Taming the air, with Arminas Bižys and Simonas Kaupinis

  • Dec. 8, 2023

For many of us, air seems like a given. Every day we suck it in through our nostrils without even thinking about its nature, its properties or its enormous influence on life’s processes. It’s only when we’re underwater or high up in the mountains that we find ourselves – damn, there’s no way without air! But air isn’t just about breathing. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to hear because it’s the vibrations in it that create the sounds that reach our ears. Two of our country’s finest wind players, saxophonist Arminas Bižys and tuba player Simonas Kaupinis, have joined us to explore this essential element.

These two friends, armed with their wind instruments, are as active as wind spinners. They regularly appear in various bands, and sometimes they shake up foreign stages. Together, they play in jazz or contemporary academic music ensembles such as Synaesthesis or Improdimensija Orchestra, but individually, their fields of activity are almost limitless. Arminas plays in the saxophone quartet Katarsis4, the Afrobeat band Ojibo Afrobeat, the vocal-instrumental punk band Lapkričio Dvidešimtosios Orkestras, the jazz-punk group Džiazlaif, and a bunch of other bands with a sound that is pretty distant from jazz or contemporary academic music. The same goes for Simonas, who is not afraid to experiment with the likes of Ferry Good Company and Oak Birches or to play meaty tuba rhythms in the jazz-rock group Kanalizacija.

We talk to these musicians about air. Although in the Lithuanian tradition, talking about the air means talking about meaningless things and cooling your mouth, when we sit down to chat with Arminas and Simonas, talking about the air takes on a much more solid layer of meaning.

The Synaesthesis effect – and a balance between academic and improvised music

As the introductory part of the text shows, Bižys and Kaupinis are far from new to the Lithuanian music scene. The paths of the two former students constantly cross, whether on stage or just going out for a pint of beer. But it took them several years to mature into a duo and debut in this format. But, as they say, better later than never.

"Arminas and I were classmates at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre (LMTA) for a while, but when he went on sabbatical we broke up. In 2016-17, we played together in the Ministry of the Interior Orchestra. After my studies, we started playing in Synaesthesis, which I joined in 2020, a bit later than Arminas. I’ve also played with him in the quartet Katarsis4. In fact, we've known each other for a long time, but we haven’t played as a duo," Kaupinis recounts, adding: "The duo was born organically. We just sat down one day and decided it would be interesting to play something together. That's how the whole process started, leading us to where we are today."

According to Arminas, the key momentum came when they started playing in Synaesthesis. There, the search for common points of contact began, driven by the desire to combine academic and improvisational music.

"The turning point came when Simonas joined Synaesthesis. We played together in several programmes and started talking about our search for common ground. His arrival made me think about the compatibility between composed contemporary academic music and improvisation. Gradually, under the Synaesthesis umbrella, we started working together and exploring the possibilities of achieving an intermediate state between academic music and improvisation," Arminas explains.

Debut at Kontaktas

The first performance of Simonas and Arminas as a duo took place in October 2021 at the Kontaktas Contemporary Music Festival. On that occasion, they presented the programme Konzeptmusik during which they performed four works: Antanas Kučinskas' Tuba & Saxophone, Snieguolė Dikčiūtė's Convention, Agnė Matulevičiūtė's Music for Mars and Simonas Nekrošius' Palydovas.A.B. It wasn’t easy for these musicians to perform the works of composers with very different styles, especially with both having to play while floating in the air during Music for Mars. Konzeptmusik required not only flawless musical but also physical preparation. According to the musicians, their debut performance at Kontaktas gave them great impetus for further creative explorations.

"The performance at Kontaktas was not a programme that was entirely created by us. The festival itself chose the composers and the pieces that Arminas and I had to work with. It was more a performance where we put the composers' ideas into practice," says Simonas, adding, "The experience was valuable and opened our eyes to where we wanted to go. We realised that we wanted to be in full control and not rely on other people's choices, which limited our ability to fully enjoy the creative process".

Arminas shares the same approach but with an emphasis on freedom of choice; he also points out that he is primarily concerned with the sound rather than the idea behind it, the latter often leading to over-conceptualisation.

"In preparing for Kontaktas, we felt that the compositions were not entirely conducive to our instruments and were a bit distant from our own tastes. In addition, I feel that in Konzeptmusik we concentrated a bit too much on the conceptual rather than on sound or music in general," he said. "But the lessons we learned during our debut were an additional impetus for us to clarify our priorities and answer where we wanted to go in the future". 

The birth of Taming the Air

Once Arminas and Simonas performed at Kontaktas and had all their ducks in a row, they started working on the new programme Taming the Air. It brought together the musical ideas of artists who are relevant and familiar to them – Arturas Bumšteinas, Dominykas Digimas, Simonas Nekrošius – under one roof. The programme embodied the duo's ambition to combine both improvisational and contemporary academic music.

Taming the Air was presented for the first and so far only time to the Lithuanian public in April 2022. It was subsequently performed by Kaupinis and Bižys in Greece and the Netherlands, and in November this year Simonas and Arminas presented it at the UK's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. In addition, Music Information Centre Lithuania presented a special video film of the programme made in the basement of the Composers’ House in Vilnius, created together with the artists Kristijonas Dirsė and Nojus Drąsutis.

