Avant-garde Trends in Latvian Music, 1970s–1990s

From Unearthing The Music

NSRD, Concert Performance (Juris Boiko, Hardijs Lediņš, Inguna Černova), mid 1980’s. Photo: Imants Žodžiks

Avant-garde Trends in Latvian Music, 1970s–1990s - An essay by Daiga Mazvērsīte and Māra Traumane  for Sound Exchange.

Historical background

As was the case in other member states of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, it was not easy in Latvia for avant-garde ideas to force their way through the maze of regulations, institutional control and clerks’ subjective taste. The programmes of all concerts had to be approved by the authorities, and musical works disagreeable to the Soviet order due to their genre or content were not to be performed in public. Communist officials also controlled music broadcasting via radio and television, and censors ruthlessly prohibited the recording and performance of undesirable songs. In the field of academic music the Composers’ Union became an important tool for control, regularly performing its members’ music, and only members of this organisation were allowed to hold concerts in large halls; however, the development of electronic music instruments enabled individual creative work, which could frequently only be realised in concerts for small audiences, challenging the short-sightedness of the authorities and their inability to monitor all musical events; moreover, intellectuals also used quite ingenious methods to circumvent censorship.

Avant-garde music festivals in Riga in 1976 and 1977

John Cage and Alexei Lubimov. Photo: unknown

Riga's avant-garde music festivals of 1976 and 1977 are rare examples of the unofficial co-operation between musicians and artists from Riga and Moscow during the Soviet period. The festivals revealed both the common space of avant-garde practices and the informal »network« connecting intellectuals in the Soviet Union interested in new cultural trends. They also marked the turning point in the musical environments of both cities, when interest in Postmodern expressions overshadowed the language of the avant-garde. In Moscow it manifested itself in the field of academic music, but in Riga it found expression in the field of experimental music.

In the 1960s and 1970s the environment of academic music in Riga was dominated by pronouncedly conservative attitudes. The ideologically-controlled official institutions still remembered the persecution of »formalists« in the 1950s. The oppressive isolation and lack of topical information, as well as the taste of the musical community, determined the conservative spirit: »[In Latvia] for a long time the leading style in academic music was National Romanticism, which very well suited the requirements of Soviet ideology. [1] This, of course, does not mean that musical numbness had affected all fields of culture. Innovators’ busy minds were charged with fragments of information and irregular, self-organised interdisciplinary events. For example, already in the mid-1960s composer Andrei Volkonsky, an expert in avant-garde and early music from Moscow, gave a lecture at the Komsomols’ Club of the Riga Film Studio: Krzysztof Penderecki’s music recording was played at a Riga Pantomime performance, »Hiroshima«; in 1972 Imants Zemzaris composed music for a 16mm underground film inspired by structuralist ideas [2] and the album »Jesus Christ Superstar«, heard on a jammed Western radio station, inspired one of the first happenings in Latvia. [3] Specialised underground exchange and distribution networks for imported pop music and art rock records, later also for copied tape recordings, were spreading.

Professional musicians and students could follow the new trends by using the resources of the Republican Library, which were rather scarce on foreign literature, the most valuable editions being Polish magazines Ruch Muzyczny, several issues from the collection of Res Facta, and German Melos, later Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. Pictures of multimedia events could be seen in Polish art magazines Projekt and Sztuka. Some lucky few managed to get to the very important Warsaw Autumn festivals.

In the early 1970s, with a change of leadership in the Composers’ Union of Latvian SSR and, soon after that, in the Philharmonic, fresh winds revitalised the policy of both organisations. Lectures and demonstrations by guest lecturers, musicologists and performers became more frequent, usually gathering a small audience of professionals. Alexei Lubimov, author of the later festival programmes, the outstanding Muscovite pianist and proponent of new music, started coming to Riga to give lectures. Similar to other supporters of new music, he used »the gaps in the system« to pursue creative freedom and »enlightenment« [4]. Lubimov offered to Riga Philharmonic a cycle of concerts entitled »Music of the 20th Century«. [5] After a few concerts, due to repeated complaints from the audience about the appearance of performative elements taken from works by Cage and Ives, the concerts were discontinued. However, the prohibition served as a push for the organisers of Riga festivals.

