Contemporary Lithuanian Music
By Jūratė Katinaitė
The Lithuanian state is only a century old; however, it has come a much longer way in terms of cultural life. In the 16th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the largest state in Europe, its rulers and nobles were related to the most noble dynasties of the old continent. Due to the growing threat from Russia, it created a union with the Kingdom of Poland. The time of the Republic of the Two Nations saw great economic and cultural growth, when the faces of its cities were formed by famous European architects, and musicians hired from Italy played in the choirs of the Royal Palace. Vilnius was one of the cities in Europe where opera was first performed. The genre that was born in Florence at the turn of the 16th and the 17th centuries reached Vilnius earlier than many other European centres, thanks to the Italian composer Marco Scacchi, who worked as a Kapellmeister in the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania. In 1636, Scacchi’s opera Il ratto di Helena, which unfortunately has not survived, was staged there. For comparison, the first opera was performed in London only two decades later in 1656, and only in Paris in 1673. The developing cultural traditions of the Republic of the Two Nations were halted by the occupation by Imperial Russia, which lasted from 1795 until the First World War. This was a particularly dramatic period, because the Lithuanian language and printed matter were forbidden, so the national cultural movement formed underground.
However, during this time, the most famous Lithuanian artist Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis (1875–1911) was born. His works continue to provide inspiration to the national consciousness and the national culture today. Čiurlionis was a professional composer, who studied at the Music Institute in Warsaw and at the Leipzig Conservatory. His early compositions echo Romantic traditions, while his later piano preludes are already harbingers of Modernism, and even Serialism. In this regard, he was ahead of the discoveries of the Second Viennese School. Arnold Schoenberg introduced an atonal 12 – tone compositional technique (dodecaphony) in 1921, but Čiurlionis used authentic series of sounds in his preludes as early as 1904. However, the discoveries by a composer who lived far from the centres of European music unfortunately went unnoticed, and did not become an important fact in the music history of the 20th century. Another factor was that in the final years of his life, Čiurlionis composed fewer and fewer pieces, and tended towards Symbolist painting, in which, among other things, he conveyed a musical mind, depicting fugues and sonatas (musical cycles). His early death took away the possibility of him establishing himself in pivotal Modernist movements. Before the First World War, Romain Rolland became interested in his work, and planned a trip to Lithuania, which could have provided an opportunity for Čiurlionis’ legacy to find a fitting place in the art catalogues of the early 20th century. Unfortunately, the war disrupted the French writer’s plans. Now we can only speculate what Čiurlionis’ role in the history of art would be if Rolland had realised his mission and written the Lithuanian artist’s biography …
The newly established Lithuanian state realised how unique the value of the artist’s legacy was. The interwar period saw the performance of his symphonic poems In the Forest (Miške, 1901) and The Sea (Jūra, 1907), and other works, and the founding in 1921 of the M.K. Čiurlionis Art Museum in the temporary capital Kaunas (Vilnius was occupied by Poland). In the Soviet era, an immense piece of research into the work of the artist was conducted by Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, who later became the leader of Sąjūdis, and the first leader of independent Lithuania. Thanks to his efforts, the first International M.K. Čiurlionis Piano and Organ Competition took place in Vilnius in 1991, and is now held every four years. Large solo exhibitions of the painter’s works were organised in Paris at the Musée d’Orsay (2003–2004) and at the Royal Palace of Milan (2010–2011), and smaller exhibitions have been held in other European countries, Japan, Canada and the USA. Landsbergis edited a complete collection of Čiurlionis’ compositions for piano, which is increasingly attracting attention from pianists abroad.
