Pastoral longings of a 'sad optimist'

Life wasn't easy for Peteris Vasks, growing up as the son of a Baptist minister in a Latvia that had been annexed into the Soviet…

Life wasn't easy for Peteris Vasks, growing up as the son of a Baptist minister in a Latvia that had been annexed into the Soviet Union. He was born in 1946, just six years after his nation's first brief window of independence had closed. And, musically, in the small, remote town of Aizpute, in the western province of Kurzeme, things would probably have been pretty difficult for him, whether his country was independent or not.

He wrote his first music, some songs, at the age of nine, when all he knew of music was what he had heard in church. Two years later, he was taken to the opera in the capital, Riga, where he heard Wagner's Tannhauser, which was being allowed onto the stage for the first time since the end of the Second World War. The shock Tannhauser delivered jolted him into a realisation that he was going to be a musician.

His parents decided to send him to Riga to the Emils Darzins Music School, where violinist Gidon Kremer, cellist Mischa Maisky and conductor Mariss Jansons all studied in their youth. But Vasks, who had been studying the violin, was demoted to the double bass. "I was ready to play anything. I just wanted to do something in music," he says (his remarks are translated by the able Inese Lapa, of Latvian National Opera). By the age of 16, he was good enough to work in the orchestra at the Latvian National Opera, where "I started to write an opera. I really managed to write about half of the piece. But for a long period of time, I didn't show my composition to anybody else. It was very important for me. It was like my musical diary. But I didn't see that it would be of any interest for other people."

Something of the shyness this suggests remains with him to this day. He appears to answer questions willingly, but with difficulty, often looking away while he speaks and exhaling heavily between words.


His troubles started in earnest when he wanted to study at the national music academy. Entry was forbidden to him because he was considered "an un-Soviet element". But he was able to travel to Lithuania and study there, and this was really a lucky break. Lithuania shares a border with Poland, where the Warsaw Autumn Festival was a major showcase for contemporary music, with an openness unrivalled elsewhere in the Eastern bloc. And some of what was heard in Poland filtered through to Lithuania.

At home, "things were more difficult for me, and the same situation was faced by my sisters and brothers in Latvia. People like me were considered socially hostile. They were not put in prison. They were not sent to Siberia. But for them it was more difficult to acquire education.

"At that time I didn't dare to think about anything that you might call a career, or future plans. I simply felt myself to be in opposition to the ruling ideology, which I think was the case also with all other honest people.

"Art and music were maybe the only vehicles through which you could express your opposition. There were some composers who wrote odes to Lenin, but then on the other hand they also tried to write music in which they really believed, which they wanted. This is the reason I didn't write music with texts. With words, there were always problems, always difficulties. The words and texts were easier to understand for the ideologists. Therefore I kept to instrumental music."

Eventually, he was accepted into the music academy in the 1970s, when things had begun to loosen up. "At that time the control and the censorship were not so strict any more. I would say that the end of the 1970s, the beginning of the 1980s, when I was studying, the situation for the well-known and noted composers in Moscow - Schnittke, Gubaidulina and others - was even more difficult, even tougher. Here in the Baltic states, the pressure was less. We had more space, more freedom. And at the same time we were even more isolated from the rest of the world."

Isolation is probably not something that worries Vasks in too many respects. "My greatest and only source of inspiration is nature, untouched nature, wilderness. I'm a man of forest and seas and lakes, and cities are alien to me." And he questions the perception that big cities are the important centres of action for the arts. "There is an opinion that the great intellectual centres in Europe are the big mega-cities like London and Paris. Ireland and Finland are viewed as periphery, the provinces. I really believe that these provinces have the most original ideas. This is what I am most interested in, the ideas which come from these so-called provinces, because they have preserved something natural, some vitality."

What he fears, he says, are the "unified forms of expression" that are to be found in the major centres. "I never get spiritually charged there. I get my power and force from these distant, so-called provinces."