Hardijs Lediņš, a student of architecture interested in music and an activist in Riga Polytechnical Institute (RPI) Students’ Club, was indignant about the closing of the concert series and contacted the violinist Boriss Avramecs, who had friendly ties with musicians in Moscow. Instead of the one intended concert, Lubimov offered a programme of concerts, and thus the first »festival of avant-garde music« in Riga was born in 1976. It was »pure underground«: the premises of the RPI Students’ Club (the Anglican Church) were approved, but the programme was not, and »no printed materials were possible.« [6] Musicians from Moscow accompanied Lubimov to Riga: Mark Pekarsky (percussion), Tatyana Grindenko (violin), and, together with the electronic music group Boomerang, composer Vladimir Martynov [7]. The festival programme for the first time offered a wider Riga audience new music from around the world. Lubimov recalls: »I wanted to make these programmes very interesting and diverse, therefore I thought that I must include not only the ›composers’‹ avant-garde, like Cage or Stockhausen, but also add something of the other, experimental side from rock music.« [8] For the first time, Riga heard minimalism: Terry Riley’s »In C« and Vladimir Martynov’s »Albuma lapiņa« (An Album Page) for piano, violin and rock group, Stockhausen’s intuitive piece »Setz die Segel zur Sonne« and »Intensity« from »Aus den Sieben Tagen«, as well as collective improvisation – a tribute to John McLaughlin. The culmination of the programme was John Cage’s »Lecture on the Weather«, some of his other works being performed in the background as it was read. A provocative happening involving members of an experimental Riga theatre group and Moscow musicians concluded the concert, causing a scandal.

Hardijs Ledins, photo @ Art space Riga.

The 1976 Riga concerts echoed transformations vibrating in the community of musicians elsewhere in the USSR [9] – in the early 1970s, some of the young performers and composers already perceived avant-garde as limiting. Interest in various spiritual schools and Oriental philosophy were combined with experiments in processuality and meta-communication levels in the arts. Parallel to sonorics, aleatorics, serialism, studies of medieval music, minimalism, uncomposed music and art-rock techniques began to attract attention. Technical innovations also played an important role, for example the appearance of new, more powerful synthesiser models. The interval between the festivals of 1976 and 1977 was filled with lectures at the Students’ Club, organised by Lediņš. Avramecs introduced the avant-garde – Ives, Schoenberg, Messiaen, etc. –, but Lediņš was talking about progressive rock groups like King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Camel, etc.

The festival was prohibited after its second »edition« in 1977. That year the event had an official umbrella: it was co-organised by members of the Association of Young Composers [10] and ran under the name »Decade of Contemporary Music«, dedicated to the »60th Anniversary of the Soviet Socialist Revolution«. The programme showed greater conformism – it only included works by Soviet composers. According to Martynov’s description, however, it was still revolutionary: »This moment of truth [for new composing – M. T.] came during the festival of contemporary music in Riga, in the autumn of 1977. We all – Pärt, Silvestrov and I – took a united stance. Our most important and provocative works were performed at the festival concerts: Pärt’s ›Sārai bija deviņdesmit gadi‹ [Sarah was Ninety Years Old]; Silvestrov’s ›Quartet‹, my ›Passions Lieder‹ and the first version of ›Prāta vērtību hierarhijas‹ [Hierarchy of the Values of the Mind] […]. The festival had an explosive effect, after which Grindeko and Lubimov were prohibited from giving concerts on Latvian territory.« [11]

Vladimir Martynov. Photo: unknown

The fatal storm broke out after the performance of Martynov’s »Lieldienu kantātes« (Easter Cantata), during which leaflets with the text of »Der am Kreuz ist meine Leib!« were scattered from the balcony. The secret services adroitly interpreted it as the worst violation of the time – religious propaganda. The directors of the Students’ Club lost their jobs, Alexei Lubimov was prohibited from giving concerts abroad and in Latvia for several years, but Hardijs Lediņš had to choose between continuing his studies and organising events. However, the ideas of the festival lived on in 1978 in the Tallinn Festival of Contemporary and Early Music, and in several experimental music projects in Riga in the 1980s – most notably »Nebijušu sajūtu restaurēšanas darbnīca« (NSRD, engl.: Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Sensations), founded by Hardijs Lediņš and Juris Boiko.

Studios and musical instruments

It was easy to control recorded audio material because, up to the end of the 1980s, only two official recording studios existed in the Latvian SSR – the studio of Latvian Radio and the studio of the All-Union recording company Melodija. Access had to be approved by the editors-in-chief, and unwanted performers and musicians, naturally, were rejected. All so-called professional or state-funded musical groups and their repertoires were subject to official structures, and all other performers or groups were given the scornful label »amateurs«, even though many among them had higher musical education.

