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INTERVIEW. Bronius Kutavičius: Reviving Lithuania’s Pagan Past*



The name of the Lithuanian composer Bronius Kutavičius, born in 1932, may not be as familiar to western audiences as that some of his Baltic neighbors. Arvo Pärt, of course, is one of the most popular living composers, and the music of the Latvian Pēteris Vasks is attracting increasing attention. But if the Finnish company Ondine has its way, we’ll be hearing a lot more of Kutavičius in the future. In 2001 Ondine released a CD (ODE 972-2) with two powerful choral works, The Last Pagan Rites of 1978 and the more recent Epitaphium Temporum Pereunti (1998). Now the company returns to the fray with a bolder move yet—a recording of Kutavičius’ opera Lokys (“The Bear”).


I was in Lithuania recently, to attend “Gaida,” the annual autumn festival of contemporary music, but that’s not how this interview was conducted. Since Ondine hadn’t yet taken delivery of Lokys from the factory, we conducted this “conversation” by e-mail after I had returned home and had listened to the work.


M.A.: You began composing in a twelve-tone style. What were your governing concerns at that time? Were there any composers you felt had an especial effect on what you were writing?


B.K.: First a small correction: I didn’t start with the twelve-tone style. While we were students, we followed Prokofiev and Shostakovich, and all our modernism was like that. It was later, some six years after my graduation when I tried dodecaphony for the first time, in my Sonata for viola and piano—well, probably before that, in a Poem for cello, but the score was lost and this composition doesn’t exist any more.


M.A.: Are there some composers you could name who influenced your work in the later 1960s?


B.K.: We used to go to the Warsaw Autumn festival, and the music we heard there impressed us a lot—for example, Honegger, Messiaen, Stockhausen, Kagel, Penderecki, Lutosławski. I don’t recall the titles of the works now—after all, more than 30 years have passed. But there were plenty of spectacular and bizarre things like performance art, instrumental theater and the like. There were not so much recordings, and especially scores, at our disposal, and we relied on our own intuition. We were not connoisseurs of styles like serialism, dodecaphony, pointilism, etc.—we were aware of them only by hearsay, not by theoretical studies. By the way, it was my first journey abroad, in 1971 (if we really could call Poland “abroad”).


M.A.: We in the West have the impression that twelve-tone music was frowned upon in the Soviet Union? Is that a false assumption, or was the atmosphere in the Baltic countries less repressive than in Moscow?


B.K.: Well, probably, but I think that those who wanted to composed twelve-tone music did so. For example, Schnittke and Denisov in Moscow employed twelve-tone style; we visited them at home in 1972 and listened to their new works. And I think that the situation was better for the composers in Moscow since they succeeded in spreading their music in the West to a certain extent. In this regard, the situation was worse in the Baltic countries; on the other hand, we were quite unafraid, and the atmosphere was relatively favorable for creative experiments.


But I rejected twelve-tone technique very soon. I am still using series but differently, in my own way, more as the organization of the whole form than as technique. For example, my Pantheistic Oratorio, written in 1970, was based entirely on serial organization, but with specific scales invented by myself, and therefore it is different from the other works of such character.


M.A.: When Arvo Pärt wrote his Credo in 1968, it was the title, not the style, that earned him the disapproval of the authorities? The Pantheistic Oratorio invited the same reaction—were you surprised when it happened?


B.K.: I anticipated the challenge, as this composition was quite adventurous for that time. For example, it was the first instance when the performers (vocalists and instrumentalists) had to speak the verses on stage. I was blamed first by the performers—the oboist Juozas Rimas told me that he learned to play the oboe, not to scream or clap hands! And in the discussion after the premiere, which attracted a big audience, I was publicly called a fool. They said: “Hey, are you a fool, or do you just make fools of us?” Then my professor, Antanas Račiūnas, took my part. He told me: “Go ahead like Napoleon and don’t be afraid of anything.” In the congress of the Lithuanian Composers’ Union in 1971, it was claimed that the Pantheistic Oratorio was too avant-garde and therefore unacceptable. Twelve years later, the Vilnius New Music Ensemble directed by Šarūnas Nakas revived the work, and now it is being performed without any hitches. The performance of this ensemble was just as it should be, with weeping, whispering, tale-telling, with different modes of expression of the language. Of course, the first performance in 1970 was not as good.


M.A.: More important than the political reaction, of course, is the content of the music. This work is usually accredited with being the first specifically Lithuanian piece. How did you achieve this particular quality—with what musical and cultural “tools”? Was this something you set out deliberately to achieve and, if so, why—as a gesture of national defiance and an assertion of the Lithuanian identity under occupation? If not, what was the principal impulse in its composition?