One of Vasks's best-known pieces, a work synonymous with the haunted stillness and often hallowed world of what's come to be known as the "Baltic Sound", is the Symphony for Strings, Balsis Voices. It was written at the time the Baltic states were once again struggling for their independence, and its three movements are titled, "Voices of Silence", "Voices of Life" and "Voices of Conscience". The nationalist programmatic content is clear. "The word nationalistic here in the Baltic has a different undertone from elsewhere in Europe. For Baltic people, it was like a synonym for the question 'to be, or not to be'. Therefore, organically, I felt myself and see myself as a Latvian composer." He sees his music as being interesting "because of its national peculiarity".

"It is like birds or animals which are so diverse and different, and through that they are interesting for us. I think also the diversity is what is interesting in musical life. Why should I try to imitate a certain style or manner which is popular somewhere else? I should follow my own path." That path embraces Latvian folk song as well as the inspiration he derives from nature.

On the other hand, there's the fact that he does actually live in a city. "Unfortunately, yes. Because I am only a composer I cannot afford to buy a house at the lake and live there. But in the summer, I try to get away from the city. And now I live in the suburbs. Every morning I jog around to the closest forest. Every night I listen to the two nightingales which live just outside my window. They sing gorgeously."

The programmes for his pieces generally come after the composition has been completed. This is not as unusual as it might seem. Aaron Copland, for instance, had no idea that his music for Martha Graham's ballet was going to be called Appalachian Spring and would be credited with evocations that were far from his mind when he was composing the work. For Vasks, there are considerations which are of far more concern than any programme. "More important is its spiritual temperature and whether it can overwhelm or take the listener and lift him or not."

Vasks lists the composers who have influenced him: the Poles Witold Lutoslawski, Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Gorecki; Americans George Crumb and John Adams; the Georgian Giya Kancheli; Estonian Arvo Part; and, to a lesser extent, Englishman John Tavener. Beyond those, the names thin out. Sibelius. Early Mahler symphonies. And further back, Gregorian chant.

Unlike Part and Kancheli, Vasks has no interest in living abroad. National independence has freed him to develop and manage an international career. His publisher, Schott, is German. He can travel to premieres and performances around the world. "I am happy to go, but always return back home. I can compose only here. I cannot imagine that I could do something or be myself somewhere else." He sounds optimistic about the new Latvia that has grown in the last decade. The changes have been radical, and the reality hasn't always matched the dreams which preceded it. He's sometimes struck, he says, by the way some people have become "mentally devastated, or damaged somehow" from the years of occupation. But now, he looks positively to the future.

His Piano Quartet for Cork was originally envisaged as a two-movement work, lasting 12 to 15 minutes. It has turned into six movements, and lasts half an hour. "For me it is never that I think of something in the beginning and then strictly keep to this frame. For me it is the material that develops independently. You have to follow the material as it evolves." The first two movements, he says, are "light in mood, using simple, folkloristic material". Then "in the third movement there is a sudden change, as if a fall into the abyss, darker and more dramatic, later intensifying up to a tragic conflict. In the fifth part, the conflict is resolved. I wanted to show that you cannot end the piece in despair, or in the abyss. At the very end I saw again that life is complicated, you cannot live in a complete joy. So, at the end there is a light pain, or longing." This fits perfectly with the description Vasks once offered of himself. I am, he said, a sad optimist.

The premiere of Peteris Vasks's new piano quartet will be performed by the Florestan Trio, with viola-player James Boyd, at Bantry House on Saturday evening at 8.30p.m. He will take part in a public interview with Michael Dervan at 3p.m. on Saturday afternoon. For details, tel: 027-52788

Peteris Vask's visit to Cork is part of the Arts Council's Critical Voices programme, in partnership with The Irish Times and Lyric FM. The programme is bringing international writers, critics and artists to observe the cultural scene here and to participate in public debate, over the next six months. Further information from