Between Communist Party Bosses and Individual Courage
From Unearthing The Music
Violinist Boriss Avramecs (70 years old) is a music historian, ethnomusicologist, lecturer and critic, who founded Riga’ Ancient Music Centre and ran it for 12 years. Avramecs’ unique knowledge is also concealed in the fact that he has been an enthusiastic and observant witness – and at key points also a participant – in the processes of innovative and independent music in Latvia since the 1960s. In this interview, conducted for UNEARTHING THE MUSIC by Viestarts Gailitis, Avramecs touches upon many of the key figures and moments of the underground music scene in Latvia and the USSR in general, giving us a broad view of the context from the 60s to the end of the Soviet Union.
- 1 Music curators: the Communist Youth and the Cheka
- 2 Soviet rock or vocal instrumental ensembles
- 3 The inevitability of Western music
- 4 Denunciations in an atmosphere of romanticism
- 5 The brief coming of avant-garde festivals
- 6 It all ended badly
- 7 The disobedient children of the elite
- 8 Radio, jazz and mathematics
- 9 Imposed optimism
- 10 An encounter with Lediņš in a reading room
- 11 Lithuania was the most progressive
Music curators: the Communist Youth and the Cheka
V: What were the visible manifestations of independent music in Soviet Latvia?
B: In the 1980s, there was a weird place – the café Allegro, which was practically launched by the Latvian Communist Youth Central Committee. Its curators were from the [LSSR CP] Central Committee, the city’s Communist Youth Organising Committee and the Cheka.
V: Curators as creative curators or supervisors?
B: First of all, they were responsible for making sure that nothing unusual happened, outside the “Soviet” [...norm]. But what the Cheka was most afraid of was contact between fellow countrymen - Latvian nationalism. This was more frightening than Russian free thinkers. Here, in Latvia and the Baltics, this was considered to be a particular threat. Paradoxically, in these circumstances, the decision was made to organise the Riga Rock Club. Its origins were in Leningrad, even before Perestroika. The smart chekists had understood how to handle the curious youth and in Leningrad, they implemented a very good idea — organizing a rock club. It opened, if I’m not mistaken, in 1983. These were bleak years. Brezhnev, who died in 1982, had been power for a long time. This was because a situation had arisen in which everything was available to people who wanted to make independent music: state factories produced amplifiers, people made acoustic systems themselves, while electric guitars were bought from foreign visitors – Yugoslavs or Poles. All [Socialist bloc] groups returned home from a tour of the USSR without equipment — everything was sold here. Because it was to their advantage to buy black caviar or stuff like that. As a result, all those underground musicians could obtain both amplifiers and guitars...
Thus, a rock club was organised in Leningrad on Rubenstein Street, which became a legendary venue. It was the first place to host concerts, where all the rebels, punks and the like performed. And it was clear that this was done deliberately, because otherwise it would have been very hard to find them all in rock. Here the chekists had everyone on a plate! The so-called curators were responsible for this. If you were a member of the rock club, formally at least, you had to get your song lyrics approved. They were particularly scared of lyrics, of anti-Communism songs or the like. This was the template for the Rock Laboratory which opened in Moscow soon afterwards, followed slightly later, if I’m not mistaken, in 1984 by the Riga Rock Club.
Speaking of Allegro – the Kalķu Street courtyard, where it opened, was home to the Communist Youth Cinema. After the courtyard was renovated, the Allegro opened next door. This café officially belonged to the Communist Youth Committee. The wall paintings there were almost Fauvist in style, with intense colours. A good system was quickly established there – almost every evening was devoted to cultural events – one evening to young Latvian actors, another to young Russian actors, mainly from the legendary Youth Theatre, whose director was Adolf Shapiro and where the actors were very capable. Another evening was devoted to jazz. This was a very important step. In Moscow at that time, in the early 1980s, the attitude towards jazz was positive, but a lot depended on the local bosses. The head of the Riga Philharmonic was Filips Šveiniks, an ideological Communist, with a passion for 19th century classical music. He couldn’t stand jazz. Concerts of this kind were impossible on his stages run by the Philharmonic. That’s why the jazz club opened. It was based in the Builders’ Club in the Salvation Army’s current premises. It was not a pretty space and was visited by only a few jazz fans. However, when jazz evenings began to be organised at the Old Riga Allegro, it was a completely different matter; they were packed. Another evening that the Communist Youth and the chekists organised at the Allegro was devoted to rock.
What could you hear there? Well, for example, a band by the name of Atonālais sindroms formed in Riga. It was an absolutely unique ensemble, who played free jazz, with theatrical elements of Dadaism and the theatre of the absurd. It was fronted by a person with a tragic destiny, Oļegs Garbarenko. He was my age. When I moved Riga in 1961, I was admitted to the 5th Grade class at Emīls Dārziņš Music School. Oļegs was also a student there, but since he was unbalanced and there were strict rules, he was expelled. He was phenomenally talented, very smart. When he was young, he had a passion for the organ. Officially, it was only possible to play at Riga Cathedral, from which the church had been evicted and now served the needs of tourists, as well as in the University of Latvia’s Great Hall. Being a rebel, Oļegs got the clergyman at Torņkalns Church to agree to let him practice there during the day. He was admitted to Riga Polytechnic University. Such were his gifts, that he secured his first patents during his years as a student. Oļegs read a lot and worked at the Pan-Union Research Institute, where he worked in marine geology, and which was located on the road from Riga to Jurmala. There he obtained patents for his inventions. He also developed a passion for bobsleigh as an organiser and athlete. Being a daredevil, he didn’t observe any limits and suffered a terrible accident.
I met him for the first time in hospital in the Neurological Ward. One of the consequences of the accident was epilepsy and he had major fits. He started using drugs and quickly became addicted to toxic substances.
Before Perestroika officially began, in the last years of Brezhnev’s rule, interesting trends emerged in the realm of science and cultural policy. Deliberate decisions were made to permit this and that. For example, in the late 1970s, the works of some leading Western philosophers and sociologists were published, albeit with limited print runs. A well-known East German told me at the time: “how good you’ve got it in the USSR”. However, he added that East German Communists were bigger royalists than the king. A lot of stuff could happen without consequences, and this depended on people’s courage and imagination, unless the local Communist Party bosses banned it.
I say this to explain the background for the emergence of Atonālais sindroms fronted by the half crazy Garbarenko in 1983/1984. Garbarenko was the nucleus, but he was joined by other courageous young people. One of them still lives in Riga. He had an orthodox background and was responsible for singing at the house of prayer, but he was also young and inclined to be wild. He played a balalaika-type instrument the size of a double bass. There was also the baritone saxophone and the drums.
Another member was saxophonist and director Alexander Aksyonov, who worked at the Aviation Institute Club. It was very important, because students from Cuba, Africa and Latin America among other places, studied there, among them students from very influential leftist families. It was there, at this institute, that Axyenov founded a theatre studio and became a director. They had radical taste – initially their activity was spontaneous, including happenings. The saxophone was played radically and aggressively.
It was around this time that the rock club opened. At that time, there were incredibly talented musicians in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) and Moscow, some of whom also performed in Riga. At Allegro I got to hear Manufaktura, which existed for nearly a year in Leningrad. A phenomenal and superb musical, with deep and serious lyrics. Leningrad’s chekists decided to end the group’s activity – one member was expelled from university and as soon as that happened, he was called into the army and the group was no more. We were lucky enough to hear them live. They were also part of the Samizdat.
In Riga, during the Rock Club era, another jazz band to emerge was the Voland trio, named after the devil from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita. There were very few places where they performed. Many chekists and members of the Communist Youth, who had to observe, photograph and write reports, liked rock. Wild free jazz was alien to them.
One of Voland’s members was a violinist with whom I went to kindergarten – the Crimean Tatar Nezhat Ablemitov. He graduated from the conservatory and worked for the opera orchestra, and at the same time he was a member of this crazy trio. A bit later on, when American clergymen appeared in Latvia during the era of the Soviet Perestroika and started establishing charismatic congregations, he headed a rock group in church. He did so well that he and his family were invited to relocate and work in the USA.
Another member of Voland, Misha Nikitin wrote and swapped illegal recordings with music collectors in the USA. He obtained vinyl records produced in small volumes in the USSR with ethnic music from Central Asia and other places, which was appreciated by very few people at the time, because the world music movement started later. He would send them these recordings and get some ‘pearls’ in return – unique avant-garde and free jazz recordings. He had a huge record collection. He hated the USSR and emigrated as soon as he got the chance to.
