Sunday, September 28, 2008

Faces of Vilnius

Some of the most interesting things I've seen in Vilnius have been either impromptu or brought to my attention at the last minute through word of mouth or a casual e-mail, and this week was no exception.

Last week, a Fulbright scholar who has been living here for over a year mentioned to me that she participates in weekly folk-singing rehearsals as a hobby and that I might be interested in joining this week. I took her advice and asked Dr. Vyčinienė, a member of the group and a professor at the Academy, if I could sit in. It turns out that the rehearsals take place in the same room as most of the ethnomusicology classes, so I just stuck around after her class ended.

It is one thing to hear a folk-singing performance at a festival or in a concert, but it is quite another to be sitting amidst a group during rehearsal. In what I previously perceived as rather basic tonal progressions and vocal harmonizations, nuances in diction and ornamentation jumped out more and more as I read along. And after the fifth repetition of the melody, it was hard not to join in.

But the fun didn't stop there. Two of the members happened to share a birthday on the day of rehearsal, so halfway through, a spread of sweets, cheese, and a big bottle of brandy was introduced. Somehow this seemed to complete the picture as I remembered how my grandfather, after a few glasses of "medicine," would suddenly recall all the songs he learned in his youth and sing loudly with little or no encouragement. By the end of the rehearsal, whatever timidity or restraint shown initially by anyone had been completely shaken.

Perhaps more interesting, though, was the Vilniaus Veidai (Faces of Vilnius) "non-commercial art festival." The absence of an internet link to the festival is an indication of its underground nature. I was sent an e-mail by my friend and student of Osvaldas Balakauskas, Albertas Navickas, notifying me of the three-day event, which featured music by students at the Academy as well as art exhibits and installations by other young Lithuanian artists.

After following the arrows taped to the sidewalk, I entered the venue, which turned out to be an all-but-abandoned three-story 16th-century monastery attached to a recently renovated church. The crumbling rooms and corridors were eerily lit by colored fluorescent lights powered by a complex extension-cord network. Walls and ceilings were cracked, windows non-existent, floors covered with an inch or two of dust, holes in the floor hastily patched, and any wood exposed to the air thoroughly eaten by dry rot.

However, guests did not seem to mind as they walked through its many drafty halls and up its many crumbling stairs to see artwork tucked away in rooms and other settings that could normally only be reconstructed by a film set designer. And despite the cold one should expect from a windowless (but definitely not window frameless) stone structure around midnight, I was able to hear and see some very good music and multimedia collaborations.

I heard works by students Albertas Navickas, Rūta Vitkauskaitė, Rita Mačiliūnaitė, Andrius Maslekovas, and Vytautas Paukštelis, among others. Maslekovas performed a work for accordion, Mačiliūnaitė sang her own works as well as those by Navickas, and Vitkauskaitė played violin on many of the works, including her own. The only time I thought about leaving the concert was during the high-energy (and high-volume) electronic work by Paukštelis- not because I disliked the music, but more so because I feared for my safety as I watched small pieces of the 500 year-old ceiling fall to the floor when the bass "really kicked in."

Overall, the variety in style of the works I heard was very refreshing. I hope I will get to hear many more performances of student works throughout my stay here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A New Piano, the Seattle Chamber Players, and Art in Unusual Places

The big event for me last week was the purchase of an upright piano- the first piano I've ever purchased. I found it on, the Lithuanian equivalent of Craigslist. After a 3-hour tuning (the lower half of the piano was a whole step flat, while the upper half was only half step flat, which helped the keys of C and D-flat meld into a healthy key of D), I found that the instrument plays quite nicely. It's a "Riga," which is the closest thing to "Vilnius" I could find (there are some "Belarus" pianos, which is technically closer, but they can hardly be considered playable).

A few days later, in a concert sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and the LMTA (Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater), the Seattle Chamber Players presented a program of mostly American music, including works by Alexandra Gardner, John Luther Adams, Nico Muhly, and Mason Bates, but also a work for flute and tape by Lithuanian composer Antanas Kučinskas, who was present in the audience.

After the concert, I joined the performers, along with theory professor Dr. Gražina Daunoravičienė and composer Onutė Narbutaitė, for a late-night dinner. The Seattle Chamber Players were on their way to the Warsaw Autumn festival in Poland, where they would be playing the same program as well as some works with more complicated electronics setups.

Over the weekend, Vilnius held its annual Art in Unusual Places festival, which has been steadily gaining popularity as 2009 nears. In addition to the many visual art installations on display throughout the city (including a 9-foot bust of Tony Soprano), there were two memorable concerts on the festival program.

The first was a concert given by the Chordos Quartet, Lithuania's best-known "new music" string quartet, in the Vilnius train station. During the first work, which was a long, slowly pulsating piece for string quartet and electronics, each member of the group played inside a white air-filled globe. Coupled with the rock-concert stage lighting, it reminded me a lot of the scene in "This is Spinal Tap" when Derek Smalls gets stuck in the clear plastic pod during "Rock n' Roll Creation."

Appropriate to the venue, the Chordos Quartet played Steve Reich's "Different Trains" for the second (and last) work of the concert. Now, free from their white cacoons, they played in front of a giant screen with projections of stock railroad and WWII footage. In spite of the light show that accompanied the work (and I don't think anyone in the audience was given an explanation of the work), it was quite an effective performance of the work.

