to it was sometimes a source of perverse inspiration.

How was the development process?

Theatre directors often imagine that a play takes months, six months to make, and the music comes almost overnight. Theatre is like a cancer for composers, but once they step on that needle it's hard to get off. I had very little time, and what I had conceived almost "cut me off": when I started writing Merz-machine, a large, almost symphonic score, I realised I would not be able to write it down physically. The night I had to record the music, I went in with the unfinished parts hoping that we would somehow improvise. But the promised synthesiser, a very scarce item at that time, was not brought to the studio. That saved me: I got an extra day and by the next night I had finished the whole score.

At the beginning and the end of the performance, there was a noisy Merz-machine, and at other parts, quiet music: what we might call ambient today. The rush forced me to use some of the materials I had created earlier. And anyway, during my studies, my compositions seemed to grow out of each other, so I borrowed the melancholic harmony and melody from Žeimelis Little Variations. From the organ piece The First came two-sound harmonic chains, and from Merz-sonata chordal machine textures.

And yet it wasn’t just the music of the play that was at the heart of Ramblings?

The premiere of Literature Lessons took place in February 1985. The performance immediately became popular and was often performed and discussed, although there were all sorts of stories and vicissitudes... But when I immersed myself in other works I soon got away from those things.

And then one day I met Osvaldas Balakauskas on Žvėrynas Bridge, we were close friends at that time. I told him what I was doing, what I had created. He suggested we go to the Composers' Union and listen to my recordings. We went to Vytautas Montvilas' studio and listened. Balakauskas liked the music and suggested expanding the composition: 'Couldn't you interpret the instrumental parts vocally?' The idea was appealing, and I transplanted the saxophone parts into music for soprano and guitar, and adapted the structures of Merz-machine for a choir of strange timbres - 26 voices. The result was Vox-machine, which was recorded by five vocalists on six channels of tape. By the way, in recording Vox-machine, as in Merz-machine, I used tape manipulations, which I had been fascinated by when I heard Balakauskas' diptych Orgy. Catharsis.

Orgy. Catharsis was on the radio in those days?

There was a lot of Lithuanian music on the radio in the 70s and 80s, at least a couple of hours every day. Progressive Lithuanian music was always playing somewhere. So I used a technique I got from Balakauskas, which he used many times: there is the original recording, a backwards recording, a double speeded-up recording, a double slowed-down recording, backwards versions of them, and so on. However, Balakauskas did it in a very restrained and transparent way, and I wanted to rattle much harder: when I melted it all into one mass, the six layers of Merz-machine gave off an insanely expanded spectrum of sounds, and the double acceleration gave a frantic rhythmic perfection. This is unattainable in a live concert - if it is possible, it’s perhaps more like a hint of such perfection.

We had many discussions with Balakauskas. He was like a shadow teacher, for which I am extremely grateful: he taught me a lot, enlightened me a lot, gave me useful advice and timely guidance. Sometimes he asked questions like, "Where do you think the music is going, and what will be in the future?" I used to speculate that perhaps there would be an era of a renewed avant-garde, which would be associated more with abstract geometrical ideas than with the undying ghosts of romanticism, which were quite strong in the earlier avant-garde. But for Balakauskas this seemed strange, he expected an era of innovative tonality and consonance...

How many hours did it take to record a piece, to edit the sound in those days? Today it could be just a few hours on the computer, whereas back then it was probably physical work?

It didn't take long to record because all the participants were used to multi-channel recording with headphones and metronome and conducting - it was just a question of technique. But more importantly, with synthetic timbres, at least at that time, it would not have succeeded to produce the interesting range of sounds that is possible with live instruments. The sound spectrum of live instruments is much richer, absolutely incomparable. After all, every sound and chord of a piano contains a huge spectral collection, not to mention the polyphonic sounds produced by saxophones together with percussion of unpredictable noises. When you sum it all up on a recording, a whole new sound emerges.

I applied the same approach to Vox-machine, recording with voices. The most interesting thing was that Feliksas Bajoras (who migrated to America in 1984 after his opera The Lamb of God was banned) sent me a catalogue compiled by an American theoretician, in which hundreds of ideas for timbres produced by voice and body were registered, and with special notation marks. I thought, why not try to use the whole catalogue at once? Of course, I didn't cover everything, but I used the most impressive parts. Because the microphones were so close to each vocalist, it brought out sounds that you’d hardly hear otherwise.

‘Ramblings’ and merz - where did these two words come from?

