2008: Gaida and ISCM in Vilnius

The 2008 ISCM World Music Days were held in Vilnius, Lithuania in conjunction with the Gaida Festival, an annual event in that city. I was impressed with the high level of performance of new music by all the ensembles and by the size of all the crowds for all the concerts, so impressed that I was sure that the Lithuanians–who had, after all, given us a founding member of Fluxus–had really figured out that this contemporary stuff is genuinely seductive and satisfying.

It was a nice dream while it lasted. And even though I soon found out that new music does not happen all the time in Vilnius, and that the audiences were greatly augmented by people from outside Lithuania, there for the international festival, the fact remained that the crowds were there, that they did seem to be applauding enthusiastically, and that the music was performed expertly and energetically. Besides, a new music festival that draws crowds from all over the world (I was there from Oregon, USA, after all) can’t be all bad. And Lithuanians are genuinely enthusiastic about their own composers.

And some of the more entertaining moments of the festival came from Lithuanian composers. There was the Mažulis/Mačiūnas concert, in which both Mačiūnas’ Solo for Violin (for Sylvano Bussotti) and Piano piece no. 13 (carpenter’s piece) were performed. It was delightful to see these theatrical pieces played live, though the saw the violinist used in her otherwise fine performance was the wrong kind, a metal saw rather than a wood saw, and she really had to struggle to make that work at all.

Bronius Kutavičius had several pieces throughout the festival, as befits his stature (plus his music is really good, too). My favorite was his most recent work, Andata e ritorno, a wildly gorgeous piece played beautifully by the Conjunto Ibérico. Marius Baranauskas’ Trys vizijos pagel Tagorę was part of a concert given by the Latvian Radio Choir. Shushing and hissing sounds open the piece (and continue throughout), with some half whistles and some very tight harmonies–so that when some “regular” singing occurs, it’s quite a shock.

From the loud, sharp blast of an opening to the great slabs of sound tilting this way and that, from the lovely little plinks and plonks of the solo piano to the really ripping timpani work, Vykintas Baltakas’ Poussla was a real orchestral attention-grabber, one of several orchestral pieces that were quite surprisingly satisfying–surprising to me, anyway, who in the 1980s had rather gotten out of the habit of attending orchestra concerts in the US. Baltakas’ piece set a fairly high standard for the orchestral music of the festival. And while Jonathan Harvey (the guest composer) and Yoji Yuasa both contributed some fine pieces for full orchestra (…towards a pure land and Cosmos Haptic V), only Gráinne Mulvey’s Akanos really grabbed me as much as Poussla did. More, really. Akanos is a virtuosic piece of the highest musicality, which you get by giving everyone in the orchestra something interesting and enjoyable to play. The result is something very satisfying to listen to, as you can hear for yourself:

[This clip is from Volume 7 of Contemporary Music from Ireland. Performers are the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, directed by Robert Houlihan.]

While there was plenty of music for orchestra between the two festivals, there was plenty of other stuff as well. Gaida and ISCM World Music Days are both serious, long-standing new music festivals, so of course there’s theater and choral and chamber and electroacoustic and installations as well. Aside from the theatricality of the Fluxus/minimalist concert already mentioned, and the theatricality of some other pieces to be mentioned, there was the premiere of Peter Eötvös’ new (and quite surprisingly traditional) opera, Love and Other Demons, and the really stunning Eraritjaritjaka, by Heiner Goebbels, which starred the same actor (André Wilms) who was narrator in Ou bien le débarquement désastreux, long a favorite of mine. (The two extremely charming Senegalese who had had large parts in Ou bien le débarquement désastreux were also in Vilnius for Ou bien Sunyatta, a kind of orchestral remix of Ou bien le débarquement désastreux.) I cannot say too much about Eraritjaritjaka, mostly because any details about its coup de théâtre will spoil your first experience of it.

See this live if you possibly can. It will be one of your most memorable musical/theatrical experiences, I’m sure. André Wilms is a superb actor, completely at home in this work.* The Mondriaan Quartet performed the music (by Bach, Bryars, Crumb, Lobanov, Mossolov, Ravel, and Shostakovich as well as by Goebbels) and did a bit of moving around the space themselves. I had a ticket for the second night, but I decided to attend the first night as well, which I’m glad I did. I had a better seat the first night, and seeing this twice was well worth the extra price.

*I apologize for the inside joke.

Of the chamber plus electronics works, I was most taken with Andrea Vigani’s Sulla realtà, which started out so quietly that one could hear the hall and the audience still for quite an appreciable time. After a couple of snaps from the cello and then the basses, there’s a mighty thump from the speakers. This comes back later as just the decay, without the attack that is. Very rich, dark, lovely stuff.