The third member, Sergey Syomin still lives in Riga. He was a fan of ancient music and in Latvia’s first ancient instrumental music group Ludus he played the lute as an autodidact. From time to time, I’ve seen him dressed in renaissance attire playing renaissance music on the summer café stage in Dome Square on the corner of Smilšu Street.
Soviet rock or vocal instrumental ensembles
V: Where was the Riga Rock Club?
B: It didn’t have one specific venue. It was a virtual structure so that there’d be a formal base to organise concerts. As one would expect in a totalitarian society, everything was tightly controlled and, if anything unexpected something happened, somebody had to be responsible. It was like a matrix. These were the 1980s during the period before perestroika. There were some young people, who belonged to what Americans refer to as the counter-culture, that is, people, who are not against culture, but for alternative culture. Against the establishment as the Americans term it. And when young, talented and spontaneous musicians emerged among them, the question of where to put them arose.
A lot of people of my generation, as well as among those who were a bit younger, steadfastly believed that real rock music only existed in Great Britain and the United States and that rock could only be heard in English. Therefore, they looked down their noses at anybody who tried to replicate this themselves. There was an a priori attitude that “nothing good will come of it”. This was terrible, because the regime had made sceptics of us.
But since young people were starting to listen to Western rock music, the official ideology was adapted to include a version based in music, which Russians refer to as ВИА/VIA (Вокально-инструментальный ансамбль). The vocal instrumental ensemble. For a long time, they were even scared to use the word “rock”, which was officially banned in the press for a long time.
Therefore, vocal instrumental ensembles emerged, which, in terms of instruments, had the same composition as a classic rock group: solo guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, drums, with people singing. These began to attract colourful and talented people who’d previously been underground. There was a big temptation for them — you get a job with the state philharmonic, which pays you, and concerts begin. You could earn 2,000 roubles a month completely officially (an engineer’s wage at that time was 180 roubles). And this was a completely different life. Some couldn’t take it, joined the party and sold out to the regime. But there the lyrics had to be full of optimism, with the concept of Socialist realism, patriotism, and motherland and so on. When you heard it, you wanted to throw up. Therefore, those who’s remained underground were more radical.
V: Were these musically educated people?
B: Some were. Most people who joined ensembles had some kind of musical education. There was a strong musical education system in the Soviet Union. People from educated families, for example, from those of engineers or teacher, sent their kids to music school if they were talented. Even if the child didn’t want to, he had to play the piano. Later on, all this was useful – it trained hearing, while some people sang in choirs, etc. For the most part, those people had some kind of musical education.
I later found information on the Internet that the formal head of the rock club was a member of the Communist Youth from the City of Riga’s [Communist Youth] Committee who actually loved this music.
I was very lucky. In 1982, upon my return from my doctoral studies in Moscow, I was formally sent to the Riga Philharmonic as a lecturer. But I ended up playing in the chamber orchestra there. In other words, I had to find a place to read lectures. I applied to give a small cycle of lectures on African and Korean music at the Civil Aviation Institute. Although only a few students attended my lectures, it turned out that they were passionate about underground rock and they started telling me all about it.
V: Were these students at the institute or people from elsewhere?
B: There were students, Rigans. Russian guys. We got talking and they trusted me with information about these rock concerts. You couldn’t find this information in newspapers. There were no posters. And, for example, at the Depo train stop after Zasulauks, there is a whole series of factories that were built in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And one of the newly-built buildings was a house of culture. It hosted some legendary rock concerts, and it was where I got to hear the Latvian band Piligrim with a Christian slant, which was completely banned at the time. It was sort of heavy metal. Lots of other concerts were held in the conference hall at a long gone factory named Straume. It hosted some phenomenally good concerts with guests and locals. We’re now talking about the period starting in 1983. A dark red brick building on the corner on the corner of Valdemāra and Ģertrūdes Streets was home to the Pilsētprojeks Institute and also hosted some great concerts including БГ or Boris Grebenshchikov, Zvuki Mu with that absolute genius Mamonov from the Moscow underground, who, by the way, has shown up in Latvia from time to time in recent years.
Thus, I started going to those concerts. And I had a lot of conversations with other young people there, although I was bit older. The formal head of the rock club was also happy to talk to me. He was a functionary. It was clear that there were some chekists there... One could see that this music was close to their hearts.
V: Did ZGA perform there?
B: Yes, its leader Nikolai Sudnik (Николай Судник) has lived in Saint Petersburg for a long time. A typical situation back then was that people in the underground culture, poets and musicians had to work officially to earn some money and stay out of jail. There was a section in the Criminal Code regarding not working. A lot of these people worked in thermal power plants or the like. I visited with Nikolai a few times. He worked in the Daugava Stadium heating unit. And that was great – I’d visit him during the day and he’d sit there reading a serious Soviet literary magazine Novij Mir. A heating unit worker who was a super intellectual.
V: This was all under the umbrella of the Riga Rock Club?
B: Yes, mostly. They didn’t have any premises, but they organised concerts and got them approved by Communist Youth organisations and the landlords of the premises, and the like.
And there was another interesting concert — for a brief time in Saint Petersburg, there was a really good band named Strannije igri (Странные игры). The nucleus was two brothers with the surname Sologubi (Сологуб). And what did they did was actually super complicated — strange surrealist lyrics, which it turned out were translations of French avant-garde poets and surrealists. And the music they played was an interesting combination of new wave and punk rock.
Before that, I knew Hardijs Lediņš very well. Together, we organised two avant-garde festivals in 1976 and 1977. Hardijs had formed a connection with Indulis Bilzēns – a Latvian from West Germany, who claims to have been the first to launch the idea of dance music in West Germany. He arranged for the legendary DJ Westbam to perform at our festival Art Kontakt. And then I had an idea! I’d long understood that I have a special talent which Russians refer to as cводник (go-between). When I realised that Westbam was going to be there along with Sergey Kuryokhin (Серге́й Курёхин), I wanted to introduce them. This historic meeting took place by the Planetarium (now the Orthodox Cathedral), which hosted concerts and cinema lectures, as well as a few of our festival concerts. I still remember the day very well. I brought Westbam and Kuryokhin together, I introduced them, and afterwards an absolutely legendary concert took place at the Aviation Institute Club on Lomonosov Street. Kuryokhin had a project Pop Mehanika, which although it had completely different participants every time, it was all based around Kuryokhin. And they performed there with Westbam. They influenced one another! Pop Mehanika started with his solo. It had a grand piano, he masterfully improvised in free-jazz style and - hop – fell to the floor! Nothing scared him. What tricks, what a performance! After that, other rock musicians appeared on the stage who were from Saint Petersburg. I brought Soviet artists together with westerners, which was a very rare occurrence.
Later, when perestroika started, I helped a functionary from the Communist Youth organisation, a very ambitious guy. He’s now known as Artūrs Avotiņš. Back then he was Artūrs Serebjakovs. He got the idea of organising a massive cultural festival in Riga, which he named Art Kontakt. At the time, he worked for the only advertising agency in Latvia. After meeting me, Avotiņš immediately realised that I was clued in about music, and so I became his main advisor. He told me, “Write down everything you want to get to Riga!” I wrote a list including the compositions of Steve Reich and Terry Riley. And we got that absolute genius Kuryokhin from Saint Petersburg. The festival took place in 1988. The concert took place in what is now the Moscow House, which had been built as the Railwaymen’s Cultural House. And then imagine — the first half of the concert featured a performance by ZGA, which was not what it is now, making noise with electronics. They had a stage full of metal beams and so on. Later on, Sudnik was invited to take this project to Holland. He reckoned that it was necessary to stuff a tonne and a half of metal into a truck. The second half of the concert featured a performance by a phenomenal drummer named Chris Cutler. For 1988 in the USSR, this was something special.
The inevitability of Western music
V: How did Western music spread?
B: The development of technology played a really important role, because the first portable cassette players had just appeared, it became a lot easier to record live broadcasts, for example, Western radio stations. You had to drive a long way into the countryside, where, for example, you could hear the BBC news, because you couldn’t hear it in Riga. This required a lot of energy and resources. But brave young people realised that they could turn on Summertime BBC, where they could hear great music programmes about recordings, and they were able to record and share all this. They mostly did this on tape recorders. It was a whole sub-culture, which functioned best in Leningrad and Moscow. They would stick a paper on rectangular cardboard recording tape boxes and then write the name of the album by hand or on a typewriter, and put the recorded tape inside — samizdat with music.
V: I remember that. I’ve even bought those. You could even order tapes with the content you wanted and create your personal playlists. I knew the sons of two big illegal recording traders, one of whom was in prison.
