Feb. 1, 2007
Like a Newly Planted Garden
Composer Arvydas Malcys speaks with Šarūnas Nakas
Author: Šarūnas Nakas
Publication: Kutūros barai
Feb. 1, 2007
Composer Arvydas Malcys speaks with Šarūnas Nakas
Author: Šarūnas Nakas
Publication: Kutūros barai
Arvydas Malcys (born in 1957) is one of the most remarkable contemporary Lithuanian composers. He is perhaps the only one who is ambitiously and persistently wading into the waters of traditional concert music, adhering to complicated rules and requirements of the virtuosi. He is the creator of independent posture, who is not susceptible to dictates and whims od modern music festivals. The evolution of Malcys’ music is like a drifting continent: genetically derived from the coldish Lithuanian modernism, it mutates into the warmer posmodern standards welcomed in many countries, and does not avoid the signs of friendliness with more conservative listeners.
It does not go unnoticed – Malcys’ music is spreading more and more around the world, being performed in Latvia, Austria, Italy, France, Norway, Germany, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, Russia, Kazakhstan, USA. Only this year it will be performed by the Norwegian, Russian, German, Swedish, Chinese, Estonian, Ukrainian orchestras. In 2004 at the international composers’ competition Sinfonia Baltica in Riga, Malcys won the third prize for Only Heaven Above Us, for symphony orchestra; in 2005 at the Juozas Karosas composers’ competition the first prize for the Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra; in 2006 he became a laureate of the composers’ competition Mozart 250 in Moscow, for the composition for chamber orchestra In Memoriam.
Recently, Malcys has a special relationship with Russian musicians. The famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich is among the performers who are commissioning new works from him. The Moscow Kremlin Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Misha Rakhlevsky, has performed Malcys’ music in New York’s Carnegie Hall. The composer has released four CDs of his music.
- Arvydas, you grew and studied in Kaunas at the time when your peers wore long hair, carried boombox radios and were not interested in what was officially transmitted to young people. Did you have an opportunity to play rock music?
- Yes! Those were my first sleepless nights: conversations of the like-minded, listening to music, rehearsing... I started playing the guitar in the “solid” band from 1972, it was the vocal-instrumental ensemble (as they were called then) of the Faculty of Mechanics of the Kaunas Polytechnic Institute, headed by the current Minister of Culture Jonas Jučas.
- Did the events surrounding Romas Kalanta, the self-immolated protester, have any personal significance to you?
- It had great significance for the formation of my public spirit and patriotism. I only heard about the post-war resistance in Lithuania; the TV only showed demonstrators colliding with the police in the countries of “rotten capitalism”, and then – what I happened to see and feel, remained for life.
- Participating in “unrest”?
- It’s impossible to describe it, just as the feelings of freedom, trust and respect for the citizen in the vicinity of you are mixed up with hatred, fear, distrust, despair... Police’s helplessness and fear against the crowd, raid of the army, shooting in the air, dispersing the crowds, chasing the longhaired and forced haircutting... At that time I studied at the Juozas Gruodis Music School; four of my coleagues did not return to study after these events and I never saw them again. Another friend said that he was being interrogated by the KGB, he also saw my photo there, but did not betray me...
- Let’s go back to the rock music, as if it were the most important sign of identity of those times. For you, does it live only in your memories today?
- In 2002 I received an invitation from the Kaunas University of Technology to come to the Kaunas Sports Hall – there were all the remaining Kaunas rock musicians of the time. I lost my tongue: I was not in touch with any of them, and they printed a leaflet that included my photo – next to the Raganiai, Kertukai, Gintarėliai bands...
Only when turning back to the past and remember, you understand what kind of lifestyle was rock music, how sweet was a breeze of freedom in the youth. I think those things are especially cherished by those whose fate didn’t bring together them and music.
- Where did you live in Kaunas?
- I lived in Žaliakalnis, a quarter between the Saulės Gymnasium and the Stepas Žukas Art School, where my parents are still living.
- What was the most pleasing thing in the city?
- All cities have good and bad influence zones... The fact that the Naujalis School of Arts was in the former residence of the Archdiocese of Kaunas was a matter of somewhat obligatory. The exams and concerts took place in the column hall where the bishops were not so long time ago...
I was watching the activities of the Kaunas Theological Seminary through the fence, and at that time we were living in the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. The school yard was the only place where you could enjoy the clerical flourish, watch the mysterious and fascinating rituals every day... and the other yard of the same architectural ensemble was hijacked by the Soviet Army’s barracks...
