by Claire McGinn, VILNIUS
Running later than planned, I arrived at Vilnius’ new Modern Art Museum for a concert of the GAIDA contemporary music festival in autumn 2018. A sympathetic member of staff told me that seats for the event were completely sold out, but that I could always buy a ticket and then try hiding halfway up the spiral stairs, as several other people were doing, and might be able to see what was going on.
The GAIDA festival – the biggest contemporary art music festival in the Baltic States – runs annually in Vilnius. On this occasion, although the programme spanned several weeks and featured lots of pretty big names (Julia Wolfe, Laurie Anderson, Magnus Lindberg, Rytis Mažulis), I was in town solely to hear a new work by Tomas Kutavičius.
Born in 1964, Kutavičius began his career as a jazz pianist, later turning to contemporary classical composition. Several of his later pieces bear the fingerprints of his earlier musical training – infectiously rhythmic, stylishly syncopated, and often featuring dense, colourful extended harmonies. The work I first heard halfway up a staircase in the Modern Art Museum was Ritus Rhythmus (2018). Complemented by Dutch post-minimalist Louis Andriessen’s raucous Workers Union (1975) and German Alexander Schubert’s riotous Sugar, Maths, and Whips (2011), the lively, driving rhythms, angular melodies and idiosyncratic energy of Kutavičius’s premiere were distinctive hallmarks of the composer’s fresh and engaging style.
After the performance I met Tomas and some of his family, including his father – the famous Lithuanian post-minimalist composer, Bronius Kutavičius. Warm, welcoming, and generous with their time, the group invited me to join them for a drink as we discussed the concert (with the help of Google Translate).
A few days later we met again in the same restaurant, with two of Tomas’s older children, for an informal interview. Tomas’s daughter Vilma, usually busy working as an actor in Moscow, was visiting, and generously agreed to translate for us. Tomas shared stories about his early career as a touring jazz artist, his later conversion to contemporary music, and tributes to Jaco Pastorius and Lithuanian classical composer M.K. Čiurlionis, insisting that he is not interested in chasing after fashionable trends as long as his music incites meaningful feeling.
Asked about when he began to compose formally, Kutavičius explained:
TK: I started to write when I was 25. I wrote three children’s operas, a jazz suite for chamber orchestra… But I was playing a lot at that time. And sometimes I performed my own music. But I started to feel like it wasn’t interesting anymore. Like, there are… borders – in jazz…
TK: Limits, yeah.
CM: So, you mean because there was a kind of formula to the music you were playing – a kind of structure that stayed too much the same?
TK: Yes, yes. I felt that the jazz I was playing was like… not connected with the same kind of discipline, you know. Like, we didn’t feel form in the same way. One moment you felt like the piece had to finish there, but we couldn’t stop at the moment we should have.
CM: So you were playing quite free jazz?
TK: Yeah, yeah.
CM: And so you completely cut off from that, and went to study, because you wanted a much more rigorous approach to structure?
TK: Yes, yes – exactly. It’s like… when you compose a contemporary art music piece, you are the captain of the ship, not just one of many crew members.
CM: So you are more in control of the direction?
TK: And everything is in your hands. But in jazz you are only like a part. If you don’t have good communication with your partners, it all goes wrong. It’s like luck. Sometimes you will have a great performance, sometimes it’s absolutely disastrous. You can’t predict what will happen.
CM: That’s quite a vulnerable feeling, right?
TK: Yes. In jazz you feel the moment – I mean, you are in the moment in that time and place… and you are reacting in that moment to what you’re listening to. You hear something and you react and bring in another idea. And that’s the situation – something happens, something else happens… But I took a lot from jazz. Rhythm, dynamics. I found my own style. They [critics] call my work minimalist with some jazz influences. Well, somebody said that I have some ‘jazz blood’ in my pieces, but I don’t agree with that. But most people think that I’m a jazz man, that my work is more or less close to jazz music…
In 2017 I had heard another Kutavičius premiere at the GAIDA festival – this time, a large-scale work for orchestra, Thinking Reed, dedicated to the legendary US jazz bassist Jaco Pastorius. Outlines of virtuosic basslines seem to emerge, smudged and cloudy, as the piece progresses, though the composer explains that there are no direct ‘quotes’ from Pastorius’ music here – only something ‘more like a memory, or an impression’.