The meaningless word merz was coined in 1920 by Kurt Schwitters, a German Dadaist and pacifist who escaped from Germany to Britain during the Nazi era and escaped a prison camp. During my student years I was interested in early modernism and avant-gardism, and I had been immersed in Dadaism since my days at the Čiurlionis School of Art. In 1979, when we were eleven, we staged the opera Don Carlos-Dada, and it was the only truly avant-garde opera among the Čiurlionis School student operas: we did it anarchically - without thinking about the possible consequences. And then, in 1984, when I had to compose a sonata for a composition exam, I felt the closeness of the material to Schwitters's "psychological" collages [which he called "Merz" - J.K.] and so I called the music Merz-sonata. I used a rather strange combination - harpsichord with bass trombone; the two played as if they were different pieces, even though they were completely overlapping in time. This diaphonic idea has somehow stuck to my music for decades.

And machine?

Merz-machine came about because, as I said, I was "scooping" harpsichord chords and "loading" them into this "machine" for six prepared pianos, six noise synthesisers, about ten saxophones, five rhythmic-noise cellos, and a mountain of percussion. It was not just the usual percussion but also church bells from the collection of conductor Rimas Geniušas and various objects found in the recording studio: chairs, stands and so on. I expected the highly compressed noise machine to be an easily decipherable political metaphor, ironic and grotesque, ridiculing the absurdity of the officiate epoch, which is exactly what the performance needed.

I incorporated fragments of the music from the performance into Ramblings, and a slightly different story began. It was not easy to find texts that were suitable for such music. I looked through a lot of Lithuanian poetry at the time, settled on two poets, and finally chose Almis Grybauskas' book Ramblings. I liked the idea - the indefinite wandering, skulking, plunging into oblivion, dreaminess, as if you can't escape the labyrinth, finding yourself again and again where you've already been.

You mentioned that the performance for which Merz-machine was created was still being performed.

The play was staged by Jonas Vaitkus's student course, from the personal biographies of the actors who played there, from their various school experiences. It was a witty and poignant montage of stories, a kind of compilation of fates. The play was politically scandalous because it showed the Soviet school as a concentration camp.

I didn't live in those times, so I don't really understand; the censorship was active - how did they overlook this matter?

Well, nothing was done in such a schematic way. It is often a mistake to think of those times - that dying Brezhnevism - as totalitarianism. It was not Stalin's time; by then everything was already run down, fragmented, incoherent. It was just banal authoritarianism, which was blatantly trying to put a slightly more human face on supposed socialism but with all the possible and often very funny anomalies.

There was no shortage of flirtation with political stewards in art - in the case of official theatre, such flirtation is completely unavoidable. The artists were skilled in playing virtuoso Aesopian farces. This is a very broad subject. Of course, there were also serious incidents. And so it was with that play, though not immediately but some three months later. When it came to Vilnius, it was caught hold of: an article appeared in Tiesa (Lithuanian Pravda) titled: 'What do such literary lessons teach'. It was written in a Stalinist, in a blunt tone, signed by two "affected" teachers. The performance was banned for a while. Meanwhile, the ban, like other similar moves, was often motivated not only by ideology but also under the guise of ideology: it was easier to settle personal scores, deal with competitors, push one's own candidates, and at the same time to push others to stay within the boundaries.

Did you also have account reconciliations in the composition exams?

Those were interesting cases altogether (laughs).

You write that Julius Juzeliūnas and Bronius Kutavičius supported Ramblings.

And Rimantas Janeliauskas also…

And what about the others? Was it ignorance of music or was it a matter of settling scores?

Vytautas Laurušas, who after the sudden death of Eduardas Balsys became the head of the composition department, after an article in Pravda received a call from the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Lithuania that something had to be done, that "measures had to be taken". And so, during one exam, to the sound of Merz-machine, Laurušas turned around and said: "That's enough, it’s clear for us, turn it off". Only a few minutes out of 45 had passed. "That's enough, that's enough," he kept saying, but I didn't give in and stop the recording. And so the whole of Ramblings played through. Laurušas was furious and suggested to the commission that I should get the lowest grade, in other words be expelled from the Conservatoire, so that the matter could be put right, but Juzeliūnas, Kutavičius and Janeliauskas stood firmly against him. After the exam, everyone came out very heated. And Laurušas, as head of the department, in a friendly way as if nothing had happened, said during the discussion that, well, comrade Nakas has a very difficult character, but here he is working in such an interesting way ... (laughs). Classic. If they had thrown me out, it might have been like Shakespeare for me - a drama or a tragedy, but when it ended with the highest grade... It was all right!

Probably the first thing a listener of your record will notice before hearing the music is the titles. In my mind, they naturally fall into two groups: poetic ("lonelier than the rest of us", "winter. lake", "bird on the branch of a voice") and "machine-like" ("vox-machine", "merz-machine"). Does this dichotomy also exist in the music of the "Rebound"? Between the poetic source and…

...yes, the industrial, the machinic. I think Merz-machine was the first piece in Lithuanian music to have a machine-like name. That's how that curse came about for our small group of composers. At that time Rytis Mažulis was serving in the Soviet army, he started there, and a year later he wrote Twittering Machine. When our compositions became somewhat popular, the label of machinists stuck (laughs).