B: Back then, copying music was a crime. However, the Soviet Union did make some quality stuff – for example, big Jupiter tape recorders. Everything they were built on like microcircuits was stolen from the West. So they would manufacture copies and sell them to Soviet people. And the more this went on, the harder it was to control it. As a result, it was possible to listen to that which, one could say, did not previously exist. At first, in Moscow and Leningrad, and right here in Riga, the first rock groups performed the repertoire of Western rock groups, although most people couldn’t speak English. So they would rely on hearing to imitate what they heard on the radio or on records, because there were no publications of notes or the like.
V: What years are you talking about? The 1970s? The 1980s?
B: No, even earlier, the early 1960s. And then a new era began, when young people emerged, who were, let’s say, bubbling inside. They were talented and were not afraid to sing in their native language: Latvian or Russian. And they were good! There were some simply phenomenally capable people in Moscow and Leningrad like Boris Grebenshchikov, etc.
V: How far east in the USSR did this wave of experimentation extend?
B: In Russia, it was Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
V: What about other “brotherly” republics?
B: From Yerevan [in Armenia], we were visited by a wonderful composer Tigran Mansurian, while Valentyn Silvestrov (Валентин Sylvestrov) arrived here from Kiev [in Ukraine]. Both are still alive. That was at the second [avant-garde music] festival which took place in October 1977.
V: Please tell me about these avant-garde music festivals.
B: Remember, the first festival took place in April 1976. Why? Because a couple of years earlier, the Riga Philharmonic accepted a proposal from Muscovite pianist Aleksey Lubimov to organise a major concert cycle “20th Century Piano Music”. This was a cycle lasting several months in the former Wagner Hall, which today is the rehearsal hall for the Latvija choir. At the suggestion of Lubimov, the cycle also included works by John Cage and Charles Ives.
Denunciations in an atmosphere of romanticism
V: I understand that ideologically this could be viewed more neutrally in the 1980s, but what about the 1970s?
B: In those years, the then Soviet Empire was in a very paradoxical state, because after the Khrushchev thaw (and a little bit during Brezhnev’s era), certain elements of Stalinism returned. However, chekists also believed that certain things should be permitted, especially in Moscow, which could be used as propaganda against the Western accusation: “You don’t have any creative freedom!” to which they could reply, “No, look, it’s all happening here!” For example, in the late 1970s, Moscow founded a new symphony orchestra, which was supposed to be the Ministry of Culture’s symphony orchestra. As its leader, they appointed conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky (Генна́дий Рожде́ственский). And what did go and do? They started to record records including Schnittke (Альфре́д Шни́тке), although the composer was criticised and partly banned. They released records, with Russian and English text on the cover. Most were sent to be sold in the West so they could say, “Look, we’ve got a vibrant scene here!” In the late 1970s, this was deliberate cultural policy in this ideological battle. And, if we’re talking about the situation in various specific places, a lot depended on local bosses. For example, at that time Leningrad was run by the terrible reactionary Ramanov, who everyone hated – he rejected both the avant-garde and rock music. Therefore, it was very tough there.
V: He wasn’t a musician himself?
B: No. But it was different in Moscow. There were embassies and journalists. It was necessary to show that everything’s possible here. In Riga, in turn, a lot depended on specific people.
The concert agency, which was then known as the State Philharmonic, organised concerts and had a whole range of soloists and ensembles. During the Soviet era, there was even a concept known as the “soloists’ workshop” made up of about 50 people. Some of them really were high ranking musicians, whereas others were really average. The Philharmonic did a wide range of work – it educated kids. Concert brigades with lecturers would travel all over Latvia. Kids were forced to leave their classes and go to the school hall. When I played in a violinists’ ensemble, I also travelled about. We played about three concerts a day. I travelled with violinists, singers and pianists... One must admit though that most kids absolutely hated classical music.
For many years, the aforementioned the Latvian State Philharmonic was led by the aforementioned Filips Šveiniks, an iron man. He was a local Jew. Like many Jews of his generation, he [before the Second World War] had graduated from our conservatory and taken classes with [Jāzeps] Vītols. Therefore, his Latvian was perfect. Many Jews of their generation [in pre-war Latvia] were passionate about left-wing ideas and were even members of illegal Communist Youth organisations. During the war, he was in the [Red Army] Latvian Division and led the music ensemble. After the war, he returned to Riga, where he was appointed to head the State Philharmonic. He was a heck of a dictator. Extremely vulgar. With iron-fisted discipline. He was perfectly organised and therefore, throughout that period, musicians and the great ones from Moscow in particular, were happy to visit Riga to give concerts during the winter season, whereas during the summer season they would perform at the newly-built Dzintari Concert Hall in Jurmala.
In 1963, there was a major fire at the Great Guild. What we can see these days in the top part is the result of major renovations. There used to be a very beautiful hall on the second floor. I recall that just before a concert, I entered the hall’s vestibule, where Šveiniks was striding about with giant steps. He looked around like thunder. The whole of the genteel audience felt like mischievous schoolchildren, who were late for class. That was the aura that he had.
By education, he was a musician and his musical taste was conservative. He couldn’t stand jazz, therefore nobody could imagine jazz being performed at the philharmonic. Back then, jazz festivals were even being held in Moscow. They were also took place in Tallinn, but during Šveiniks’ time not here. He was also opposed to any kind of avant-gardism or the like. He died in 1974. He was replaced as director by his long-standing deputy in economic matters – another Jew - Esfīra Rapiņa. Being a clever and tolerant woman, she immediately allowed that which had not previously been possible. Therefore, with her approval, Lubimov was able to arrange a concert cycle including Cage and Ives.
Naturally, I bought a season ticket to all the concerts. They started, if I’m not mistaken, in October 1975, and took place once a month, with different themes. We got to the Americans. Ives’ section of the concert passed off quietly, even though it featured a composition played with two pianos, one of which was tuned ¼ of a tone higher than the other. The second section featured Cage. His section of the programme also consisted of one composition, where the musicians had to perform actions known as instrumental theatre – they had to act like actors and this took place spontaneously. It was fun and heart-warming to see musicians emerging onto the stage not from the wings, but from the hall with their instrument cases. They struck up a rhythm on stage … Nobody had ever experienced anything like it. I was already prepared, because before this I’d attended the Warsaw Autumn festival in Poland, and, being a student, I saw and heard all kinds of weird things. But for most of the audience in Riga, it was a strange experience. After the musicians gradually got on stage, the piano began to play. Well, it wasn’t bad. But after the concert, one woman, a Latvian, got so angry that she wrote a letter of complaint. Imagine the mentality of some people! She didn’t write to the Director of the Philharmonic, or to the Ministry of Culture. She wrote to the Central Committee of the Latvian Communist Party. And it ended up in the Ideology Department, which was headed by a terrible guy. He became angry and called Rapiņa and asked her, “What’s going on?” But she had already reached retirement age, she had nothing to lose, and she’d been a party member since the days of [last Latvian pre-WW2 president Kārlis] Ulmanis. She replied that, “Everything is in order here.” And the cycle continued. Bet in February, the programme was dedicated to the wonderful Kiev native Valentyn Silvestrov. And once again there was misfortune. During the second half of the concert, a cycle of three sonatas for cello, violin and piano, which he’d entitled Drama was performed. It contained minimal elements of instrumental theatre. For example, at the start of one sonata, Lubimov and the outstanding violinist Tatyana Grindenko emerged onto the stage. In accordance with the composer’s vision, dressed in a black dress, she had to take a matchbox from which she would remove one match, light it, and watch the flame gradually die out. It was a dramatic moment – a light that goes out. After this, she picked up her violin and started to play. And at the end, the piano had been prepared but in a very elementary way. In principle, Silvestrov’s music is quite tragic, and this cycle, let’s say, is music about the death of music, about the end of music. With nostalgia for music of the past. And this was manifested at the end of the piano sonata – the longer it went on, the quieter it became, the pauses grew long, the sounds were rarer. Once again, there was a break, followed by some more sounds... Lubimov, being a great musician, a world-class performer, achieved an effect whereby there was absolute silence in the hall. After the performance, he rose to his feet, quietly left the stage and there was absolute silence in the hall. Then he activated a mechanism that prompted the piano strings to replicate very hushed sounds, reminiscent of faint breaths. It was stunning. After that, in all likelihood the same woman wrote a new letter to the Communist Party leadership.
V: So she continued to attend these concerts...
B: Yes! If you don’t like them, then why attend such concerts? Maybe because music lovers at that time knew that Lubimov was a genius, who often performed in Riga. The second time the Head of the Ideology Department received a complaint, he didn’t bother seeking explanations, he simply banned the cycle. Suddenly, the posters were covered with the news that the concerts had been cancelled and refunds were available for tickets already bought. And then Hardijs Lediņš, whom I’d met a couple of months earlier, called me and asked me why there were not going to be any more concerts.
The brief coming of avant-garde festivals
V: Why did he call you?
B: He knew that I was well acquainted with Lubimov. And the posters had already announced that it was planned to perform Terry Riley’s In C. Only a few people in Riga knew who Terry Riley was, but as someone in the know, Hardijs knew. At that time, he was already organising discos at the Polytechnic Institute Club, which was based in the Anglican Church. Hardijs asked me to call Lubimov and arrange for him to come and play the promoted compositions at the Students' Club. This was the first impulse. The conversation took place in February. The festival was held at the end of April.
Lubimov was very supportive, “Yes, I’ll come, we just need to agree on the dates”. We got talking and thought about who else could take part, and what else to perform. Organising this meant making calls to Moscow all the time, which was terribly expensive. This is where a third person proved to be very helpful. Somebody who’s unfortunately no longer with us – Jānis Krievs. He was an outstanding applied art practitioner and worked for the Māksla (Art) factory. Jānis was extremely knowledgeable about was going in the West and was a passionate fan of music. I was still a teenager, when I attended concerts with my mother, who was also a music lover. One time, we noticed two people – two Jānis’s. Jānis Borgs and Jānis Krievs. One was blonde, the other had black hair, and both had perfect taste. They attended the very best concerts. So I already had an affinity with Krievs. He was a great help. The offices of the Māksla factory were on Vaļņu Street in the Old Town of Riga, with an entrance from a small side street. When I needed to contact Lubimov, I called Jānis. He lived in Jāņa sēta, where he had an attic studio. I recall that when my sister and I visited him, we could hear the organ being played on the other side of the wall in St. John’s Church. It was a very romantic place. He would come downstairs, open the door, and we would go to the office at 21:00 or 22:00 in the evening. I called Moscow and spent a whole hour clearing up all sorts of technical details. If I’d done this at home, my phone bills would have come to 200-300 roubles, while my wage was only 120 roubles. So Jānis was a really big help. So Lubimov and I arranged the programme and performers in detail, and at the end of April 1976, an absolutely legendary festival took place.
V: What do you think? Were your phone calls bugged?
B: It’s unlikely. The Māksla factory had a huge production base and produced a lot of orders for monumental propaganda etc. The phone was in constant use. I think that the bills ran into thousands and nobody examined why the calls were made. You see, strange things like this were possible in Soviet times.
And thus during the first festival at the Anglican Church, there was a performance of Terry Riley’s In C, which was an absolutely legendary event, and a lot of other good stuff as well. I also wanted to take part, but I could only take part in the first rehearsal because somebody slipped the word to Culture Minister Voldemārs Kaupužs. He was a conformist and, as it later turned out, he was a good friend of the head of our chamber orchestra, Tovijs Lifšics. Kaupužs helped us a lot when it came to travelling to Yugoslavia and elsewhere. He wasn’t as bad as I thought he was back then. He was conservative and simply wanted to retain his place within the party. So somebody told him that a violinist from the chamber concert was taking part in rehearsals for the festival, and he became angry, because – how could it be that that which had been banned at the philharmonic was now going to take place at another venue!? The Minister issued an order that everyone who worked within the Ministry of Culture’s system was banned from taking part in this unofficial festival. So I couldn’t take part, but I did attend all the concerts.
V: What would have happened if you’d taken part? Would you have lost your job?
B: As a minimum, I would not have been allowed to travel abroad. But this was very important to me. High level chamber orchestras invited us to make foreign trips. For example, in 1984 we played at the Warsaw Autumn [...festival]. There would have been no point in them keeping me on in the chamber orchestra, if I was could not take part in such prestigious concerts. I had to make a rational decision.
V: But the festival proceeded?
B: Yes, we managed to arrange that the second concert was held in the Art Academy Hall, which I arranged, with the help of [art historian and KGB officer’s son] Jānis Borgs.
The first part of the concert featured a performance by the avant-garde band Bumerang (Бумеранг) from Moscow, whose members included the two brothers Bogdanov. One of them worked at a legendary place in the heart of Moscow – in Alexander Scriabin’s apartment – a museum. It was paradoxical that permission was granted to establish a museum devoted to Scriabin during the Stalin era, because he was a genuine innovator and was really into mysticism – maybe because he died before the revolution. He had ideas about the music of the future, about synthetization. The last two partitures were lines about colours. Some Soviet engineers later developed a passion for his idea. In the 1970s, Yevgeny Murzin (Евгений Мурзин) invented the unique ANS synthesiser, which was like an optical device, and was housed in this museum. In reality, this was the only electronic music studio in the USSR. And, if I’m not mistaken, in 1974 in Moscow, there was a big fair devoted to technology to which a British company brought a cutting edge super high quality big synthesiser, which cost $100,000. During the exhibition, some of Moscow’s leading composers succeeded in persuading some officials from the Ministry of Culture to buy it, and asked the British firm not to take it away – they would buy it at the start of the next financial year. Afterwards, for various reasons, this money was not forthcoming and the Brits took the synthesiser away. But until then, for over a year the synthesiser was kept in the Scriabin Museum, and, while it was stored there, some of the biggest innovators of the day got permission to work with the synthesiser, including Sofia Gubaidulina (Софи́я Губaйду́лина),Schnittke, Vladimir Martinov (Влади́мир Марты́нов) and others. Since this synthesiser was a very complex system, and the composers themselves couldn’t handle it, an intermediary was required, who happened to be one of the one of the members of the band Bumerang.
So this group came to Riga and in the first part of the concert, they performed Martinov’s composition. Tatyana Grindenko performed a composition by Martinov, as well as Stockhausen’s Intuitive music, which was essentially a spontaneous improvisation, based on a poem. I can’t remember what the third composition was. The second half of the concert included a performance of John Cage’s Lecture on the Weather, which was Lubimov’s idea. One of the Bogdanov brothers was fluent in English. He was an orator and read the text. Next to him was a carafe full of water. From time to time, he had to take a drink, he had to comb his hair, all of which he did. At the same time, musicians including Grindenko and Lubimov were busy on stage. The performance lasted for 40 minutes.
This festival that we organised with Hardijs was unofficial. There were no printed posters anywhere. Nothing was reported in any newspaper. There was only a handwritten notice in the Art Academy, and this was the only way that people found out about it. But the hall was packed to overflowing, people stood against the walls and sat on the floor– this was unusual in the Soviet Union. And I was the idiot who proposed organising a happening after the Cage lecture, which then took place. I took part in Cage’s performance although it was banned, but I didn’t play the violin. From time to time, I had to clap my hands. For the happening, I’d arranged for my friends at the time to take part. There was an underground theatre group, one of the members of which was Juris Civjans, who’s now a long-standing professor in cinema history at the University of Chicago.
Crazy things occurred at that happening. A composition by Edison Denisov was performed in which Lubimov had to imitate a cockerel, play the piano, and put a bag on his head. The audience loved it!
It all ended in a scandal. A year later, in 1977, when everyone wanted it to happen again, and Lubimov was full of ideas, two young musicologists - Ingrīda Zemzare, who was then married to composer Imants Zemzaris, and Guntars Pupa came up with an idea. To make sure that the festival was better provided for financially and materially, it should be dedicated to the anniversary of the October Revolution, because in 1977 60 years had passed since the revolution. The festival was officially organised by the Composers’ Union. Back then, Guntars Pupa founded and ran the Composers’ Union’s Young Composers’ Association, and Ingrīda was his assistant. Initially, they tried to get approval from the Communist Youth organisation’s Central Committee. Their idea was cunning – to only include music by Soviet innovators in the programme. Typical Soviet era ducking and diving. The programme was devised with the active participation of Lubimov, and it was submitted to the relevant authorities. The leaders of the Communist Youth were smart and realised straight away that something fishy was going on, and announced that they did not want to take part, would not support the idea or organise anything. Sometime later, the Composers’ Union made the same statement. And then all that remained was Hardijs and his Students’ Club. However, this second festival was a lot bigger. Whereas the first festival lasted for just three days, the second festival lasted for 10 days in October. Most of the concerts took place at the Anglican Church. We succeeded in getting composers to Riga, who would later become world stars like Arvo Pärt, who at the time had become a persona non grata in his native Estonia. We got an entire Arvo Pärt concert performed by the ancient music ensemble Hortus Musicus. Although a hotel room had been booked for him with the help of the Composers’ Union, he said, “I’ll stay with my friends.” At that time, the Polytechnic Institute had a ‘kopuška’, some large halls of residence, in the Old Town, And the whole of Hortus Musicus slept on sports mattresses covered only be sheets in something resembling a sports hall. Arvo wanted to sleep there with everyone else. It defied belief.
It was the late concert that took place after another concert had ended. At that time, Arvo was already a deeply religious person. Everything that Hortus Musicus performed was Christian music. They started with the cycle Tintinnabuli, and then with no advance notice, but with my blessing, they performed Pärt’s Messe, where with one ear, one can hear the sound of Kyrie, Gloria... Those, who were not in the know, thought that it was simply a very long cycle. One has to remember that this was 1977, and it was absolutely out of the question for Soviet composers to write religious music. Ok, one could play Mozart’s Requiem, but it was forbidden for Soviet composers to compose anything like that.
It all ended badly
Martinov took part in one of the concerts at the Anglican Church. Back then, he was really into the writing of early 20th century Russian avant-garde poet Velimir Khlebnikov (Велимир Хлебников), which he referred to as Zaum, that is “beyond the mind”. Martinov has one composition, which he entitled Khlebnikov’s Ritual (Ритуал Хлебникова). For this, we had to get hold of four timpanos, which proved to be very difficult. During the concert, he struck these timpanos like a madman and screamed out those texts of Khlebnikov ecstatically. Also taking part in the same concert, one part of which was dedicated to Martinov’s music, was a great drummer Mark Pekarsky (Марк Пека́рски), who got together the first, and for a long time the only, ensemble of percussion instrumentalists in the USSR (similar to Cage). For our festival, Martinov composed a long composition for a single drummer, which he named Agenda. It was intended to be a sequence of Buddhist prayers, manifested through sounds, striking the most diverse range of small drums, a bongo, drums and so on. These were the kind of musicians that attended our festival. For example, a cellist with a Russian name and Italian surname Ivan Monighetti (Иван Монигетти). Gubaidulina even wrote a whole range of solo compositions for the cello specially for him. Martinov also wrote a composition for him which he performed during the festival. Also present was Tatyana Grindenko’s brother Anatoli Grindenko, who played the cello from childhood, but later became a phenomenal double bass player. Together with Lubimov, he performed Pärt’s composition for double bass and harpsichord. There were gems among both the musicians and the composers.
It all ended badly. During one concert, it was planned to perform Martinov’s Easter Cantata in which he wrote very naive lyrics in German. They had been written during the period of the Reformation in Germany, and many people, not being poets, passionately wrote simple spiritual poems like Jesus, Jesus, meine Liebe. The cantata was intended for a soprano, who came from Moscow, Lydia Davydova, who for many years led what was then Russia’s only ancient music ensemble Madrigal in which Lubimov played the harpsichord. A very intelligent singer. And this was where crazy Ingrīda Zemzare had a mad idea, which she didn’t warn the others about. She got hold of the cantata’s lyrics and copied them at home on a typewriter, cutting it into small ribbons (the poems were short, 2-4 lines each). During the performance of the cantata, she climbed up to the balcony and started tossing these ribbons into the hall. Of course, all the concerts were attended by informers – the chekists themselves or others, and it was this particular action, which became the reason for serious repressions, because there was nothing else for them to disapprove of. An accusation of religious propaganda was made, as a result of which two women were fired from their jobs – the director and artistic head of the Students’ Club. Lubimov was summoned by the Minister for Culture Kaupužs. Afterwards, he hold me how vulgar the minister had been in talking to him, he actually screamed, “As long as I am Minister, do not put a foot inside Latvia!” Everything that was planned was cancelled. Worse still – the Minister informed Moscow about this event and because of our festival, Lubimov became nezvijezdnoj (from Russian невыездной – without the right to travel abroad) for a number of years. Before that, as a world-class pianist, he performed in many places, but after this event, he did not travel abroad again until 1985 (eight years later).
V: Weren’t you afraid?
B: I was in the shadows. I was an intermediary. Bet here’s why they were no great repressions against us, the organisers: in those years, Hardijs Lediņš’ mum was the head of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Countrymen Abroad, which was a chekist institution. And it was only much later that I understood why it was all possible. She was a very nice lady, with a talent for collaboration. Some logic came into play – everyone knew who Hardijs mum was, but overall the situation was quite complicated. If we consider who was responsible for the situation in the realm of culture – the Riga Executive Committee’s Cultural Authority, the Riga Party Committee’s Ideological Department, Communist Youth organisations in Riga and all over Latvia, the Ministry of Culture and the Cheka. Six institutions, which occasionally clashed, and each of which had its own ambitions. And here the logic is probably as follows: this crazy festival began, some officials in the Ministry of Culture were reactionaries and would gladly have banned it. But Hardijs’ mum was a chekist – so everything must have been cleared with the Cheka; why should we get involved, there would be trouble... And this was what everyone thought. I wasn’t even summoned anywhere! Can you imagine?
The disobedient children of the elite
V: The system was often sabotaged by the offspring of the system’s elite. The musicologist and fan of new music Jānis Borgs, who helped you to book the Art Academy Hall, was also the son of a KGB officer.
B: Exactly. It is a well-known fact – the children of the elite are the biggest rebels. Typologically, it’s completely understandable, because the kids of the elite were well-brought up, they had a good education, they were often fluent in English; they had access. It was the same story with Martinov. In the Soviet Union, the hierarchy was also absolutely clear in the realm of culture. It also applied to Latvia’s composers and musicology. Vladimir Martinov’s father Ivan Ivanovich was a high level musicologist, who was smart, educated and creative. It was his privilege to represent the USSR at musicologists’ congresses. He wrote a good book about Béla Bartók and was a very high ranking functionary. During the 1950s-1960s, very few people were allowed abroad – the best athletes, a few pianists, and scientists who attended congresses, as well as Martinov regularly. What did he bring his son, when he was 16 years old and interested in Stockhausen and art-rock? Dad brought his only son records and notes. Otherwise, there was no way to get your hands on that stuff. The Internet did not exist. Shops only contained permitted items. But Martinov had access to fresh information. This was a typical situation in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes.
When our legendary first festival ended, I went to Moscow right away. Back then, Lubimov was developing a passion about something completely alien to me – ancient music. Back then, he travelled to the West a lot and spent all his money on editions of sheet music and records, which were very expensive, but of very high quality. He had Reflexe label records – records featuring ancient phraseology, articulation and instruments. At the time, I had no idea that this would be of interest to me, because I was only interested in the new and experimental. I spent so long at Lubimov’s place that night that the underground was no longer running. I stayed the night and we ended up having a heart to heart conversation. Around Moscow, there were a whole range of research institutes in cities that were off-limits, where physicists and super-intellectuals worked, as did those who were interested in everything new. Lubimov travelled from one such place to another, playing Stockhausen and Cage, and gradually it became permissible to play them in public concerts. I asked him a question, “Why are the powers-that-be allowing all this?” And he replied beautifully, figuratively, but precisely, comparing the Soviet totalitarian and Nazi systems to a gear mechanism. Whereas all this was impossible in Nazi Germany, because the system was pedantic, precise, hard and tightly-knit. If you were on the outside, you were crushed immediately. In contrast, the Russian specific was that nothing’s perfect, there’s air, gaps between the gears. Lubimov explained, “We’re living in the gaps between these gears. Otherwise, we would long since have been ground into dust”. A very precise analogy.
Radio, jazz and mathematics
V: Returning to sources of Western music – as a child, for example, I listened to Radio Luxembourg and Warsaw Radio. Where did your first inspirations come from?
B: Jazz music meant a lot to me. For example, when I was 13-14 years old, once a week on Moscow Radio, there was a programme dedicated to jazz, Metronoms. It completely captivated me! In childhood, I was often sick, my sister and I grew up without a father, and our mother – a journalist, was unable to work full-time. Our grandmother was the only one to work full-time, and when she retired, she could look after us again, while our mum started working full-time. Then came an opportunity that I’d dreamed about for a long time – to buy a normal radio. It was a Rigonda on legs with a record player. The main thing was quality short wave – three ranges. We discovered that you could listen to the Voice of America jazz programme from Washington. Although I didn’t understand a thing, because I studied German at school, six nights a week (except Sundays) from 23:15 until midnight our time, there was a programme with the famous jazz critic Willis Conover, which he presented for about 25 years. He was a legendary personality because of this radio programme – erudite, a real jazz fanatic, who selected perfect jazz recordings. It became an essential ritual for me – no matter what I was up to with my friends, at 23:15 I had to switch on the radio. It became an extremely important source of information for me. From time to time, he would play some avant-garde jazz like the Sun Ra Orchestra. It later turned out that the whole world listened to Conover. And being a classical violinist, raised on the basis of classical romantic music, jazz music became important to me. This music was subject to completely different laws, and this was very important to me psychologically – it was an alternative. Listening to jazz, I became morally and psychologically ready to perceive rock. I started to listen to it slightly later and it was a big revelation to me! I belong to the generation that the Beatles and Led Zeppelin were part of, which are absolute legends. A question that became a challenge for me at the age of 16 was – was there a place where Bach and The Beatles, whose music is completely different could co-exist? I loved both. The desire to understand turned me into a scientist.