The situation with the acquisition of musical instruments and equipment was especially complicated. It was centralised, went through the capital Moscow, and purchases could only be made by institutions, not by private individuals. Thus, to create a group musicians quite often chose to join the cultural club of a factory or a kolkhoz (collective farm), which paid their salaries and purchased equipment and instruments. Institutions even engaged in unofficial competitions – which of them had the best band!

Of course, the few avant-garde music enthusiasts in Latvia were not satisfied with any of these options, so they chose to act on their own. While »garage rock« was popular in the West, »garage avant-garde« was born in Latvia: these groups usually rehearsed and recorded at home. The instruments were predominantly sent by relatives living abroad, since at the end of World War II many Latvians, fleeing Communist power, emigrated to various countries around the world. Sometimes it was also possible to buy used instruments from kolkhoz groups and second-hand shops with instruments sailors had brought from the West – after all, Latvia was a country on the sea, and this kind of trade was tolerated.

All of this, obviously, led to great technological backwardness, but poverty also forced musicians to become very creative and invent their own, unusual technology. For example, in 1986 the leader of the group Jumprava, Aigars Grāvers, »borrowed« equipment from his cultural club – two synthesisers and a mixer. He installed it in his friend Jānis Kurzemnieks’ apartment to create the experimental musical project »Asociāciju sektors« (Sector of Associations) with nine improvised compositions with vocal parts created on the spot by poet Ritvars Dižkačs, which turned into a document of free thought of the time.

And yet, »Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Sensations« and, to a point, the »New Wave« group Dzeltenie Pastnieki (The Yellow Postmen), became the most striking musical avant-gardists in the so-called amateur field in the 1970s/80s.

Workshop for the Restoration of Unfelt Sensations (NSRD)

NSRD live. Photo: Unknown

»Nebijušu sajūtu restaurēšanas darbnīca« NSRD – »Between the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and Californian high-tech.« (Micky Remann) – has the status of an avant-garde (and underground) legend in Latvian music and art. More than 20 years after the group ceased its activities, their music, actions, video performances and texts still speak to a later generation. »Avant-garde« is not a fitting designation for the group, since at the beginning of the 1980s it announced that »avant-garde is no longer avant-garde«. NSRD linked its activities to Postmodernism, which, in their own words, »attempts to bring into art as many dimensions as there are in life«. [12] The impulses for NSRD multimedia activities are found in various fields of the arts: its founders and conceptual core were Hardijs Lediņš (1955–2004), architectural theoretician: Juris Boiko (1954–2002), poet and artist; musicians Inguna Černova and Mārtiņš Rutkis (physicist, software producer); and architect Imants Žodžiks. Architect Aigars Sparāns and artist Leonards Laganovskis were also sometimes involved. The group expressed itself innovatively in music and conceptual albums, in concerts/performances, actions, multimedia exhibitions and video art, and also by mastering new technologies – they were the first to use video and computer technologies in their projects.

The music project NSRD originated in 1982: however, Juris Boiko’s and Hardijs Lediņš’ creative »home« experiments started earlier. In the 1970s they were influenced by the avant-garde – Webern's and Satie's music – as well as by progressive trends in art rock and new jazz. Their generation familiarised itself with these trends by listening to rare, imported vinyl records and tape recordings, copied and exchanged several times, and, parallel to this, studying issues of difficult to find foreign journals like Melos or Melody Maker. While studying architecture and being active at the RPI Students’ Club, Lediņš organised the above-mentioned lectures, discos and avant-garde music festivals, and founded the home recording studio »Seque«. Seque Records' first step had been »the prepared piano«, however, later Seque tapes feature a wide range of instruments: a piano, a saxophone, a horn, a trumpet, a trumpet horn, bells, a globe of the Earth, a dog’s voice (milk, bone), a two-stringed board, glassworks, a triangle, synthesizer sound, etc.

Under the influence of Modernist literature, in 1976–78 Lediņš and Boiko wrote the absurd novel »ZUN« (a. o. a paraphrase of »Zen«), the only example of samizdat in Latvian art. The manuscript was shown only to friends, but the ambience and the atmosphere of »ZUN« made its way into the authors' following texts, albums and actions. »ZUN« combines excerpts of texts, typical of NSRD's later, paradoxical song lyrics, which »[...] can be found anywhere: in older or more recent phone books, a 1902 Baedeker’s guide to Egypt or Paris, newspapers, cookery books, dictionaries, etc. Also when eating, sleeping or smoking.« [13] A few song titles can be mentioned: »Cepure« (Hat), »Labrīt putra« (Good Morning, Porridge), »Čau« (Ciao), »poliklīnika« (Policlinics), »Sieviete ar Casio« (A Woman with a Casio), etc.