The other concert I attended was more of a ritual than a concert. Titled "Winter oh Winter Come Back to the Yard," the ceremony represents, as this title suggests, the call for winter to come to Lithuania. It featured "snow" (white balloons), fire jugglers, chants, and original music by composer Mindaugas Urbaitis, who happens to teach the English-language class on Lithuanian contemporary music at the LMTA. His contribution to the ceremony included a piece for two saxophones and a work for a capella choir, which was performed by the seemingly ubiquitous Lithuanian choral group Jauna Muzika.

The fire portion of this ceremony spilled over into the culmination of the festival, the Fall Equinox celebration, which took place Sunday night at the Neris river and featured huge, flaming, traditional Lithuanian textile patterns along the river banks and floating down the river itself. Word has it that an exceptionally cold winter is on its way...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Fieldwork Expedition and Folk Music Festivals

Last weekend, I joined some students from the ethnomusicology department for their first fieldwork expedition of the school year. The department rented out a cabin by a lake near the town of Zervynos so their students could have a central base from which to make trips to smaller villages in Dzūkija, the southeastern region of Lithuania. Their goal in the area was to track down as many Lithuanian folk songs as they could in one week's time (I was only able to join them for the weekend), record them, and add them to Lithuania's extensive and ongoing folk-music archive.

I borrowed a bicycle from one of the ethnomusicology professors, took a train to the Zervynos stop (which is literally just a concrete slab, bench, and "Zervynos" sign next to the railroad tracks in the middle of the woods), and rode the bike several kilometers into the woods to meet up with the students. The students had split up into two groups in order to track down singers in the neighboring villages. Most of the time, this search involved little more than a small telephone tip followed by lots and lots of walking and asking around a particular village.

The most fruitful of these searches was in the village of Perloja, where the students originally sought an old woman who was apparently known throughout the village for her singing. After about 15-30 minutes of asking people in the village where she lived, we found her house tucked away on one of the smaller roads. Her husband, Zygmas, answered the door and told us that the woman we wanted to hear was either sick upstairs or out of town to see a doctor (my Lithuanian isn't that refined yet).

The students kept the conversation going, and when Zygmas mentioned he used to sing when he was younger, they seized the opportunity to persuade him to sing. He came up with every excuse he could- he was too old, he couldn't remember any songs, etc.- but the students persisted. After 5 or 10 minutes of coaxing, he invited everyone inside. From there he proceeded to sing, play accordion, show off his drum and cymbal, and show us all the photos documenting his musical life.

The most interesting was his singing, which was exceptionally strong for someone well into his 80s. He sang two partisan songs, one in a minor mode, the other in major. The Lithuanian partisans were those Lithuanians after World War II who chose to put up armed resistance against the occupying Soviet Union. Although this resistance was ultimately unsuccessful and mostly died out during the 1950s, many partisans continued to resist well into the 1970s (some say longer), hiding in the many forests in Lithuania. Zygmas was one of the earliest partisans.

I'm sure the students had countless other experiences just like our meeting with Zygmas, but I unfortunately had to cut my visit short. There will, however, be more expeditions throughout the school year (at least while the weather is still bearable).

In Vilnius, I was able to see some types of folk-music performance a little different than those of the fieldwork expedition. The week was filled by two giant international folk-music festivals, Kolokola and Griežynė, both overlapping (I don't know who schedules these things, but there could have been a little bit more coordination between the organizers of the two). Poor planning aside, I was able to hear several groups, both vocal and instrumental, from all over Eastern Europe.

There were concerts devoted to dance, song, and even some crossover experiments. Particularly interesting was the Lithuanian jaw harp duo, which yielded sounds reminiscent of the twangs, phases, and bleeps of early electronic music. I was both surprised and unsurprised to see Dr. Vyčinienė singing with Lithuania's premiere sutartinė (a type of Lithuanian polyphonic singing) group, Trys Keturiose. She later told me that the group has been singing together for over 20 years.

As I write, the festivals are still in full swing, and I think this is as good a time as any to sign off.

Friday, September 5, 2008

First Week in Vilnius

After moving into my apartment and getting acquianted with the most basic aspects of living in Vilnius, I actually have been able to move ahead quite a bit with the project. I met with most of my contacts, including Rytis Mažulis, the head of the composition department at the Academy, Feliksas Bajoras, and Osvaldas Balakauskas.

I was even able to bring in the recordings of my grandfather's songs to the ethnomusicology department. The head of the department, Dr. Daiva Vyčinienė, listened to each song and described its possible origin, the meaning of the text, and, in the case of the more well-known songs, whether his singing mirrored closely the most widely sung variant of a particular song. Given my grandfather's age (87 and 91) at the time the recordings were made, it was difficult for him to sing without wavering in pitch, but Dr. Vyčinienė assured me that one of her students would help to transcribe both the text and pitches.

This weekend I will be traveling by train and bicycle to villages near the town of Zervynos, in Dzūkija, the southeastern region of Lithuania, to observe (and perhaps participate in) fieldwork done by the ethnomusicology department's students. The students will be traveling in groups to small villages in the area to record some of Lithuania's oldest songs. Dr. Vyčinienė explained to me that because the only people living in Lithuanian villages are quite old, it is important for their students to collect as many songs as possible, since most of the younger people have moved to the cities and are not interested in learning these songs.

On Monday I will find out more about my prospective librettist, and next week I will begin meeting regularly with Prof. Balakauskas and taking a class on Lithuanian music and a Lithuanian language course. I currently do not have regular internet access, but I hope that will change in the near future. Then I'll be able to upload some pictures and write longer and more detailed posts.