V: Were you unable to intuitively accept this?
B: This music was from a completely different world. But I did not have a clue how they could co-exist. And the desire to understand led me to musicology, cultural anthropology, ethnomusicology and so on and so. During my school years, I was good at physics and maths. I was good at quantum mechanics, space technologies, etc., although I loved music and the violin a great deal. Before Grade 10, I’d hardly played the violin. Then I started to exercise and wanted to study at the Moscow Conservatory, simultaneously combining this with studies at the Phys-tech (Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology). My mind is exact and therefore it was very important for me to understand how such contrasting realms of music can co-exist.
V: Did you understand?
B: Yes, ethnomusicology helped me understand a lot of this. The fact is that there were not only two alternative systems, but three or four... In every era, there are four basic principles – principles of music language and perception, and this can all happen to one person, whereby you’re there, there and there. But in regard to new music - due to my exact orientation, I was very interested in the new and began to tire of everything that standard musical education was based one, for example, classical romantic music. There’s a famous saying that ontogeny recapulates phylogeny, which means that I had to go through all the developmental trajectories of Western developmental music. At the age of 15-16, I went through Scriabin, then I started listening to Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Berg... Much had changed in Moscow, many of the banned composers had started to play again. For me, a concert in the autumn of 1966, when I was still in Grade 10, proved to be fateful. The venue was the Great Guild Hall, which had just reopened after the fire. There, Muscovite Leonid Kogan performed Alban Berg’s violin concert. A world-class violinist and a high-ranking chekist – a terrible fellow, but not that conservative in the realm of music.
V: What was the situation in Latvia?
B: In the academic world here, everyone was very conservative. They played Brahms, Tchaikovsky, but then Lubimov appeared, who, for example, played a piano sonata by Alban Berg at the Wagner Hall. But then jazz appeared. The Jazz Club opened and started organising concerts. And you could hear some phenomenal jazzmen like Vyacheslav Ganelin (Вячеслав Гане́лин). Saxophonist Egils Straume was in a parallel Latvian language class to me and in the same course at the conservatory. He was a powerful musician, and, as soon as jazz rock took its first steps, he began to play it. There was also the Jewish saxophonist, Vadim Vyadro. I’m talking about the 1970s. The first progressives were jazzmen.
V: And what did they play?
B: Cover versions. The first composer with completely radical thinking(although he was not yet a composer) was Juris Ābols. The son of expressionist painter Ojārs Ābols. At the Dārziņš’ School, he studied the flute and later developed a passion for Dadaism. At that time, while he was still at school, he got into yoga. He seemed slightly mad and shocked me as a thinker. Back then, we talked in Russian only, because I couldn’t speak Latvian yet, and Juris suddenly informed me that he regularly listened to an Arab radio station every day. At the time, I couldn’t imagine being interested in the music of other nations, but he was already passionate about it. Much later, he started to compose. During our second festival in 1977, the then Conservatory Students’ Choir led by Juris Kļaviņš performed a composition by Juris Ābols based on a text by German Dadaist Hugo Ball, which consists not of words, but of phonemes. And later, drawing on a similar text, Ābols composed his Caravan, which you can hear on the internet. It’s pure Dadaism. Phonemes, which must be sung high. For Latvians, this was from a completely different dimension. On that occasion, the choir also performed Knaifel’s spatial music, where the choir stands around the perimeter – pace and run about in a circle, and call out to one another.
V: And what about Marģeris Zariņš?
B: He was extremely interesting and talented. During the 1950s-1960s, he wrote a lot of music. It was innovative, but not avant-garde.
V: Innovative in what sense? Within the framework of prevailing conventions?
B: Back then, the ideology was that music, for the most part, was in an atmosphere of late romanticism – highly emotional melodies that were easy on the ear. For example, Marģeris Zariņš had a suite for piano and orchestra, Greek Vases, in which he does not use the approaches of classicism. He had courage. It was long out of style in Western Europe, but in the Soviet Union it was innovative. On the subject of innovators – during the initial phase of his creative output, Imants Zemzaris was also an innovator. For example, he has a composition for piano, where the pulsation comes from rock music, which was something unusual in the context of Latvian music in the 1970s.
V: Therefore, the first avant-garde impulse in Latvia was in jazz and among the academic community?
B: Exactly. Imants Kalniņš comes from academic circles, whose songs place him more within the realm of popular music, but he had the courage in his 4th symphony (1973) to include a rock group with bass guitar. For those times, it was audacious. On the subject of innovative expression in academic music, one should definitely mentioned a person, who was not born in Latvia, but who married a Latvian and lived here for about 20 years - Romualds Grīnblats. For a long time, he was forgotten, but in recent years, his music was being played once again. He showed up in Riga in 1957-1958. He composed music for the ballet Rigonda in which the action takes place in an imaginary country. The specifics of the narrative allowed him to use polyrhythms in music, in reference to Africa. I saw the general rehearsal. This production became so attractive and famous that a radio made at the Popova Radio Factory in Riga was given the name Rigonda. The Rigonda chocolate was also named in honour of the ballet. He was a Jew from Leningrad to which he later returned. He used a serial technique in his music, which no Latvian could afford to do.
V: Couldn’t afford to, because they didn’t know it?
B: Because it was too conservative! They need something emotional.
V: About this conservatism. Composer Ruta Paidere explains this by arguing that apolitical lyricism was easy escape route in the censorship at that time.
B: It is the confluence of several factors. The tradition of singing is important to Latvians and, naturally, they sing tonally. And therefore it has become so deeply rooted that everything else seems unnatural. There’s also our onerous historical fate, huge community of exiles – the Lithuanian and Estonian exile communities were not as big. After the Second World War, there were no longer any creative or cultural people in Latvia. Those, who remained, were essentially bland, mediocre people, who lacked passion and creative power. They were conservative. Plus a trait of national character – people are conformists. If there are potential threats, it is better not to take risks. There are a lot of factors. Therefore, one had to wait for a new generation to grow up.
Later on, radically disposed Latvians did emerge like Ingus Baušķenieks. Internally, he was an absolutely free person, which manifested itself in everything that Dzeltenie pastnieki got up to. It was revolutionary, real new wave. It is not without reason that they are now included in all reviews of Soviet underground culture.
V: He was a special case. His father was the artist Auseklis Baušķenieks...
B: Yes. An absolute genius and a free thinker. But you see, every time there are different factors that we need to take into account. There was no shortage of talent in Latvian music like Ādolfs Skulte. For various reasons, he remained here at the end of the war. His father was a big building contractor, his mother was Italian. His brother Bruno Skulte was an exiled composer. The Cheka knew that his brother was in exile, knew that he came from a wealthy family, and he was under considerable threat. However, since Skulte remained here, he had to make all the compromises possible to avoid being arrested and sent to Siberia. Thus he wrote compromise music. He was very talented and educated, was fluent in several languages, but his music was not short of banality. He had to earn money. He was accustomed to living well and, in order to make a lot of money, he became a high ranking composer in Soviet Latvia. His partitures were bought every year, so he had to write a lot, without concern for the quality of the work he created. At the same time, some of this work is really wonderful. He was also a phenomenal teacher. A whole series of talented composers studied under Skulte – Imants Zemzaris, Aivars Kalējs and others. He was a true bearer of the tradition of European haute culture.
V: Was using atonal chords prohibited?
B: Yes! It was a kind of bogeyman. One of the worst manifestations of bourgeois culture, which working people could not understand.
V: Had somebody postulated this? Was it possible for somebody learning a composition to start doing something like this, naively pretending that he didn’t know what he was doing?