NSRD live. Photo: Unknown

The philosophies of Cage, Stockhausen and Zen Buddhism echoed in the first actions of the group, conducted in a close circle of participants: »We were just looking for a justification for these ideas in the surrounding reality, we transferred them.« [14] For example »Gājienos uz Bolderāju« (The Walk to Bolderāja, 1980–1987), an 8 km long walk along a railway line, which connected the artists’ homes and the isolated Riga port region with its meadows and garden allotments. The action was guided by several rules: light and darkness had to interchange during the walk, the walks took place once per year, each time in a different month, and it had to be documented – in photos, paintings, or audio and, later, video recordings.

The 1980s arrived with the New Wave. Lediņš, being a music lover and organiser of discos [15], caught the newest trends in dance and experimental music and technical innovations. There was a growing friendship and exchange with Latvian New Wave pioneers – the group The Yellow Postmen. Songs and poems composed by Boiko and Lediņš are featured on their first albums. At the time, Lediņš’ main field of activities was architectural theory – issues of the contemporary living environment (in the USSR in fact, housing estates and blocks of flats) and human perception and identification. A supporter of Postmodern theories of architecture, he criticized in his articles the dehumanisation of the environment in the name of rational modernist ideas, and drew attention to »the humane qualities of environment«, the need to understand individualism, intimacy and social processes. The ideas of Postmodernism combined with New Wave aesthetics of music, design and fashion to form the conceptual basis of NSRD concerts, exhibitions and performances: »not for a function, but an image«, »to create an object only for this moment, this place, this situation« [16], »there can be no cultural centre, there can be only cultural periphery« [17]. It was complemented by a fascination with experimental music and multimedia.

It can be said that during this period the group had two lines of activities. The wing closer to visual arts [18] created actions, »intruding« into rural and urban spaces – 1m x 1m x 1m (1980), Mediator (1982), »Pārcelšanās« (Moving Over, 1982), and »Līnija Kurzemē« (A Line in Kurzeme, 1983). Two conceptual, thematic exhibitions were held at the House of Architects: »Aila. Pagātne un postmodernā naktsdzīve« (Aperture. The Past and Post-modern Night-life, 1985) and »Vējš vītolos« (Wind in the Willows, 1986; also a music album), visualising the scenarios of interaction between contemporary design, lifestyle, multimedia and technologies.

NSRD. Still from »Pavasara tecila« (Spring Grindstone, 1987)

In the musical project NSRD, flautist (also vocals, bassoon, saxophone) Inguna Černova was the only professional musician to join Lediņš and Boiko. The group's first songs were disco hits in the style of new wave and rap; »Cabinet« and »Ciku Caku caurā tumba« (Zip Zap Hollow Speaker), which were recorded in 1982 in the studio of friends – The Yellow Postmen. The same year, in their first concert performance, the group entered the stage through a wardrobe, and subsequently maintained a stage presence which was highly unusual for Latvian stages, with Lediņš' unmistakable figure dressed in a red canvas »military« coat, designer glasses glued together, and, usually, a huge brass band drum.

Recordings provide strong evidence for the unconventional stance of NSRD. [19] They recorded approximately once every six months: the instruments were borrowed for 2–3 days and the albums were recorded in intense 24-hour sessions. Even though Lediņš and Boiko always had a clear idea for each album, they themselves could in fact hardly play, and they therefore often invited musicians for recordings and concerts, or just ordinary people who could sing and contribute various musical instruments for the necessary mood. Alongside acoustic instruments, found instruments and »anything that produces a sound«, the most modern equipment available was used – sequencers, synthesizers, and, very progressively for the time, a computer. The tapes were copied at home and distributed via friends.

Not being professionals, NSRD were free from the criteria of musical professionalism. The elementary rhythm was kept by a machine, a synthesiser or a computer – »it was possible to play in four notes rhythmically – four were recorded and the rest repeated.« [20] Instrumental tracks were recorded first using the 4-track tape recorder, followed by the vocals. This resulted in the minimal sound of NSRD: the breaking of the rhythms, melodies in minor keys, random, paradoxical texts and layers of sound effects.

