A good friend of mine, accordionist Martynas Levickis, had organised a Summer Programme for composers and Accordionists in his home country of Lithuania, and had suggested that I attend. After returning to London from Turkey, I had about a month left in London before my visa ran out in June. Martynas' festival started in August so I decided to spend the intervening months doing my OE, visiting various friends around continental Europe. I started in Barcelona, and spent a month in Spain and Portugal before making my way across to Vilnius via, Italy, Switzerland, Slovakia, Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, and Poland. Not wanting to make this into travel blog I won't go into too much detail, it would have been great to mention more about some of the music I saw along the way but I didn't have the foresight to document much at the time. Highlights I can definitely recall included Catalonian band ZA!, in Veranos. Flamenco in Granada was mind-blowing. Van Moustache, Django Reinhart style music in Sevilla. A reggae and dub festivals in Lisbon. Seeing Helge Lien Trio in Gdasnk. Needless to say, I had a great time! Mostly I traveled by Blablacar, which is a great way to get around cheaply, with the occasional bus or train depending on what was cheapest at the time.
I had managed to do a bit of preparation along the way, stopping to write with my friend Elena in Sevilla, and while house-sitting for Elya, an artist I had met in Turkey, at her place in Berlin. As often happens with me however, once I made it to Vilnius I ended up throwing half of that way and going down a different path.
While in Vilnius I stayed in Užupis, the bohemian, artistic quarter of the city which has declared itself a republic in 1997. It even has a constitution with articles like "Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation", and "A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need". I think statements like this give you a good insight into the spirit of the area, and also the wonderfully dark Lithuanian sense of humour. Vilnius is really special city. It's size and layout, combined with the quirky creative feel of the place reminded me a lot of my hometown Wellington, in New Zealand. I could also feel a certain sympathy for the way Lithuanians saw themselves in the world as a country with a fairly small population, much like New Zealand. They also have fierce rivalry-yet-also-brotherhood with the neighbors whom they're often confused with, which also sounds familiar. After a couple of days exploring the city I met up with Martynas and the others, and got a ride out to the monastery at Palendriai, where we would be making music for the next couple of weeks.
Arriving at Palendriai I also met another old friend, Ruta Vitkauskaite, who was a PhD student while I was studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Being a monastery, the location was in beautifully peaceful surroundings, far out in the countryside. The landscape in Lithuania is incredibly flat, filled with open green and yellow fields that you felt could go on forever. A tour guide in Vilnius told me that this was where the green and yellow stripes of the Lithuanian flag had come from.
There were nine composers on the course: Tom Green (UK), Kristofer Svensson (Sweden), Matija Andjelkovic (Serbia), Sofia Garcia (Spain), Justina Šikšnelytė (Lithuania), Raimonds Ungurs (Latvia), Steinar Yggeseth (Norway), and myself. Each of us was assigned to an accordionist, except Riamonds who played accordion himself. Martynas welcomed us all to Palendriai, and introduced us to our tutors Alasdair Nicolson and Ruta Vitkauskaite. He then demonstrated the construction of the accordion, and the mechanics of accordion playing. There was also a spare accordion which was available for us to play and experiment.
The schedule was jam-packed. We were to spend the following eight days writing two pieces for a concert at the end of the week; one for solo accordion, and one for accordion and ensemble while I was paired up with Simona, a fantastically energetic young accordionist. As I showed her my first sketches for my solo piece she asked that I make to more difficult, so I did! We also had creative workshops with Ruta every morning, which was a bit of a struggle to make it to sometimes, considering most of the composers barely slept for the first few days while they worked furiously to complete their works. I managed to make all of them except for however, and it proved to be a great way to clear one's mind as the day began. Mostly we worked through the night, seeing each other only as we emerged to drink something to sustain us through the night. There was coffee of course, but also a constant supply of 'unicorn juice' (I guess you had to be there).
We would rehearse with the players everyday, who at first did not have a lot of music to play but had their work cut out for them once the pieces were finished (the final concert was three hours long). This gave us the chance to try out some different ideas, and to get feedback in real-time. This was particularly useful for one of my pieces, which I had sketched out with rigorously rhythmic interplays that it turned out would be better realised if written in a freer notation.
We also had a few excursions into the surrounding area, and there were several concerts as a part of the larger accordion festival which was taking place. A concert of accordion orchestra in the chapel, in addition to solo concerts by two Polish accordionists. Kamila Olas, performed a concert with a mix of old and new music for the accordion, and fellow Rafał Łuc (another RAM alumnus) performed a programme which focused exclusively on work with live electronics..
By the end of the week, I had written a piece for string quartet and accordion called 'Magnetic Lines' and a set of miniatures for solo accordion 'Fragmentai Palendrių'. I still look at both pieces as studies in a way, exploring different possibilities that I hope I will hopefully expand into something larger. Particularly in the case of 'Magnetic Lines' I can hear the beginnings of a much larger work.
As is often the case with these experiences, the eight days which the course lasted seemed like so much longer. In spite of the intense schedule, a lot of fun was had and great friendships were forged. I can't wait to get back there one day! Once it was all over it was time to head back to Vilnius to celebrate and then home to New Zealand for the first time in two years, the long way.