Daniel Stephen Johnson was born in the desert and learned to play the violin. After studying viola and English at the University of Southern California, he wrote fiction at Columbia University. Then he moved to Connecticut, where he worked at a record shop and wrote about music, literature and comedy for the New Haven Advocate and the Believer. Now he lives in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and works as a sheet music salesman in Queens. Follow Daniel on Twitter at @linernotesdanny.
The Singing, Soaring Lines of Peteris Vasks
The Latvian Melodist Introduces His Music
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
For lovers of contemporary music from Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, the rough outlines of Peteris Vasks's work and career might have a familiar ring to them: born in Soviet Latvia, Vasks endured government repression for his aesthetics as well as his Christian faith, and emerged in the late 70s with a pared-down compositional style heavily informed by sacred themes.
In recent decades, he has achieved international prominence, thanks to the emotional accessibility of his style and to efforts by champions like violinist Gidon Kremer, conductor Paul Hillier and the Kronos Quartet.
That could describe any number of Vasks's contemporaries. But to group the post-Soviet composers as a "movement" risks blurring the vast differences between their techniques and intentions. Vasks's music is informed by the sacred choral tradition, like Pärt's; highly gestural, like Gubaidulina's; rooted in a national folk tradition, like Górecki's; but Vasks' music is driven not by counterpoint or process or texture, though these things are certainly important. His music takes its time, maps out large forms, and even exploits a Pärt-like arpeggio now and again, but the vital through-line that runs through his career, from early, Lutowsławski-inspired works like his Musica Dolorosa (1977) for strings, up to his most recent music, is not any of these things, but the singing, soaring line of melody.
Vasks's relationship to his music is deeply personal. That Musica Dolorosa was written on the death of his sister, who suffered from cancer. And if he dramatizes Latvia's struggles in his music, as in the Symphony, "Voices" (1990-1), or borrows its folk tunes, as in his Fourth String Quartet (1999) — and he does quite often — it's not because he's making a political argument, or because he's scavenging for poetic material. He feels a profound and intimate connection to Latvia's people, and to its landscape and happily rhapsodizes about both in interviews.
It might seem impossible, listening for instance to Vasks's Līdzenuma Ainavas (2002) for violin, cello and choir, to realize that one of Latvia's greatest composers is just now edging into the sunlight of Western acclaim. Here is a composer with a huge body of work, after all, built around melody. But it turns out that the West can be shockingly myopic. At any rate, it will be hard to keep Vasks's passionate, yearning, eminently accessible music secret here much longer.