The atmospheric album » Kuncendorfs un Osendovskis« (Kuncendorfs and Osendovskis, 1984) stands out especially. Its strange story (»July cannot be August«) is accompanied by sound effects, distorted speech and sequences of songs. As for its themes, the album remotely recalls »ZUN«, but in form it resembles an unfinished idea of the artists – the sound play »Magulaks«. The title of another album, »Medicīna un Māksla« (Medicine and Art, 1985), is a paraphrase of OMD's record »Architecture and Morality«. The sizeable multimedia cycle »Dr. Enesera Binokulāro deju kursi« (Dr. Eneser’s Binocular Dance Course), or »acu dejas« (eye dances; an album, video film and animation, 1987), a pseudo-scientific game-ritual was inspired by a newspaper article about exercises for eyes.

NSRD. Still from »Pavasara tecila« (Spring Grindstone, 1987)

The new media – video, finally entering Latvia – allowed the two wings of the group – the visual and the musical – to join outside concert-performances. In the first film »Cilvēks dzīvojamā vidē« (Man in a Living Environment, 1986) [21], the assessment of the housing estate environment turns into a performative action in the yards of apartment blocks. Video performances in which music, action and images are of equal value followed: »Pavasara tecila« (Spring Grindstone, 1987), »Aisberga ilgas, vulkāna sapņi« (An Iceberg’s Longings, a Volcanoes’ Dreams, 1987), »Dr. Eneser’s Binocular Dance Course« and the first digital animation in Latvia, the video clip »eye dances« (1987) [22].

In the wake of »reconstruction« (perestroika), NSRD became acquainted with multimedia event producers from Germany – Indulis Bilzēns and Micky Remann, who got involved in the group’s activities and brought to their attention the ideas of autopoetics and cybernetics. After the stage of Postmodernism, NSRD arrived at its own »approximate art« programme. »The borders between various genres in art are very approximate, they cannot be defined, just like borders between different cultures. Sometimes a question arises – is it art, or is it no longer art. This points to the presence of approximation in art processes. [...] The representatives of the approximate try to do everything so as to, first of all, abide by the interests of every person, every individual, the atmosphere of every space.« [23] The idea of approximation crystallized through interaction with a computer, as a comparison of the exact abilities of scientific equipment and the approximate ones of human beings. The concept was put into practice at the first and second »aptuvenās mākslas izstādēs« (Exhibition of approximate art, 1987 and 1988) [24]: in a space transformed into an environmental installation, stacks of video monitors played video works by NSRD, DJs took their turns at the tape-recorder mixer, and a programme of performances and musicians’ actions spanned several days.

NSRD, album »Kuncendorfs un Osendovskis« 1984 (cover design)

A guest from Germany, Maximilian Lenz aka Westfalia Bambaata (»Westbam«), participated in both exhibitions, acquainting Rigans with his scratching/record-art technique. In response to this, Latvian musician »Eastbam« (Roberts Gobziņš) demonstrated tape-art, suitable for the limited local technical possibilities: this is sound mixing with tape recorders, a technique popular among Latvian DJs.

The Yellow Postmen (Dzeltenie Pastnieki)

The Yellow Postmen (Dzeltnie Pastnieki)

Eastbam had also participated in the recording of The Yellow Postmen's 1982 album »Man ļoti patīk jaunais vilnis« (I Really like the New Wave) as a singer and lyricist.

The Postmen – Ingus Baušķenieks (vocals, bass), Viesturs Slava (keyboards, guitar, vocals), Mārtiņš Rutkis (guitar), Zigmunds Streiķis (keyboards) and Ilgvars Rišķis (drums) acquired their own repertoire in 1981, thanks partially to NSRD leader Hardijs Lediņš. While supervising the disco Kosmoss, he provided compositions in the style of the new wave in Latvian, and The Yellow Postmen recorded their first hit, »Milžu cīņa« (Battle of Giants). Lediņš, together with his NSRD partner, Juris Boiko, composed several other songs: »Salauztā kafejnīca« (Broken Café), »Nāc ārā no ūdens« (Come out of the Water), etc., which were included in The Yellow Postmen's repertoire. The name of the group was also borrowed from a Lediņš/Boiko song – »Pastnieks viltus dzeltenais« (Sham Yellow Postman). Initially The Yellow Postmen staged NSRD songs, but later created their own pieces with Lediņš/Boiko’s texts and their own lyrics.