- In my memory, there was a fat, red star, mounted on the top of tower of one of the seminary buildings – which was expropriated from the seminary and transformed into the army’s barracks. I saw it everyday when I went to school. Later, of course, it was peeled off. But I guess you were concerned not only about such serious things?
- Kaunas is a green city: the magnificent Ąžuolynas (oak park), Vytautas Park, the city garden, the confluence of the Nemunas and Neris rivers. 40 years ago, we used to go bathe there after the classes! Today it’s hard to believe. There was the moat around the Castle of Kaunas, filled with water in spring and autumn; we floated there with the raft assembled from waste planks. I fell fell over and nearly drowned time and again, I used to return home with wet books, and soaked myself to my ears...
- And what about your cultural interests at that time?
- A lot of theatre, I saw all the performances in all the theatres. Today I cannot understand why the State Opera, even after the 16th years of independence, is still called the Soviet-imposed Musical Theatre?
- Well, there once was kind of a debate about it, but it was probably overcome by a faint inertia, as in the case of the horribly long name of the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre...
- After all, it is a theatre where the Lithuanian National Opera was formed, where Shaliapin, Diagilev Ballet Company performed, Malko, Wolff conducted, among many other celebrities of the interwar period, not to speak about a whole host of local musicians. Speaking about the drama theatre, I saw there all productions by Jonas Jurašas and Jonas Vaitkus, among them of Bronius Kutavičius’ opera Thrush, the Green Bird.
- Who was your teacher of your instrument, the cello?
- My first teacher was Vilnius Petrauskas. I was very lucky with such a teacher like him! He is still coming to the concerts in Kaunas when my works are performed.
- I also remember him well from my elementary school in Kaunas.
- I am very grateful and owing to him, I hope to publish a collection of short pieces for cello and piano, which I would dedicate to my beloved Master. Thanks to him, I simply could not miss the music.
- And did you already wrote music before the Conservatory in Vilnius?
- While playing in various bands, I wrote only songs.
- Who were your partners in those bands?
- Kęstutis Lušas, Natan and Jaša Gitkind, Griša Šliomas, Vidas Švagždys, Arvydas Joffe, Arūnas Gaulė and others. 30 years ago Lušas founded a group of like-minded people, which is, in essence, was a kind of today’s Gaida Ensemble. It consisted of string quartet, seven wind instruments, two keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. The ensemble played the most complex compositions. When the discerning people once heard them in concert in Tallinn, they immediately invited the ensemble to the TV studio, to record everything. Unfortunately, there were no VHS’s back then; today many would be overhwelmed by the complexity and wild energy of those compositions ...
- But it was just the beginning here?
- In Vilnius, after entering the Conservatory, I devoted myself to to the studies of classical music, but the singers Algis and Valdemaras Frankonis seduced me to do other detours. We studied together, performed together, played at clubs and weddings. The students needed money, and Valdemaras was a great manager.
- So what – didn’t you anger anyone with your frolic live?
- I was restrained by Prof. Saulius Sondeckis, saying: choose, either the guitar or the cello. I had to concentrate and prepare for the statewide (of the then Soviet Union) competition. Alexander Rudin from Moscow received the first prize, with whom, quite recently, 30 years after the competition, we met again: having seen one another we found that we did not change...
- You still have to check if you have not really changed, but better tell me what music was the most interesting and attracting at that time?
- When I was a schoolboy in Kaunas, I liked the rock bands Emerson, Lake & Palmer (while listening to it I understood for the first time how is it possible to make interesting arrangements of works by Musorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Brahms), King Crimson, Uriah Heep, and Yes.
- What music did you dance to?
- Music for dances always depended on the company, the partner, the amount of alcohol, the environment... We “digested” everything: Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Queen, as well as Elton John, Chicago, Joe Cocker, Eric Clapton. We liked many of them.
- I guess that today’s list is already very different, and the frolickers of the early 70’s have long since become respectable gentlemen, at least You and Rudin! But you have not yet mentioned who were the most memorable friends and colleagues from the times of your studies?
- I have graduated from the higher school twice... A lot of names... When I studied the cello in 1975-80, I studied with the composers Vidmantas Bartulis, Faustas Latėnas, Audronė Žigaitytė, Kristina Vasiliauskaitė, Dalia Kairaitytė.
- Only composers. Probably, then you were interested in their world more than in anything else. How did you decide to enter the studies of composition?
