Composer and cellist of the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra Arvydas Malcys will not take the stage with his colleagues on 14 January, during the concert dedicated to the Defenders of Freedom Day at the National Philharmonic. The premiere of his symphony ‘The World of Yesterday’ (Vakarykštis pasaulis) will take place that evening, and on such occasions the author tries to listen to music from the sidelines.
– The world premiere of your symphony will be at the concert dedicated to the Defenders of Freedom Day. Do you remember where and what your January 13th was?
– In those days, we felt that some critical turning point was approaching, that the occupiers driving through the streets in tanks and armoured cars were still trying to make people afraid and retreat. After the orchestra’s rehearsals, we would listen to LRT all the time and choose to stand guard at the Parliament. The orchestra rehearsed at St. Ignatius Church in the old town because the Philharmonic was being repaired and reconstructed for about six years. I lived on S. Konarski Street, in an apartment right in front of the LRT, so I saw the storming of the building by the Soviet paratroopers. People had come from all over Lithuania and surrounded the LRT building with buses, hoping to defend the freedom of speech from the occupiers. It was a cold, harsh and windy winter. The defenders went to the houses in front of them to warm up and drink tea. Bonfires were burning in the street, and we carried thermoses with tea and sandwiches to those who had gathered. When the tank which was standing at the intersection of V. Pietaris and S. Konarski streets started firing empty cartridges trying to scare the helpless people on the street, the windows of our house were shattered by the sound and air wave. At the time, I also had additional domestic stress. There was a blockade, the USSR had stopped the supply of oil and gas to Lithuania. I kept two canisters of gasoline brought from Belarus on the balcony. When the windows were broken, in the midst of the shouting of the crowd on S. Konarski Street and the sound of gunfire of the occupiers echoing, I had to crawl across the floor to the balcony and stretch the two gasoline canisters lying on my back to another balcony, located in a room from the side of the yard. It was like minus 10 degrees outside at night. We covered the windows with blankets, trying to reduce the cold in the apartment. The whole family moved to a room with windows facing the courtyard. Russian paratroopers stood on the stairs of the old LRT building and occasionally fired a series of bullets from automatic weapons into the crowd, trying to force people to disperse. They didn't like that the residents of the house in front of them were looking through the windows, so they fired a series of automatic shots into the windows of the building to scare them. One bullet also hit our living room: it hit the wall, punched a hole in it and the picture hanging in that place. We kept that picture as a relic of those events; it hangs in the homestead. A few days after the storming of the LRT building, people dispersed on the street, realising that the occupier would not leave the television. The municipality glazed all the windows of the apartment building free of charge. Foreign journalists used to walk around the apartments and record stories about those events and take photos. As a proof of Russian barbarism, I gave the paratrooper’s bullet that flew into us to some Japanese journalist.
– The symphony ‘The World of Yesterday’ speaks of today's unrest. What does this piece look like to you, was it difficult or easy to write it?
– I am glad that there is such a phenomenon as sounds that can be turned into music. Everything starts with an idea. Then you look for ways to realize it. It happens that one idea or another floats around for years: you wake up and go to sleep with it... I wrote the piece during the pandemic, when I had more time to be with myself at the keyboard. I write slowly (as compared to some of my colleagues), I worked on it for about half a year. I dedicate this symphony to my son Laurynas.
Today, the symphony genre – a large-scale work for a symphony orchestra – is not popular because short opuses for orchestra are written, partly adapting to the wishes of music management, partly trying not to tire the listener with modern harmonies. In the context of the current sense of crisis and catastrophe in the world, Europe’s aging, comfort, and laziness, this work should prompt us to think about how all this affects society. We sense that the world will no longer be the same as it was, therefore, using the principle of contrasts, texture opposition in music, I tried to disturb the transparent, melancholic, idyllic mood with depressing, dramatic strokes in the symphony. Through musical, I wanted to express that state, feel and bring us closer to the world, which until recently was comfortable, almost ideal. We remember it, even idealise it, but today it has changed dramatically, it is disappointing, we even feel a black cloud hovering over it and trying to overshadow everything, we feel insensitivity, injustice, violence and insecurity are increasingly prevailing. This symphony has lyricism, meditation, tonality, clusters, drama, and sighs, just like human life, which has ups and downs. The world is being destroyed by stupidity, by uncontrollable greed for money. Civilization is destroyed by one-day decisions, the cult of garbage. The triumph of meaninglessness publicly tramples the spirit and eternal values. There are so many reasons for hatred that no one understands what is really going on. As we migrate from one state to another, we move in the direction of heaven and hell. The structure of the work is a kind of plot with its thematic dialogues, allegories, climaxes, drama and lyricism. I use various formulas of balance and symmetry, which will be reflected in the lines, rhythm, texture and other elements of the music.
– You are a productive creator. On the eve of the premiere, are you still nervous about the audience’s reaction to your new work?
– Every piece of music or any other piece of art is like a dish: for some it is too sweet, for others it is too salty, some want to repeat it, and others do not accept it at all. Each creation is precious to you like a child: you give birth to it, take care of it, release it into the world. And that's it. It falls into the hands of the performers, the further fate already depends on them. You can only watch how the child’s fate is developing, whether he has become loved, welcomed, admired, or left to sulk in a corner after the first performance from the sidelines. The success of each work depends on the artist’s professionalism, creativity, flexibility of interpretations and, of course, on the artist’s popularity and notoriety. There are many examples in history where good works were forgotten due to a poor first performance, and were rediscovered many years later by good performers who were able to read the text with passion and faith and became popular, loved.
