paul griffiths


Mar 28, 7:30 p.m. :  Music & Literature event (Center for Fiction, NYC)

record of the week

1 ​Vykintas Baltakas: b(ell tree) (Kairos)
A moth trapped behind glass flaps its colours. An unseen bird in the distance is calling out, joy communicating itself to sorrow. Stasis with activity, brilliance and evocative resonance – these are persistent qualities in the music of Vykintas Baltakas, belatedly recognized  in his mid-forties with a portrait disc.
    The release is belated, too, in the sense that most of the works here are a decade or two old. As overture comes an ensemble piece, (co)ro(na) (2005), which introduces some of the composer’s particular fascinations: jubilant high piping from woodwinds zigzagging among a few notes to give an exotic modal flavour that may have to do with Lithuanian folk music, layered textures in which the lower instruments tend to go more slowly, forms that keep returning to certain spots to go off in directions different from before. Another common feature is irregular iteration, insistently pulsed, which with the larger forces of Poussla can produce a heavyweight mechanical sound.
    Far more engaging – and one of the best things on the disc – is the other big piece, which is also the most recent here, rather uneuphoniously though meaningfully titled Saxordionphonics and dating from 2013. This starts out from a sequence of twelve widely spaced staccato attacks that almost fuse the two solo instruments: saxophone and accordion (two outsiders, carrying stray references to worlds beyond the symphony orchestra, which is part of the point). Second time round, the accordion slips out of the straitjacket and so initiates a process of growth that, magically, soon brings in departments of the orchestra. Entropy steadily increases to a point where the music sounds like innumerable flags blowing in the wind, but all of them tied to the same post – related, that is, to the original idea. As the orchestra vanishes again, the accordion is left in its upper register, looking around for where the excitement went. There is then perhaps a lament, at the end of which the soloists are back where they were, together and alone, but now with a memory.
    The other outstanding piece is the album’s title item, a string quartet unlike anything else in this crowded repertory. When it begins, it scarcely sounds like a string quartet at all. Within a lot of silence, a lot of space, the isolated brief harmonics and other sounds give the impression of the high woodwinds this composer favours, and only gradually, as they coalesce (again characteristically), do their sources reveal themselves to be strings. The narrow-register motifs that flicker in and out of existence, pulsing with rhythmic life, once more suggest folk music – or, in an analogy that must surely be coincidental, if not resulting from some shared deep-dredging, the music of Alexander Goehr. Baltakas’s style, though, is all his own. Something else he likes, and uses with particular finesse in this quartet, is the occasional octave or common chord as a turning point, or as a window that is briefly opened and closed. Having come through its own lament, fully stringy, the piece returns to sparer sounds and textures, and ends, poignantly, like an old man trying to remember a dance he once knew.

latest publications

Music & Literature #7 (fiction, essays, interviews)

TLS 23.xi.16(Books of the Year)