As with other nations, folklore has played an important role in the Lithuanian national consciousness. Equally important were the underground choirs that started springing up in opposition to Imperial Russian oppression, and which received a strong impetus after 1904 when the ban on using the Lithuanian language was lifted. Lyrical, expressive and sonorous songs were written by Vincas Kudirka (his Tautiška giesmė, composed in 1898, became the official national anthem when the Lithuanian state was established), Česlovas Sasnauskas, Mikas Petrauskas, Juozas Tallat-Kelpša, Stasys Šimkus and Juozas Naujalis. They continue to be cherished by choirs and loved by the public, and are appreciated by foreign audiences. The choral movement became even more active in 1918 when Lithuania became an independent state, and produced a phenomenon unique to the Baltic States, the song festivals. The first Song Festival was held in Kaunas in 1924, with 86 participating choirs (about 3,000 singers). The festival was held several times before the Second World War, and, surprisingly, was not prohibited when Soviet rule was imposed. Of course, its repertoire changed, and it included songs that praised the Communist Party and Soviet life; however, the earlier Lithuanian songs were not banned. The Song Festival tradition was nurtured by the diaspora community, too. In 1990, when Lithuania regained its independence, World Lithuanian Song Festivals, with Lithuanian dancers and singers at home and from the diaspora, began to be held. In 2003, Unesco proclaimed the Song Festival tradition and symbolism of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to be a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, and in 2008 the tradition was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The Litvak community, which used to be numerous and lived in Vilnius and other cities and towns in Lithuania, suffered tragically in the Holocaust during the Second World War, but many Litvaks were scattered around the world at the beginning of the 20th century. There are many world-famous musicians among them and their descendents, such as the American composers Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and David Lang, the pianist Leopold Godowski, the singer and songwriter Bob Dylan, and others. Probably the Litvak most closely associated with Vilnius is the renowned violinist and educator Jascha Heifetz (1901–1987), who was born in the city, and played public concerts at a young age, mesmerising audiences with his virtuosity. At the age of nine, he left with his parents and enrolled in the St Petersburg Conservatory. The famous violinist and educator Leopold Auer undertook to watch over the boy wonder, and secured for the Heifetz family a special privilege, permission to live in the capital of Imperial Russia, which was usually forbidden to Jews. Soon afterwards, Heifetz began performing in countries of the West, debuting in Berlin to great critical acclaim with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Nikisch. He was already predicted to be the greatest violinist of his era. In 1917, escaping from the war and the revolutionary mood in Russia, the Heifetz family left for the USA, where shortly afterwards the young violinist debuted in the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York. That concert opened the way for him on to major stages of the world, and to the most influential recording studios. Heifetz became the most famous violinist of the first half of the 20th century. In the later part of his career, he was well known as an educator, working privately and at the University of Southern California. Among his students were Erick Friedman, Pierre Amoyal, Rudolf Koelman, Ayke Agus, and other outstanding violinists.
In 2001, the International Jascha Heifetz Competition for Violinists began to be held in Vilnius, the first competition in the world with the famous virtuoso’s name, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of this renowned Litvak. Taking place every four years, and coming under the aegis of the European Union of Music Competitions for Youth (EMCY), the event is not only gathering an increasingly numerous community of participants, but is also establishing itself as one of the world’s most prestigious professional music competitions. The president of the jury is the legendary virtuoso and repertoire visionary Gidon Kremer, the founder and the leader of the Kremerata Baltica orchestra, which includes young Lithuanian musicians among its members.
The first period of Lithuanian independence lasted for just 22 years, from 1918 until the Soviet occupation in 1940, but in that short time the country made an incredibly big economic, social and cultural leap, from being a backwater in the Russian Empire to a prosperous, stable state, with rapidly growing cities. Kaunas, the temporary capital, grew from being a provincial town with cobbled streets to a modern European city, with grand plans for development, new bridges, properly paved streets, a mains water supply and public transport. It is one of the few European cities that was planned and built in this short time, and its regular and stylish Modernist architecture gives it a particular charm. In 2017, the Modernist architecture of interwar Kaunas was inscribed on the Unesco tentative heritage list.
The young country’s culture and art developed with the same enthusiasm and vigour: a number of museums, a university and a drama theatre opened. The national opera company and the Kaunas Music School were established in 1920. In 1933, Juozas Gruodis (1884-1948), the first professor of composition, founded the Kaunas Conservatory, which trained over 100 composers and performers up till the end of the war (afterwards, the conservatory, the opera theatre and many other institutions moved to Vilnius).
It was not long before a new generation of professional composers appeared, loyal to the stylistics of Romanticism adorned with themes from Lithuanian folklore. Some followed in the footsteps of Professor Gruodis (Kazimieras Viktoras Banaitis, Antanas Belazaras and Jonas Nabažas), and tended towards a Modernist musical language, but without moving away from folk motifs, for creating a national tradition of music was an aesthetic, cultural and even political aim.
However, the more radical modernists Julius Gaidelis, Vladas Jakubėnas, Jeronimas Kačinskas and Vytautas Bacevičius expressed themselves in a much more original way. As the front line approached in 1944, they all moved to the West, and continued their creative work in the USA.
Jeronimas Kačinskas (1907–2005) became part of the international contemporary music movement before the Second World War. Between 1929 and 1931, he studied microtone music under Alois Hába at Prague Conservatory, and became one of the most notable followers of Hába’s school. His work developed the athematic style and microtonality propagated by Hába, and was rightfully called the earliest Lithuanian avant-garde music. For many decades, it was believed that all the scores of his microtonal compositions had disappeared in the war. Only at the beginning of the 21st century were two compositions that had previously been considered lost discovered in Czech archives, and performed in Vilnius in 2017. Kačinskas’ microtonal compositions, recovered after many decades, allow early examples of Lithuanian avant-garde music to be integrated into the modernisation processes that were taking place in Central and Eastern Europe, as an alternative to Western centres of the musical avant-garde.