B.K.: The most important thing in Pantheistic Oratorio is the strongly expressive text of the poet Sigitas Geda; that is what determined the modes of musical expression I chose. If we are talking about the influence of Geda on my work, this particular text is the most important. Sometimes it happens that the musical idiom doesn’t correspond to the poetic text. In my opinion, an organic connection between music and words was achieved in this composition. Well, you can do anything with this text, you can go wild with it if you want… but, to tell the truth, I didn’t think about any particular “Lithuanian quality” at that time.

Of course, we—Sigitas Geda and me—wanted to shake the academicism of that time, when most of the new works were easily predictable. We wanted to break all the clichés, to turn everything upside down.


M.A.: By the time of The Last Pagan Rites in 1978, this “Lithuanian-tribal” style, if I may call it that, seems to have settled as your natural mode of expression. It’s obviously something you feel deeply—but what accounts for the empathy you felt for sutartinės and the other means you use to evoke ancient Lithuania?


B.K.: We had better explain first that sutartinės is the old Lithuanian art of counterpoint singing. The surviving examples are from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries; they were transcribed into musical notation and researched by scholars. But no one sang them. Anyway, it seemed to me that all those modernist techniques, such as dodecaphony, serialism, aleatoric composition (although I like the latter very much), just made all the music sound uniform. Even the works by western composers we occasionally heard also sounded uniform and didn’t correspond to some of our inner inclinations. During the time from the Pantheistic Oratorio to Last Pagan Rites, I composed many works I would like to emphasize: Little Performance (for actress, two violins, and two pianos), Dzūkija Variations (for folk-singer, mixed choir, and string orchestra), Sonata for piano, Prutena— Sand Covered Village (for violin, organ, and bells), Clocks of the Past (for guitar and string quartet), Two Birds in a Thick of the Woods (for soprano, oboe, prepared piano, and tape). All these compositions led me gradually to crystallize my own style, so that The Last Pagan Rites was the consequence of seven or eight years of my creative work. The Last Pagan Rites makes enormous impression on its listeners, and I’m not exaggerating here. People leave the concert halls with their heads slightly messed up, and I don’t know why—I did it spontaneously, and the result was unexpected for me, too. After this oratorio I continued with the whole cycle: From the Jatvingian Stone—an oratorio composed in the style of sutartinės (sort of)—and The Tree of The World, which concludes the whole cycle.


M.A.: The Last Pagan Rites was the first work where you reduced your musical idiom to permanently repeating minimalist patterns. How did you come to this approach? Was it your encounter with the archaisms of Lithuanian folk music that encouraged you to take up minimalism, or had you encountered it in western composers like Louis Andriessen or the American minimalists?


B.K.: My most important encounter with the Lithuanian folk music came in 1974, when for about a year I performed in the ethnographic ensemble directed by Povilas Mataitis. They did cultural, partly anthropological, reconstructions of the Lithuanian culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, not only music, but also rituals, costumes, life-style, habits. It was one of the first ensembles and it started the whole folk-music movement in Lithuania. This activity opened my eyes—or ears. I had some knowledge of sutartinės before that. But no one sang them. And when I finally heard the live sound of sutartinės, everything changed. It was the most powerful impression—standing still like surface of the lake, not making any form, any development, only the color, and that’s all. So if someone says I’m is the follower of American minimalists, it’s nonsense. I’m not one of those people who hear a lot of music and then try to recreate something. Mind you, Andriessen’s De Staat was also something that impressed me at that time. I just saw that there are some composers who do everything differently, who deal with scales and modes differently, and that was also important for me.


M.A.: I understand that the reaction to The Last Pagan Rites, even though it couldn’t be expressed openly, indicated that people realized something special had happened. Was this part of a movement in national culture and mirrored in the other arts, or was it something that only music could do?


B.K.: I think it was indeed a special event, and I won’t be modest here! I remember the hearing of this work at the Baroque Hall in Vilnius (“hearings of the works” were special kind of performances of new works, organized by the Composers’ Union and only for the members. On one side it was announced as the possibility for the composer once again to “test” his ideas. On the other, of course, it was also a closed environment where criticism could be made and some sort of censorship imposed. Vytautas Landsbergis [the musicologist who later became president of Lithuania] afterwards wrote in his review that the audience felt something in the air and hurried to take their seats in this small hall. And when the hearing came to the end, all listeners stayed in their places, confused, and no one wanted to stand up and go out.