- Encouraged by Prof. Eduardas Balsys, saying: Aren’t you bothered to play the pieces by others? I often participated in the concerts of the composition students as a performer, and I often didn’t leave the stage because the cello was always needed.
Performing contemporary works, especially for the premieres, you get involved into the process of the birth of a work, and you start to think unconsciously: what I would change here, what I've done, why something is solved in a certain way, the other thing in the other way... I got seriously interested in the craft of the composer.
I started attending the optional composition class of Eduardas Balsys, but unfortunately, it did not last long: after half a year the Professor died.
- So you entered the Conservatory for the second time soon...
In 1985-89 I studied composition together with Arūnas Dikčius, Vaclovas Augustinas, Loreta Narvilaitė, Antanas A. Budriūnas, Tomas Juzeliūnas. There were more of us: Regimantas Petronis, Audrius Grybauskas, Gintautas Abarius, but they did not overpass the bastion of the music theory class of Rimantas Janeliauskas and did not finish their studies.
- What subjects did you consider the most important and interesting when studying the composition?
- A lot of interesting lessons... Adeodatas Tauragis, Jonas Bruveris, Vytautas Landsbergis taught music history courses, Osvaldas Balakauskas polyphony. I liked Rimantas Janeliauskas’ methodology: various analyzes, schemes, original approach to modern harmony.
I was surprised by the insight and courage of one man from the Marxism-Leninism department: lecturer Gustaitis had already then said that the USSR would fall apart and that its economy with its poor labor efficiency, bluffing and wasting of resources – for Africa, Cuba, Vietnam and other countries – was on the verge and that imploding of this bubble is aproaching, we will all see this! However, there were some people in the auditorium who said it was a provocation...
- But in between the two cycles of studies, they took you to the Soviet Army.
- I served in Vilnius. I was an informal leader of the song of dance ensemble of one of the divisions stationed there; the official head was Major Aleksandrov.
- What did you have to do?
- I wrote orchestrations for a large ensemble, chamber choir and dance group – this was a good practice for me. We discussed with Aleksandrov, which songs, choirs, dances I will prepare for the collective. At that time, the most popular Soviet music on the radio was Dunayevsky’s and Pakhmutova’s songs, but there were no scores and I had to write out notes myself, or to find something in the magazine Ogonek: the last page always contained some piano reduction score with the text... But sometimes, when authority enforced, I had to notate the music by ear. That was an official program which we performed in concerts in the Baltic military district: Riga, Tallinn, Daugavpils, Valmiera, Pärnu, Vilnius, Kaunas, Šiauliai, Alytus... Of course, we also played for dances.
- Have you got to be alone and do what you want?
- I had quite good conditions in the army, I could go out to the city, say, to buy an eraser... I had a lot of free time, so I did my first compositions there.
- But before the army, you started to work at the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. In what year did you come to the Orchestra?
- It was 1979, a year that is memorable to Lithuania. The first concert with the Orchestra was triumphal for it was dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the Vilnius University. We performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Julius Juzeliūnas’ Cantus Magnificat. The music impressed... I felt like a Roman emperor coming back to Rome after the conquest of the world.
- Indeed, this year was the most beautiful the the emergence of Sąjūdis, the Lithuanian independence movement, pride and energy of the people could be felt all around.
- For the first time in the history of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic the city was so decorated, old town’s facades repaint, streets full of flags, students were allowed to wear caps. And how was the university itself uplifted – it just got it up, the halls and courtyards were reviving. What miracles at that time were created there by the fresco painter Petras Repšys and other geniuses...
After that, everything has returned to its previous state...
- You work at the Philharmonic Orchestra until now. When you hear the music by other composers, do you compare it with your ideas now?
- The work at the orchestra makes you listen to a lot of very different music. But I’m not really going to succumb to the charm of trendy techniques and dependencies on some dominant stream.
- What synphonists of the past are closer to you?
- There are very many masters with deep knowledge of the symphony orchestra, but if I have to limit myself to several of them, then – M. Ravel, I. Stravinsky, S. Prokofiev, W. Lutosławski, John Adams.
- Don’t you fear any desctructive effect of listening to the music by others upon writing your own music?
- I liked Vidmantas Bartulis’ answer to similar question: “How do you protect your Self?” – “The Self either is there, or it isn’t . If it needs to be protected, then maybe it is not yet true Self. And if not, then why protect it?”
So concerning the effect of the other music, you do not accept what you feel you don’t need.
