Linda Leimane is a Latvian composer, whose works often tend to be related to physicality and the body. She works with orchestras, large ensembles, soloists in electro-acoustic projects and electronics, and also collaborates with artists of other media.
You studied composition and electro-acoustic music. What led you towards the academic study of music, and how has the academic approach to music-making influenced your work?
When I was about seven or eight, I was impacted profoundly by hearing Sergei Prokofiev’s Montecchi i Capuleti from Romeo e Giulietta. The powerful orchestra sound and bass line impressed me so much that even recently I made a fresh symphonic piece, “Ray-bows”, with a similar attitude towards the bass line, unconsciously of course as I am not a big fan of his music nowadays, but the role of that one listening experience is unquestionably important for the beginning of my musical path. I am still sensitive to and enthusiastic about these qualities – bass and the full sound of a texture – in my own practice, either acoustic or electronic.
In the formation of my approach, there have been several important choices made on graduation from each music education institution, as well as outside influences: from my childhood idea about a career as a pianist, to the ideas of music theory, criticism and journalism in my adolescence to the right choice of music-making as a composer and lately also performer. In terms of outside influences I could mention, above all, the Skaņu mežs festival, which I started attending as a teenager while working as an assistant for the music magazine Mūzikas Saule. We were given invitations to it, and that is not the only reason I have been in love with this festival until today, so much so that I prefer to live in Riga because of that annual pleasure. I have assimilated both the massive, dirty and robust, aggressive and unaccustomed sound which I admired most in the always surprising sound world of the festival, and another electronic music outside influence – IRCAM in Paris. When I was twenty-one, I had the opportunity to live in that charming city as la jeune fille au-pair. My friend was part of IRCAM and he showed me how Max MSP software works. All the impressions from that time are powerful and have made me as a person: I still remember when I read the IRCAM books and attended seminars, concerts, exhibitions, Xenakis’ ballet at the Opera Garnier, Anish Kapoor’s exhibition at the Grand Palais. Following my role model, Pierre Jodlowski, I returned to France later to study new music technologies and composition at the National Conservatory Of Music And Dance Of Lyon for half a year, and there I received another load of inspiration: once we visited the GRAME sound research centre and I was blown away by how they create audiovisual works; I remember the ballet with the music of Laurie Anderson at the famous Lyon Opera Ballet, the surprising performance of Julia Wolfe’s work in which the dancers were equally good as dancers and as percussionists. An especially significant impact on my path was made by my former teacher, Michele Tadini, who is a true Max MSP master who opened a whole new world of possibilities for me. A few years later, I returned to him as his assistant at the AGON sound research centre in Milan for a while. I’d also like to mention masterclasses I had in various impressive parts of the world, close collaborations with my friend and producer Selffish, the impact of various great art and music festivals, playing in my ex-band Perry Borr, I could go on and on reminiscing about the complex mixture of my past experiences that can maybe say something about who I am today. It would be ideal if my music could express this itself. I’d like to embody in it that glow, excitement, brilliance and mathematical certainty I experienced through my senses from inside and outside experiences. It takes lifelong and daily practice.
The academic approach to my music-making has influenced it through conceptualisation and by the way in which I organise sound in time. I like the precise organisation of structures, sometimes with an accuracy of a millisecond, leaving less space for improvisation afterwards. Construction always prevails with me, and I always start with sketches. I am even draughting a score for my electronic performance, and that is a purely academic approach.
Could you talk about your approach to composition and electro-acoustic music as such?