I asked Tomas what had inspired him to compose this dedication, to which he replied:
TK: Well you know, Jaco Pastorius had an incredibly difficult life. I love his work, but he’s also a really inspiring figure. At some points he was sleeping rough – but such a fantastic player. 2017 was the 40th anniversary of his passing, and I decided to dedicate this GAIDA commission to him, in honour of his life and the techniques he created – his innovations with the fretless bass, using oil on the instrument so it plays more smoothly. All these virtuosic techniques, so much more technical than playing the piano… that’s why the piece I dedicated to him had to be so technical.
CM: [pointing to another piece of music, A Glow Worm for Maria Morawska, for solo piano] And this one is very interesting too […] what was the impulse behind this work?
TK: A Glow-Worm for Maria Morawska is from a story about [Mikalojus Konstantinas] Čiurlionis.
Čiurlionis (1875-1911) is one of the most famous Lithuanian composers to date, a romantic symbolist who painted fantastical landscapes in magical pastel shades as well as composing prolifically. His musical output could be compared to his Polish predecessor Frederyk Chopin, who also produced a plethora of proto-modernist piano miniatures based on popular dances of the time.
Čiurlionis’ vast symphonic poem Jūra (The Sea) was performed by the UK’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 2019, conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and accompanied by live watercolour painting, in honour of the composer’s legacy and the centenary of Baltic independence; other events in this season included a huge, open-air Song Festival, after the Baltic tradition, at which participants sang Motherland Fern by Tomas’ father Bronius Kutavičius.
Tomas relayed the story of M.K. Čiurlionis’ youth which had inspired A Glow-worm for Maria Morawska:
TK: When he was about 20, his first girlfriend – in Poland – was called Maria Morawska. Čiurlionis was friends with Maria’s brother. When he was 18 years old he met her, and they started to see each other – and her father was very angry. Her father was saying like, ‘I’ll wash your clothes for you!’ – meaning that he would beat him up! Anyway, one day her father called Čiurlionis to him and said, ‘you must never see her again’. So Maria and Čiurlionis started to write each other secret letters, written in lemon juice.
And one night they met up, and were walking through the fields on a summer night. There was a storm, and there were hundreds of glow-worms shining in the dark, and Čiurlionis put some in her hair like a crown of lights. So she was walking through the dark, glowing, and some old woman saw them and had a fright! And he told her, like, ‘You see? Old people don’t understand beautiful things’. Čiurlionis’ younger sister was the one who wrote this story down. It’s a very romantic story, but his relationship with Maria didn’t last in the end, and later on he ended up attending her wedding. It is a beautiful story, though, and that’s where the title of this piece comes from. But I am not Čiurlionis, so I can only manage one glow-worm. [laughs]
Modesty aside, the nervy, twinkling repetitions of A Glow Worm make for a captivating listen – with its octatonic modes (a dissonant scale built from notes arranged at distances of alternating tones and semitones, or steps and half-steps) and syncopated rhythms, the work evokes the jazz-like harmony and modernist leanings of figures like Igor Stravinsky and the famous Lithuanian composer Osvaldas Balakauskas.
Conversation subsequently turned to broader impressions of stylistic or genre associations:
CM: So you have been interested in this kind of combination of jazz and rationalism, at least that’s what I remember reading in your biography – but you said you had taken a lot from your father as well, and I was wondering about the more ‘spiritual’ or ‘ritualistic’ impulses typically associated with his work – does that have any part in your music at all?
TK: Jazz influenced my youth. But my father gave me the form. He was always telling me… [reaches for pencil] if you don’t know where to put this [indicates his drawing of double barlines, which signify the end of the piece] – fin – the end of the composition… then don’t write anything at all. [laughs] It’s like the number one most important rule. I think that he, my father, is maybe the only Lithuanian composer who has absolutely mastered this strictness of form, this mathematical precision. He is counting every little detail…
CM: Earlier in your career, you were writing very strict music, and later it was… a bit less so?