- To my knowledge, among Lithuanian composers you have read the most of the Lithuanian prose fiction, you are well versed in the latest literature. When did you become a systematic reader?
- You know, the forbiden fruit is the sweetest, and the book in the Soviet times was a deficit: if I seized anything, I digested it with pleasure...
After the restoration of Independence of Lithuania, the huge supply of books arose. I chose the titles of the publishing houses Tyto Alba and Alma Littera to read, this literature enriches my soul enormously. Now I am reading mostly during my trips and in summer: I do not write music in the summer.
- What writers have opened up new perspectives to you?
- They were and are very numerous. We have a large library, this is the largest room in my apartment. Maybe everything started from Hermann Hesse...
Reading a book is a wonderful feeling; to immerse oneself in the world they are offering is to discover what was not known, not experienced, not yet heard. It helps to understand ourselves, our close people, our surroundings. It’s a great bliss – to be alone, but with someone together as well...
While reading a book, I am developing my composition skills as well, because I feel the form, the theme, the counterpoint. All the tools you need to implement your Idea.
- Do you feel any other influences on your musical creation?
- I think that some of my opuses have certain unconscious narratives, close to literature and theatre.
- How does the idea of your work come to life?
- Everything starts with an idea, and then I’m looking for ways to realize it. It happens that a certain idea is around for years: you awake and go to bed with it, but you can’t find its material implementation: not that form, not that rhythm, not those performers, not that time, not that mood what is needed...
- Does it matter what you are doing at the time, where you are, what kind of music do you play?
- Yes, it is very important that peace of mind and reconciliation, with myself in the first place, would be around me and in me.
Until I finish one work, I can’t undertake the other – I go to sleep with that burden. I have no peace until I shed it off. I wonder when Penderecki tells he is writing several different works at the same time...
- Do you make any schemes or blueprints?
- I was always wondered at the people who know how to plan their lives, work, family. I’m more of an intuitive composer, but I understand that every piece has its own single system, inherent and adapted to its own needs.
I think modernism has greatly expanded the means of expression of the composer; the author can choose what is closer to their heart, staying faithful to their inner needs, but the modernism for the sake of modernism is a dubious value. There must be some other elements that make the work the art.
- Do you return to your old, unfinished works?
- I do not come back, I try to put everything I can into my present work, and therefore I don’t come back. If I would come back to correct anything, it would be an endless tale, several years would be spent on it – I would want to improve something, add new ideas to it...
- What approach is closer to you – consistent, everyday work or spontaneous spurts?
- Inspiration is very important to me, but I do not sit and wait for it, because I won’t possibly get it in wait. I have a pool of ideas for three years – of course, that does not mean that these plans will not change. When I get to work on a particular piece, it becomes a daily craftmanship, crystallysing and polishing of that particular piece.
- What do you need to feel inspired and full of strength to compose?
- To feel loved and needed.
- Do you say that the creative process can be affected by love?
- I think that all the processes of humankind are stimulated by love. Civilization has always been based on the driving force of love: let’s read the history of wars, inventors, travelers, politicians, businessmen, not to speak about the artists...
- What is the influence of your dreams on you?
Rarely do I dream, I carry my dreams with me even less. Now I cannot even remember – whether dreams do influence my work...
But when I get to my childhood summer in the grandparents’ homestead in my dream, I’ll get up well.
- Does the contract help you to concentrate, or does it make you just too anxious that you might not be able to meet the deadline?
- The contract helps to implement the ideas, because some ideas without a contract remain on paper only, become obsolete and remain unfulfilled. The contract not only helps to concentrate. It gives the composer the peace of mind that the work will be eventually performed. Because, otherwise you could expect come more years to wait when your work will get its first performance.
- You are the most prolific symphonist of the middle generation of Lithuanian composers; at the moment, it seems to me that nobody else composes so many orchestral works here. What caused your orientation?
- I do not consider myself the only symphonist, chamber music is just as important in my work.
- Are you composing at the piano?
- I do not have a piano, I’m composing at the keys of the Kurzweil synthesizer.
- Can you work while being not alone in the room?
- There are many jobs that I can do if the wife is sitting and quietly reading the book, but the birth of the work requires absolute peace, and first of all peace in me.
- How do you describe the relationship between improvisation and discipline in your music?
- Like in life: improvisation and discipline have to complement each other. After all, when we meet someone, we can see from their eyes – there is a dry theoretician, here is a hothouse plant, a man who is afraid of everything – God forbid anything should happen...
No matter how you will do it – music has to flow, live, tell, create a certain state...