Then I said: “This is the end! That’s all!” But they were still sitting, immovable.

Of course, the opinion of the “academic” professors rejected such things completely—well, but I suppose everyone has a right to express his attitudes. Later Last Pagan Rites were performed many times, also abroad (in Poland, France, the Czech Republic, and the UK), and always with great success.


M.A.: I’ve talked about The Last Pagan Rites because western listeners can hear the work on CD. But what other works of yours would you single out as particularly important? Are there any plans to record some more?


B.K.: I’ve made a “top six” of the compositions most important for myself: the symphony-oratorio Epitaphium Temporum Pereunti, the cycle of oratorios, the cycle The Gates of Jerusalem, two operas—Thrush, the Green Bird, and The Bear—and also one chamber composition which I rate the most: I Speak—My Lips Turn Into Ice, on the text by Matsuo Basho. So as you can see, I’m not always bound by Lithuanian subjects, I have been also interested in Japanese, Indian, Sami, Welsh cultures. For example, in the composition Battle of the Trees (which was commissioned by the composer John Metcalf for the Vales of Glamorgan festival in Cardiff) I used the text of the mythical Welsh poet Taliesin. Epitaphium and The Gates of Jerusalem are already released [available on Ondine ODE 972-2 and Dreyer-Gaido CD 21003, respectively]; the other works wait for their turn.


M.A.: One thing all these pieces have in common is your use of ritual and the appeal to a pagan, pre-Christian religious energy. Tell me, please, something of how you go about creating these effects, how you treat rhythm, instrumental and vocal color, etc.


B.K.: Difficult to explain. A certain intuition of what is needed, what should I make out of the poetic text or the situation I’m composing the music about. There are some calculations of rhythms but I could not set forth them systematically. There are composers who have formulated precise systems of their musical language, even have written exhaustive treatises on it. This is not the case for mine. Because there are so many sketches, so much different calculations floating around… Sometimes I even draw my rhythms in different colors. For Epitaphium Temporum Pereunti, I took the ancient incantation “sator arepo tenet opera rotas”. There are eight different letters in it; accordingly, there are eight different rhythms in the final part of Epitaphium. So I drew the whole rhythmical schema in colors, trying to avoid the rhythms being in phase. Therefore eight different rhythms sound simultaneously.

Also the modes and scales with their characteristic expression are very important to me. For example, the “thrush scale”, first used in the opera Thrush, the Green Bird: B-C sharp-E-G-A-B flat. It is so springy, so energetic and potent. And so recognizable. Later it moved as if by itself into another my compositions, such as the string quartet Anno cum Tettigonia, and the mentioned Battle of the Trees. And everyone recognized it. I cannot get rid of this scale, it haunts me all the time.


Besides, the dramatic development of the composition is as important to me as the rhythm. And it is the rhythm what moves the whole development ahead. It is a major concern of mine to put everything into right places and proportions, so I calculate the durations of different movements and sections with the stopwatch trying to avoid any drag—if it’s too long, it doesn’t work. It seems to me that the biggest drawback of today’s composers is the lack of form—often the musical material is very interesting but the faults of form render the whole composition inconsistent.


M.A.: This “primitivist” style may on occasion resemble American minimalism, but Baltic minimalism emerges from a tradition that is very much older. And Lithuanian minimalism differs from the minimalist styles of Estonia and Latvia, too. What are the salient musical characteristics of Lithuanian minimalism?


B.K.: It is closely connected with the characteristics of the old Lithuanian folk music which  are important here: The narrow ambit of the melody, the interval of third, or fourth at most; primitive, monotonous rhythm—but this monotony is very effective. And the tradition of sutartinės which is absolutely unique—even our closest neighbours, the Latvians, apparently don’t have anything like that. Two or four different rhythms simultaneously, strange clashes of the second intervals—what an ear the folk have developed once to sing such things!


M.A.: Let’s get on to The Bear now. It’s your third opera, but the first written in an independent Lithuania. What that an important condition in your choice of subject? It’s based on a short story by Prosper Mérimée, which was set in Lithuania to begin with—was it therefore something you had had your eye on for a while?


B.K.: There are many non-traditional things in the list of my works: Thrush, the Green Bird—an opera, which isn’t like opera; a symphony which isn’t like a symphony; the string quartet also is quite untypical. Then I’ve got angry at myself—can I manage to compose something more traditional, or not? For about ten years I cherished a dream to write nice Romantic opera to the delight of every opera-goer. After all, we are turning back little by little, and there are not so many avant-garde operas composed nowadays (although I don’t blame them, it was the natural expression of the time).