In 1984 the magnetic tape album »Alise« was released, based upon the famous books by Lewis Carroll. It is the only thematically-united album by the group, and it could be called a suite. The albums »Vienmēr klusi« (Silently always, 1984), »Depresīvā pilsēta« (Depressive City, 1986) and »Naktis« (Nights, 1987) followed. [25] An enormous achievement for the group was its participation in the international festival of alternative music in Warsaw in 1987, Carrot, together with such stars of avant-garde music as Cabaret Voltaire and Pere Ubu. It was the first time that a Latvian experimental avant-garde group played alongside acknowledged Western musicians as equals. However, the strength of The Yellow Postmen were their recordings, not concerts, as they were not professional musicians. Moreover, the technology of these recordings is absolutely unique, not only by Latvian standards.

Recordings and instruments

Philips and Sony had already brought out the compact disc (CD) in 1982, but during the first half of the 1980s, The Yellow Postmen were pasting together their compositions from tiny fragments of tape.

Since the tape recorder was, and remained, the main audio data carrier in Latvia, it was used also for home recordings, but without using multi-channel professional studio environments, which were only available at the two official studios. The Soviet-produced 4-track tape recorder Jupiter was connected to the outlets of a small mixer, and the group tried to play their compositions from beginning to end without error. To maintain uniform tempo in all repeat performances, primitive drum machines were usually used. After listening several times and analysing the repeats, the best fragments were cut with scissors from all recordings and pasted together. Ingus Baušķenieks, the leader of The Yellow Postmen, used a similar technique when working on the unfinished NSRD recordings to publish them in the 1990s.

Another technological solution was repeated recording (so-called »dubbing«): for example, first the rhythm section and part of the accompaniment was recorded, which was then played on one tape recorder and recorded with the voices and solo-instruments on another.

In the mid-1980s the avant-garde musicians obtained the first simple, analogue synthesisers – from Yamaha and Casio – and as these were passed from hand to hand, the new tones appeared in musical works by this group of like-minded people. Mikes, mixers, effects machines and computers were lent and borrowed: the possibilities of the latter, though, were rather limited, and they were used mostly as sequencers. Latvian avant-gardists were not only searching for new musical expressions, but were also socially united people, endowed with both musical and technological knowledge. Presumably, in several cases their musical creativity was not only an expression of an individual’s freedom, but became a certain form of protest against existing rules.

The avant-garde section of the Riga Rock Club

»Atonal Syndrome«. A concert in Riga. From left to right Oleg Gorbarenko, Alexander Aksenov and Michael Zhukov. 1984. Photo: unknown

In Latvia the ethnic division of the country is essential: i. e., Latvians predominantly associate with Latvians. In 1986 a large number of Russian musicians assembled in the Riga Rock Club. The basis for its establishment was permission given by perestroika to organise the so-called youth and interest clubs. Approval from the respective ministry was needed, however, and in this case it was granted by the Ministry of Culture, and that only after listening to the programmes of several groups. Avant-garde music was one of the niches at the Riga Rock Club, and its greatest enthusiast was Oleg Garbarenko - an eccentric musician and fan of Cage and Stockhausen – with his project »Atonālais sindroms« (Atonal syndrome). The compositions were based on the techniques of sonorics and aleatorics, searching for tones, incidental effects, turning music into an art of sound. Garbarenko played at an occasionally crazy tempo, then suddenly fell into a trance-like state. The project ZGA was also active at the Riga Rock Club: its sound was more energetic and aggressive, slightly reminiscent of Germany's Einstürzende Neubauten. Cultural contacts with the Federal Republic of Germany and West Berlin served as an impulse, for example, for the establishment of the group »19 Gadi Pirms Sākuma« (19 Years before the Beginning).

»Atonal syndrome« 1983. Aksenov, Letov,Makarov a guitar, etc. Photo: unknown
Makarov and ZGA. Sudnik, E. Loseva, V. Dudkin. Photo: unknown

