Perfect Sound Forever

Fate and Osvaldas Balakauskas and Fate

by W. C. Bamberger
(October 2010)

It was a stagy conversation, a pre-performance performance by a composer and the host of a radio show. Larry Lake, the host of CBC Radio 2's Two New Hours was speaking to Lithuanian composer Osvaldas Balakauskas about his piano-violin duet, Rain for Cracow (Exclusive V991; original title: Deszcz Dla Krakowa) before a performance of the piece.1 Lake clearly strained to keep his language simple enough for the composer's limited English; while Balakauskas, speaking in a laid-back baritone, was agreeable but clearly felt the music should speak for itself. But they both knew the territory; they had entered it voluntarily, choosing to become a composer or a radio host meant such exchanges would be unavoidable. Considering the rhythmic and harmonic complexity of Balakauskas's work, Lake's questions were in a way scripted for him, built into the situation. Cooperative and sociable, Lake asked the inevitable:

"Would you say you write difficult music in general?"

"Yes, yes. It's not my purpose to write difficult music. But... it's my fate."

Both laughed. A self-deprecating joke is always a successful resolution to an awkward interview.

Rain for Cracow is, as even those of us who are non-musicians can hear, indeed a difficult work for the players. This is most clearly due not so much to the persistent skittering eighth notes (or to the fact that the piece is in 2/4 and the piece is played at a quick tempo), as to the fact that rhythmic divisions of the parts for the two instruments often do not align--a frequent pattern is that of two sixteenth notes and a eighth rest in the piano simultaneous with a note pattern of 16th/8th/16th in the violin. That is, not so close that they coincide, but neither so distant as to make for a simple feeling of syncopation. The close proximity of the rhythms surely pulls both players toward the others' pattern, so that in order to play together they must have to cultivate a kind of precise half-listening.

Yet even as at some level we recognize the demands placed on the players' virtuosity, Rain for Cracow is not difficult music for the listener. There is even a suggestion of program music or tone poem in the way the duet begins, with light sprinklings of violin notes, the bow jumping as if buffeted by winds. The piano plays both above the violin and below, marking it off, as if the violin were a fast flowing crowd and the piano was both sidewalk and awning. But the program aspect is only a suggestion. The music primarily is about itself. When the piano enters, it shadows the violin's half-step descents, then begins taking big interval jumps--two or three octaves between eighth notes. The piano continues to offer notes in short dense bursts (here, as in several of Balakauskas's works, the piano is prepared, the strings muted in such a way as to render it a melodic instrument and a percussive one in equal measure), while the violin bounces and rasps its related but independent, jittery lines. The rhythms align, slip apart, and then align again. Balakauskas has said that he has "always tended to use instruments maximally, up to their barriers of virtuosity," 2 and the "instruments" he pushes to these limits surely include the players themselves: simply to keep the count in this music is a great challenge.

Rain for Cracow is included on a CD of Balakauskas's chamber music that also includes duets and trios, and one solo piano piece. 3 These pieces, which are different enough that interest doesn't wane over the length of the CD despite its limited instrumentation, are also recognizably originate from the same hand and ear. The three-movement Like the Touch of a Sea Wave (1975) for violin and piano begins sweetly, with a tender, high violin line that could have come from Ralph Vaughan Williams in an impressionist mood. The violin moves to a lower register as the piano offers pointillistic consonant chords, and the movement ends with muted pizzicato and clopping, bright piano. Each successive movement offers more moments of similarly spare, unsentimental beauty and surprising force. Retrospective is startling from its first notes, a buck-sawing downward glissando over blocky, percussive piano chords and bursts of astringent cello. The piano moves from simple pedal points to wide, splashing chords that surround and highlight what the other two instruments are doing. Notes at times sound as if they are being split apart so they can move in two directions at once--the instruments' attack like a cold chisel. As in the best of Balakauskas, the rhythms come down in unexpected (yet somehow welcoming) sequences.

The high, damped piano line that begins Maggiore-Minore is so fast it suggests Conlon Nancarrow's player piano pieces--it is difficult to imagine actual human hands playing it. The violinist's part is equally daunting. But it comes as no surprise that this is a serial composition--Balakauskas has invented several personal variations on serial procedures--as the two, unrelated-sounding lines have a Webern-like insistence on moving from note to note with creating a melodic profile, but the muted piano tone and occasional longer notes on the violin keep the human warmth from being thrown off by the piece's centrifugal force. The rewards here may be primarily intellectual, but they truly fascinate.