So in the music of Ramblings, there are really two completely different worlds: on the one side, a static and melancholic ocean of peace, and on the other side, three brutal "machines" crossing that ocean. The composition of the cycle did not appear immediately, and if it had, the recordings would probably have been different. Here I had to use what was already recorded, and then do some additional composing. I had no intention of combining fragments of the music of the play into a composition. It was Balakauskas who pushed me... And I didn't show Juzeliūnas, my composition professor - with whom I was studying in the fourth year - the music until I was able to show the whole recording at once, and maybe only a week before the exam. He listened with concern and said, "OK, that's all right", even though I could see that there was some anxiety in his eyes (laughs).

In the context of my studies, the Ramblings were like a parallel, underground process, a conspiracy. But nothing stopped me from doing it. Later on, the music was copied onto cassette tapes, whoever was interested would record it. Then I showed it many times in courses abroad, and there were some very interesting things said, especially about the strange tuning and the minority, the "biggest noise", some kind of "Lithuanian sound" - nobody here has ever talked about it before.

What was playing on your turntable, on your tape recorder at the time? What were you listening to?

We listened to a lot of things back then, it was such a strange cocktail. Maybe from the sixth grade we went into art-rock, from about the ninth grade we got into jazz, and probably in the tenth grade modernism, avant-garde - all in a row, in enormous quantities.

And is any of this reflected in Ramblings?... Well, at the beginning of November 1984, Balakauskas received a parcel from Romas Sakadolskis, a colleague at Voice of America, containing a mighty collection of vinyls (probably he’d indicated to Sakadolskis what interested him). Balakauskas would occasionally organise miniature sessions at his house, which I would attend. It was then that I heard Steve Reich's Tehillim, which I liked very much, Alexander Mosolov's Zavod, a chrestomathic example of the short-lived Russian futurism, and I already knew of Arthur Honegger's Pacific 231 from my school days. So when I needed to decide quickly on music for a performance a couple of months later, I immediately thought of the idea of a machine. Then I wanted to make more noises, and I even took a few cavaliers into the recording studio, but I just didn't have time to get them out during the recording: the work was going like crazy. And I realised that there was plenty of everything already...

I was still listening to a lot of jazz in those days, and I had a great appreciation for giants like Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Jean-Luc Ponty, Weather Report - I can't mention them all. I always liked cool jazz, Earth, Wind and Fire, Pink Floyd, Genesis (we all went through those illnesses). In other music in those days, I was a great admirer of Anton Webern and Alban Berg, and of course his Wozzeck, and also Olivier Messiaen, and certainly many others.

But I guess you weren't only attracted to Western music of the new age?

I'm only talking about one flank of sympathies and interests here. Because there was actually a point in my life when I had to make a choice at the end of my first conducting course. I felt that conducting a choir was not for me at all, that I was not interested in memorising academic - classical and romantic repertoire, which is completely alien and unattractive... Then I was enchanted by early music: the Medieval and Renaissance layers interested me furiously. When at the beginning of my second year we were taken to the kolkhoz to dig up potatoes, I had my head cleaved before I even started the work, and I was given academic leave and the opportunity to think about what to do next: whether to take up early music or modern music. Because composers like Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume Du Fay, Jacob Obrecht, Johannes Ockeghem and Gilles Binchois have been my greatest passion - and for a long time, even now, I love their music, just like Gregorian chant. I was also very interested in ethnic music from different countries, and many other things. It was a kind of cultural and geographical wandering, like Ramblings (laughs). Although the information possibilities for studying this kind of music were more modest than they are now, it was possible to think about a lot of things calmly and without distraction…

What made the decision?

I chose new music, for patriotic reasons. In Lithuania at that time there was absolutely not enough dissemination of new music in modern forms, and I wanted to give Lithuanian music itself a much bigger boost. And so, in 1982, my ensemble appeared with oratorios specially written for us by Kutavičius - and a long and interesting odyssey began... I was interested in the combination of extreme simplicity and terrible complexity in one. As the ideal of an ascetic and purified thing.

I was also very impressed by the occasional recordings of Buddhist music. There used to be these tapes with no information notes - and I still don't know what was on them, but I loved it, it stuck with me... I guess the rhetoric and the atmosphere that I discovered there influenced some of the decisions for the Ramblings. Because Ramblings was written very quickly, in a good week, when there was no time to think any longer, and all sorts of experiences could land in there as if without any filters.

For many years afterwards, the recordings of Ramblings have lain there, probably dead if not for a few fateful rewriting operations. First from multichannel tape to plain, but not new, tape, then a few more transfers, and then in 2000 from the almost crumbling tape to CD. At that time we tried to reconstruct the sound, but it was almost impossible. That's why the sound is still a bit tired, just because time is merciless to tapes - there's nothing you can do.

