Composer  Antanas  Rekašius

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 careful is 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 . . . . . .

rekasiusBruce Duffie:   You're a composer...

Antanas Rekašius:    [Interrupting]  Perhaps...

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. 

BD:    Is writing music an adversarial kind of competition?

AR:    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 meI 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?

AR:    Symphonic 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 symphonies?

AR:    Perhaps "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?

AR:    Yes.  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. 

BD:    Even early music?

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 music now.

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 compose. 

rekasiusBD:    Do you not wish to teach others your technique and the things you have learned?

AR:    After 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 or craft?

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 countrywas 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. 

BD:    [slyly]  Just part of the time?

AR:    The more seriously you work, the more you expect these stones to fall on you. 

*     *     *     *     *

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 that technique. 

rekasiusBD:    Will there be more operas?

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?

AR:    Yes.  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. 

BD:    Beautiful singing over an orchestral din?

AR:    [slyly]  Not-quite-beautiful singing over an orchestral din!  [Both laugh] 

Mezzo-Soprano (who has been listening 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 technical inadequacies. 

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.

BD:    Do you 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.

rekasiusBD:    But you 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. 

BD:    Is 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?

AR:    In 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.

AR:    Without 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 previous generations.  

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

AR:    No.  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 every recording. 

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 plan. 

BD:    What are you working on next?

AR:    Simply 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!

BD:    [Laughs with his guest]  Do you work on just one composition at a time, or do you have several going at once?

AR:    Usually 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 use. 

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 performed 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.

  • Born 1928
  • Graduated from the Lithuanian State Conservatory
  • 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 "the most 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.

    Award - winning 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 like 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.