A couple of days ago we crossed the threshold into winter, so for both today’s and tomorrow’s Advent Calendar pieces i’m exploring music that either invokes or evokes the cold. Invocation first, in the form of Now I’m Nowhere, a work for male voices by Lithuanian composer Justė Janulytė. Janulytė describes her music as ‘monochromatic’, due to it usually being composed for forces of a single timbre. This deliberate focus on just one sonic colour invariably becomes the basis for extended textural investigations, where it can be extremely difficult to grasp the individual details contributing to the overall mass effect.
In Now I’m Nowhere, composed in 2019, this results in the words of the sung text – a short poem by Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas – becoming ostensibly lost and subsumed within a slowly-moving agglomeration of closely-spaced pitches. To be clear, what the voices form isn’t a cluster, but something both more and less tangible. It simultaneously displays clarity – sounding generally consonant, with direct or indirect triadic connotations – and obfuscation, inasmuch as its harmonic direction is complex and difficult to parse, as if something once clear had been massively stretched out, blurring and smearing all of its inner minutiae.
An important part of that blurring effect is to cancel out almost all traces of consonants in the sung text, to the extent that Now I’m Nowhere is practically transformed into a 13-minute meditation on subtle gradations and adjustments to vowel shape. Considering that the words convey an earnestly longed-for wish, it’s impossible not to hear this seemingly endless outpouring as deeply human and emotionally-charged (albeit ambiguous). As such, Janulytė is responding to the desire that impels the words into existence rather than seeking to use them as the vehicle for a more obvious depiction of the cold, wintry north. That being said, it’s equally impossible not to hear the music as assimilating completely the closing three lines of the poem, becoming “one, continuous birth”. For all these reasons, while at first listen it seems as if the words are, at best, barely implied, i can’t help hearing them as present in each and every strand making up the work’s remarkable, impenetrable web of sound.
Now I’m Nowhere was commissioned by the Estonian National Male Choir to celebrate their 75th anniversary; they gave the world première, conducted by Mikk Üleoja, in November 2019.
Dabar aš esu niekur, bet norėčiau
Gyventi šiaurėje, kur dienos
Ir naktys, kur garsai ir spalvos,
Sniegas ir lietus yra viena ir visa;
Kur gamta yra ne mūsų,
Bet mes gamtos; kur viskas, net mirtis,
Tik vienas, nenutrūkstamas gimimas.
—Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas (1919-2015)
Now I’m nowhere, but wish
I could live in the North, where days
And nights, where sounds and colours,
Snow and rain are one and all;
Where nature is not ours,
But we are of the nature; where everything, even death
Is just one, continuous birth.