B: The situation during the second half of the 1940s and in the last years of Stalin’s rule was terribly bleak. In 1946, there was the first decision by the Central Committee about writers etc., which sharply criticised Anna Akhmatova (Анна Ахматова), Mikhail Zoschchenko (Михаил Зощенко), and people from the Silver era, who were not arrested, but whose writing was not permitted to be published. It was only permissible to publish translations of their work in other languages. This was followed in 1948 by a special CC decision aimed at music. The formal reason for it was a poor opera written by a mediocre Georgian composer about friendship between peoples, but in reality it was a blow struck against the official composers of the day – against Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Khachaturian. And it was followed by decisive steps. It was only permissible to write tonal music. There was an attempt to formulate manifestations of Socialist realism in the realm of music, but this failed, because there is no text in music. But everyone knew what was subject to particularly severe criticism like the Second Viennese School, neoclassicism, Stravinsky... This was all banned. And it was absolutely clear to composers that, in order for your music to be bought and played, you had to write tonal music with emotional substances, full of pathos, and always optimistic so that things did not end in tragedy. This situation prevailed for a long time. After Stalin’s death, this inertia continued. After a break of 20 years, to get permission to perform Mozart’s Requiem, one had to practice demagogy and write in programmes and subsequently in reviews that, in essence, Mozart composed “music full of humanism”, but that he lived in conditions where he had to adapt to the situation and decorate everything in religious form. It was an absolute nightmare, because he was a Catholic believer. This was the case for a long time – to get permission, one had to apologise first.
On the subject of how information [about alternative manifestations of culture] reached Latvia, I must praise the long-standing head of the Composers’ Union, composer Pauls Dambis. On the one hand, he was a conformist, because he adapted to the system, but on the other hand he was smart and talented, with a vibrant interest in everything going on. This was how took advantage of his position: if he learned that an American musicologist was going to appear in Moscow, he would invite him to Riga. Back then, as a student, I went to the Benjamin House Hall to listen to the lectures he organised. If Americans were visiting, their words were translated. At Dambis’ initiative, Alexei Lubimov was invited there, and he brought with him another younger pianist, Boris Berman. Lubimov spoke a little and performed atonal and serial music by Stockhausen, Silvestrov and Denisov. And as a sequel, a special concert was organised at the Reformation Church, which due to its acoustics was home to the Melodija record label studio. What’s more, in Czechoslovakia, there was a monopolist record producer, Supraphon. Thanks to Pauls Dambis, they brought records to Riga for sale, which would not have reached our shops otherwise. I was lucky enough to buy a record with Olivier Messiaen’s organ cycle La nativité du Seigneur (The Lord’s Nativity). What a revelation that was! The music was arranged completely differently – the repetitions, unusual compositional chords, the meditative atmosphere. That’s where I got my inspiration from.
V: Therefore, curiosity could not be eradicated, because the system’s own people only formally toed the official line?
B: Thanks to my lecturer, Tatyana Kurisheva, I found out about the Warsaw Autumn. I was extremely persistent. During my sophomore year of study in 1970, the Conservatory organised a students’ trip to this festival. The trip lasted for two weeks – one week was in various towns in Poland, and the second week – in Warsaw itself, so it was not possible to attend the whole festival. But the trip proved to be fateful. Only some of the places on it were allocated to the Conservatory, there were students from the Art Academy, a couple of people from Latvian Television, some genuine workers and some informers like a waiter from the Rīga Restaurant. But I met [the director] Ķimele, who had already studied in Moscow, I met [the poet] Jānis Rokpelnis and [the composer] Aivars Kalējs. Back then, I was also a film buff and I prepared for the trip by buying Polish newspapers. We knew that there was a quite a lot of freedom in the realm of culture. Together with Māra Ķimele, over the two weeks, we got to see 12 films including Bergman’s, Fellini’s and Yellow Submarine! While we were in Warsaw, I attended all the crazy concerts. For example, there was a night concert devoted to electronic music. It was the first time in my life that I’d heard anything like it, because there was nothing like this in Latvia. I was stubborn and stayed to the end along with about another dozen people. The performers included the Birmingham Orchestra, which played Stockhausen with electronics.
An encounter with Lediņš in a reading room
V: In the early 1970s in Riga, where, other than via interrupted radio broadcasts, could one obtain information about Western music? Were there likeminded people who shared information?
B: I could speak German, while I learned English from radio jazz programmes, and put my language to use by regularly visiting the National Library’s Music Department, which was then located on the corner of Elizabetes and Barona Streets. There, somebody subscribed to excellent London Music magazines on behalf of the National Library. There were monthly publications devoted to all realms of art: Art and Artists, Dance and Dancers and Music and Musicians. And I regularly took and read the last pages to find out which were the most important monthly concerts that were going, for example, to be held that evening in London’s concert halls. At that time, there were five world-class orchestras in London, which collaborated with the best conductors and soloists. Both classical music and jazz were close to my heart, and I was starting to get interested in the exotic and the new.
There was also the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik founded by Robert Schumann, as well as other magazines in German. In them, I could read reviews of recordings and concerts. The same publisher Schott had another publication, Melos, which was exclusively dedicated to innovative music. These publications provided me with a very important source of information.
V: These publications were available in libraries in the 1970s?
B: In the 60s, thanks to Khrushchev’s thaw. I was only one who asked for them, sat and read them. For a long time, I was like a white crow. All the librarians knew me. I went there every day like I was going to work. And at the initiative of a librarian, I got to know Hardijs Lediņš. She asked me – would you be good enough to attend to this young man? He’s asking us questions that we can’t answer. And this was Hardijs Lediņš.
He told me that he’d had a kind of evolution. Initially, he’d discovered rock music, and then he’d discovered the existence of avant-garde rock. He got interested in these musicians and then he discovered names like Schoenberg and Stockhausen about whom he knew nothing, and the librarians were unable to help him – to tell him what to take and read. But I knew that there was a book published in West Germany for secondary school level music classes, which contained a summary of innovative music after the Second World War. I was the only one in the library who’d ever read it.
V: Didn’t you come to the attention of the security institutions?
B: A decision had been made in Moscow in the early 1960s, and the Second Viennese School and the like were no longer banned. They realised that only a very narrow band of people were interested in this. And that absolutely nothing was going to change from this music being played or heard in public. Thereafter, if it was menaced, it was only due to the stubbornness of certain high level reactionaries. There were also normal people in charge like the aforementioned Rapiņa at our philharmonic. Thus, in April 1977, at the Wagner Hall I prepared and refined a programme on 20th Century Violin Music, mainly using two notebooks of sheet music published in Moscow containing a selection of compositions for the violin. These included Ives’ sonata, Schoenberg’s opus Fantasia, Messiaen’s theme with variations and Stravinsky’s psychologically challenging duet for piano and violin. I played Bartok’s sonata for solo violin and Imants Zemzaris’ short cycle of compositions Songs of the Livonians. This was my only concert of this kind, because it was tricky securing the opportunity to perform a concert solo. However, the situation was changing at the time, but nobody with that conservatism or inertia exploited this. Instead, they paid attention to people who regularly borrowed Melody Maker or New Musical Express from the National Library’s Music Department, which contained the latest information about rock music. That was music they were scared of. They were not scared of the academic kind. But it was different with Hardijs. He started off interested in avant-garde rock and then switched to academic music. In the mid-1970s, Hardijs organised discos at the Anglican Church. And he established a tradition of monthly lectures, where, parallel to playing music, he would talk a lot. One time, he invited me. This was in the middle of the day. Students gathered at the church and I talked to them in Russian – I brought some cassettes with me, as well as my violin on a couple of occasions.
Thanks to Dambis, Alfred Schnittke had been invited to Riga. This meeting also took place at the Benjamin House. Being curious, I boldly approached him and asked if he would like to come and talk to students about his music. He agreed! By that time, Schnittke had already turned to Catholicism. He brought a cassette full of recordings and we went to Lediņš’ event at the Anglican Church, where quite a lot of people had turned up. I introduced him and asked questions. He also played some things that were banned. And then he told me the story of how he’d composed his Requiem. Since he was not allowed to perform in normal concerts, he would write music for films and theatre productions. One of Moscow’s theatres – a small academic theatre, which was very conservative, produced a classic play by Schiller, Don Carlos. The director of the production believed that, given the content, a requiem should be heard from a great distance in the same place. Of course, he could have used an existing requiem, but he decided that it would be good if a small fragment were to be composed by Schnittke. So a contract was officially signed with Schnittke, who then received a fee. Schnittke took the opportunity not only to write a whole requiem with a canonical Latin text, but, since the money was also intended for the choir and orchestra, he recorded it. And he brought the entire recording of Requiem to Riga.
V: But how did he manage to get to Riga freely? Hadn’t he fallen out of favour? How did Dambis work up the courage to invite him here?
B: Dambis had guts. As I said, the Soviet situation at that time was dependent on the local bosses. Formally, a lot of things were not banned. But in reality, his music was not performed during symphony orchestras or ordinary public concerts. He was on the black list. During the Soviet era, a lot of films were produced and there were some immensely different film directors. It was almost as if a “Ministry of Cinema” existed. Of course, formally, it was not a ministry, but there was a Chairman of the Cinema Committee, a very influential person, who could even influence Brezhnev’s decisions. And he had ambitions. At that time, there was an intelligent war between two worlds, and he was able to prove that there was also creative freedom in Socialism; both poets and film directors were able to work globally. And there was no shortage of such people during the Soviet era. Starting with Chukhray (Григо́рий Чухра́й), Tarkovsky and others.
