Does the phrase “Baltic music” mean anything? Is it something that has a discrete, tangible identity? i found myself considering this question during pretty much every concert of this year’s first ever Baltic Music Days. A festival that’s been in the offing for a number of years, bringing together composers and performers from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, it’s unfortunate that the Baltic Music Days’ inaugural outing – hosted a few weeks ago by Estonia, and effectively taking over their usual Estonian Music Days festival – was the latest to be blighted by the pandemic, taking place behind closed doors with no audiences in attendance, the whole thing streamed online. One of the main reasons i had been looking forward to it so much was precisely because of that opening question – is there such a thing as “Baltic music”? – as well as the additional questions it raises about national identity, and whether or not “Estonian music”, “Latvian music” and “Lithuanian music” have discrete, tangible identities of their own. i’ve got to know Estonian music quite well over the last 5 or 6 years, but the number of opportunities i’ve had to explore Latvian and Lithuanian music during that time i suspect i could count on two hands. Furthermore, if such identities do actually exist, do they share intrinsic and extrinsic elements or are they essentially separate and different from (and maybe indifferent to) one another? Might it also be possible that aspects from the political sphere – the peculiar, not necessarily intimately close, relationships shared by the three Baltic states – could manifest in the countries’ respective musics?
To be able even to begin to answer these questions properly would require a lot more than just a single music festival – and a thesis rather than just a couple of articles like this – but it was interesting to note that certain distinctive trends could definitely be discerned throughout the concerts. Broadly speaking, Lithuanian music was irresistibly drawn in the direction of simplistic forms of minimalism; Latvian music demonstrated a fondness for earlier music, often drawing on Romantic models, at times coming perilously close to pastiche; Estonian music – as it so often does – displayed a primary interest in the creation of beautiful surfaces. Of course, these are not in any way accurate or deeply meaningful definitions of each country’s music, but it was interesting – and, admittedly, disappointing – to hear how often the three countries’ composers sought to create music with such obviously begged, borrowed or stolen stylistic qualities.
Concerns such as these focus on the notion of identity, the importance of which – alongside related concepts of similarity and difference – was echoed in the theme bestowed on this year’s festival: “D.N.A.”. Now, i’ve said it before and i’ll say it again: i hate festival themes. Time after time they come across as, at best, an irrelevance and, at worst, a downright hindrance in contemporary music festivals, appropriating the role of inspiration and imposing it across a large swathe of enormously different creative mindsets, outlooks and attitudes. As such, it was refreshing to hear one of the performers at this year’s Baltic Music Days, during a mid-week discussion, openly refer to the theme as “a pain in the ass”, and while every concert had its own title linked (often tenuously) to the overall theme, very few of the compositions had a significant fundamental connection to it. That being said, it was nonetheless interesting to consider the idea of individual musical identity in relation to this theme (coupled with the fact that the Baltic Music Days and Estonian Music Days had been ‘genetically spliced’ this year). Arguably, from a creative perspective, national or regional definitions of identity are of far lesser importance than personal ones. In a nutshell: would we prefer our language, personality and identity to be cloned or unique – or, perhaps, even some form of mutation?
Not remotely surprisingly, the best music at this year’s Baltic Music Days were the pieces that transcended simple, cloned definitions and stood far apart from obvious group associations, demonstrating identities that were complex and uniquely personal. From Lithuania, the standout compositions came from Žibuoklė Martinaitytė and Vytautas V. Jurgutis. As already mentioned, much of the Lithuanian music we heard was obsessed with rather empty minimalistic gestures, but Jurgutis embraced rhythm to achieve much more imaginative and subtle results. His piece Tinohi, performed by the Ensemble of Estonian Electronic Music Society on the opening night of the festival, harnessed multiple layers of beats and blips that varied in density but seemed to be ever pushing on towards something even bigger and more complex. Its resultant endlessly shifting network of strident concentric pulsations and background shimmering noise – moving through some really nice sequences with no discernible pitch content at all – was unpredictable and exciting, making it as hard to sit still as it clearly also was for the performers.
By contrast, Martinaitytė’s Solastalgia, a chamber work for clarinet, piano, violin, viola and cello, bypassed rhythm entirely in favour of slow, tremulous music. It felt conflicted, the gentleness and consonance of its notes militated against by an assortment of trills and tremolos, preventing it from sounding relaxed. These shivering shapes seemed to be moving, perhaps with difficulty, around a tangible harmonic core, hinting at a kind of repressed lyricism. Though initially bunched up, the piece arrived at two extended plateaux, in which passionate high lines – most powerfully from the clarinet – soared over a landscape of transfixed ecstasy (this contrast between the apparent freedom of impassioned upper lines ‘tethered’ over a pedal point brought to mind the the ‘Ride through the Air’ variation from Strauss’ Don Quixote). It was one of the most stunning moments of the concert given by Lithuanian ensemble Synaesthesis, leaving me eager to explore more of Martinaitytė’s work.
Two of the most interesting Latvian musical personalities were heard during the concert given, appropriately enough, by their compatriots, Sinfonietta Rīga String Quartet. With the addition of electronics, Anna Ķirse’s Mundus Invisibilis began with facts about mycelium (disarmingly pronounced by a robotic voice), progressing through bare impacts, emergent lines and gorgeous wavering wails, establishing a marvellous melding of acoustic and electronic sounds. An especially striking moment came later on when a lovely series of clattering twangs resounded in conjunction with wobbling string lines. Though a short work (far too short!), tension was everywhere, in an engrossing atmosphere of seemingly spontaneous organic growth.
More aloof and inscrutable was Aragonite by Santa Ratniece, in which the quartet was transformed into high, quivering lines of shimmer and float, like strands of gossamer. Occasionally their shivering material became focused in beautiful squeeze-box like moments when everything became clean and clear. Returning to their earlier gossamer state, the instruments ultimately detuned their strings leading to them moving away from one another to polarised extremes of register. Nothing about the piece felt certain or sure, and this was precisely one of the reasons that it worked so effectively.
But surely the most demonstrative Latvian personality was Eugene Birman, whose nearly 40-minute work for voice and ensemble, Pensées, performed by mezzo Iris Oja and YXUS Ensemble, was by far the most boldly radical and ambitious music heard during the entire festival, making almost everything else seem remarkably tame by comparison. Birman’s exploration of words by French writer Anatole France was less a piece of music than the apparent product of a frantic, hallucinatory fever dream (or perhaps a nightmare). A work on such a literal and figurative scale as this, with enormous emotional scope and going beyond the bounds of conventional performance to encompass theatrical and on-screen textual elements, could easily become sufficiently detached from its concert environment to resemble a sprawling example of performance art. Yet it was a testament to Birman’s deft, confident writing, and especially to Iris Oja’s literal embodiment of the material, that its bewildering sequence of by turns violent, angry, passionate, lyrical and animalistic episodes always sounded deeply and powerfully personal. It’s rare to feel so completely overwhelmed by a piece of contemporary music, but Pensées was nothing less than an emotional onslaught – even an overload – managing to sound mysterious and elusive while simultaneously being acutely, at times painfully, direct. Though it needs (possibly many) further listenings to understand and appreciate more deeply all that it contains, both the piece and its performance were genuinely incredible and unforgettable.
All the concerts from this year’s Baltic Music Days are available to stream via the Estonian Music Days website; simply select an event and then click on the ‘Watch EMP TV’ button to stream the concert.