From the Faraway Nearby

FTFNFrom the Faraway Nearby. That’s how Georgia O’Keeffe sometimes signed her correspondence. It’s also the title of one of her paintings. I took that title for one of my own compositions, a suite of pieces for two guitars that are inspired by her paintings. Now I’m taking it for the title of my blog.

I’m an American composer, born and raised in New York, but I’m in the middle of what is turning out to be a two (or more?) year stint living and working in Eastern Europe, in Liepaja, a small industrial city in the western region of Latvia, right on the Baltic Sea. Liepaja was a sealed Navy port town during the Soviet Occupation, and was closed off from visitors until Independence was regained in 1991. It’s also the only city outside of Riga to maintain a symphony orchestra.

There are many cultural and historical circumstances that make this an interesting time to be here. Not just as a composer, but as an American composer, someone that doesn’t carry the same kind of cultural, historical, or emotional baggage that they do. Of course we Americans have our own baggage. It’s just different. I’d like to use this blog to explore the differences between my experiences in New York and my experiences here.

LiepajaI was first invited to Latvia in 2004 by the Latvian-American composer Dace Aperans to give some lectures and to have some of my music performed at a biennial festival that takes place in Ogre, a small city just outside the capitol. Normunds and Antra Viksne, a husband and wife piano duo, gave a thunderous performance of a piece I’d written back in 1993 as a memorial for my mother. They’re one of the best duos I’ve ever heard, and they are two of the busiest pianists in Latvia, together and separately.

I have heard more Russian music in the past year in Liepaja than I heard in the past decade living and working in New York. Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and to a lesser extent Rachmaninoff comprise the canon here. They play quite a lot of music by Latvian composers too, understandably so, and a peppering of music by composers from nearby countries. Occasionally, there’s a premiere, but that doesn’t seem too important to them, nor does that affect the way they advertise a particular concert. Of the common practice repertoire, I’ve heard a bit of Mozart, some Mendelssohn.

Interestingly, I haven’t heard a single piece by one of the three B’s all year. Nothing by Bach. Not a single Beethoven or Brahms symphony or concerto. The Second Viennese School is entirely ignored. And the only American work played by the Liepaja Symphony last year was by me.

Let me make a distinction here, though. Riga has more things happening, with more large ensembles, several chamber ensembles and its own opera. There are generally more premieres there, mostly by Latvian composers. Indeed, all the Latvian composers I know of are based in or near Riga. There was an Americana program there at one point, featuring Gershwin and Copland and I forget who else. I know there was a chamber ensemble that played Crumb while I was out of town. If Riga is the Latvian analogue to New York, Liepaja is equivalent to Chicago.

In any event, this is a very different milieu from the American scene. Perhaps the best explanation for this is a sort of 50-year blind spot created by the imposition of the Iron Curtain at the end of World War II. One of the issues that plagues music education in Latvia and other post-Soviet countries is that they find themselves looking back on 50 years of contemporary music history all at once. That’s not to say that nothing filtered through. But in the main, what did filter through came with a time lag, and what didn’t come through has little to no context for them when discovered now. Even the most talented Latvian music theorists or historians are overwhelmed by the scope of what passed them by. They don’t really know how to begin to sift through the stunning changes of the past 50 years.

Compounding the problem is that these countries are poor. When I was a graduate student in Minneapolis, for example, I could on occasion go to the record store and splurge on CDs. I could take $200 and buy recordings of my senior contemporaries: Bolcom, Schoenfield, Kernis, Torke, Adams, etc., just so I could familiarize myself with their work. That’s a month’s rent for a Latvian. And they don’t have that simple an outlet anyway. Most Latvians have debit cards, few have credit cards, and cheques are unheard of here.

The Liepaja Symphony Orchestra is state-funded and non-union. And it’s a mixed bag. Some of the musicians are excellent, but not all. Some can afford to be divas because they know they can’t be easily replaced in this relative backwater. Alcoholism runs rampant through the culture, and does not spare any profession. The second conductor has problems with alcohol and disappears from time to time, and some of the players do that too. The majority of them are average professionals, however. They learn their music, show up on time, do what they’re told and complain about the conductors during breaks.

There are also a couple of longstanding annual festivals. One is devoted to national and international organists, as two of the oldest continuously functioning organs in Europe happen to be in this little city, and the other is devoted to national and international pianists.

There is little chamber music in Liepaja outside of the local Music Academy. Sometimes a chamber ensemble will form for some immediate need, but then disband, never having been named. A holdover from the Soviet era, the concept of entrepreneurship is largely absent, and concomitantly, is the idea of working for long-term gain. When muscling your way to the front of the queue for the bus or the breadline means you get what you want or need while others are denied, so be it, and you can see how an unapologetic sense of immediacy can overtake a people. It’s simple pragmatism. I’m not criticizing their work ethic. Quite the opposite. They are willing to work, and hard.

So, I find myself a composer in a city that can support an orchestra where the musicians have never heard of John Corigliano or Bang on a Can. I have gone from being a little fish in maybe the biggest pond there is to being the only fish in the lake. There are talented musicians that are willing to work hard and have some free time on their hands. This is an interesting mix for a foreign composer. In my next entry, I will talk about some of the projects I have already worked on there, projects that led to the formation of my own ensemble.

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