Since Schnittke wrote great film music, the director wanted to work with him. As soon as the party committee bosses learned about this they called the film studio and said – "banned! Schnittke is banned!" But what happened? The director became angry and went to the film committee chairman and said – I’m being messed about with in my work! (This director already had received major prizes at film festivals) It’s not going to be a good film! And the Minister realised – yes, we need another Golden Lion! And so he let Schnittke write. And so he continued writing music for films. Schnittke used film music as a creative laboratory. He used both atonal and sonorous elements.
V: It turns out that he arrived in Latvia at the expense of the Soviet State.
B: Yes, he was officially invited by the Composers’ Union – they paid for accommodation, his travel expenses and paid him a fee.
V: But what if he tried to perform his works?
B: For public concerts, he was undesirable.
V: Turning to film, theatre and radio music – in a lot of post-war societies, this was an experimental laboratory.
B: It is practical music. It had various functions. It was thought that symphonic compositions were very powerful, being performed in large halls, which appealed to a large audience. But, if you went to a theatre production, the public listened to the text and saw music as only part of the setting, one of the details.
V: Was there any kind of experimentation during this period?
B: In Latvia, for a long time there wasn’t. There was nothing to experiment for. But in Moscow and Leningrad – there was Knaifel. His crazy compositions were not performed during public concerts, but he was so adept at composing for films and theatre productions. Like Schnittke, but a different generation. But the situation was very similar. And it was the same story with Gubaidulina.
V: What did the system have against Gubaidulina?
B: She was a Christian. Her selection of texts and subjects. One of her earliest works was a cantata with the ancient Egyptian lyric Night in Memphis (Ночь в Мемфисе, 1968). Memphis was one of the cities in Ancient Egypt. But Soviet composers had to manifest optimism so that people would work better. If you have a cantata, then it had to laud the party – Glory to Lenin! not Egyptian or medieval Japanese lyrics. There was also her character. Gubaidulina was absolutely obstinate. Whereas some innovators were prepared to compromise, she would never ever do so. Therefore, she really irritated all the functionaries and generals, some of whom retained a sense of conscience, because they understood that they were involved in rubbish, but she, you see, was pure. So they really oppressed her... There was such hatred… She was thrown out of the Composers’ Union for several years, and, if you’re not in the Composers’ Union, you’re on the black list, you won’t get any new commissions. There was a period, when her daughter was growing up when she was washing stairwell floors in a Moscow school.
V: As I understand it – Soviet experimentation took place in Leningrad and Moscow...
B: In Kiev, Silvestrov had the audacity to do stuff, but overall the situation was very bleak there.
Lithuania was the most progressive
V: Compared to what was happening in Latvia, what was the situation in Lithuania and Estonia?
B: At that time, the Lithuanians were ahead of the Latvians in terms of academic music. They produced some representatives of American-style repetitive music like the extremely talented and then young Šarūnas Nakas. They also got into electronic music a lot earlier... even musicians of the older generation like Broņus Kutavičus, who actually wrote minimalist music. However, when I asked him to what extent he was influenced by the Americans, he told me that he didn’t know anything about them, he said he’d used “sutertīnes” from the archaic Lithuanian tradition dating back to the period of pre-Christianity.
V: But why were they more progressive? Was the atmosphere more liberal there?
B: There were various factors that I’ve thought about and discussed a lot. First of all, in the past, the Lithuanians had a long history of statehood. This is part of their memory and sub-conscious, and it gave them more obstinacy with which to oppose the system. Secondly, Catholicism. Just as in Poland during the Socialist era, Catholicism was like a fortress that helped opposition. Thirdly, historical destiny. During the Soviet era, over 90% of the Lithuanian population were Lithuanians unlike the situation in Latvia. A fourth factor was the post-war community in exile – when Latvia lost almost all its creative power, whereas relatively few people left Lithuania to go into exile. And the fifth factor – Poland was next door. Thanks to Poland’s freedom, it was much simpler for new trends to arrive there.
V: Just like Estonia and Finland?
B: Yes, similar to that. Estonians would watch Finnish rock concerts and other stuff on television. Lithuanians, who were involved in academic music tried to get to Poland. A lot of them understood Polish and listened to radio broadcasts from Warsaw Autumn. All these factors combined played an important role.
V: Wasn’t education a bit different too?
B: Officially, everything was just as conservative as in Latvia.
V: But was anything interesting going on in other Soviet republics? In Kazakhstan? In Belarus? B: In Kazakhstan, no. In Belarus, no. But in Armenia, there was Mansurian. In the 1960s, he was one of those who mastered the new school of sound’s compositional principles – he used dodecaphony. That was why Lubimov performed his stuff, because it was avant-garde music. Mansurian ranks as one of the Soviet avant-gardists. There were none in Georgia or Central Asia.
In Estonia, there was Pärt, who wrote very aggressive, bleak and completely atonal music during his first creative period. His catharsis was the moment of silence when he was still living in the USSR and turned to religion. He wrote Credo for choir and orchestra. This is a story of Estonian unity and obstinacy. Back then, in the early 1970s, including it in any official concert programme was absolutely prohibited. But both he and others wanted to hear it. He arranged for the outstanding world-class conductor Neeme Järvi and his orchestra and choir voluntarily performed during rehearsals and recordings without pay. The performance took place in a church, where it was also recorded. Can you imagine? It was impossible anywhere else, only in Estonia. One could not even dream of anything like this in Latvia, everyone would have been too scared. But the Estonians – to their great credit, did it.
Later on, Pärt quietened down, read theologians, the Bible, listened to Gregorian chants, songs that were close to the Russian mentality, and focused on Orthodox religion. After this hiatus, his next period of creative work began, which tends to be known as Tintinnabuli. In Riga, Pärt’s new type of music Hortus Musicus had already been performed. Later on, he was allowed to emigrate, because he bothered them.
V: Was this academic language more irritating to the system through its religious manifestations like Pärt? B: It was prohibited to use the principles of innovative music language, and religious subject matters. But when it came to underground music, it was not possible to control it. Here the chekists had to be much more concerned, because it did not happen in the official arena, it happened out of sight... That was why they created this rock club, so that everything would be transparent and so that they could exercise control and intervene, if necessary.
V: But, for example, were there people in rock music, who were under particular pressure?
B: I found some information about this question somewhere on the Internet. It was tough, for example, for composer Vilnis Šmīdbergs, who is an academic composer, but who together with Šimkus senior (Gunārs Šimkus, father of the notable pianist Vestards Šimkus) formed the nucleus of the underground rock band, the Cathedrals. There’s even a whole film about this. But there was a time when Šmīdbergs didn’t even have a place to stay, and for a while he and Šimkus senior drifted about, sleeping in the railway station.
V: I assume that rock music, underground, attracted a lot of people, who were unable to “filter reality”, so to speak? The crazy ones, who because of their nature or psychological characteristics, were much more daring.
B: Yeah, there were a lot of rebels. But attitudes changed too. Power was no longer monolithic. Different people worked at different levels. There were those who were very aggressive and repressive and those who believed that that it was better to let off steam so that there wouldn’t be any strikes or demonstrations. It was better to let people go wild on stage. When I started attending underground rock events, I saw some concerts that have remained deeply ingrained in my memory. In Riga, there was a Russian group, Cement (Цемент). Its leader was Andrejs Jahimovičš. He played the guitar and sang. He was unbelievably expressive and worked as an engineer. Music was his hobby. I particularly remember one really great song with the lyrics “Мне надо 20 лет не есть и не пить чтобы денег на гитару скопить” (I need to not eat and drink for 20 years to earn the money for a guitar). And during the chorus, he would desperately scream, “120 рублей!” Back then, 120 roubles was the average monthly wage. The whole hall screamed along with him almost like a demonstration!
V: But that was dangerous!
B: Yes, but the concerts took place. For example, there was another wonderful and witty band Selskij chas (Сельский час). At that time, Moscow Television had an extremely stupid programme with the same name aimed at collective farm workers. What they were playing was actually folk rock, deliberately using Russian traditional elements. In some of their concerts, they even used a bass balalaika. They were so much fun and their lyrics were great. That was underground rock in the early 1980s.
V: Therefore, a lot of Russians.
B: Yes, and Jews and Armenians. One of the first rock groups in Latvia was Jokers, whose members included the Karapetyan brothers. They’ve lived in America for a long time now.
[At this point, students arrived for a rehearsal and the three hour long interview had to end.]