A crucial figure in the prewar musical avant-garde was the composer and pianist Vytautas Bacevičius (1905–1970), the second most important persona in Lithuanian music after M.K. Čiurlionis. Because of the historical circumstances (he struggled to earn a living abroad, and lacked opportunities to promote his work, although he did hold eight recitals at the Carnegie Hall in New York), Bacevičius is finally only now coming to the notice of researchers of Modernism. International record companies became interested in his compositions at the beginning of the 21st century. Several CDs were released by Toccata Classics (UK), and one by Naxos in 2015, in which several of his concertos for piano and orchestra, as well as a symphonic suite, were played by Gabrielius Alekna, a pianist residing in New York and a graduate of the Juillard School, with the Lithuanian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the British conductor Christopher Lyndon-Gee. They achieved wide recognition. ‘All his music has an Eastern European modern chromatic expansiveness. The album shows us a composer that perhaps had Skriabin as an influential forebear but otherwise seems to move within his own orbit, neither archaic nor Serialist-Darmstadtian. It is music well-thought through and takes a few hearings to assimilate,’ wrote Grego Applegate Edwards in his blog Classical Modern Music Review on 26 May 2015. Living in the USA, unlike most Modernists who ended up there, Bacevičius did not change his style in order to adapt to the American market, but developed his idea of cosmic music further, and after some time gave up his career as a pianist and devoted himself fully to composing works of a mystical character. It is now finally returning both to the musical memory and reflection, and to concert halls.
At the end of the Second World War, many composers and performers moved to the West to escape Soviet rule. Those who remained in Lithuania experienced ideological persecution, which caused a considerable change in the style of their music, as the new government promoted Socialist Realism. However, after some time, particularly gifted composers, such as Balys Dvarionas, Stasys Vainiūnas, Julius Juzeliūnas, Vytautas Barkauskas, Antanas Rekašius and Feliksas Bajoras, found a way to express themselves authentically. One of the most outstanding and talented composers of the postwar decades is Eduardas Balsys (1919–1984), whose music charms audiences with its romantic flight, emotionality, modern musical language, and impressive orchestral features. He was also one of the most prominent teachers of composition. His concerto for violin, piano and orchestra Dramatic frescoes(Dramatinės freskos), as well as several concertos for violin and a symphonic concerto for organ and orchestra, became classics of the genre, as did his ballet Egle, Queen of the Grass Snakes (Eglė – žalčių karalienė, 1965) and the opera Journey to Tilsit (Kelionė į Tilžę, 1980), based on a novel by the German writer Herman Sudermann, who was originally from the Klaipėda region. (Before the Second World War, the German director Veit Harlan made a film based on it.) The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre will stage Excursion to Tilsit, one of the most impressive Lithuanian operas, in 2019, to mark the centenary of the birth of Balsys.
In the 1960s, Lithuanian music experienced a sudden modernisation leap, which was influenced by the political ‘thaw’, connections established with other Soviet music communities, and the shifting cultural paradigm. The younger generation gave in to the spell of avant-garde ideas. But a real and core renewal of Lithuanian music took place in the 1970s, when ideas of cultural resistance, national identity and creative freedom grew. Lithuanian society received a cultural shock in the form of compositions by Bronius Kutavičius (b. 1932). Having tested various avant-garde techniques, at the start of the 1970s, Kutavičius veered towards asceticism, repetitiveness (later described as Baltic Minimalism), and historical, national and religious themes, and the theme of cultural identity. Rather like an anthropologist, he reconstructed archaic cultural rituals, values and emotions, and reformed the concept of a musical composition as a sound structure, bringing back narrativity, which was devalued by the avant-garde, in a new form. Inspiration by the other arts (literature, fine art, folk art, folklore), the historicising imagination, theatrical gestures and connections between sound and spacetime, are important in his music. Kutavičius’ effective and communicative compositions, such as Last Pagan Rites(Paskutinės pagonių apeigos), From the Yotvingian Stone (Iš jotvingių akmens) and Magic Circle of Sanskrit (Magiškas sanskrito ratas), overcome the barrier of distrust and hostility by audiences towards contemporary music, and gather together not only musicians, but also poets, writers, painters and intellectuals.
The other prominent leader of that generation Osvaldas Balakauskas (b. 1937), on the contrary, is a champion of ‘pure’ music, who avoids suggesting any connotations to listeners. His talent, perfected by a symphonic style and serious work as an educator, has had an immense influence on younger generations of composers. His five symphonies are classics of modern Lithuanian music.
The 1970s saw the debut of the generation known as the Neoromantics, influenced by the aforementioned stylistic rupture, who soon became its driving force. Its most notable representatives are Anatolijus Šenderovas, Mindaugas Urbaitis, Algirdas Martinaitis, Vidmantas Bartulis and Onutė Narbutaitė, who later renounced Neoromantic aesthetics and took a different creative path.