There is much more in these and in the other three pieces here to recommend them; there's not a boring or unoriginal idea and passage to be heard. This is truly superlative music from the first note to the last. Yet, with all the rewards available throughout these pieces, remains for, for me, the highpoint of this CD and of Balakauskas's output as a whole. If the composer had come to me and asked me to tick off a menu of desired elements--with the last tick being "the sound of surprise"--the result would not have been any more satisfying than is Rain for Cracow.

At the same time, I am reasonably certain that Balakauskas doesn't feel the same; his statements suggest that his ideal is of a complexity beyond that of this duet. The inevitability of this difference of musical opinion is my true subject here.

Because Balakauskas's remark about his "fate," as light-hearted as it was meant to be in its context, also points to something truly basic about the abilities and preferences of every composer, performer and listener. A composer's "fate"--as with anyone who sorts and reshapes the elements of the world rather than simply accepting them as they are offered and passing them along unaltered--can be defined as that music he or she will ultimately (and unavoidably) create. That is, "fate" is one with his or her aesthetic sense. This sense has many definitions, but the one most relevant to my encounter with Balakauskas's works is that of author Samuel R. Delany:

My theory is simply that humans have an aesthetic register. Like the registers of hunger and sex, the aesthetic register is fundamentally appetitive. It manifests itself as a desire to recognize patterns, both spatial and temporal [fields] of continuity and contrast, of similarities and differences, of presences and absences... 4
As I read this (that is, as I apply my aesthetic register to this statement about aesthetic registers), "appetitive" means that the aesthetic register/sense is an active hunter and gatherer rather than, as many of us view it, a passive critic of what passes before us, or (again, passive) receptor of influences. With this register, always appetitive, always afoot and on the hunt, we find that the best of Balakauskas's music (and this is true for all composers with any originality), for all its formal and ensemble variety, to be identifiably "in his style." And anyone's style, in turn, is first and foremost formed by this same--for all of us, seemingly uniquely calibrated--appetitive aesthetic sense.

As our aesthetic sense seems to be a set of inborn preferences--taste can be developed, if only from the roots already present in the individual, but can't effectively be imposed--so our "fate" is in a very real way genetic. That is, we are fated to like what we like, write what we write, even fated (born) to enjoy particular kinds of music. Nearly all of us have had the experience of hearing a piece of music for the first time and feeling it strike or awaken something central, as if we had been waiting for it to arrive. It is as if we have within us the equivalent of a sitar's lower course of gossamer sympathetic strings, which respond to particular notes as they are played on the main strings above. And these sympathetic strings seem permanently tuned to react to certain aesthetic ranges. These strings were immediately awakened, stirred to vibrating life, when I heard "Rain for Cracow" for the first time.

A cat’s cradle of similarly awakened strings had led me to Balakauskas. I had had little truck with orchestral music before the 1970's. I had listened most intently to country blues recordings, and to kind of the "world music"-inflected jazz played by Don Cherry and Pharoah Sanders. But I had quickly noticed that jazz, once famously labeled "the sound of surprise" was becoming more and more predictable. I had heard Carla Bley's galloping "Wrongkey Donkey" on a jazz station (strong tone, eccentric syncopation, percussive attack), and I began buying everything by her I could find. In 1975, I bought 13 and 3/4, an album with one composition each by Bley and Michael Mantler. 5 This was orchestral music, completely different from Bley's fiery and humorously quirky jazz--and, while Mantler's piece was leaden and opaque, I was immediately taken with 3/4. This is an overlooked masterpiece, a funny, rhythmically nimble and beautifully percussive piece for small orchestra and piano. Through this Bley piece, I found contemporary orchestral music, for me the true "sound of surprise."

In reviews of 13 and 3/4, I read that the piece had its roots in minimalism, which was then in its heyday (a later Bley work, 440, is a parody of the style). This led me back to Steve Reich, whose "Six Pianos" I had earlier sought out after listening to Don Cherry's album Eternal Now, with its "Bass Figure for Ballatune," a galloping repetitive piece for two pianos and three piano players. I was fortunate to encounter Reich in the 1970s, during the period when his rhythms were at their most complex and clean-lined, the pinnacle being 1979's Octet (the original, not the later, blur-enfeebled, revision Eight Lines). By 1983's Desert Music, Reich's music was becoming harmonically bloated and strained, and while the technique of composition based on voice sampling worked brilliantly for 1988's Different Trains, by 1993's The Cave, the music had become only a pretense for creating a visual theatre piece. A flickering early interest in Philip Glass hadn't survived the banal Glassworks album; John Adams' insipid Gershwin-esque harmonic sense repelled me.