Of course, there is excitement, but it is more due to the verification of one’s decisions: whether one place or another has proven successful, or whether juxtaposition and transition of timbres, tempos, dynamics, strokes is logical. Will the piece reach the listener, did I manage to express that anxiety, disappointment, nervousness?... In my work, the form of a symphony is the largest piece in terms of scope and possibilities of expression. I usually put all my ability, fantasy into it, for me it is a way to achieve the greatest expression and drama in music.
– How do you reconcile your two roles – the modesty and anonymity of the performer playing in the orchestra and the greatness of the creator? Which one is more in line with your personality?
– Both of these roles are important and interesting to me. It is difficult to give an unequivocal answer, as is often the case in life – they both complement and interfere with each other. Of course, sometimes the music playing in the orchestra gets so stuck in my head that I can’t get back to my work that day. For me, orchestra rehearsals are a kind of search for truth and meaning, an effort to find and understand the beauty of music and give meaning to the work. This is an interesting process, during which I try to understand the composer’s idea, the realisation of his idea in the orchestra, why the author chose one or another instrument, their duplication, why such dynamics, tempo and the like.
Sometimes during the rehearsal I sit with the score, sometimes I listen to the music that stuck with me several times on YouTube. By the way, in the past, when there was no internet, I used to go to the library of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre to find a piece that interested me. If only notes are played in rehearsals, there are no searches, no analysis, they become formal. A concert for orchestra musicians is like a kind of musical ritual. Everything that came before is put aside. For me, it is also a bow to the author of the work. All of us, performers who are very different in life, are united by the concert, or rather, the music performed on stage. We become an indivisible community where we act one for all and all for one. Even a conductor’s mistake would not detract us from the unifying goal.
When a piece is clearly written and well-prepared for performance, you can enjoy hearing the duplicating voices, the counterpoint, the few lines of accompaniment, the rhythmic pattern and that unifying movement of the music. Then you feel that you begin to hear the logic and ‘kitchen’ of the composer's writing. I don’t feel special, I am like everyone else, a member of the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra team, in the orchestra.
– Do you feel special playing your own music?
– During the premiere, I try not to play because I am focused on listening to the new piece. However, if it is a regular performance, then I play because the piece has already passed that stage of formation, it is already finally finished, with the last pre-premiere touches, signs of dynamics recorded in the chorus. The first performance is very important and decisive. The audio recording made during it is an important document for the existence of the work. That record is also an evaluation of your work, which music managers, directors of festivals and orchestras, conductors and performers, after listening to it, decide whether to include it in their repertoire. (Of course, there are exceptions where a composer is included simply because of his or her notoriety and popularity.)
The first performance can elevate a work, it can also destroy it. There is even a popular saying among musicians: ‘The piece has been performed twice - the first and the last.’ When an ordinary, well-worn performance, I don’t expect to hear anything new in it, so I can concentrate on playing. I’m not a fan of playing my own pieces anyway. While playing them, I unconsciously start listening to what and how others play.
– How does the orchestra accept your pieces: do colleagues comment, evaluate, criticise?
– Accepts with goodwill. The Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra are the first performers of most of my work. There is an indescribable sense of security when this orchestra plays. Maybe the musicians know my drawing, where to put the accents, and what is perhaps not so important. In general, I can safely say that the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra is the collective best acquainted with contemporary music in Lithuania. Of course, colleagues have questions, suggestions and comments. We figure it all out during rehearsals.
– You have written concertos for piano, saxophone, and violin. Do you have your favourite instrument?
– When writing a piece for any instrument, you must first like it, get along with it, whether it’s the flute, the piano, the violin or the trombone. You have to believe in what you are doing. Any creation is a kind of game, like putting together children’s blocks, only it is done by an adult who likes to dream.
Each instrument is a kind of character with many faces, masks. When writing a piece, you try to empathise, imagine an instrument living its daily life with discoveries and mistakes, disappointments and joys. The favourite instrument becomes the one you are writing to at the time. And right now I’m writing for harp and string orchestra.
– When does inspiration come? What is the best time to create?
– Work develops well when you have a clear mind, you don’t need to rush anywhere, the keyboard is close at hand, you are surrounded by silence, inner peace and understanding. It’s hard for me to write in the summer, maybe there are a lot of different jobs at the homestead. I’ve noticed that concentration comes to me after dark. Writing music is a kind of puzzle, reminiscent of the ‘Glass Bead Game’. In creation, in art in general, the same mood, state can be expressed in many different ways (starting with timbres, tempos, colours, harmony, rhythms), every time you start writing from a clean sheet. I consider, every listener finds something in the piece that he has in himself. And the piece, whether it succeeds or not, is a step forward.
Music tells us things that neither words, nor buildings, nor images can convey. I think that music is created on a feeling level. I have read somewhere that creativity is born from love’s moans and sighs, mental disorders, a sense of revenge, the desire to dominate and defeat others. It is also said that creativity is not an occupation but a way of life, an unquenchable desire, a passion, the fruit of unbridled fantasy. Everyone is right in their own way.