A Musical Journey Begins With A Simple Idea

Gediminas Gelgotas explains how he wrote Mountains. Waters. (Freedom), which was given its world premiere by the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic and Kristjan Järvi on 12 September 2015 in Zurich.

The process of composing isn’t a comfortable one for Lithuanian composer Gediminas Gelgotas, as he explains: ‘It’s nerve wracking. Some of my friends and colleagues write without a problem, but for me it’s very hard.’

The journey begins with finding the concepts he wants to guide each work. ‘I start by searching for ideas. I write down sentences about how I want it to sound, the instrumentation or structure. One idea for Mountains. Waters. (Freedom), which he composed as a commission of the Orpheum Foundation, came out of listening to pop music as part of his research. ‘I listen to all sorts of music and as I listened to one song I thought about how Minimal it was. It was always repeating the nice theme. It was giving people what they want to hear, and it was involving, rather than tiring. So one of the things I wrote down was, “If I come up with a nice theme I will let my audience listen to it many times.” And that’s what I did.’

Music for people to love
Gelgotas is a fan of pop music and admires this easy relationship it has with listeners: ‘Pop music makes an amazing contact with people today, just as rock music did 20 years ago. It reaches the masses. It gives you what you want.’ Classical music has a deeper effect: ‘If you go to a great classical concert, you leave the hall and you are changed for life. Art can bring a greater level of consciousness to society.’ But classical music shouldn’t be exclusive, he believes: ‘You have to find a way of making music that people will love and that they get something new from at the same time. There is an idea that if people love your music your music must be bad. I think that’s snobbish.’

He feels that in the 20th century composers didn’t necessarily do this: ‘We composed music for each other, for composers. We generated ideas that were interesting for us but if people didn’t have specific knowledge they didn’t understand it.’ This balance changed with the advent of the Minimalism of Terence Riley, Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass, though: ‘Minimalism was also a protest at this incomprehensible music. It’s a movement that is for the audience. That’s why I love the idea of Minimal art. I’m happy when someone calls my music Minimal.’

Less is more
The principles of Minimalism go right through Gelgotas’s life, and not just his music: ‘I use little material and I try to use it in many ways. It’s about being economical in how you create a piece. That’s what Mountains. Waters. (Freedom) is about. When you look at the score it’s simple. My inspiration was to be simple, but at the same time clever. I’m very ecological in composing and in my life. I have one table and two chairs in my living room and it’s always very clean and minimal. My music is the same.

For the young musicians of the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic, it’s often the minimalism of the writing that is the greatest challenge: ‘My music is not difficult technically. It’s simple to perform, but sometimes it’s so simple that it’s difficult. For example, sometimes players have to play one long note very intensely from first to last within total silence and it’s very hard because of the pressure. It’s as if they’re all soloists. So my music requires them to be individuals playing together. That is the challenge, but also the fun of playing it.’

Connected by the environment
The theme of the work fits well with the orchestra’s passion for protecting the environment, and with the foundations of the orchestra: ‘The three words – mountains, waters and freedom – connect especially well with BYP because all of us are connected by the Baltic Sea. Some of us, such as the Scandinavians, have great mountains, and some of us had a struggle fighting for independence, so these three words are familiar to the orchestra. When I composed the music I thought the beginning is like mountains, because there are three chords with silence in between. The middle section is very wide, and floats, like water, so you can imagine these words.’

What does it feel like to finish writing a piece? ‘It’s a very good feeling, especially this time, because I was so sure I’d finished it. Sometimes you finish but you don’t know if it’s right and you spend a few weeks correcting it. This time I felt, “That’s it”. It’s a great feeling of release. I’m very happy about the form of this piece. It has a nice flow from the beginning to the end. Nothing distracts, and it’s very natural. It’s very difficult to make it sound fluent like this.’

In this respect, he is grateful for the support of Kristjan Järvi, who has conducted Gelgotas’s Never Ignore the Cosmic Ocean more than 16 times, several of these performances with the Baltic Sea Youth Philharmonic, for whom he wrote the full orchestral version, and who conducted the premiere of his First Symphony, ‘Extracultural’ in January 2015. For Gelgotas, Järvi is the ideal interpreter of his works: ‘We understand each other. I know that when I give him a score he will do exactly what I hear. That doesn’t happen often in the music industry. He is an inspiration to me. He knows how it should sound and works on the balance. That is why music needs an interpreter. It’s wonderful that BYP understands the importance of this composer–conductor communication: it’s terrible if you write a piece and just send it off by post.’

So is he ever satisfied with what he hears? ‘I don’t think so. There are moments when what the musicians play sounds amazing, but for myself I always think, “Next time I will do this differently.”’ But ultimately, composing isn’t about being satisfied, he says: ‘I love creating music, but not because it’s easy. It’s healthy for me. It’s right for me and it helps me to grow, each time.’