Slowly, the contours of the orchestral music that I was attracted to came into focus: surprising syncopations, harmonic simplicity (the root and the fourth were plenty good enough for me), assertive tones, giant-step melodic intervals and most often works with discernible structures. These preferences, I later found, rhyme well with one of Balakauskas's concise statements of his own aesthetic: "Clear stylistic boundaries and a maximum of dynamics. The first is for me equal to beauty, and the second, to life." 6 If William Blake, champion of the thick defining line, had written about music, he might have said this. And my aesthetic register clearly seconded these notions.

By the mid-1990's, I was buying music almost, sorting through CD bins, looking for living composers I had never heard of. In this haphazard, hopeful but budget-bruising manner, I eventually discovered the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür, and following that lead, the Lithuanian composers Peteris Vasks and Balakauskas. Of all the composers I found that I most appreciated--including the South African (transplanted to Ireland) Kevin Volans, the Argentine-German Mauricio Kagel, the Greek-Canadian Christos Hatzis--these were the only ones who created a geographical cluster. Their styles were different--Vasks romantic; Tüür rock-inflected; Balakauskas influenced by jazz scales--but they shared some things as well: a combination of structural novelty, rhythmic variety and a lean (as opposed to a gushy or decorative) melodiousness. There was also something intangible, a dry raspiness--as if husks remained on the homegrown musical materials--that was integral to the works, not the result of any conductor or recording equipment. Arvo Pärt (another Estonian) shared much the same style at times, but his rhythmic sense was simpler and he usually lacked the willingness to venture into passages of emphasis-by-dissonance that the others shared.

Once I noticed this Baltic state bright spot on the musical map, I confidently bought such CDs as Stimmen and other Baltic Works for String Orchestra, with music by Vasks, Balakauskas and Onute Narbutaite (a woman composer from Lithuania); 7 and From my Home, with Latvia-born Gidon Kremer conducting pieces by Vasks, Tüür and Pärt, as well as several other Baltic composers I had never heard of. 8 Excepting one miniature on the Kremer, I found all the music engaging, much of it emotionally resonant. I found Kremer's home folks simpatico.

In his notes for this CD, Kremer writes, "I associate the Baltic States with the grey of the sea... I do not mean to imply by this that Baltic music is itself grey, simply that it belongs to the Northern Hemisphere. If I allow my imagination free rein, I think of mists and lakes, lonely sea-shores and the possibility of finding concentration and tranquility." In other CD insert notes and writings about Balakauskas (and in this he is of course little different from composers of any region), the idea of a national or regional "character" is frequently raised. Despite the fact that he studied in Kiev for five years and was influenced in his early career by the Ukrainian avant-garde, his work has just the kind of clear but difficult to define family resemblance to that of other Baltic composers that Kremer writes about. And Balakauskas is indeed deeply involved with his people, their culture and history: from 1998 to 1992, he was part of the Lithuanian Independence movement, and from 1992 to 1994, he became Lithuania's ambassador to France, Spain and Portugal--its first after fifty years of Soviet occupation. In a way, both politics and composition are equally bound up with helping Lithuania's national character make its mark in the wider world. And his efforts are likely to continue to be successful: he is now, in fact, the head of the Composition Department of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre.

The notes to Vel: Lithuanian Chamber Music 1991–2001 9 present further thoughts on the region's musical character in a very enthusiastic, if disjoint form. Balakauskas shares this recording once again with Narbutaite, as well as Bronius Kutavicius, Remigijus Merkelys and Mindaugas Urbaitis. Ute Stoecklin, the pianist here contributed the notes, and she doesn't mention the weather or the sea, instead the country's cultural heritage and deep linguistic roots:

Lithuania... has a diverse and tragic history. The Lithuanian language is the oldest Indo-European language and is still delivered in pure Sanskrit. It was the peasant language of the Samogitans/Schamaitens, who were therefore also the guardians of Lithuanian folk art, which contains a treasure trove of fairy tales, myths, folk songs and dances. The dance forms are ancient and they emit a continuity of magic meditative material--magic in the form of honoring nature, a sympathetic coherence between nature and the cosmos...

The listener will be aware of the originality and rhythm of these forms again in the following works, which present a newly formed content as metamorphosis of a great base sound...

If "fate" in the sense I am using it is inborn, this Lithuanian pianist/critic's insistence on the pervasive influence of the region's myths and language, landscape, climate and dance, geographical and cultural heritage effectively equals "fate." I suggest that everywhere a critic refers to national character in any way, this simple equation hold. To each, his or her own "fate."