Recently, I created my dream technique by calculating interpolation steps in my head and by writing them down with a real pencil on real paper. Then I transferred it to electronics, and it worked. For the next year, I have decided to use only my new-found technique in all my projects. There is material for about an hour which I have not used yet, overall 140 sonic fields. The technique is like a tissue from which a very natural relief of rise and fall and planar state can be derived. It is a written-out mass of soundflow with a very complex texture, where its components are almost strictly calculated; sometimes there are 50 lines developing parallelly. For many years my motto has been “sound as a bodily art”, partly borrowed from Adorno, and probably it attracted the best technical solution as this technique allows for multidimensional plasticity. The discovery came to me by experimenting with estimations during the previous half year, when I woke up at 4:47, ran a little bit and then challenged my intuition and brain to create two contrasting sonic fields, each consisting of 10 to 50 pitches. Then I invested great effort in calculating interpolations between them. I tried it by using Open Music software, too, but then it lacked something, perhaps some human beauty, so I decided to undertake the mental exercise myself. The technique is very difficult for acoustic performers, but I believe it is worth it. Some pianists and ensembles are already working on it, and I am there to help them in preparation for the final performances. The main expression of this technique will be embodied in the piece Bodies. Undulations (inspired by Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell), which I have intended to create for eight years. It will be performed in Paris next September by the ensemble Court-circuit directed by Jean Deroyer. I hope and believe that they will certainly be able to master this difficult sound material as they are considered to be one of the best contemporary music ensembles in the world. In the same timeframe of September, but at another festival, there will be another premiere – my collaboration with the French organist Thomas Lacôte in the legendary Royaumont abbey near Paris, where there is an organ with very unique mechanics which I am going to explore in February.
For the next few years, I have decided to work solo or only with the closest minds. Now I am working on my solo performance, using eight piano pedals, sample keyboards, Max MSP and my electro-acoustic, self-oscillating 3-string bass instrument, a gift from my friend, the poet, artist and inventor Artūrs Punte. I had always wanted to play the cello and the bass guitar. When he presented that special instrument I thought “no, a bass guitar is too mainstream for me, I want this now!” But actually, I realised my dream of a cello and a bass guitar in the performance Geometry of Endless Solution with the great cellist Ēriks Kiršfelds, who is very familiar with the bass guitar and electronics, too.
What practices do you favour in your work?
I am infinitely grateful to Michele Tadini, who even recently was so kind as to share his latest developed tools in Max MSP, through a Zoom conversation on the train from Paris to Milan, allowing me to use them in my own context. I cannot find the words to describe the high level of innovation and sophistication in these techniques, which he has made possible to apply to a sound through an analysis of its harmonic components. I would like to use them more and to bring to light what’s possible, thanks to him. EricaSynths also gave me such a great opportunity to try out their outstanding studio of modular synthesisers, in order for me to find the best texture for two of the sections in my performance. For now, probably I will get by with the “everything is possible when you are disciplined enough” Max MSP virtual modules and then gradually move to the hardware modules when and if necessary.
Your works are related to physicality and the body. Can you talk about the importance of materiality / presence in your work?
For me, the creative process is an expression of the inner urge which comes before the formation of any words and mental images. Let’s call it “feeling”. I could also agree if somebody told me that thought comes before feeling, but I have never noticed it, I just know that they are linked. As far as I have observed, the emerging feelings can be shorter or longer in duration. Each feeling has an individual profile or shape or envelope, a beginning, development and ending. I usually like to work with collages of short sonic profiles. In some projects, regarding the specifics of a certain instrument, the only way is long profiles, for example, for my upcoming work for the organ, short profiles just would not suit. Physicality is also related to my brand-new technique in which I have found the potential to achieve the ideal of plasticity and aliveness in sound. Similarly, as a human body consists of complex systems, such as the circulatory system or nervous system, I wish to work with a texture, fine in quality, sophisticated and individual enough to be able to approach the naturalness of Nature. I long for plasticity in my work, and I like works that address my body more than my thinking mind.
You’ve been part of the classical & contemporary music world as well as the experimental one. How do these seemingly antithetical sonic worlds differ these days?
I would prefer to call it “academic” rather than “classical & contemporary”, because now there is a whole movement of music on YouTube tagged as “classical & contemporary”, where actually it is kind of predictable and sweet background music, awkwardly stuck in the past and being far from art. Meanwhile, the term “academic” is associated for me with sound research or academic education, which in the field of music involves studies in rhythm, harmony, polyphony, solfege, composition, music form, instrumentation and orchestration, contemporary music and new music technologies. All the academic composers of today can usually refer to the contemporary music icons such as Boulez, Berio, Grisey, Ligeti, Scelsi, Nono and others. Sometimes I wonder if the young contemporary composers do not go over the top in worshipping these names, but, on the other hand, this assurance-giving connection to our ancestors or, in more temperate words, some orientation in their artwork, is certainly very helpful and encourages the taking of risks and looking far beyond any limitation of imagination and technical possibility.