It was a coincidence that I got the commission from the Vilnius Festival at the same time as my own decision to write an opera, and when I got the libretto by Aušra-Marija Sluckaitė-Jurašienė and heard that it would be staged by the theater director Jonas Jurašas, I agreed to compose the work.


The libretto was somewhat alien to me, to begin with. I like to choose the texts myself, I bury myself in piles of texts searching for the natural harmony of poetic phrases and musical rhythms, trying to fit everything well. Eventually I got immersed in the work and finished the opera, although I was working hard, as with every one of my works.


M.A.: The subject-matter—the principal character is half aristocrat, half wild bear, and kills his bride on their wedding night—seems perfectly attuned to your evocation of a pagan past and its dark myths. How did you go about creating the sense of primitive power that is suffused through the work?


B.K.: Probably all that “unreal” thing is quite close to me. I say all the time that we have nothing to call our own, we get everything from on high if we are not too hard-shelled. It is for everyone—some people accept it and some do not. But we cannot think up anything by ourselves. And it seems to me that I feel all this past because I have been there once before. If I stray from my intuition for a little, I feel that I’m lying.


M.A.: As in your earlier music, you develop a specifically Lithuanian quality. Tell me how you set about this?


B.K.: I am Lithuanian, and I’ve got it in my blood, so it isn’t difficult to achieve it. As for the opera, well, there are some specific ways of manipulating the text in the part of the One-eyed Woman and the choral part. For example, the old Lithuanian proverb: “Meška su lokiu abu labu tokiu”—literally, “Bear and she-bear, they are two of a kind”; I don’t know of an equivalent English proverb here—fits very well to different rhythmical manipulations, there are many vowels and few consonants in it, and I was able to make ten different rhythms out of it. This corresponds also to the structures of sutartinės, kind of scattering the sentence.


M.A.: As an outsider, I can hear The Bear as belonging to a Baltic operatic tradition, one that includes Tubin’s The Parson of Reigi and Barbara Tisenhusen and Sallinen’s The Horseman and The Red Line and, from an earlier generation, Merikanto’s Juha and Madetoja’s The Ostrobothnians. Does that strike you as a fair observation—do you feel yourself to be part of a larger current?


B.K.: I think it is not a current but rather a general character. And I think that Lithuanians are a northern rather than a southern people. Lithuanian language is related to Latvian, but there are also many common words in the Estonian and Finnish languages. There is something common in our roots, and it comes from the very old times: Traditions, worships, burial rites… Probably it is our character what affects a similar mindset, similar concept of the form, and the like. And to be honest, I have never heard any of those operas.


M.A.: What distinguishes The Bear from these other operas, of course, is that they inhabit the world of mortals, whereas in your work you are very much concerned with the supernatural. The shifting rhythms of minimalism—I’m thinking of Act I, scene seven, for example, or the pulsating lines of the “White Seagull Dance” in scene ten—seem ideally suited to creating an atmosphere in which the boundaries between the real and the unreal are blurred. Was that another attraction of the story?


B.K.: I have nothing to add here. If you have noticed it, you are a very open-eared and alert person.


M.A.: How did the project come about? Whose idea was it to make this recording, and how did it come to be released on Ondine?


B.K.: The Lithuanian Ministry of Culture supports the releases of music by composers who have been awarded the Lithuanian National Award. The long and thorough work with this recording was made possible by this support. I have to thank the musicians of the Lithuanian Opera and Ballet Theatre for their enthusiasm and responsibility, and the conductor Martynas Staškus who also worked very hard.


M.A.: Is there now a relationship between Ondine and you, the way BIS took up the banner for Eduard Tubin? Can we look forward to more recordings of your music from Ondine?


B.K.: It was Ondine’s choice, not ours, to release this set, and I am much obliged for the attention they have given me. I can only hope that they will continue with my music.


M.A.: Obviously, the release of The Bear on an international label is a major event for you, for the Lithuanian National Opera and for Lithuanian music in general. What kind of impact do you hope for from the work?


B.K.: Nothing in particular. Now I am writing another opera, although at first I had no intentions to compose a whole cycle of operas or something like that. It just happened that a new work was needed for the 750th anniversary of the coronation of Mindaugas, king of Lithuania, and I have received this commission. In fact, it is not quite opera, nor oratorio, nor ballet. Perhaps a musical drama? It’s a large work in two acts which features some elements of operatic genre; particular attention is paid for choir and orchestra.



Posted June 29, 2012 in

* This interview was originally published in 2002 in the Fanfare magazine.


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