Kauno Menininkų Namai
Saturday 6 February 2016
A misperception foreigners often have about Kaunas is that the glistening edge of artistic experimentation will not be found here. That Vilnius is a lone star in a deafening vacuum is a cliché I’ve certainly found myself guilty of tripping over, and not the only one, they really are like rocks in the mud as a newcomer finds his way in contemporary Lithuania. (My companion for the performance under review chided me for referring to the black parkas and buzz cuts sported by half the youth up and down Laisvės alėja as a “post-Soviet” uniform, an outdated and distasteful term, I now realise.)
I came to this country four months ago to explore my roots: my mother is Lithuanian, but like her I have spent my whole life in Australia. In my twenty-eighth year it became clear I needed to come to terms with my family heritage, and having been breastfed on the nostalgic milk of the displaced, for my forbears were amongst those Lithuanians who fled the impending Soviet occupation in the early 1940s, I wanted to form my own, more objective images of what this country is today.
That has involved tossing out a whole chestful of clichés. Or vetting them carefully, at least. The ones Australians might pick up from inferior American television about that apparently troublesome eastern region of Europe with its litany of social problems and endemic corruption. But also those the offspring of the Lithuanian diaspora are taught, of linen and amber and choirs and dances, of an uncorrupted, incorruptible haven of bucolic simplicity.
I can hardly stand in judgement of my family for losing sight of modern Lithuania, of course. They suffered the unimaginable turmoil of escaping war-ravaged Europe and establishing a new life in an obscure part of the world destitute and emotionally broken. It’s more than understandable they clung to those romantic notions of independent pre-war Lithuania. It was essential for their fortitude, if not their very survival.
Sobering to think they were amongst the lucky ones who totally avoided the deportations to Siberia.
But I digress. Kaunas is the real subject here, or to be precise, the performance I had the pleasure of taking in at the Kaunas Artists’ House this Friday last, a free jazz improvisation by a trio of local musicians featuring Gailė Griciūtė at the piano, Eugenijus Kanevičius alternating between double bass and tuba, and Arnas Mikalkėnas on drums. An enticing prospect, if somewhat curious to a semi-outsider like me. At any rate, a good excuse to educate myself about the surprising history of jazz in Lithuania, in particular the remarkable work and legacy of the Ganelin Trio and its members, at one of whose recent gigs in Vilnius Griciūtė and Kanevičius first played together.
Friday night belonged squarely to the jazz avant garde, and the harder end at that, where labels like “jazz avant garde” and “experimental art music” are as indistinguishable as they are meaningless. In an hour-long tour de force, the group vigorously wound and unwound a ribbon of continuous improvisation, the thread of which was an unshakable state of dense, bubbling activity, made colourful by extended techniques particularly from the prepared piano, gently amplified and loaded up with a cornucopia of foreign objects from nails and adhesive tape to ping-pong balls. Griciūtė exploited the full array of timbral possibilities in her augmented instrument; especially striking was the application of whirring cocktail whisk to the lower strings, accompanied by some emphatic left-handed pounding on the keys. Kanevičius matched Griciūtė’s inventiveness with his own mix of plucking-bowing-wailing, anchored by the occasional juicy flicker of a walking bass.
It wasn’t all tricks, though. A generous piano solo, both hands back at the keyboard, contained all the frenzied virtuosity of a Ligeti étude, and a couple of dropped sticks failed to quell the almost overflowing palpitations of Arnas Mikalkėnas’ dexterous response on the drums.
If transitions from section to section sometimes felt uncoordinated, perhaps because leaderless, the textural ingenuity of the ensemble was always bracing. In a sparse middle stretch, Kanevičius switched to tuba, aimed its bell into the echoing piano case and let forth that beastly instrument’s deepest, purplest moans, vaguely reminiscent of a student, albeit one with unnaturally big lungs, practising long notes out of sight. With Griciūtė manipulating the piano’s innards with lengths of string and Mikalkėnas maintaining a muted, tremulous patter throughout, the effect was mysterious and unnerving.
On this interlude’s objective being reached the trio reverted to the onslaught, via a transition that was more assured. After recapturing the manic energy of the first half, increasing it even, with the addition of spilling piano glissandi and other such flourishes, the improvisation concluded with an unexpectedly fragile air, Griciūtė poising a walkman above the open, resonating strings of her instrument and playing a scrambled cassette, which stammered and clucked before disintegrating altogether. A memorable gesture. Unsettling.
And so, on exiting that sweet little auditorium, the one shrouded in off-green velvet and coloured glass, I wondered: what kind of concert is offered up here normally? If a jazz trio like Friday’s is standard fare, then there can be no doubt that Kaunas’ cultural life is a vibrant as anywhere, and all misperceptions of the town as a little slower, a little more conservative than the capital, may be safely challenged.
Louis Garrick is a curator/producer from Sydney, Australia. He currently curates the New Music program for Carriageworks, the premier multi-arts centre in Sydney. He was previously artistic director of Sydney Chamber Opera. He lives in Vilnius currently.