A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
As regular readers of these interviews will know, I have had a
thirty-year career in radio, and one of the things with which I am
the pronunciation of names. So when I meet composers or
performers, I will ask them to say their name so that I get their
preferred sound in my ear. Antanas Rekašius obliged by repeating
his name several times, and was pleased when I said it exactly as he
had just taught me. It is reh-KAH-shooss.
At the time we met, in March of 1986,
Lithuania was still under the yoke of the Soviet Union, so his world
and experience were based on (and, perhaps,
hampered by) his
geographical location. Indeed,
when he and his colleagues arrived in Chicago for performances, I asked
my one of my Lithuanian friends who had lived here all of his life about
the consequences of any interaction. He did not try to hide his
disappointment, but conveyed the sense that perhaps some of the purely
musical ideas and innately human thoughts would transcend the
oppressive situation being faced on a daily basis by these
people. In looking back and viewing the interviews and
their music with 20-20 hindsight, we can appreciate the limitations
while at the same time celebrating the strength it took to not only
endure but create and re-create thoughts and ideas from deep within
their souls. I took the risk of meeting them at that time, and I
hope it has paid off now, more than 20 years later.
My thanks to Mykolas Drunga, the Associate Editor of Draugas, the Lithuanian World-Wide
Daily, for providing a simultaneous translation for us both.
We were doing two interviews that day – an
operatic mezzo-soporano and the composer. As
we were setting up, the composer asked to go first - ahead of the
mezzo. He indicated it was like a final examination, and he
claimed to be bad on exams . . . . . .
You're a composer...
BD: When you write
a piece, what do you expect of the audience that comes to hear it?
AR: I usually
approach performance of my work as if it were an examination, and I
have the feeling that the listener is not favorable to me. I
don't particularly like the listener. But when I get feedback
that he likes it, I appreciate it and then I feel more at ease.
writing music an adversarial kind of competition?
Undeniably it is a certain kind of competition. It's a
game. The listener expects to hear something that he wants to
hear, whereas my interest is to place something before him that is
me. Hence, there is this clash of two sets of expectations.
You realize that the listener always has an opinion about the composer;
he has an image of the composer and there are expectations built upon
that image. Therefore there is already a clash of images because
as a composer, I have my image that I want to present which is not
necessarily the image that the listener expects. What is
interesting and unique for me in America – where my works
were performed for the first time and the audience had no idea about
me – I could believe
that the reaction would be valuable to me because it wouldn't come from
an old or leftover preconceptions or bias, which, of course, happens in
a situation where you're already known, especially in a more or less
closed environment. I have a belief for some reason that an
audience which hasn't heard me will render an objective judgment about
my work, and that this judgment will be favorable. That's what I
believe. If this audience doesn't like the work, I will conclude
either that there is a difference in taste or that there is difference
in conception, but I don't necessarily feel guilty about that.
BD: Do you write
in all forms?
music is the main portion of my output. I write for a large,
overburdened, modern orchestra. There are already six symphonies
recorded. I also write for the stage; there are four ballets and
an opera, and when I write for the stage there is also a massive,
overburdened orchestral explosion. Another field is chamber music
which affords me some rest from the massive orchestral palette.
When writing chamber music, I acquire a certain lightness and wit that
offsets the basically tragic of my orchestral music. The third
field is songs; I also try to write children's songs because I can
maintain the same lightness and playfulness. Were I
to write songs for adults, that would bring me too close to the tragic
and heavy feeling that I express in my orchestral works.
BD: Is life
so tragic that it becomes the only thing you wish to express in your
"tragedy" isn't the correct word because everything is bright. I
meant a certain heaviness and a certain density of expression. I
myself am a lighthearted, frivolous person and I like joking around,
but my music turns out to be heavy.
BD: Too heavy?
There is a contrast. Many people don't understand why my music is
so heavy and dense, whereas in real life I'm a happy and jovial
person. That's my creative situation.