Regarding the differentiation between the terms “academic” and “experimental”, I think that because of some confusion there is a need for a new term. Everyone experiments in the creative process to some degree, if he or she is honest and wants to express no one else but him/herself, therefore, I cannot imagine “academic” not being “experimental”. Let’s think of a few examples: IRCAM is an academic institution, it is both a sound research and music-training institution. At the same time, it is one of the most innovative places in the world in terms of music technologies, and that is the result of research and experimentation. Experimentation goes hand in hand with innovation. I have heard many electronic pieces created there, and it is difficult not to call them “experimental”. Then I would like to mention some academic composers (with an academic education), such as Yann Robin, Franck Bedrossian, Francesco Filidei, Rebecca Saunders and Michael Levinas, whose symphonic works, with or without electronics, always sound “experimental”, so strange and unique that sometimes I truly cannot distinguish whether it is an acoustic orchestra sound or electronics. In the classical era, the orchestra and quartet became standardised and common, and both mediums are still being used in contemporary music. I would dare to say that all contemporary music, created even for these two classical types of line-up, is “experimental”, unless its content is a bad attempt to copy past centuries. If a composer has their individual style crystallised, they are unrepeatable, and that is the result of experimentation. If I was listening to a concrete piece, I would be able to detect the inclination towards one or the other way. Today there are many composers, and I am among them, who prefer to work with hybrid forms, multimedia or ambisonic sound installations, and in this regard it is not always clear which tag to use best. For me it is just about appropriate copyright royalties.
You also work with theatre productions, for instance, one of the works you’ve been involved in is a modern political and documentary theatre piece called “Nasing spesal”. Could you talk about this work in particular?
The theatre piece Nasing spesal is actually something quite special, the tickets are always sold out and I love the fact that there are quite a few politicians attending this event, so it has been worth the year-long effort in collaborating with the director Andrei Jarovojs and his team at the Gertrude Street Theater. The performance is based on the longest Saeima meeting in the history of renewed Latvia (The Saeima is the parliament of the Republic of Latvia). The director condensed the transcripts of that historical meeting during the 2008 economic crisis into a concise libretto, and we created the structure of a Baroque dance suite and developed many individualised textures for each scene. The performers are very skillful, both as actors and musicians; all they do, they do mostly by following the written score. That is probably not my longest, but my most special score on more than 100 pages; there is even a techno part where each beat is written out, combined with a few baroque principles. Overall, this work is a kind of hybrid in its matter, where the text turns into quasi musical sonority and vice versa. My idea was that the five actors would play the electronics by themselves with the piano pedals, in the interest of precision and finesse, but at the last moment, due to some considerations, I entrusted it to the sound engineers. All in all, the director’s idea was to create a performance to be heard. Now it is clear, it is to be seen as well, because the video and the various position configurations of the actors add another structural dimension. The title Nasing spesal implies the incident in 2008 when our minister of finance, Atis Slakteris, gave an interview with Bloomberg about Latvia’s economic crisis, during which he answered a question regarding the causes of Latvia having come to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund as “nothing special”. Our attitude was not criticism or parody, but rather a deep respect for the subject as such, during the process of creating something new. As a result of revealing more and more nuances, while diving into texts and video documentaries, my appreciation for the material grew, and we created something of ours, as organic as possible.
You’re based in Riga, Latvia. How is the contemporary music scene there, are there enough opportunities for composers like you?