Balakauskas's contribution to the Vel set is Rex Re (2000), a quartet for flute, violin, viola and piano. The royal "Re" of the title is "D," the work's tonal center. The style and affect of the quartet, it antic manner and ear-catching harmonies, are closely related to Rain for Cracow. The same sensibility clearly created both. It begins with a jittery piano lingering around its Rex, though the passages are not as dense and fast, nor is the piano prone to the startling octave leaps of Cracow. The other instruments enter with layers of an angular line, the rhythms of which resemble a bent rendering of "Barnacle Bill." The lines repeat, or nearly so, with the instruments taking on different tones--thinner, louder, the strings closer to the bridge, et al. Then after a quiet moment, the instruments begin taking turns at being background, with first one of the strings playing long tones while the piano, flute and the other string player leave their unison playing behind to contribute simultaneous, complementary--though not in any traditional sense--lines. Each instrument in turn assumes the tonal anchor chore for brief periods, playing arpeggios, long tones, or quick-bowed drones, while the other three converse. This continues through most of the remainder of the piece's 12 minutes. There is some brief lushness (from the viola and from the piano at different times), some overt chromaticism, but the overriding feel is angular and modal-sounding, clean as salt-bleached drift wood. The piece doesn't so much develop as offer variations, an exhaustion of the possibilities of the given materials, and then it ends with a recapitulation of the lines that began it--back at the Re. It may be that this lingering around the "D" and the piece's rainbow-like structure are what Stoecklin was referring to when she wrote, "The listener will be aware of the originality and rhythm of these forms... which present a newly formed content as metamorphosis of a great base sound." Its return certainly satisfies my appetite for transparent structure.

One more take on Stoecklin's idea of dance as an element of an orchestral music's "national identity," from an interview Balakauskas did with a Lithuanian musicologist in 1984:

Interviewer: You, as rarely a Lithuanian composer does, pay particular attention to rhythm.

Balakauskas: The problem of rhythm... for me is the matter of disassembling the binary system (one–two, one–two), that is a dancing of the feet [which is] the soil in which banality sprouts. But not only disassembling it, but creating an alternative structure that can be felt, for example, the system 1–2–3–5–7–5–3–2 or something similar. And this is then a "dancing" of the nerves.

That is, Balakauskas strives to achieve a movement from the Sanskrit-remote basis of the music in dance (not abandoning it, but supplementing it), from one's contact with the earth, to the nerves, which are both physical and cerebral. And this appeals to my aesthetic register as well: attention given to the lowest and the highest parts of the emotional and aesthetic range, with the mundane, predictable middles being left out (when the piano in Rain for Cracow withdraws into the sidewalk and awning ranges, the violin's sound inserts between them an originality rather than a banality). Balakauskas goes on to speak of his intent as that of a combination of being close to the earth and being in "the stratosphere" at the same time.

In this same interview, Balakauskas--again, speaking for me as well--asserts, "I enjoy complicated music the most. More precisely, complicated, but harmonious music, and herein I see a large creative problem--to express oneself thoroughly, not hurting the integrity of the form (in the large sense) that one has chosen." 10 The structures of the smaller and some of the mid-size works are truly exemplary, strong and possessed of a clear integrity. But in his organization of his larger works Balakauskas, in my opinion, acts against his most engaging strengths.

In general, the complexity of Balakauskas's larger works is built up of layers of materials and structures similar to the duos and trios. 11 His Ostrobothnian Symphony for chamber orchestra (1990), for example, treats groups of instruments as elements in a polyphony of "block-like phrases," as the composer describes them. 12 Rhythmic figures emerge at the beginning of the piece, figures which expand, overlay one another and create a clattering complexity, though--and this is essential to the aesthetic harmonies and divergences between Balakauskas and myself--with less clarity of structure and line than in what I take as the best of his work. The instrumental figures disengage and simply as the piece draws to a close.

Of the concertos for various instruments collected on Osvaldas Balakauskas: Concertos,13 the strongest is the most recent, Concerto Brio, for violin and chamber orchestra (1999). The scale is a pentatonic blues scale, but what gives the piece its force is its constant, forceful motion. The chamber orchestra is used primarily horizontally--to reinforce cross-rhythms or add melodic material--rather than to add the vertical dross of thickened harmony. The forward motion of the concerto rarely flags over the course of the concerto, though some variations are more interesting than others. Episodes in the music resemble the "stampedes" of the late Lou Harrison; at other times it's a musical skyhook, lifting the listener out of his chair with its upward momentum. Concerto for Oboe, Harpsichord and Strings (1981), which uses a nine-tone scale of Balakauskas's own invention, is more inconsistent. The first two movements could have been written by other composers; the harpsichord at times sounds like program music (the old television series The Avengers, maybe?); there is something Late Romantic about the massing of the strings. But by the third movement, Balakauskas introduces a dramatic force into the low strings, and sets the harpsichord to stamping clear accents out of the flow, and the parts find greater freedom than in the first two. Ludus modorum for cello and chamber orchestra (1972), and Concerto for Piano and Strings (1966) display too many characteristics of the time of their composition--a specific then-trendy, metallic dissonance, primarily--to match the level of the most recent works. However, there are some brilliantly nimble piano passages in the latter (which was, as the CD notes, revised in 1994). At concerto level, then, Balakauskas is--as always, "for me"--inconsistent.

While Balakauskas's methods and aesthetic ideas for the most part transpose well from duet to chamber orchestra size, the works for full orchestra seem to move past some optimal balance of complexity and clarity--where, for example, the individual lines might leave a space, another line fills it in. Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 are from 1998 and 2001. 14 Symphony No. 4, begins with a long passage of thick string writing and distant low thumps, a sound that almost overpowers the line that floats above it. There are hints that interesting moves are being made at various levels in this orchestral mass, but they are hard to hear. Strings and percussion rise together, then subside, as the thick strings begin to separate and a deeply haunting melody cuts through the bowed fog--but even this melody is played too thickly, blurring the kind of effect the lines in Balakauskas's works for smaller ensembles achieve so effectively. There are massed brasses, whole string sections playing in unison, and the swells of small crescendos, but the forward motion is almost arrested by the dense weave of the music. The movements are based on eight, eleven and ten-note scales, but the difference is hard to hear.

Symphony No. 5 (2001) is more dissonant than most of Balakauskas's recent music, but retains some of the insistence, the compelling drive of the earlier and smaller works. Here the orchestra at times opens spaces for small sounds to come through. The melodic lines are shorter, and stick in large part to proceeding by small steps rather than large leaps. At regular intervals, brass-band style bursts of sound join with massed percussion to wipe away the symphony's just-discernible internal intricacy. There is something atavistic here, with Balakauskas deliberately reaching back for earlier forms of orchestral music, and to my ears, what one might call the composer's "voice" is eclipsed by these borrowed forms and harmonies; the mass of orchestral weight surrounds and muffles it.

To generalize, then: for my ear, Balakauskas sounds most "himself" in his writing for small groups, and his voice is almost lost in his writing for large ensembles...

Balakauskas, however, is of the opposite opinion:

Melody is most often for me the pretext for finding ornaments--the pretext for ornamentation. Speaking in images, the melody--that is the Christmas tree which I decorate until one can see nothing more behind the ornaments, toys, and tinsel. It sometimes happens that performers notice the tree and try to bring it out in the open, clarify it. Then I feel sorry that I did not hide it well enough. 15
What I as a listener hear as a drawback, Balakauskas celebrates as a goal achieved. Part of anyone's "fate" is a preferred level of complexity, and Balakauskas's optimum level clearly is reached somewhere beyond where my appetitive aesthetic sense will comfortably go. Which puts me in mind, again, of Rain in Cracow. Balakauskas and I, composer and listener, are aesthetically very close in many ways; at times we are very much in harmony if not completely in unison. But as in that brilliant violin-piano duet, at other times, we move apart. And this is as it should be. To each his own "fate."


1. This was broadcast on June 8, 2003.

2. Interview conducted by Ruta Gaidamaviciute, June 1984. As published in Tyla (Silence), Raminta Lampsatis editor, author and translator. (Peine [Germany]: n.p., 1988), page 48. This very fragile book is almost impossible to find. My copy was sent to me by Balakauskas.

3. Osvaldas Balakauskas: Chamber Music, ASV CD DCA 1063.

4. "The K. Leslie Steiner Interview," in Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 279.

5. WATT 3 (1975). This album has never been issued as a CD--which surprised even Bleys own assistant: when I called a few years ago to order the score of "3/4" the pleasant woman answering the phone asked if I wanted a copy of the CD to go with it. When I said it hadn't been issued in that format she was incredulous until she checked for herself--then she was even more incredulous.

6. Tyla, 55.

7. Finlandia 4509-97892-2.

8. Teldec B000005283.

9. Guild GMCD 7283.

10. Tyla, 55.

11. A conscious exception to this is Requiem in Memoriam Stasys Lozoraitis, for chamber orchestra, mezzo soprano and choir (Naxos 8.557604). This is Balakauskas's only religious composition. It is neo-Medieval in style, with a text in Latin.

12. Notes to Baltic Works for String Orchestra.

13. BIS-CD-1058.

14. Naxos 8.557605.

15. Tyla, 92.

Hear some of Balakauskas' work at Music Export Lithuania

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