[Sunday Telegraph’s title]

Riga is the colour of the Eastern bloc, like nougat kicked around in a gutter. Beyond the river lies a scabby horizon of cranes and dockyards and peeling high-rise, yet the centre is an old town of faded elegance: all stucco and trams, promenades of frozen trees and their drab imprint of impacted shadow. Paris between the wars, perhaps. A clamour of bells is incessant, as if the city is in some perpetual funeral; and religious services have kept their entreating, East European fervour. The faces here retain the transparency and innocent animation of Eastern faces, their candour and vulnerability; these people know nothing, yet, of guile.

This cannot be the place to launch the most extravagant marketing assault of 1995. Yet the voice of a nation – silenced, occupied and dispossessed for centuries – is about to speak to the world. Peteris Vasks, an unassuming man born 49 years ago in a Latvian village, seems set to capture the imagination of the west with a momentum which eluded even his friend, Henryk Gorecki. In the month of the Berlin premiere of his Cello Concerto, British critics have acclaimed the music of his first compact disc, MESSAGE, for its “passionate energy: emotional and spiritual, intense and ethereal; joyous and, above all, beautiful to the ear.”

That Vasks was discovered at all is a fluke. It is due to a young British conductor and film-maker, Kriss Rusmanis, who has since become something of the composer’s champion. “I went to Riga in 1986” Rusmanis recalls. “It was the most depressing part of the Soviet era: you were followed everywhere, and there were endless queues outside abandoned restaurants. But there was a thaw of sorts. They wanted to promote culture rather than risking nationalist dissent and so these invitations appeared on the desks of western publishers for a Festival of Contemporary Music – the first thing of its kind in forty years. I found more than 35 composers, but Vasks was staggering. I heard his Musica Dolorosa, which commemorated both the death of his sister Maria and what he saw as the political burial of his homeland. It was richly experimental, yet accessible too; with a taut structure and a driving force which verged on sexual intensity. It became my ambition to gain a hearing for his music in the west.”

Their first encounter wasn’t what Rusmanis expected. “I found this quiet, intense man who often seemed close to tears when his music was performed, it was so intimate for him.” Meet the composer yourself and he seems a bit of a dreamer; gestures expansively benevolent but the speech hesitant, with a habitual clearing of the throat as he reflects. This is an ascetic personality, consumed by what is clearly its vocation, and lifted by compassionate good humour – rather as his music is spared from obsession by its humanising if dark vein of lyricism. He lives in a small city flat with his wife (a film-maker) and five children.

No surprise that he sees his work in other-wordly terms, but it was a grim series of events that sharpened his musical acuity. Rusmanis remembers, “In January 1991 came the storming of the of the Latvian Internal Ministry by Soviet troops. It happened a week after tanks had entered Lithuania and captured the television centre. I rushed out to Riga as soon as the Black Berets passed the Latvian border. My father was Latvian and already I’d conducted the Riga orchestra; they were my friends. I had to be there. I went and I found a barricaded city.

“The streets were jammed with farm trucks and heavy blocks and the population was camped round fires – mostly outside the TV station, of course. I’d been with Juris Podnieks, the film director, for four nights: waiting, circling the city with our video cameras until dawn.

“We heard over the phone that the Ministry was being taken, so out we ran. The shooting was concentrated round the Kronvalda park, which has a river running through the middle. It was an incredible moment. If the gunfire didn’t stop we thought the tanks would move in. Bullets flew past us and I froze with fear in front of a bridge. Podnieks ran across but somebody pulled me back. Through what was becoming a snow storm I climbed a little mound and crouched behind a wall. The next minute, two of our cameramen died a couple of yards in front of me.”

As Vasks puts it, “If you have whatever you could wish for, what is there left to write about? People from affluent countries have everything but indifference flows from their music. Our perception of life is very different. Our roots are full of sadness and suffering; but in artistic terms our tragic history has given us a terrific impulse to be creative.”

Last night was the anniversary of the killing. A Vivaldi concerto accompanied the church commemoration of children the Soviets shot, and it was played with the intensity of weeping. There were flowers and candles where Andris Slapin’s lifeless body had four years ago emptied blood like a lake of ink under mercury streetlights. But less than a hundred people gathered round the flag in Central Square; and for today’s children, watching with their elegant almond eyes the braziers flickering against an icebound landscape, it was just another bonfire.