Some composers veered towards musicals and rock opera, which were experiencing a sudden breakthrough at the time, the most creatively expressive composers being Viačeslavas Ganelinas, Giedrius Kuprevičius and Laimutis Vilkončius.
After the 1980s, the music scene experienced an influx of the Machinist generation (Rytis Mažulis, Ričardas Kabelis, Šarūnas Nakas, Gintaras Sodeika and Antanas Kučinskas), resounding the aesthetics of urbanism, for which techniques from the canon of the Middle Ages and American Minimalism were used. Other composers of that generation tended more towards the Neoromantic tradition (Vaclovas Augustinas, Loreta Narvilaitė and Zita Bružaitė).
Several generations of composers have already debuted since the restoration of independence. Those who set out on their creative path at the end of the 20th century have already had an opportunity to study at master-classes abroad, so their creative output does not have common features conditioned by place, and they tend to identify with the international context. These are Žibuoklė Martinaitytė, Vykintas Baltakas, Ramūnas Motiekaitis, Vytautas V. Jurgutis, Raminta Šerkšnytė, Diana Čemerytė, Marius Baranauskas, Martynas Bialobžeskis, Justė Janulytė and Artūras Bumšteinas. Thanks to their established contacts, their work spreads more easily in various foreign musical media.
Composers of the youngest generation tend not to wait around for commissions and appraisals. They initiate presentations of their work themselves, and perfect their performance, so that they are able to help each other realise their ideas. In this respect, the most productive and gifted are Lina Lapelytė, Mykolas Natalevičius, Rūta Vitkauskaitė, Rita Mačiliūnaitė, Jonas Jurkūnas, Julius Aglinskas and Dominykas Digimas.
National institutions are the most important supporters of Lithuania’s musical life. The main role in promoting music is played by the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Society (LNPS), which also functions as a concert institution and a ticketing agent. It is responsible for the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra (LNSO, led by Modestas Pitrėnas, one of the country’s most distinguished artists, a former music director of the Latvian National Opera, and also currently senior conductor at the St Gallen Theatre, Switzerland), the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra (LCO, artistic director Sergey Krylov), the chamber music ensemble Musica Humana (artistic director Algirdas Vizgirda), the Vilnius State Quartet, and the M.K. Čiurlionis Quartet. The LNSO is at the heart of the largest national projects, and has lately developed a tour circuit that includes not only European countries but also China. The Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra travelled on tour around the globe while it was run by its founder Saulius Sondeckis, and now performs both Classical music and Lithuanian compositions at international festivals. The record companies Teldec Classics and EMC Deutsche Grammophon have released records by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, to great critical acclaim. Not only does the LNPS organise the prestigious Vilnius Festival, which has a wide spectrum of genres under its umbrella, but also many smaller projects, the most successful of which is the biennial Vilnius Piano Festival. Its artistic director, the prominent pianist Mūza Rubackytė, who lives in Paris, where she is developing her solo career, attracts distinguished world performers and develops the festival’s creative programming strategy. She also implements educational activities, and encourages young pianists, by facilitating opportunities for performing at international festivals.
The music scene in the Lithuanian capital is considerably enriched by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1989 by Gintaras Rinkevičius, who continues to lead it. He was previously head of the Latvian National Opera and the Novosibirsk Academic Symphony Orchestra, and has recently been invited to lead the Liepaja Symphony Orchestra in Latvia. Apart from its frequent concert programmes and annual tours, the orchestra also plays an important role as a partner of Vilnius City Opera.
Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra (artistic director Konstantin Orbelian), together with the Kaunas State Choir (artistic director Petras Bingelis), is not only a formative presence on the music scene in the second largest city in Lithuania, but also an active participant in prestigious international projects. The CD versions of the operas Simon Boccanegra (2015) and Rigoletto (2017), released by the American record company Delos, and enjoying particularly wide international popularity, were recorded with the participation of the Kaunas State Choir and Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Orbelian, with the opera stars Dmitry Hvorostovsky, Barbara Frittoli, Ildar Abrdazakov, Stefano Secco, Nadine Sierra, and others.
Klaipėda Concert Hall nurtures music life in Klaipėda. It also organises the activities of the Klaipėda Chamber Orchestra and the Aukuras choir. The Šiauliai State Chamber Choir Polifonija stands out among regional ensembles, with its unique performing style and repertoire.
Alongside national and state collectives, independent ensembles play an increasingly important role. The most notable of these are the piano trios FortVio and Kaskados, the Kaunas String Quartet, the Chordos quartet, 4tango and Subtilu-Z, of unorthodox composition, as well as Canto Fiorito, which plays Baroque music.
The deep tradition of choral culture in Lithuania is nurtured and creatively developed by the Vilnius State Choir, and the Aidija, Brevis and Jauna muzika (Young Music) chamber choirs.
The Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre (music director Robertas Šervenikas), the country’s main stage, began its history in 1920, with the first stage play in Kaunas. After the war, the theatre moved to Vilnius. It will celebrate its centenary in 2020. It has permanent opera and ballet troupes, but also invites independent soloists and directors. The opera stage currently takes pride in talented singers such as Joana Gedmintaite, Viktorija Miškūnaitė, Eglė Šidlauskaitė, Sandra Janušaitė, Edmundas Seilius, Arūnas Malikėnas and Tomas Pavilionis. Its repertoire comprises key operas directed by Eimuntas Nekrošius, Gintaras Varnas and Oskaras Koršunovas, and by distinguished foreign directors such as Anthony Minghella, Günter Krämer, Vasilijus Barchatov, Emilio Sagi, Vincent Boussard, Francesca Zambello and Chen Shi-Zheng.
The repertoire of the ballet troupe seeks a balance between Classical ballet, contemporary dance, and Lithuanian choreography. Its current stars include Olga Konošenko, Inga Cibulskytė, Anastasija Čunakova, Genadij Žukovskij and Martynas Rimeikis, and its repertoire comprises Classical ballet productions staged by Marius Petipa, the Lithuanian choreographers Andželika Cholina and Martynas Rimeikis, and guests such as Robert Bondara, George Williamson, Kiril Simonov, Manuel Legris, Boris Eifman and Krzysztof Pastor.
Kaunas State Musical Theatre was known as the State Theatre before the war, and had opera, ballet and drama theatre troupes. When the opera and ballet troupes moved to Vilnius in 1948, it continued as the Operetta and Music Theatre. After some time, its repertoire began to include opera and ballet. This is one of the most frequently visited in the country. Small troupes from the State Musical Theatre work in Klaipėda and Panevėžys.
At the beginning of the 21st century, Lithuania saw the dawn of informal opera troupes. In 2003, the director Dalia Ibelhauptaitė staged Ruggerro Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci in the Congress Hall in Vilnius, with young opera soloists and the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra led by Gintaras Rinkevičius. Encouraged by the public’s interest, Ibelhauptaitė began to work actively both as a producer and director, and gave the name The Bohemians (Bohemiečiai) to her like-minded team (her second opera was Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème). Disregarding the fact that the stage of the Congress Hall is not suitable for opera, she is consistently developing this activity, presenting one or two premières each year. The renowned Lithuanian singers Justina Gringytė, Jurgita Adamonytė, Viktorija Kaminskaitė, Ieva Prudnikovaitė, Lauryna Bendžiūnaitė, Edgaras Montvidas, Kostas Smoriginas, Laimonas Pautienius and others perform in them. After eight years of work, in 2011, The Bohemians were awarded professional theatre status, and became Vilnius City Opera.
Thanks to private initiatives, several more informal troupes are developing their activities, such as Vilnius Chamber Opera, Baltic Chamber Opera Theatre, and Baroque Opera Theatre.
Jazz: The Music of Free Spirits
By Jūratė Kučinskaitė
Lithuania was part of swinging Europe during its earlier period of independence from 1918 to 1940, and nearly every town had its own jazz band. However, the public did not particularly like the music, and in 1925 the press promoted the English view that jazz lacked taste and culture. However, it was still played, and the country’s first official jazz band was set up in 1940 under the auspices of Kaunas Radio. Unfortunately, it only survived for a few months until the outbreak of the Second World War.
After the war, when it became dangerous even to use the word jazz, bands vanished from Soviet-occupied Lithuania. It was banned during the Cold War for being American. Retreating underground, it became the manifestation of a free spirit, a form of resistance to what was happening behind the Iron Curtain, and a link to what was going on beyond it.
Jazz surfaced again in Lithuania during the ‘Khrushchev thaw’, with a growing number of bands and increasingly skilled musicians. The Ganelin Jazz Trio (or GTC Jazz Trio), consisting of Vyacheslav Ganelin, Vladimir Tarasov and Vladimir Chekasin, was formed in 1971, and achieved European fame. It was a real breakthrough, dislodging deep-rooted norms and changing official opinions towards jazz. The group was the driving force behind the evolution of jazz in Lithuania, and laid the foundations for what was later to be known as the Vilnius school of jazz. Their large-scale suites, profuse stylistic interplays, and theatrical antics set the tone for many generations to come, even up to today.
The legendary trio was disbanded in 1987, and its members set off on their own creative paths, but the basis they formed for the development of Lithuanian jazz remains very important. In 2017, 30 years after they stopped performing, the group won the country’s top award, the National Prize for Culture and Arts, for forming the Vilnius school of jazz. It was an unprecedented act of recognition for jazz musicians. The trio’s universal and distinctive style jazz, based on brave experimentation and free musical discussion, has stood the test of time, the strictest of judges.
In the late 20th century, jazz in Lithuania was marked by another direction, which came to demonstrate a certain generation gap. As a response to the cosmopolitan spirit of the patriarchs of jazz, the new generation of musicians became engaged in a search for national belonging and identity. At a time when the quest for independence was growing, jazz musicians sought increasingly to express their identity through their creativity, and explored connections between jazz and folk music, by improvising on folk melodies and even citing actual folk songs, using folk instruments in jazz bands, and creating music that echoed familiar melodies, in this way purifying the palette of the ethnic Lithuanian sound. The efforts in this field by Skirmantas Sasnauskas, a jazz trombonist, vocalist, composer and leader of various bands, are particularly valuable. In his music, he uses not only folk instruments and intonations, but also musical forms that are specific to the folk tradition, such as the unique sutartinės polyphonic songs. Joint projects between jazz and folk musicians might be considered a separate genre, represented by distinctive collages of the two musical styles, such as the fusions by the jazz saxophonist Petras Vyšniauskas and the folk singer Veronika Povilionienė, Skirmantas Sasnauskas’ jazz ensemble and the folk group Vydraga, the Vilnius Jazz Quartet and the folk group Sutaras, and others.
Yet another influential tendency in Lithuanian jazz at the end of the 20th century was the fusion of jazz and Classical (academic) music. Its roots, encoded in the very nature of jazz, are particularly strong in Lithuania. In fact, the legendary GTC trio, as the founders of the Lithuanian school of jazz, who inserted classic forms of composition into their music and wrote jazz suites and jazz symphonies, were part of the Lithuanian State (now National) Philharmonic Hall, and often played for audiences there. There was no ‘jazz’ in the trio’s name: it was called the Contemporary Chamber Music Ensemble of the Lithuanian State Philharmonic Hall. That was a kind of green light for the Classical style of their music. Another important factor that determined the influence of Classical music on jazz was the fact that for a long time jazz musicians did not have an opportunity to study jazz formally in Lithuania. Instead, when seeking to develop their performing skills, they usually studied Classical music, only playing jazz alongside it, and often unbeknown to their professors. Thus, that generation of jazz musicians were just as familiar with Classical music, the Classical school and academic musical genres as with jazz itself, which they often learnt from records or from their contemporaries. Therefore, it is not surprising that their repertoires are deeply influenced by academic music, from such specific ways as toucher, which determined the sound of the note, to academic genres that intermingled with jazz: small forms, such as jazz waltzes, chaconnes or suites, and equally large-scale projects with symphony orchestras. Towards the end of the 20th century, the search for themes, forms and means of expression brought fusion to Lithuania, which until then had hardly been played. It arrived with such an explosion that the Dainius Pulauskas Group which played it was deemed by world critics to be ‘firmly at the forefront of progressive European jazz-fusion’ (Jan Patterson, in a major world jazz source Allaboutjazz.com, 11.10.2011). Their idiosyncratic and vivid version of fusion was once described as ‘a forceful pulse of modern jazz’ by the Finnish jazz critic Risto Haapsamo.
The restoration of independence in 1990 broke down barriers, not only administrative but also inside people’s minds. This change is undoubtedly reflected in the current jazz scene in Lithuania. Over the past decade, the younger generation have been boldly and gamely establishing themselves. They have grown up in the new political and cultural environment, which makes it difficult even to imagine a prohibition or dissident activities in jazz. This generation has already inhaled the fresh air of freedom, and has not only learned from the country’s unique jazz experience. Due to open borders as a result of the regained independence, it has an opportunity to study jazz at an academic level at home and abroad. This generation is bringing new creative tendencies to Lithuania, and boldly driving a new form of integration, by forming collectives with like-minded professionals from other countries. This is the path that was chosen by the saxophonist Liudas Mockūnas, who studied in Denmark and began his career collaborating other students. Today, he plays with the most outstanding improvisation musicians from around the world. The path of Kęstutis Vaiginis, another saxophonist, is similar: he studied jazz in the Netherlands and the USA, and has lately been engaged in a number of international projects. The same can be said for Indrė Jurgelevičiūtė, who also studied in the Netherlands, and who gathered musicians from different countries into the band Merope, having revealed to them the beauty of Lithuanian music. The vocalist and composer Indrė Dirgėlaitė, who studied in Finland and Sweden, also chose a similar path, as did many others.
Today, Lithuania is part of a world that enjoys a fully developed musical scene, in which jazz is highly prominent. It is not hidebound with the same old songs, but has a bold creative force and original compositions. Lithuanians currently create multifarious jazz, which stands out by its wide stylistic horizons, its rich sources of means of expression, and a singular concept of entertainment. In Lithuania’s pluralistic jazz, we will find in equal measure the younger generation’s nihilism and healthy protest, and the successful results of the search for a creative niche by creating the most varied forms of jazz, from traditional Dixieland or a cappella bands (such as The Schwings, who enthusiastically interpret classics of jazz, or the vocal trio The Ditties) to unique blends of style, bold experimentation, and the unhampered expression of free jazz that is at the heart of the work of Juozas Milašius, Sheep Got Waxed and Brave Noises. Today, Lithuanian jazz is a vibrant, colourful, constantly changing and intriguing world of musical ideas, forms and structures.
Lithuanian Folk Music: Between the Woods, the City, and the World
By Jurij Dobriakov
Every tradition must have two elements to be vibrant. First, it has to date back long enough that it connects the present generation with its ancestors and their way of life, ensuring continuity. Yet it must also remain profoundly relevant today, not only in reconstructed forms, but rather as a fundamental ingrained sensibility governing the worldview of the people living here and now. Furthermore, it cannot be insular, essentialist and xenophobic. Every successful living tradition has at its core a deep respect for its archaic local roots while simultaneously being open to the world, curious about its other traditions, and being capable of adapting itself meaningfully to the needs and realities of the contemporary, largely urban population.
Though some would like to see Lithuanian ethnic tradition as monolithic, unalterable, and uncritically idolised, the reality today is that it seems to have all of the necessary elements to be an open and evolving cultural phenomenon of the present, not a conserved museum exhibit. This is especially true for Lithuanian folk music in all of its myriad incarnations and permutations. After all, music is perhaps one of the most intuitively and easily adopted and practiced forms of cultural heritage. Thus, at the doorstep of the 100th anniversary of Lithuania’s modern statehood it is impossible to speak of a sole
‘orthodox’ Lithuanian folk music tradition. Though the local, rural ethnic roots are strong and deep-reaching, the branches that have penetrated numerous contemporary urban musical scenes not only in Lithuania, but also around the world, are no less spectacular.
Speaking of the roots, folk purists will find plenty of attempts to reproduce the sound and feel of Lithuanian folk songs with as much fidelity to the known sources as possible. Several large-scale regular events are dedicated to this strand of folk music, attracting an ever-growing audience of listeners both very familiar with the folk tradition and newly discovering it as an essential element of their cultural identity. Out of these, the Lithuanian National Song and Dance Celebration, a massive festival happening every four years, has the longest history, and remains as relevant and uniting as it was in interwar Independent Lithuania and even during the Soviet years.
Equally important are the international folk music festival Skamba skamba kankliai and the traditional music festival Baltica, the latter held intermittently in all three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. These events regularly feature all of the most prominent professional Lithuanian folk singers and musicians as well as amateur ensembles and emerging young talents. While the above-mentioned festivals take place in the capital city of Vilnius and are by far the most visible internationally, other Lithuanian regions have their own established celebrations of traditional folk music, such as the biannual Parbėg laivelis in Klaipėda, Tek saulužė ant maračių in Nida, and Suklegos in Kaunas, to name only a few. The latter festival focuses on not only traditional folklore, but also its modern interpretations.
Among the vast number of devoted performers of traditional Lithuanian folk music, the ritual folklore ensemble Kūlgrinda deserves a separate mention. The pre-Christian Baltic ritual chants and polyphonic songs known as sutartinės they perform, usually around a sacred stone altar dedicated to the pantheon of the ancient Baltic gods during traditional seasonal festivals centred around natural cycles, represent the deepest layer of Lithuanian musical and religious tradition (not accidentally, sutartinės are now on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity). However, instead of sticking to the latter as it were an immovable stone, Kūlgrinda and its individual members willingly collaborate with an array of musicians and producers who weave their voices and music into new, unexpected contexts. The same can be said about other skilled performers of Lithuanian archaic polyphonic music such as the Trys keturiose group of sutartinėssingers, who can be heard in many collaborative and interdisciplinary projects marrying traditional polyphony from the Lithuanian woods and meadows with very different musical genres and other art forms like contemporary dance.
As a result, sutartinės in particular and folk music in general are currently becoming something of an urban trend, leading young Lithuanians to rethink their stereotypes of folk music as boring and stuck in the past, and make it a part of their eclectic and global contemporary lifestyle. Folk singing courses and workshops for beginners are proliferating these days, and it seems that traditional music is more accessible to city dwellers than it ever was, with even national TV programming featuring increasingly many folk culture elements adapted for diverse audiences. Musicians in very different wide-appeal genres, from jazz to pop, respond by incorporating folk singing or arrangements of traditional melodies in their pieces. Folk music finds such unlikely bedfellows as techno or hip hop, a phenomenon that is practically unparalleled in many other countries. All of this suggest just how deeply the folk tradition is now embedded in Lithuanian contemporary musical culture.
Further away from the mainstream are the various more or less underground music scenes which have also been considerably influenced by the Lithuanian folk music. Some of them, like the pagan and folk metal scene, traditionally strong in Lithuania, use folk inspirations in a more straightforward way, as instrumental and vocal inclusions intended to symbolize strong ties with the native soil and roots. Although this scene has somewhat diminished recently, it has undoubtedly produced some notable descendants such as singers’ groups dedicated to ancient Lithuanian and Baltic martial folklore, for example. Also, many of its longstanding members who began with folk-inspired heavy music have gradually gravitated to pure traditional folk.
