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Vykintas BALTAKAS (b. 1972)
Lift to Dubai, for ensemble and electronics (2009) [28:08]
Smokey Arnold, for five instruments (2015) [13:26]
Ouroboros-Zyklus, for soprano, ensemble and electronics (2004-2005) [26:58]
LENsemble Vilnius/Vykintas Baltakas (Lift to Dubai)
Het Collectief (Smokey Arnold)
Rita Balta (soprano); Klangforum Wien/Johannes Kalitzke  (Ouroboros-Zyklus)
rec. December 2016 MAMAstudios Vilnius, Lithuania (Lift to Dubai); October 2015 Stuk Leuven, Belgium (Smokey Arnold); April 2005 Theatersaal Witten, Germany (Ouroboros)
KAIROS 0015045KAI [68:32]

Vykintas Baltakas’ second Kairos album (a sequel to “(B)ell Tree” issued by the label in 2016 – 0015004KAI) takes its name from the ouroboros, a serpent which originated in Egyptian iconography and symbolises the cycle of life and death by consuming its own tail, thus forming a complete circle. The choice of title alludes to Baltakas’ interest in putting already existing material to new use, a recycling strategy which is apparent in each of these three pieces, although the original sources involved are comprehensively different. The composer is Lithuanian by birth and originally studied with Bronius Kutavičius (I have referred in the past in awed terms to Kutavičius’ own ancient-yet-modern music on this site) but if anything Baltakas has moved far away from this background; the (B)ell Tree album contains a tiny piece called Sinfonia which amounts to a metaphorical trashing of archaic currents in Lithuanian music. The three works here are more obviously touched by contemporary trends in central Europe – especially those pursued by composers with whom he has studied such as Wolfgang Rihm, Emmanuel Nunes and Peter Eötvös.

The quintet Smokey Arnold is the only piece on the album unaccompanied by electroacoustic elements. It’s a kind of paraphrase of the Heimweh (Homesickness) number (15) from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire – the adjective “Smokey” in the title seems to allude to the occasional convention in jazz recording of including ‘alternative versions’ of a particular track on an album. It deploys the same instrumental configuration as its source, namely flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Herein lies the element of ‘recycling’, although Baltakas subverts the original, perceiving the histrionics of Schoenberg’s melodrama as being counterproductive to its emotional impact, creating as it does almost a saturation of feeling which leads ultimately to a frozen, loop state. Smokey Arnold thus incorporates a neat concept and certainly weaves a nostalgic spell – the composer is certainly inside the idiom of the original and towards its conclusion repetitive elements do creep in, rather effectively. However, at this point the five players start engaging in what appears to be casual small-talk – I have no idea what it’s about, or why they do this. To my ears it kills the flow of the music – maybe that’s the point. On another note some listeners might also feel it’s excessive to extend an original which lasts a couple of minutes into a thirteen minute essay, especially since Baltakas has stipulated that Smokey Arnold can actually be very precisely interpolated into Schoenberg’s original Heimweh as well as being played as a discrete entity. Quite what impact such an intrusion would have on a cycle whose design is in itself a remarkable feat of elegance and symmetry is a question perhaps that needs to be addressed by others. I rather suspect that Arnold would likely be beyond ‘Smokey’ about the idea were he still around….

Lift to Dubai emerged as a result of an intriguing and ambitious project co-curated by Ensemble Modern, the Siemens Arts Program and the Goethe Institute. Baltakas was one of sixteen composers commissioned to produce a work deriving from a four week sojourn in one of four cities which could be seen as somehow culturally detached from the central European mainstream, namely Pearl River Delta (China), Istanbul, Johannesburg and Dubai. No prizes for guessing where Baltakas landed. He immediately dumped the geographical trappings of the place, in other words its Arabic location and past, and honed in on what it has become; an enormous mercantile and commercial hub, a modern, polyglot city. As he states in the booklet: “Dubai felt to me as a recycled city: ideas, objects, people recollected from different places……who built this place anew. I tried to do the same thing in my piece, transforming and rearranging the recorded material to create something new.” Lift to Dubai is thus a half-hour collage of casual chatter in myriad tongues, elevator sounds and the electronic bleeps of a hyper-urban environment, strange synthetic haloes, and mildly arresting instrumental textures which are looped and blended. Pizzicato bass strummings early on hint at lounge jazz, pungent bass-clarinet sounds seem to emerge from bubbling aquaria, there’s some impressive writing for brass instruments with and without mutes. Recordings of local radio and TV advertisements invade these textures; these are among the ‘found’ aspects of the piece. There are extended periods of inertia relieved by electronic rumblings and tiny woodwind motifs. A complex chord which builds deliberately and slowly at the half-way point makes its mark; less so the extended cutting and pasting which follows. I enjoyed Lift to Dubai up to a point; towards its conclusion I began to wonder if the work really justified its duration and whether it would have hit home more effectively in half the time.

Ouroboros-Zyklus is the earliest work on the disc; it was completed in 2005 when the account here was recorded (I suspect this was the premiere – it seems to have been licensed by WDR). It’s a stitching together of three separate Baltakas pieces, ouroboros and (co)ro(na) (a discrete work which also originally featured on the (B)ell-Tree album) which are linked by a third piece, (d)ou(ble). (Incidentally, to add yet more parentheses to this review, the bracketing of individual letters and syllables and the inconsistent use of lower-case script in the titles of many of Baltakas’ pieces seems to be a stylistic fingerprint; there may well be some convincing artistic justification but he doesn’t give any clues in the booklet and to my shame I haven’t managed to decipher any intention beyond possibly creating practical (and psychological) problems for programmers (and er, critics)). The principal idea behind Ouroboros-Zyklus seems to be the reconfiguration of material that concludes the ouroboros panel as a driver for the rhythmic and harmonic content in (co)ro(na), the final section; the central d(ou)ble constitutes a bridge between the two. The fragmented, tentative opening is effective, incorporating a single note varied by length and colour, which almost imperceptibly becomes something more complex and interesting. A vocal element is provided by the soprano Rita Balta, but it isn’t sung – it’s somewhat Ligetian, ie whispered, spoken or breathed. It’s seemingly wordless until a cool operatic motif emerges, quietly elongated electronically. The vocal line becomes more conventional and sung at this point, although I really cannot tell if it incorporates meaningful text – none is provided in the booklet. Whatever lies behind these sounds they are blended and arranged most ingeniously. If Baltakas’ concept per se suggests something diffuse and fragmented, the whole arguably coheres more eloquently than either of the two couplings on this disc. The sounds he has created are certainly arresting and frequently beautiful. The mighty Klangforum Wien do the work proud.

Performances throughout want for neither commitment nor conviction whilst the electronic elements emerge with occasionally discomfiting vividness in Kairos’s upfront recording. I consider Ouroboros-Zyklus to be by far the most convincing work on this portrait disc, and although I found myself mildly diverted by the couplings, I have to admit I also felt increasingly irritated by elements of what struck me as rather self-indulgent gimmickry as they proceeded, not least by the spoken word interjections of Smokey Arnold, whilst the irritating jingles which feature in Lift to Dubai only succeeded in summarily removing it from my bucket-list of places to visit should the world ever again be deemed safe for human exploration.

Richard Hanlon

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