TK: Yes, it was very academic before.
CM: And now it’s a bit more free?
TK: Well, I focus on other details. But for example, nowadays, I will only write… [draws a simple 3-in-a-bar time signature]. In all my pieces, I do it this way now. Because, in this rhythm you can write whatever you want.
CM: And you don’t need to change every bar.
TK: Yes! Because if you do it the other way, everything is very complicated, and all the players are thinking, ugh! [throws up hands in despair]
CM: But you can still write complex rhythms, like in Thinking Reed…?
TK: Yes – it’s the same, it’s just easier to read. The musical result is the same but you don’t have such big problems. [György] Ligeti does this also, like… [changing the pulse between] 1/8, then 5/8, and then 1/8, and I just think… why, why? ….I don’t really like electronic music – I mean, this really unhuman, unnatural precision. I like pure, acoustic sounds. I don’t like these digital things, all the effects… it’s not my thing. This kind of D-D-D-D-D-D-D-D [mimicking rapid-fire mechanical repetition]… [it’s] very academic… using these microtonal systems. I ask you… if you have, for example, a hair, here [mimes holding a single hair] – and then I say, I’m going to separate it into eight parts… [shrugs]. It’s a hair! But I mean… [people write] this…. [notates a given pitch] ‘plus 64’! Or ‘minus 36’! How do you play that?!
CM: Not very instinctively?!
TK: Well, it’s like these phasing techniques [of minimalist music]. And, you know, [miming obsessive divisions and trying to read extremely complex instructions]
CM: [laughs] I guess you don’t really like it…
TK: Well, it’s just impossible to understand this music. But [composers of this kind of music tend to be] very intellectual, thoughtful, always thinking. When I’m writing music, I’m just thinking: does it work or not? Does it express or communicate the affect – the feeling – I want, or not? I focus on the feeling of one small detail, honing it until it has the right effect. If there’s one tiny detail that’s not right, then I will spend as long it takes to fix it. It’s a huge job, to work out the expressive and emotional communication in this level of detail in a large-scale piece and make sure every moment is as engaging as possible.
CM: So how would you describe your relationship with modernism, then?
TK: I don’t like it. Like this [referring to another piece of contemporary music] – [mimicking scraping and scratching sounds of extended string techniques in torturous fashion]. I’m more interested in affecting the emotions, engaging and connecting with people. I don’t run after fashionable trends in composition or do things because they’re popular in the moment. I was never interested in this thing where you could say, ‘oh, this person is writing in the Darmstadt style’, and ‘this other composer is writing in this other style’, or chasing after the most recent style from Europe.
I think this is a particular pressure for young composers, and I’m completely against it. It’s better to be a Jean-Baptiste Lully. Of course, you can’t just decide to be as important an artist as Lully. But I mean… if you refuse to always run after new and popular styles, you can find your own voice more easily. That way you will have a much better chance of finding aspects of other (possibly less fashionable) things that you can use in a more individual, original way. It’s more important to have a really solid understanding of how harmony works than to chase the newest techniques for the sake of newness.’
With recent and upcoming projects including recordings by renowned pianist Daumantas Kirilauskas, a featured track on U.S. new music advocate Frank J. Oteri’s 2018 release Anthology of Lithuanian Art Music in the Twenty-First Century, and ongoing collaborations in jazz with artists such as Jonathon Haffner and Dalius Naujokaitis, Tomas Kutavičius’s busy and diverse activities are well worth watching.
Header image – Daumantas Kirilauskas performs Tomas Kutavičius “Dieviškas Šėlas” (“Divine Madness”) for Piano and Symphony Orchestra. Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, conductor Martinš Ozolinš. Recorded live at the International “Gaida” festival in Vilnius, Congress Hall, on October 18, 2013 [Image: Tamsus Miškas Films]
Claire McGinn is a UK-based musicologist. Her research focuses on contemporary Baltic art music, and she has recently published articles in Women and Music, Lithuanian Musicology, TEMPO, and Opera magazine.
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