19 Years before the Beginning (19 Gadi Pirms Sākuma)

19 Gadi Pirms Sākuma. Photo: unknown

»19 Gadi Pirms Sākuma« was founded by a member of NSRD, the singer, bassoonist and flautist Inguna Černova, who wanted to express her ideas in the actual playing of music for an audience, not only in performances and recordings. Two musicians from The Yellow Postmen joined the group – keyboardist and singer Viesturs Slava and drummer Ilgvars Rišķis, as well as Daiga Mazvērsīte (keyboard), Uldis Vanags (trumpet) and Uģis Šēriņš (saxophone). They were equipped with Viesturs Slava’s Yamaha and Casio synthesisers, borrowed from Lediņš, and a borrowed drum machine. The début of »19 Years before the Beginning« was at the beginning of 1988, during the exhibition A Mole in a Hole, initiated by Hardijs Lediņš and his associates at the Museum of Foreign Art. Art curators from West Berlin, who heard this performance, invited them to the avant-garde music festival Transmission, together with many celebrities, including the joint project of Heiner Müller and Heiner Goebbels, »Der Mann im Fahrstuhl« (A Man in an Elevator).

Latvians concluded the evening, assisted by the fantastic Latvian-Estonian guitarist Kalle Laar. Specialised in modern jazz and performance, Laar could imitate half a dozen instruments on his guitar: guitars, drum machine, synthesiser, exotic percussion and even string instruments. »19 Years'« music was never very concrete, it easily changed in both form and content, and it was based upon mutual development of the musical theme and improvisation. In several recordings and concerts at the Tempodrom in West Berlin, Latvian DJ Roberts Gobziņš, alias Eastbam, became the stage partner of »19 Years« with his tape recorders, and he was also one of the participants in NSRD's performance as part of an international phone concert.

The »Transwelt Telephon Konzert« and other events

Traumwelt Telefon Concert. Photo: unknown

Following an invitation from German organiser Micky Remann in 1988, NSRD participated with improvisations in the »Transwelt Telephon Konzert II«. Phone and video signals, crossing political borders, connected musicians in Frankfurt am Main, London, Damascus, San Francisco, Riga, Gambia, Kathmandu and Moscow.

For Latvian contemporary art, however, the 1988–89 exhibition »Riga – Lettische Avantgarde«[26] in Berlin and Kiel was even more important. NSRD participated in this first large-scale exhibition of new trends in Latvian art with documentation, outdoor installations and performances. However, these major foreign projects hastened the group’s disintegration. NSRD, as with other interdisciplinary artists’ groups in Eastern Europe, underwent a crisis upon encountering the system of Western art institutions, the range of exhibition policies and the new pragmatism of the post-socialist era at home.

The avant-garde trio Diskomforts (Discomfort), established in 1986, earned greater acclaim abroad, especially at Polish festivals, than it did at home at the end of the 1980s. This brave experiment used a fusion of the most diverse genres – classical music, jazz and rock. The participants – Ēriks Balodis (bass, voice), Alberts Kekļa (saxophone), Ilmārs Puriņš (drums) – had given it a witty designation – »no wave«. The leader of the group, Balodis, managed to play two bass guitars simultaneously, supplementing the music with unexpected vocalizations, sometimes creating genuine audio discomfort in the audience. Unfortunately, in the years following Latvian independence this project, as was the case with many other avant-gardists, ceased its activities.

THE 1990s

The 1990s saw the end of control exerted by official institutions and increased interest in electronic and avant-garde music among the representatives of the academic world, for example the pianist, composer and sound director Ivars Vīgners (1940–2007), who at the time created a series of original compositions, including »Perpetuum-mobile I«, an audio-visual composition for computer, two drum machines, soloist (percussion), a group of synthesisers and a chamber orchestra (1989).

The truly original composer Juris Ābols calls himself a Dadaist. During the Soviet period his work was not performed (with one exception, at the 2nd Avant-garde Music festival of 1977), and he was admitted to the Composers’ Union only in 1987, though he had already created a number of compositions centred on psychedelics. In these pieces he learned from Luciano Berio and Mauricio Kagel, however he maintained his own individual style – experimenting with the human voice in various emotional situations, using ancient dead languages (»Carmina byzantica«, »Normālā fizioloģija« etc.) and exploiting five languages within one opus (»Mūsu cilvēks Beiczinā« ­– Our Man in Beijing). Ābols applies language on all levels – starting with the intoneme materialising in the subconsciousness, through to its electronic transformation.

Major changes in the structure of the Latvian state also brought changes in the lives of the members of NSRD. After 1989 Juris Boiko continued his individual work in video art, and was also active as a curator and poet. Hardijs Lediņš continued to work in music: among his numerous projects and recordings, the most ambitious was the experimental opera, written together with Kaspars Rolšteins, »Rolstein on the Beach«, staged in Riga in 1997. However, NSRD's influence did not cease: »Rolstein on the Beach« absorbs many of the group's Postmodern techniques and »jokes«. Lediņš and Boiko jointly re-published several early albums on the Seque label, and two post-mortem albums dedicated to the deceased artists have been published: »Labākās dziesmas: 1982–2002« (Best Songs: 1982–2002, 2002) und »Dziesmas neuzrakstītai lugaiq« (Songs for an Unwritten Play, 2006).