"We wanted to work with people we could express our opinions with, in complete openness, and not be afraid to find creative solutions together. It's much easier to do that with people you know and trust, so we chose Bumšteinas, Digimas and Nekrošius. Of course, their own work is equally important, and Arminas and I are very impressed with it," Simonas explained about the Taming the Air project. "They are very different composers, but that's the fun of it, because it turned out to be a much more interesting programme. There's never a dull moment, you hear a lot of changes, and most importantly it all comes together as a whole. Of course, we haven't avoided eclecticism, but that doesn't detract at all.

Simonas’ colleague Arminas makes no secret that when choosing composers and compositions he didn't give a second thought to whether or not they would be compatible. He also says that the company of Arturas, Dominykas and Simonas had to include female creative input.

"When we chose what to play, we didn't think about the result. We didn't think about whether or not we’d be able to match the chosen pieces. In the end, when we finally put everything together and played the full programme, we saw that we were happy with the result. By the way, the programme was supposed to include a piece by Jūra Elena Šedytė, but due to the large number of works, she didn't have time to write a composition for us. For this reason, we lengthened the initial part of the programme, giving more space for improvisation", says Arminas.

Aiming for immersion in sound

Arminas and Simonas learned their lessons after their debut performance. Working on Taming the Air, not only did they work with composers they knew well and with works that were relevant to them, but they also tried to concentrate on sound, to go back to an acoustic sound and avoid hiding behind a veil of conceptual ideas.

"We concentrated on sound. We wanted to look back at sound, like going back to being a stone-age man who smashes something and makes a sound, and we didn't hide behind fancy concepts. Personally, I think a good concept is when it fits into one sentence or two words. I don't really like conceptual sheets in contemporary art or music, where you get lost and it's unclear what's what," Simonas explains, adding that there is almost no conceptualism in Taming the Air and that the title was born only at the very end of the work, “when we had everything in place and were looking for something that would tie everything together. Taming the Air just seemed like the perfect choice."

Arminas, who plays saxophone, also emphasises the importance of acoustic sound when explaining the origin of the programme's title.

"We missed the acoustic, simple sound. Neither Simonas nor I wanted any playbacks, electronics, etc. The name Taming the Air was fitting as we were specifically focused on sound extraction and acoustic nuances, and working with air is very important in these processes. And there's not much conceptualism behind it. We don't want to pretend that we're playing something that's supposedly very conceptual, though, because most of the time it just turns into a mess and doing who knows what," Arminas says.

Technical challenges and working with composers

The content of Taming the Air may surprise even the most experienced connoisseurs of sound art and experimental music. While the compositions of Bumšteinas and Digimas are performed in a more-or-less traditional way, the piece by sound artist Nekrošius is impressive in its technical implementation – Arminas and Simonas feed their instruments with air pumped by an air compressor and produce sounds by controlling the valves of their instruments. This crazy idea required a lot of work.

"For Taming the Air, it was really cool to work with the idea of using a compressor, which was suggested by Nekrošius. We approached him as a sound artist and engineer to come up with ideas on how we could play by ourselves without blowing air. He suggested using a compressor, built the whole technological side and left us free to use it for our own musical ideas," says Simonas. "The idea was quite challenging. Managing the airflow wasn't even the most difficult part. The saxophone has a tongue that vibrates to produce the sound, whereas on the tuba it's the lips that do it, so we had to find a way to change that. We ended up making membranes out of cut-off balloons, which turned into mouthpieces. And that's not all: by clamping the membrane differently each time, we can produce different pitches. It wasn't easy to manage it all".

Working with three composers and artists was an interesting and enriching experience for both Simonas and Arminas. The three artists are not only characterised by their different creative styles but also by their working methods, which are expressed by both absolute freedom and strict supervision.

"Arturas was quite precise, but in a good way. He used to kick us in the arse sometimes. When it seemed that we were working with our usual sounds, that we weren't squeezing out anything interesting, he would make us pause and point out nuances that we weren't paying attention to with his outside gaze. It's exciting to see how composers work in different ways. One is precise, another is more philosophical, and yet another gives us the freedom to do whatever we want," Arminas revealed.

Kaupinis also highlights Bumšteinas’ important point of view that opened different perspectives and tried to retrospectively review the differences in working with all three composers.

"What was really interesting about working with Arturas was that he would point out sounds that we, as improvisers, no longer found interesting. His composition consists of six sutartinės (traditional Lithuanian polyphonic songs) and we had to play each of them differently. Together with the composer, we diligently searched for ways of performing. There wasn’t a single rehearsal where Arturas himself was not present," says Simonas. "Digimas has a quite distinctive compositional style. We met him while working on his piece. As Dominykas' composition is very tonal, he was trying to find the right intervals between the tuba and the saxophone that sounded good. The work with Dominykas was more intensive in the initial stage, and later we met to polish only certain nuances as needed. And with Nekrošius, the situation is completely free. He built us a tool from a compressor, hoses, etc., and left us completely to our own devices – we could do whatever we wanted."


Saxophone – Arminas Bižys
Tuba – Simonas Kaupinis
Video – Kristijonas Dirsė, Nojus Drąsutis
Producers – Lina Aselskytė, Radvilė Buivydienė
Filmed at the Composers’ House, Vilnius

Partners – Lithuanian Composers’ Union, MAMA Studios
Funded by the Lithuanian Council for Culture and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania