Layering a musical canvas: Q and A with Zibuokle Martinaityte


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[Zibuokle Martinaityte is a Lithuanian composer now based in New York. Her orchestral work Horizons will be featured in Composers, Inc.’s opening concert November 17. Currently in Paris on a creative residency, she responded by email to Allen Shearer’s questions.]

What is your compositional process like? What is a typical starting point for a new piece?

Ideas for my compositions often emerge from non-musical sources. A sentence in a book, a line of poetry, or watching forces of nature unfold can trigger the imagination. The phrase “the blue of distance” from Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost turned into a title for my choral composition. This beautiful, poetic phrase seemed to open the door to a world of endless musical possibilities. Or the basis for a new piece can be a purely constructive compositional idea, as with my brass sextet Osmosis, in which the instruments are in osmotic relationship to one another and assimilate more and more as the piece progresses. Or life events or psychological states may need to be expressed in sound. Completely Embraced by the Beauty of Emptiness reflects the world of emotions associated with the passing of my father.

Once I commit to an idea, a different type of work begins. The creative process is usually quite slow despite moments or even hours of burning inspiration. What takes time is not the composing itself, but dealing with inner and outer disturbances evoked by the creative process. When one enters that territory of the unknown, there are dark forces one has to conquer. The process has its phases, yet at times it seems to be endless.

There are lots of details to be dealt with. The first round of revisions is mostly editing the sequence of acoustic events, prolonging some sections, shortening others or eliminating them altogether. At some point the piece seems to have become a living organism which may have imperfections yet gives a certain sense of wholeness. The second round of revisions comes after hearing the first performance of the piece. Here I fine-tune the timing, fix minutiae of instrumental technique, or adjust dynamics.

You are a classically trained pianist. Did that help prepare you to become a composer? Has the music of past eras provided lessons?

The past is ever-present, at least on the subconscious level. Although I don’t think I draw influences from particular pieces, there are layers of musical residue, pieces that I’ve learned to play on the piano or ones I’ve listened to repeatedly. Composers I’ve admired are J. S. Bach for his sense of symmetry, proportion and incessant continuity; Mozart for his capricious nature, rapidly shifting emotional states and for his joyful “lightness of being,” which for me was an antidote to darker moods and depression associated with adolescence; and Scriabin for the aura of mystery in his harmonies. Other composers and pieces that left a trace are Giacinto Scelsi, Gyorgy Ligeti’s Atmosphères and Gérard Grisey’s Vortex Temporum.

As you are a Lithuanian composer, one looks for the influence of the “Polish school” prevalent in the sixties and seventies – Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Gorecki. In Horizons and other of your pieces I do find the massed sonorities those composers are known for, but more as a background, a kind of “whoosh” or distant roar, as if the passing of time itself were given a voice.

Your insightful observation is relevant to many of my pieces. Yes, perhaps voice is given to the passing of time, to the experience of time itself as well as the events that happen in that time. Just as the depth of the ocean is underneath the waves, there is this ever-present sounding mass, at times an almost inaudible hidden background. I prepare a “musical canvas” consisting of a few layers of sound upon which I build up the more prominent foreground textures. Ligeti, with his multi-layered micropolyphonic orchestral textures, has been one of my strongest influences, and the “Polish school” as well, since I had great exposure to it.

You have participated in conferences on new music in various European countries, and you have been to several artist colonies in the United States. How has this helped you as a composer

I simply love encountering new music of various countries that I’ve never heard before, especially performed live. It proves again and again that there is no limit to human imagination! Listening to new pieces and analyzing the scores, observing the rehearsal process, attending composers’ talks about their work – I find all of this incredibly stimulating.

My best work has been done at artist colonies, where distractions of the outer world are minimized. The MacDowell Colony provides no Internet connection in the studios. Though hard to cope with at first, this frees up internal space in our Internet-addicted minds.  In hearing tests it was discovered that I am a “super-hearer,” someone who can hear extreme ranges of frequencies especially at the high end of the spectrum. This can lead to aural overstimulation. Silence during creative residencies is a much needed restorative for the brain and for general well-being.

During a residency one can balance solitude and human exchange with other artists, gaining exposure to their work and sharing secrets of the creative process. A random conversation with an artist of a different discipline can lead to a future collaboration or simply “whisper” the solution to your own creative puzzle.

You have had orchestral and other works performed in Lithuania. Are there more performance opportunities for a composer in Europe than in the United States?

At the beginning of a career it is easier to get performances in your native environment, whether it’s Europe or the United States. Later the horizons start to expand. It is true though that the arts in Europe are more supported by the government. In the US, where funding is mostly from private sources, artists have to develop entrepreneurial skills for their art to survive and reach audiences.

What’s it like to be a composer in New York City?

New York contains the entire world! It must have the world’s highest density of composers and other creative types, which is both stimulating and nerve-wracking. But there is such excitement around new music! When I moved to New York, one of the first concerts I attended was the JACK Quartet performing four string quartets by Xenakis. The 250-seat hall at Morgan Library was completely filled with new music aficionados, with many people waiting to get in. The atmosphere was charged with energy and excitement from the audience and the performers, who exhibited both virtuosity and a passion for that music. It’s an affirmation of the necessity of music and art in general. For us composers, it adds an extra push to our creative development. After all, music is meant to be heard and shared with other people.

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