Another prominent underground scene, best described as Baltic dark ambient and post-industrial music, does not so much borrow actual recognizable folk elements, but instead submerges its otherwise cosmopolitan modern electronic sound in a unique vaguely archaic atmosphere that instantly distinguishes it from its counterparts in other regions of the world. One might say these artists are subconsciously inspired by the ephemeral spirit of the local tradition, an evasive yet strongly felt Lithuanian genius loci, encoded in its nature and expanding even to the city. Together with the representatives of the aforementioned folk-tinged heavy music scene, they can be heard at such niche yet well-attended events like the summer open-air festival Mėnuo Juodaragis and some smaller gatherings, where ethnic culture serves as a stepping stone to exploring wider horizons.
And these wider horizons ultimately amount to the world at large, perhaps the most notable recent phenomenon being tthe active merging of the Lithuanian folk tradition with the pan-cultural world music universe. Lithuanian singers and multi-instrumentalists trained in the folk idiom integrate melodic and vocal elements of other musical traditions and non-Lithuanian instruments in their work, creating hybrid forms that do not belong to just one territory anymore. Furthermore, they form short- and long-term projects with like-minded traditional music performers and versatile improvisers from other countries, touring prestigious venues successfully and representing both the Lithuanian and the transnational musical heritage all over the globe – proving that tradition is not about borders.
Pop, Rock and Basketball
By Ramūnas Zilnys
Lithuania hosted the 37th European Basketball Championship in 2011. Basketball, you see, is sometimes called the country’s second religion. The national men’s basketball team has won EuroBasket three times, and brought home bronze medals from the Olympics three times (no mean feat for a country of approximately three million people). To put it simply, basketball is, without any doubt, Lithuania’s most popular sport.
Hopes were high in 2011, but Lithuania’s team finished fifth, causing something that could only be described as nationwide mourning. However, it also unexpectedly had a huge impact on the Lithuanian music industry.
Sports events on this scale need big venues. Several arenas, holding up to 17,000 people, were built especially for the occasion. After basketball fever had calmed down, local promoters started thinking of new opportunities that this infrastructure offered.
Before that, the idea of Lithuanians entertaining a crowd of 15,000 people seemed somehow outlandish. The biggest halls were reserved for visiting international pop stars, while Lithuanian acts played in clubs and at festivals. Now, there was a ‘What if …?’ question hanging in the air. Finally, several artists decided to try their luck and test the water, with big concert productions and arena tours.
Six years down the line, at least a dozen Lithuanian acts regularly tour arenas, drawing huge crowds, from Leon Somov & Jazzu to Andrius Mamontovas, Marijonas Mikutavičius and Donny Montell (all of them are featured in this publication). When it comes to ticket sales in Lithuania, these artists often surpass world-famous singers and bands. This has changed the local music landscape dramatically.
Listeners discovered that you can actually witness a top-class performance by a local artist, and now pay more attention to Lithuanian music. Artists strive for higher quality in terms of songwriting, sound and stage production.
The Žalgiris Arena, the biggest venue in Lithuania, now hosts the MAMA awards ceremony. The most important event of its kind nationally, it draws 10,000 music fans every year, and is transmitted live by one of the country’s biggest television channels. In the summer, you can visit dozens of festivals, where local artists often occupy headliner slots, with international acts a little lower down the bill.
Under the radar, things are going fine, as well. The alternative music scene is booming, with acts like ba., Garbanotas Bosistas and Solo Ansamblis expanding their fan base. It is not uncommon to see Lithuanian bands at Europe’s biggest showcase events, from Eurosonic to The Great Escape.
We sincerely believe that a big international breakthrough is only a matter of time. This music is full of honest ideas and great ambitions. It is music made by artists who, thanks to the rapidly changing technology, are no longer limited by the small size of the local music market. We meet musicians every day who manage to surprise us with the originality of their ideas, their perseverance, and their ability to present and distribute their work in unusual ways.
This small book you are holding is not a comprehensive overview of Lithuanian pop, rock and electronic music. It is simply impossible to cover all the popular and interesting artists in 20 or 30 pages. However, it will give you a brief idea of what Lithuanian popular music is all about these days.
We have not made a Top Ten of the most popular artists. Instead, we went for emotion and creative drive, which are the key factors when it comes to music. They unite all these artists, whether they play pop, rock or experimental electronic music, whether they are considered to be veterans or newcomers.
After you have read about them, hopefully you will feel tempted to go online, check out the music, and share the news of the huge well of creativity bubbling in this small Baltic country with other people. We feel that these artists truly deserve it.