Yes. But the morning after the premiere of Nasing spesal, the morning of 30 August, was life-changing. My car was unnoticed by a truck and I got into an accident – so brutal, with my car revolving over the main bridge of our city and getting smashed and pushed by the truck, that I feel very lucky that I did not cross the barrier of the bridge above Daugava, that I am alive and well. I was taken away by ambulance, and on the way to the hospital, on a stretcher, my life purpose crystallised very clearly: the Generative installation is number one. That had been my dream for almost four years, but I was always too busy with other collaborations. In Latvia, there are many open-minded organisers of festivals, interpreters – soloists, ensembles and orchestras to work with. Every year, orchestras in Latvia commission composers for some new works. The Culture Capital Foundation also gives good financial support for this, but there is a need for a new department that could finance multimedia works. In Latvia, we have great theatre directors and other artists to collaborate with. There are many opportunities, but it is true that the overall atmosphere and attitude towards contemporary music in general here is not that uplifting, when compared to Berlin, Vienna or Paris – the people there are more breathing, loving and yearning after new music, here they are probably trying to endure it, mainly worshiping dead centuries, and that really annoys me. I distract myself from these conversations, as my music has suffered a lot from inappropriate rehearsal time distribution in favour of classical music. In any case, the car accident taught me to be decisive and put my own burning vision in first place and get rid of anything else.
Apart from completing two other projects in Paris (The Ministry of Culture in France is my main supporter in the upcoming year), another in Melbourne with Sofija Kirsanova and the Syzygy ensemble, and I just received a nice letter from Vienna, – for the next five years I have decided to have a break from the contemporary music scene and to focus mainly on the Generative installation and my new-found business, “C o L L e c t i o n s”, which is closely related to the idea of the installation, both reflecting my passion for text. Both are co-projects with my too frequently mentioned creative partner and counselor, Artūrs Punte, but the idea of the Generative installation came from his great mind. It is going to be a monumental and complex work, involving many years and people. We have just started this journey of exploration, where the end result is so clear but many technical answers are yet to be found. There are fifteen books to be written and thousands of sound samples to be synthesised and organised, and fifteen techniques of structural modulations to be mastered, a video version and a concert performance version to be worked on. I am starting by exploring the midi microphone capabilities.
What have been some of the most exciting projects you’ve been involved in lately?
I like to think of excitement as adrenaline as well, therefore, among many others, I will mention the multimedia work Dialexica, the ballet Hamlet and the aforementioned theatre piece, Nasing Spesal. In Dialexica there were recording sessions with Jayde Will (voice) and also with the Sinfonietta Riga recording my sketches (some of the sounds were unexpectedly strange). After the text composition was created and all the sound levels – orchestral, textual and electronic – were made and spatialised, it was very exciting to connect the sound to the visuals, to choose shapes and colours in the patch, together with the co-creator Artūrs Punte, and to observe how he controlled with the buttons and sliders what his father and my nephew were doing… There were three models involved in the project, a writer among them. It was a nice source of adrenaline to almost arrive on time at the photo studio with my nephew. We risked everything: I forgot my driver’s licence and the police were everywhere on the way from sister’s home to Riga, besides which. I broke the traffic rules in the very centre of the city, I was so excited.
In the ballet “Hamlet” it was more than exciting to search for the best tempo, with the choreographer Antons Freimans dancing and me playing the piano, and to see the ballet dancers moving in accordance with my freshly made music.. The first rehearsal was very special for me. One of the rehearsals was full of adrenaline when the sound was too loud for some violinists in the orchestra pit. I ran to the sound engineer and almost screamed “Do you have any headphones, they ‘re refusing to play!” Then I went to the pit and saw, indeed, their blouses were trembling in the loudness, I could see the sound going through their bodies. The conductor took care of the headphones. I was already full of adrenaline before the project when I had to arrange a meeting with the opera director and be demanding, as I realised the process was sliding out of control as a result of miscommunication. Before I had signed the contract, they somehow thought the orchestra should be recorded instead of live, but I refused this. For nothing is more important than the vision of the choreographer, as well as mine, and we wanted to fill the great opera hall with the big sound of a live orchestra and electronics, so I did it.
Although the next thing is not a project but rather a natural act of compassion, I feel very serious about the upcoming weekend when, equipped with a protective suit, I will be volunteering in a ward for Covid patients. I am waiting for a call from my collaborator Artūrs Punte, who is already there all day and all night helping the exhausted medical staff. Latvia can be proud of the best supermodels in the world and of the high proportion of artists in society, but unfortunately, now we can be just as ashamed – currently we are the country in the world where, due to the high level of superstition among so many citizens, the pandemic is spreading at its highest rate. The hospitals are more than full and people are dying daily in large numbers.
Interview by Lucia Udvardyova