Vasks spreads his hands dismissively. “What can I say? Old news. The media have been interviewing everybody: ‘What were you doing in 1991?’ Well, I was out on the streets, every day; and in those moments a nation was made, and I came of age as a composer. It was foreign news crews that shifted the balance of power. We’d no idea what outrage the pictures would cause, when they were shown throughout the world. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised, though. There was something of universal significance going on. After 900 years’ subjugation we found out who we were and you asked yourself, what does it mean to be a nation? What does it mean to be a composer? I look back and I know it was our new beginning. Now we have to live with the consequences. The situation has changed; and what can you expect but disillusionment?

“I’ve never lost my fear of the composer’s lonely life, and that was the week I learnt I belonged to a greater family. Amongst the bloodshed, ideals became real. As Latvians say, ‘Brute force against the force of spirit.’ I made my contribution then, and I have to make it now: finding a compromise between action and interpretation, between doing and offering a some creative inspiration to others.”

His tone-poem Vestijums (from which the CD takes its title) explores a timeless conflict. It is, like much of Vasks, a coldly voluptuous shimmer of sound, never quickening beyond the pace of a human heart at rest: the music of a survivor, clinging to remembered sense in the face of chance, and the fortuitous erosion of meaning out of which human dissolution and private tragedy arise. Rusmanis explains: “Peteris talks about forces of good and evil battling but his feeling is that good ultimately triumphs. He believes not in God, perhaps, but in a benign spiritual force to dominate our lives.” Vasks says, “Shostakovich’s music depicted Stalinism so effectively that it’s done. You can’t say more. Now the challenge is to set an example: to show how good can surmount the struggle. I want to write ….not wallpaper music, not pieces to prettify or gloss over things; but something more in the nature of catharsis, with a sense of ecstasy at the natural environment.”

There are centuries of music in Latvia, fostered by the German aristocracy who ruled the country since the 13th Century. Bruno Walter spent his youth at the Riga Opera House, and Wagner composed Rienzi there. Native composers were trained by Rimsky-Korsakov in St Petersburg, and Stravinsky remembered his own Latvian teacher, Vitols, with warmth and admiration. Yet the indigenous tradition is one of folk music: over a million songs, and summer festivals with choirs of 25,000 voices. Vasks’ own output once comprised choral music, but not any more. “I don’t use words because they fix meaning too precisely. There is a richness in music which is poised in a certain ambivalence, taking flight on its own terms. And music alone captures the beauty of the land, even for a brief moment.

“My Cantabile for string orchestra uses simply the white notes of the piano to create a song of praise, an idealization of the world’s inner harmony. More than anything, my inspiration is in Latvian rivers and birdsong and our miles of forest. But no, this isn’t nature as innocence; things aren’t as simple as that. We need to think not of Arcadia, but to envisage a horizon and a presence of boundless size. My motivation is to go and see how far the horizon stretches. Nature isn’t something created for us. It is about itself, just as music is. What interests me, I suppose, is what I can only call the unfinished journey of a singing voice; the infinite detail and subtlety music opens up, yet the sense that nothing you do can ever be right or complete.”

He calls himself a sad optimist and his upbringing, Rusmanis admits, was complex. Perhaps he had an Arcadian childhood in Aizpute, deep in the sticks? Vasks laughs. “Well, my older brother wanted to drown me. Now he’s a priest. Yes, we were content and self-contained – each family with its cow and its allotment. I was quite a little shepherd, not that I ever liked that much.” Vasks is more circumspect when it comes to remembering the daily rigours and hardships. “My father was so good at his job, the Soviets wouldn’t let him do it. He was a priest too, forbidden to practise; and the authorities harassed us all. They denied my brother the right to become a lawyer, and when I left music High School I was refused permission to study in the west.”

His most intense relationship seems always to have been with his sister, a magical confidante in daydreams since their early childhood. She accompanied his violin from the piano. Peteris played several instruments. “Improvising at the keyboard was my secret passion, but I didn’t dare tell anyone. My first song – aged 9 – was based on children’s tales. My earliest setting of Rainis, our major poet, came at 13. That time I was dutifully patriotic. At 18 I fell for Lohengrin and wrote half an opera.

“Under communism we lived simple lives: the carrots and the sticks were so clearly laid out for us. You watch events at Chechyn and you know the Russian bear has changed only in name, but now there is a corrosive cynicism at work with the invasion of consumer culture. We’re running headlong into a Latvia where America has much to answer for; and it’s as though we’re being crushed between two rocks. The west’s solutions are not ours. We have to find our own way here. You think about the loss of ideals, about the future for our arts, and you can only hope.”