- And why the virtuosity is important to you?
- It does not matter to me as a goal at all. After all, this is just one of the means in the work, in the narrative, that fills some time span in a journey, that creates an emotional state which is the most appropriate for this situation.
Since I am the author of six instrumental concertos, I know well from my experience that I do not have to cater for the performers, although it is useful for me to know their opinions and attitudes, their “kitchen”, in some cases, their ego.
- Work with distinct instrumentalists and conductors from abroad, do their tastes influence your decisions somehow?
- They don’t because I write for them without knowing them and only after that we find each other. I’ve written only a few pieces for a particular artist – but they are friends first of all, and only after that the performers.
- An interesting paradox! However, your contacts with the famous musicians of Moscow is an exceptional phenomenon in the latest history of Lithuanian music. How did they started?
- Very differently, for example, we played in one contest 30 years ago with the aforementioned Alexander Rudin and with another great cellist Alexander Kniazev.
The young, very promising Moscow Ippolitov-Ivanov Piano Quartet from Moscow became a laureate in Vilnius, at the Stasys Vainiūnas Competition, while playing my work Blackthorn Eyes among others. By the Way, the premiere of this composition was held in 1999 in Belgium, performed by your group, the Vilnius New Music Ensemble, of which I was also a member at that time. Now the Russians have included Blackthorn Eyes in many concerts, recorded it for the CD on Melodiya label, even commissioned a new opus...
And the first Moscow performance of my music was 20 years ago – in 1987. Together with Sergejus Okruško we performed Sonata for cello and piano at the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff Hall. Today Denis Shapovalov is interested in this Sonata and prepares to perform it.
- Wasn’t you overburdened by the authority of Mstislav Rostropovich when he gave you a commission to compose a symphonic work for him?
- I could talk about him for hours ... I have not met such a prominent and simple, sincere and true man, citizen and artist, although I have met quite a few really famous artists. We talked every time he was conducting and playing with the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra. In March, I hope to meet him in Germany – where the Maestro would perform concerts with our orchestra, conducting Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich.
Since he knew I was a composer, he always inquired what I was writing. After one concert in Switzerland he offered me to compose a vivacious symphonic piece for him.
- Do you need reviews about your works?
- It is interesting to learn about the discoveries of the critics, their creative and classificatory abilities... I think it is useful for each author to hear another opinion, a critical evaluation from outside – but is it really necessary for me?..
The most important thing is the variety of opinions from the audience – they are all right in their own right, although it is most interesting to me as an author when my and listener’s interpretations are different. And I think that this is neither a tragedy nor a comedy – after all, every listener discovers what they have in themselves...
- And do you sometimes read what they write about about colleagues’ music?
- When something happens to be at hand at your fingertips, I’ll definitely read. Sometimes I wonder: the work is presented to the reader so scientifically that it turns into a historic-cosmic-panegyric-explanatory profanation. If Gavin Bryars would live in Lithuania – he would simply be destroyed here...
- But do reactions to your music inspire new ideas?
- In recent years, I am very interested in watching your new field of activity, I think, it’s an interesting addition to you previous and current work of composition. I am talking about the country house located in Trakai district, near Semeliškės village, which undergoes a well-thought-out transformation into an attractive recreation centre and possibly a perfect place for cultural events. The most unexpected thing is that there is a new park emerging in a large area on hills, between the swamps and lakes, in which different species of trees grow, or even mushrooms. How did such, I would say, impractical idea emerge, of planting trees around your farmstead and setting up a park?
- Very naturally. As the house is on a hill, there are no forests around, sometimes it’s windy on the hill, and the land is enough, just create and don’t be lazy.
Thus, a rock-garden, the gardens of flowers, fruits and vegetables, a pond, the groves of conifers and deciduous trees are there...
- What is your approach to architecture?
- I admire those architectural solutions that complement the environment, blend into a harmonious ensemble, and you want to stay there longer. I am interested in architecture, I even wanted to study it...
- It’s so tempting to ask now: don’t you think you are doing something similar to music when creating a part? It is obvious, at least in your case, that the art of landscape art is an expression of the same creative demand.
- I agree, I think that this park will remain, will bring joy and memories. I am a child of the city, for me this was the source of many discoveries, new challenges, frustrations and self-knowledge!!
- When will you finally organize your manor festival – the idea about which you keep telling for a long time?
- I do not have a mansion, I only have a country house. I think, this event must grow and mature naturally – like a newly planted garden.