BD: Who are
the big influences in your compositional world?
AR: That's a
difficult question for me to answer, and I always am surprised that
people think that I can pinpoint these influences. To tell you
the truth, all of music is an influence. I absorb all of music
and that's the best I can answer.
AR: Yes, and
by that I assume you mean classical music. When I was studying,
early music had a great influence on me. Then I realized that I
wasn't going to go that way and I turned modern. But now I'm
beginning to like it again. Now I'm beginning to appreciate
classical music because I see how concentrated it is, how precise it
is, how emotions are expressed in a precise and orderly way. I
would say that is what I'm beginning to appreciate most about classical
BD: Do you do any
teaching or performing in addition to composing?
AR: In the Soviet
Union, there are very few composers who survive just on
composing. I am one of those few. I do nothing but
BD: Do you not
wish to teach others your technique and the things you have learned?
graduating from the conservatory, I routinely became a teacher and
spent ten years doing that. But I found that I was unable to tell
the student what his program should be, how he should write, and that
provoked a big conflict in my soul and I found that I had to drop the
teaching profession. I was teaching in a pre-conservatory school,
a secondary school of music and after graduating from my course, two of
my pupils were way beyond the first year of the conservatory!
They were too far advanced, too modern, and as a result they broke down
and accused me to taking them too far too fast because they had to go
back and readjust their steps in order to continue. These two
were very able, but one of them was very emotional and wrote from the
heart, the other was more mathematically-minded in his
construction. So during their first year at the conservatory when
they asked me what they were to do, my answer was to suffer. The
emotional one couldn't adjust, he couldn't take it and dropped music;
the other went on to become a first-rate composer.
BD: In your music,
where is the balance between inspiration and technique?
AR: Can you be a
little bit more specific? It's a very broad question, so could
you be a little bit more concrete?
BD: How much of
your music comes from the heart, and how much is the technical ability
AR: Now I
understand. First, let me tell you that I began studying music
while I was in law school. I was already a third-year law student
when I started music from scratch. I started poking around on a
keyboard, but they admitted me on a probation basis. Now I can
answer your question. Those who started music as young children
were much better at playing the piano than I was. I felt silly as
a grownup being so much worse. To learn music, to absorb all of
that information about our musical heritage without being able to play
the piano was extremely difficult. So I was working day and night
studying the piano so I could catch up to my younger classmates.
So the best period of my student life was spent learning the
piano. That may explain the peculiarity of my musical persona, or
the tragedy of it. At the time I was learning the tonal system, I
was lyrical, I was writing from the heart, I was writing warm
music. I began writing freely as myself when I realized I wasn't
going to learn the piano to any near-perfect degree. I became a
composer when I closed the lid of the piano. The first piece
which I composed after that – when
I went to the country – was
Metaphony which I composed on
the lid of my car. Then I realized that all the technical
knowledge that was being taught to me and I had been absorbing was
really superfluous. As soon as I realized that, I freed myself
and saw that there was a different way or writing music. At that
point I became more mathematical and a happier man. When you're
writing within the tonal system, that envelopes you, that constrains
you, that directs your musical thoughts, and that simply was not what I
needed to do in music. When I found another manner of composing
– the sonoristic style – I found I
could be free to write music as I wanted it to be written.
Dramatic thoughts can be expressed in a tonal system, but they can also
be expressed in the sonoristic system of writing. In the
sonoristic system it is more difficult to express dramatic conflict, to
produce a development leading up to a culmination than in the tonal
system. On the other hand, you get certain assistance, a certain
boost from the airiness of it and that is a big help. To me, it
seems that I spent too much time with tonal music. Of course, I
wasn't fully formed in it because I started out so late, but it is my
opinion that I spent too much time in the tonal system. Two years
ago when I was here in Chicago, a group of composers at Northwestern
University remarked that there is nothing new in the symbols I use in
my notation. They recognize each and every one of them, but they
think that what is original is my ability to state and to solve
dramatic problems in this sonoristic style.
BD: Can your music
be considered pretty?
AR: On the
contrary, it is un-pretty. In the tonal system, it was pretty.
BD: Do you want
the public to understand it, or is it something they must grapple with?
AR: It wouldn't be
true to say that the audience doesn't play any role in my thinking at
all. That's not true, either.
BD: Then for whom
do you write?
AR: In reality, it
is my own game with myself. On the other hand, I don't want to go
through life having people throw stones at me all the time.
Just part of the time?
AR: The more
seriously you work, the more you expect these stones to fall on
* * *
BD: Let me ask you
about your opera. Was it difficult writing a stage work and
having to take into account the singers?
AR: All of that
was very difficult because I consider that I have not really mastered
BD: Will there be
AR: I doubt it,
but if there is going to be something then I don't know what it will
be. It may have the name "opera," but it sure as hell will not
resemble anything that is opera now. We'll think of something
totally new – if there is a so-called
opera in my future. But as
of now, I don't know.
BD: Is the one you
have written a "standard" opera with new sounds?
It's a very standard opera with a very standard vocal line and a very
non-standard accompaniment. I feel that these two elements didn't
mesh very well.
singing over an orchestral din?
Not-quite-beautiful singing over an orchestral din! [Both
Mezzo-Soprano (who has been
from across the room): Maybe you couldn't hear the
singers at all! [More laughter all around]
BD: From the
composer's point of view, in an opera, who is most important
– the composer, the director, the singer, the conductor?
AR: All of
them are equally important, let's put it that way.
BD: Is there any
role for electronics in your music?
AR: In some of my
recorded works, yes. I tried it and I left it. In our
country, there are too few opportunities to play with it because of
BD: So you
would like to do more?
AR: Five or
six years ago, we were all interested in doing it. We all felt it
was a relevant thing to do, but now we're retreating a little bit from
it. Maybe if the electronic means change a little bit, then
interest would be renewed. But that doesn't mean that I really
put electronics behind the symphony orchestra. I do believe that
the symphony orchestra will pass away. It's a thing on the
wane and in the future we will have new instruments. What
those will be and what the whole context will be is up in the
air. The very idea that a couple of guys with their electronic
gear can produce a sound to beat any orchestra in volume alone is
already an indication that things are breaking down. But we're
all still children at this.
BD: What is
the role of music in society?
AR: It's a
very interesting question. There is the ruling conception of what
it is and there is my idea. There is all kinds of music, so what
music are you talking about? There is music for use; there is pop
music and there is symphonic music. Are you asking about the
overall role or the musical function?
BD: Do pop music
and symphonic music have different reasons for being?
AR: Yes, there are
different functions. For example, I prefer listening to pop
music, but I could not express my feelings in that music because my
technical know-how does not permit it. But that's the way it
is. We are more conditioned by time and in general that's a broad
question. There are different ways of lifting a person out of
everyday humdrum life. That could be one answer.
like listening to your music?
AR: I like to
listen to my music only when I'm working. When I am in the
process of creating it, I live my music. But once I've solved the
creative problem, then I don't like to listen to it because I know how
inadequate it is. I go on to a different problem. I might
listen to it twenty years later to remind myself how I wrote back then.
don't want the public to stay away from it because they see you feeling
it is inadequate, do you?
AR: As a
human feeling, you still have that hope that what you did is good, and
that hope sustains you into the future.
writing music fun?
AR: There are
two phases. The first phase is painful when you think up and
collect the material and the design out of which the work will be
created. But when the structure is half-way or more built, then
it's fun to fill in the details.
BD: Do you
have any advice for younger composers?
general, I cannot answer that question. I would have to be
face-to-face with that young composer whom I'm advising. And, of
course, my advice would be different depending on what I know about
that person. I don't have a general theory or wish about young
composers. But young composers always excite me because I know
that they're coming into life with great strength and force. I
don't know what that creative strength is and therefore that excites me
and it also frightens me. It also makes me happy.
BD: Are there
enough good young composers coming along?
AR: Are you
talking about my country or about the whole world?
BD: In your
country, and then in the whole world.
any doubt, young people in our time are getting a very large reservoir
of information. They're getting a lot of resources which should
enable them to really jump ahead further than young composers of
BD: Are you
pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?
There is always a shortage – first
of all of myself. I see where I did not solve the problem that I
had set for myself fully. Then there is always a shortage in the
interpretation, in the performance. I see where they didn't do
what maybe should have been done. There's always a shortage of I
don't know what. I am simply dissatisfied, and that's true of
BD: Do you
ever go back and revise scores?
AR: Yes, I do
revise my works, but I don't get into the depths of them. I write
collages, and what I would do is re-arrange these fragments in order to
bring out the inter-relationships. That I do and thus create a
new work, but I don't go into the structure of what I've written.
BD: Do most
of your compositions result from commissions, or are they things you
just feel you have to write?
AR: There is
an inner necessity, a feeling that I must do something based upon
something that I've done in the past but not completely, so I must do
it. Of course there commissions, but basically it is my own
BD: What are
you working on next?
getting acquainted with America and using the opportunities available
here to learn a lot. That, of course, means that I will
have to re-think my creative orientation, absorbing this new knowledge
and really taking stock of myself. This is a slow process.
But recently I have finished a quartet and a quintet. I think I
have become more modern, but I have also regressed and taken a step
backward. [Laughs] There is an evil influence from
America! [With a big grin] I was just joking about that!
with his guest] Do you work on just one composition at a time, or
do you have several going at once?
there will be a main composition that I'm working on, but you know
every piece has some rejected ideas, and in order to take a rest from
the main composition I will want to work on the stuff that I've
rejected and make something small and nice from those materials I don't
BD: Thank you
for speaking with me today. I look forward to programming some of
your music on the radio.
AR: Thank you
very much. I should tell you that I knew Americans have a great
sense of humor, and as a result of this conversation I am convinced
that this is almost true! This is the first "exam" that I have
taken which was pleasant for me.
Composer found dead
An elderly Lithuanian composer who had
fallen on hard times has been found shot dead in his flat in Vilnius.
A gun was found by the body of Antanas Rekašius who had
a bullet wound to the head and police suspect suicide.
Rekašius, 75, had been living in poverty and barely able
to pay the bills on his three-bedroom apartment.
His work, which included symphonies and ballet music, was
both in the ex-USSR and abroad, and was known for its humorous touches.
Worried about his lack of income, he had been suffering
from depression, police in the Lithuanian capital said.
Rekasius's compositions had a non-conformist quality and
were full of
humour and the grotesque, the Lithuanian Music Information and
Publishing Centre writes.
REKAŠIUS Born 1928
Graduated from the Lithuanian State
Works include nine symphonies, 12 ballets,
seven concertos and an opera-oratorio
Apart from numerous symphonies and ballets, he wrote
music for children including song cycles and piano pieces.
The Baltic Music Information Centre once described him as
controversial composer on the Lithuanian Scene... his fondness for
clowning sometimes overshadowing the serious nature of his work".
Stunts he employed included switching off the lights
for the finale of his fifth symphony and once having singers bare gold
teeth at the audience.
Antanas Rekašius's work was performed in the United
States, Italy, France, Finland, Sweden, Germany and Hungary, as well as
Lithuania and Russia.
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on March 31, 1986.
The simultaneous translation was provided by Mykolas Drunga, Associate
Editor of Draugas, the
Lithuanian World-Wide Daily. Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1988, 1993 and 1998. A copy of the audio
tape was placed in the Archive of
Contemporary Music at Northwestern
University. This transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.