How do you deal with the creative process in the face of circumstances beyond your control?

External influences probably come inevitably, asked or unasked. I've always been attracted to the opinions of the non-musician world, right from the beginning. As more truthful, more real in its own way. I'm very happy when it's not musicians who talk about music but completely random people who say maybe just a few words but who grasp something that musicians, because of their professional routine, can no longer articulate - or simply don't hear anymore because they listen to it differently. You could say that this is an ideological attitude, because it is probably not always necessarily so. But for me, this kind of opinion of non-professionals is often more impressive as an impulse and a radiance coming from somewhere else, where it’s difficult for musicians to get inside.

I hardly pay any attention to the interests of musicians with an academic haircut, because the wider world is more important to me. It's just my kind of thing, it's like a constant encoded within me. I'm interested in a kind of irregularity, distortion, inadequacy - I'm not afraid of it, I'm attracted to it. Again, it's probably all intertwined here, it just so happens that some of Kutavičius's work has quite similar principles and I've dealt with a lot of them over the years. There's also sympathy for the jazz world and for the spontaneous gesture, which, because of its spontaneity, can be much better articulated than sitting at a desk and working out algorithms... Because in those cases, the composer turns into a kind of computer or a kind of artificial intelligence: he too often puts on the work of a primitive calculating machine and finds himself at the beginning of a long road, like Sisyphus rolling a stone aimlessly.

So is spontaneity worth embracing, worth letting in as a helper for creativity?

Spontaneity is not something to be feared, but I think it’s determined by human nature. Some people rely on it, others don't give in and even panic about it - they want a completely ordered, cobbled image, a smooth, sloping, polished geometry.

Kutavičius sometimes came up with good descriptions of music: "A supermarket! Everything is shiny and uninteresting". I like the Zen attitude: a garden is not beautiful when all the leaves are swept away, but when, after sweeping away the leaves, you shake the tree and some of them fall again. That is more interesting.

The music of Ramblings was for me a very old and forgotten garden that I didn't take care of, had written everything off... But a few years ago I realised it could all come back and find its place in the present, in these times of strangeness and melancholy again.

It's subjective, it might look very different to others, and I would tolerate it if someone said about my music: it's all counted, dead, unfeeling and so on. I'm used to it, I've heard it hundreds of times. But for me, the Ramblings album seems to be a spontaneous act of creativity, more than any of my other works.

Did it seem spontaneous at the time the music was created, or is that the current release?

Both then and now. For the recordings, I invited the jazz ace Labutis. His improvisations were later turned into vocal music. But also the way the cycle was composed... I wouldn't do it that way now, and I wouldn't have done it in those days - the circumstances forced me to. I had to go beyond my own attitudes, to tolerate a completely different image of myself. That's not a bad thing. It's worse when it starts to become clogged, when routine decisions start oozing in, when you don't get out of your own garden. I’m a fierce and scathing critic of such cases, without mercy. Because what is music written for? Maybe only because you are not satisfied with anything that has existed so far. That is almost the only reason. There is infinitely more music than there should be, but it keeps appearing because somebody is always missing something, can't find it anywhere, and tries to make it again.

And a composer should not be like an office clerk. He is better suited to the role of the type of guy who is constantly being thrown out of somewhere, who, like Robinson Crusoe, knows how to survive in almost impossible conditions, and who creates something that is interesting to at least three of his friends (laughs).

It's preaching, of course, but that's the way it is, you can't get away from it. Writing is a very big word nowadays, because you can't say that putting notes together on a computer is real writing. It's more a question of geometrical combinations, drawing, designing and other things. It’s no longer that kind of writing that used to associate writing music with writing words. There are people like Algirdas Martinaitis, for example, who writes notes at crazy speeds by hand, with a pen - and I envy him a lot. But I lost that, so to speak, deliberately, because I found a lot of advantages in that other method.

Composing is such a strange activity... niche, marginal... and the world would be just fine without it, it's really not a compulsory activity (laughs).


Salomėja Jonynaitė – soprano
Vytautas Labutis – alto & tenor saxophone
Dainius Sverdiolas – synth
Vaclovas Augustinas – acoustic guitar, cello
Birutė Vainiūnaitė – piano
Julius Geniušas – voice, percussion
Romualdas Gražinis – voice
Tomas Juzeliūnas – voice
Šarūnas Nakas – voice, percussion

Lyrics: Almis Grybauskas
Sound engineer: Eugenijus Motiejūnas
Mastering: Artūras Pugačiauskas, Arkady Vikhorev
Graphic design: Liudas Parulskis
Producer: Radvilė Buivydienė

Produced at Darkroom Records cutting studio in Vilnius.

Supported by the Lithuanian Council for Culture and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania.

Album is now available via MusicLithuania.com, Bandcamp, Discogs and streaming platforms.