“We’re no good at taking risks” reminisced one of the city’s administrators over his honeyed beer – adding cryptically, “unlike German Jews. We prefer a fair day’s pay for our work. Most of the investment here is from expatriate Russians, who see our economy as more secure.”

And sure enough, there they are on street corners, fresh from the black market: buying retail businesses out of a suitcase full of cash. “Latvians aren’t aggressive” affirmed the British Telecom engineer, sent to resurrect a 30 year-old Soviet telephone system. "When the Russians left they took the infrastructure with them. The people here must rebuild its economy from scratch.”

Briefly things are flourishing, like one of those flowers that blossom before extinction. Last year the banks offered investors a return of 70%; they can’t afford that now. Everybody lives on tick, on borrowed time, taking second and third jobs to pay the rent and heating that in the old Socialist Republic came almost free. It is a cash-in-hand society, sailing on its downward spiral into an abyss of Soviet dimensions. If you pay a customs man £13 per week, you can’t blame him for a certain susceptibility to bribes. The Lat, an artificially inflated currency, makes things impossible to sell; and apart from chipboard mashed up from those interminable trees, Latvia has nothing worth buying.

The climate is one in which a composer must succeed to survive, and in Germany Vasks’ Cello Concerto was booed. Rusmanis remembers, “Its openness was resented by an avant-garde clique in the audience, and the orchestra hadn’t rehearsed properly. Peteris stood on stage with the David Geringas, the soloist, and took four bows. After two bows the orchestra deserted them but Geringas, determined to play more Vasks, shoved his way through. He chose a solo piece from Gramata, an astonishingly strong work which you whistle as well as bow. It brought the house down, and what might have been a disaster became an emotional experience for everyone there.” But the reception for two-and-a-half years’ effort privately bruised a man of such moral introspection. Vasks declares, “The vital thing is for an artist to be the voice of opposition to whatever regime is in power, whether it’s liberal or totalitarian. Your inner voice is vital; the capacity to challenge, to keep conscience alive. Even now, when national pride is rife and they wave flags in all directions.”

Stravinsky used to say that good music had no need of labels. Imagination, in a musician, is where inevitability and surprise come together; a level of choice where logical rightness and individuality coincide. “A masterpiece” wrote Nicholas Harnoncourt, “is like a mirror that is held up in front of us and shows us our own reflection. We walk over it like ants, able to see only a small area that we find important. If only we could see the whole.” There is an all-subsuming richness to a great composer’s vision, which transcends a need to preach. It makes music into art; for propaganda remains indoctrination and something threadbare, even when it acknowledges the possibility of despair. To engage sympathy, for an artist, cannot be enough. And so to perhaps a brutal question: whether the new orchestral wave from the Iron Curtain is more than a gloss of sophisticated sentimentality – coffee-table music with angst, or the unremitting sound-track to a post-Socialist Realist film that nobody will ever want to make?

Rusmanis defends Vasks’ view that music without feeling is inert. “Many Soviet artists went through their avant-garde period and in one of his early works Peteris has the soloist dismantle his clarinet until he plays with the mouthpiece alone. Now is the time to go back to his musical roots, finding a voice which is simple and direct. It’s easy to write music which is so inaccessible that no-one knows whether they’ve understood it or not. It’s an old trick. To bare yourself, in the hope you might speak to people, is a composer’s greatest challenge; and when you have managed it, you have found your own identity.”

Vasks’ antecedents are clear, amongst them Kancheli, Lutoslawski, Pärt, Mahler, Messiaen, Penderecki. The problem now is of whether his private idiom might advance or ossify. Rusmanis continues, “He has a great chance of growing in stature – in a significant direction – unlike the contemporary composers who barely communicate. For too long we were entrenched in a musical world that imparted, on an emotional plane, next to nothing: a place of dessicated factions which connoisseurs could sign up for. At last archaic barriers are breaking down, and Vasks can be heard.”

The mid-1980’s marked only the beginning of the thaw amongst a European establishment inimical to melodic music, and they were hard graft for Vasks. In 1989 he won a commission from the New York Philharmonic for a cor anglais concerto, when its principal Thomas Stacy heard Musica Dolorosa. The result was acknowledged as a significant addition to the repertoire. Then the Baltic uprisings made Latvian culture a curiosity, and Rusmanis was approached by Radio 3 for a series. Three years since have been spent by Conifer Records, negotiating corruption and demands for backhanders, to get a recording made on Vasks’ home territory. Now western cinema wants the Musica for soundtracks.