That was part of a concert by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. One of the visiting ensembles was Les Percussions de Strasbourg, who played among other things Raphaël Cendo’s Refontes and Gerard Grisey’s Tempus ex machina. The former I particularly liked for its really loud, gritty electronics. And even when the electronics were quiet, they were still very powerful. The interplay of percussion and electronics was quite nice, too. The latter was the best Grisey I have heard, the most, mature, serious, musical piece of the concert as well.

One of the other visitors wasn’t an ensemble; it was a studio. ZKM from Karlsruhe replicated its famous Klangdom in a studio of the Lithuanian Television. As this was further away from where I was staying than I’d calculated, I had to listen to Kurtág’s Space Talks from outside the hall. It sounded so good from my side of the door, I could only conclude that it was pretty spectacular from inside the hall as well. And once inside the hall, I had my first concert experience of the Klangdom, having heard Brümmer’s Glasharfe in the echt but empty Klangdom a few months before.

After Glasharfe was Hans Tutschku’s Zellen Linien, for prepared piano. Electronically prepared. And so arranged that piano sounds, piano plus electronic sounds, and electronics alone are all distinct, even though all are controlled from the same keyboard. It’s quite interesting to see a pianist banging away but to be hearing only electronics. But that’s as may be. It’s the music that matters, and what Tutschku’s made out of these technical matters is a completely satisfying musical experience.

I’m not all that fond of guitar–acoustic guitar, anyway. Which I only bring up to introduce Magnus Andersson’s guitar recital, which was consistently entertaining from start to finish. And it wasn’t simply a matter of all the electronics and video and theatricality, either, though those things were all welcome. It was mostly a matter of the extremely virtuosic playing of Andersson–the playing of extremely difficult music with ease without ever giving the impression it was easy; the ability to make extremely risky moves without ever stumbling. That and the high quality of the music, of course.

In Christopher Anthin’s Playmaster the guitar plinks quietly along while a cassette tape plays some ensemble music in a ghettoblaster while a video projection of the guitarist plays on the wall behind him. The tape begins to stutter and get crazy, but the guitar continues placidly along. After the tape part goes back to “normal,” Andersson stopped the machine and turned the cassette over to play a little pop music. Then he stopped the machine again, turned the cassette over, and continued with the “ensemble” music, which gets more electronic and more funky. Near the end of the piece, the composer’s image appears superimposed over the video of Andersson playing, then the composer’s hands begin making gestures to the music, and we hear his voice asking us if we’re enjoying the piece.

In the video, Anthin’s not wearing a shirt, and when he came out for his bow, he pretended to take his shirt off, tee hee.

Well that was all good fun, but in the next piece we got some serious theater (which, I hasten to add, was also good fun). In Herkos Odonton II, by Dror Feiler, an actor stands between two pillars of 8″ plastic pipe. On either side of them are large sheets of metal. The piece starts out with harsh electronics, twittering, low frequency rumbles, and the like. This goes on for quite a long time. The tape suddenly cuts off, whereupon the guitarist starts some very quiet noodling. This goes on for quite a long time, too.

Finally, and long after we’ve all given up expecting it any more, the actor knocks over one of the pillars onto the now very noisy sheets of metal. To no avail. That is, to no reaction from the guitarist, who continues playing quietly along. After knocking over the second pillar, the actor kicks it, too, and the guitarist plays to the end, quietly.

Next was a piece that was theatrical simply because it calls for very vigorous and active playing. Julio Estrada’s A box with braid starts out with some very soft strumming, very soft even though the guitar is amplified. Andersson keeps fiddling with the tuning and then goes nuts on the loosened strings. These shenanigans culminate in him breaking the highest string and then playing the body of the guitar with it. Delightful!

Anything would have been a let down after that, so it was a brilliant programming move to put Uroš Rojko’s Passing Away at the end. (And not just for the pun.) This piece starts with low soft plunking. That’s it. Plunk plunk plunk plunk for the longest time. (The kind of thing that has to go on for a long time to have its effect.) There’s a high pitched echo that goes along with the low plunks, almost like feedback. Then, and again long after we’ve stopped expecting anything else to happen, Andersson starts scraping the guitar body and then running his other hand up and down the strings. He then seriously detunes these while tapping on the bridge, then strums the rattling strings.

No sort of let down at all.

The first video clip here is from the Eötvös After Party concert on the first day of the festival. This is the end of Black Noise, White Silence by Marcel Wierckx.

And this is one of the installations, David Brynjar Franzson’s S-Be2.

These have been, of course, only a mere handful of all the delightful events of the 2008 Gaida Festival and ISCM World Music Days. Just a taste.

Vilnius is a lovely city, the perfect backdrop for over two weeks of great music and great times with some of the finer composers alive.

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