The aforementioned Kaspars Rolšteins continued the musical co-operation with Viesturs Slava, from The Yellow Postmen, on several joint albums »Šūpoles« (Swings, 1996), »Opening Night« (2008), etc., which continue the lyrical approach of The Postmen. In 2003 Rolšteins and Lediņš (under the name »Ideal Standart«) published the album »Genādijs klauvē pie durvīm« (Genady is Knocking on the Door).

In 1990 the leader of The Yellow Postmen, Ingus Baušķenieks, started solo activities, writing songs together with his wife Edīte, flexibly adapting to the mainstream pop music of the time – The Postmen continued their tradition of searching and innovating in this century, unfortunately already incomplete and with a significantly diminished creative capacity. In 1991, 19 Years before the Beginning also ceased its active existence.


[1] The overview of events in Riga is based on an interview Māra Traumane held with musicologist Boris Avramecs, Riga, 2008.

[2] Ivars Skanstiņš’ film »Twilight Games with a Mirror« (1972).

[3] Andris Grīnbergs’ happening »Jēzus Kristus kāzas« (Jesus Christ’s Wedding, 1972).

[4] Alexei Lubimov, »Vremya radostnyh otkrytij«, in: »Eti strannye semedisyatye«, ed. Georgi Kisewaler, Moscow 2010, p. 152.

[5] The cycle of concerts was held from autumn 1974 to the first winter months of 1975.

[6] Boriss Avramecs, in an interview with Māra Traumane, Riga, 2008.

[7] The main members of Boomerang were its founder Martynov, Yuri and Sergey Bogdanovs and Eduard Arthemyev. The group was established at the Studio of Electronic Music, the Scriabin Museum, Moscow.

[8] Alexei Lubimov, in an interview with Māra Traumane, Moscow, Nov. 2007.

[9] Mainly in Moscow, but also in Tallinn, where Arvo Pärt lived.

[10] Musicologists Guntars Pupa and Ingrīda Zemzare.

[11] Vladimir Martynov, »Povorot 1974–1975 godov«, in: »Eti strannye semedisyatye«, ed. Georgi Kisewaler, Moscow 2010, pp. 174–175.

[12] Hardijs Lediņš, »Avangards nav avangards«, Avots 1987, no. 5, p. 44.

[13] »NSR darbnīca«, Avots 1988, no. 4, p. 22.

[14] Juris Boiko, in an interview with the Māra Traumane, Riga 2001.

[15] For example, organising together with friends the evenings of the audiovisual disco »Kosmoss«.

[16] Hardijs Lediņš, »Jaunais vilnis ārpus mūzikas«, Liesma 1985. g. Augusts. The articles by Milanese designers Ettore Stossa and Alessandro Mendini were also important.

[17] Hardijs Lediņš, Juris Boiko, in an interview: Gillen, Eckhart »Ungefähre Kunst in Riga«, Niemansland, Nr. 5, West-Berlin 1988, p. 33.

[18] Hardijs Lediņš, Imants Žodžiks, Aigars Sparāns, Leonards Laganovskis and sometimes Juris Boiko.

[19] A large part of Seque and NSRD recordings, published before 1989, can be heard on the website

[20] Inguna Rubene, in an interview with Māra Traumane, Riga 2007.

[21] Authors of the video film were Hardijs Lediņš and Imants Žodžiks.

[22] Authors of the animation were Imants Žodžiks and Mārtiņš Rutkis.

[23] Hardijs Lediņš, »Towards the Approximate«, Introduction to the Manifesto of Approximate Art, manuscript, 1987.

[24] »Exhibition of Approximate Art«, The House of Knowledge, Riga 1987, and exhibition »A Mole in a Hole«, Museum of Foreign Art, Riga 1988.

[25] At the time unofficially distributed on magnetic tapes, digitally published by I. Baušķenieks in this century.

[26] »Riga – Lettische Avantgarde«, 1988, West Berlin City Gallery, 1989 – City art gallery Im Sophienhof, Kiel; exhibition hall Weserburg, Bremen.