What would be Rusmanis’s assessment? “Structural strength is vital to Vasks and he creates an arc-form which is thoroughly satisfying. He has no need for multiple movements: he prefers one continuous development in different sections, which works very well. He has a great sense of form, in fact. He’s no wish to write opera because, in Riga, it won’t be performed. His string quartets are written for local musicians (the soloists he admires) and his pieces are short because it’s the time-span in which his sound-world works best.”

Stephen Johnson, a British critic, compared the Cor Anglais Concerto to an English rural tradition of Vaughan-Williams. The analogy says little for a sense of chaos which seems as implacable as Shostakovich’s. Vasks’ strings offer a threnodic drone, and as in Sibelius, his sonorities are rooted in almost subterranean reverberation and percussive effect. The origins of his melancholy, too, lie as much in the glacial orchestration of Sibelius, or the finesse of Ravel, as in any succession to Bartók and East European tradition. His creative candour never succumbs to Mahler’s brittle or frenetic posturing, no matter how firmly the texture of sound places his music in the aftermath of late Romantic opulence and creative reflexivity.

The difference, I think, is one of outlook: the composers of the early Twentieth Century emphasizing ambivalence and nostalgia in the wake of what their parents had thought certain, Vasks as the inheritor to a tradition for which the recent past is a trauma as much to be cauterised as refashioned according to new, expedient tenets of humanity and reason. Inevitably his idiom lacks roots, the references and variegation which a long cultural history makes possible. As such, it does not allow the levels of meaning that true self-awareness permits; for it is the capacity to see oneself from the outside that creates irony, or any of the effects of what Henry James called “a mind in dialogue with itself.” But the potential is there for more than pastiche. All he needs is time, and access to viewpoints and artforms beyond his homeland which Vasks knows he has been denied.

Latvians aren’t inclined to speculation. “I don’t think about the future. It’s tough enough for me to make each composition as good as I can. The epitaph I want is to be remembered as a musician who did his best. I’d like to die able to say, ‘Remember that piece? I wrote it. All you have to do is listen.’

What will he do when Conifer have plugged him as the new Gorecki: famous from New York to Japan, his bank account siphoning up royalties? He is intrigued that Karajan found it necessary to fly a private jet. You sense he doesn’t give a damn, and then he quotes Kant. “‘The starry heaven above me, the moral law within me’. Yes, I’ve heard of the Bahamas; they don’t appeal, and neither does the prospect of a fast car. I don’t have a driver’s licence, you see. I’d like somewhere bigger to live, but there are many more deserving charities. I expect I’ll give the money away.”

Rusmanis confirms it. “All Peteris wants is to put Latvians on the map. He is aware that there are only two million of them, and it’s a miracle that their country has managed to hold on for so long.” Yet his music has a wider resonance. It offers the language not of compromise, but the authentic conscience of the century we live in. As Vasks writes, “To my mind, every honest composer searches for a way out of the crises of his time – towards affirmation, towards faith. He shows how humanity can overcome the passion for self-annihilation that flares up from time to time. And if I can find this way out, this reason for hope, the outline of a perspective: then I offer it as my model.”

Beyond the window, a corrugated bus the colour of linoleum propels the faithful from the Southern Fried Chicken to MacDonalds, all at London prices. The shops are filling with goods and a bubble of euphoria. Around the city outskirts beggars complete their daily crawl but in the centre (granted enough capital) you can still buy a house on your interest from the bank. At a middling hotel I buy Vasks and his daughter a meal costing as much as a Riga Philharmonic violinist earns in a month.

Across the tables, a group of luxuriant call-girls is manoeuvring itself into place for the night-shift. Maybe, like property speculation, it seems more prudent than gathering rosebuds.



Stephen Jackson

London, United Kingdom

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Artist's Description

My pal Suzanne has suggested that I add more prose to my profile. So here’s the long version of a feature which appeared in the late 1990’s in both the Sunday Telegraph and the late (reasonably lamented) European. I’m sure the political vicissitudes I mention here have since sorted themselves out peachily – don’t they always – but the role in our British media for this kind of reportage diminishes by the day.

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  • Suzanne German
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