Interview with Vestards Šimkus

Vestardas Šimkus is a Latvian classical pianist, composer and improviser from Jurmala. His career began in 1990, during which he scored international and national awards in classical music repertoire, composed music for film and theater and also appeared on stage performing musical improvisations. Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė talks to the pianist about his career and creative work.

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How did you decided to approach music composing as your career?

I was 5 years old when I started playing the piano. Soon after, at around age of 7, I felt an irresistible compulsion to create my own music by freely improvising on the piano. I recorded some of those improvisations and, by using my perfect pitch, wrote the best parts pen-to-paper. Then I reworked those parts into my first compositions and showed them to my first composition teacher Pēteris Vasks. Throughout the next years, he encouraged me to compose more and more and that’s what I am still doing simply because there is a lot of music channeling through my head and I feel a necessity to write it down. So far, I have been lucky to find concert organizers and other musicians who want to perform it and even some listeners who want to listen to it. However, being a composer and AND a concert pianist, I mostly write music that I include in my own recital programs.

How does your daily composing routine looks like?

I can not write anything if I don’t take a walk in the forest near my house before that. During those walks, I get a clearer idea of the mood, structure and the development of the particular work I am composing. Then I sit down at the piano and improvise. Out of those improvisations, I get particular notes to be written down. After three hours of writing, I need to take a break and I usually don’t compose for more than six hours per day. It is strange that, after three hours of composing, I feel even physically more exhausted than after three hours of hard physical work.

Do you have certain values that can be felt in your creative work? What do you value the most in your music?

I think that a lot of the so-called „contemporary music” written in the West after the World War II has been aiming to deconstruct the elements of the tradition of the European academic music in a way that it actually makes the future of the Western culture seem pesky and short-lived. Just look at the vast amounts of new works performed only once and literally no one wanting to hear them ever again! I highly value music that expresses its zeitgeist by being able to emotionally connect to the people of the time when it has been written. My aim is to write that kind of music.

Every composer has to survive transformations. How does your journey towards self-knowledge look?

I think I am still on my way towards self-knowledge if such a thing can ever be achieved. Every time I have been writing a new work, I have felt that I have completely found my way of writing and yet, a few years later, some stylistic elements have always changed. From aside, it probably looks that my music gradually becomes more tonal with a clearer melodic line and structure. It helps listeners to connect with it and I don’t think it’s a sin. How can music resonate with its time if it can not resonate with the people of its time?

Looking at what you have created in the past, would you change anything today? Why or why not?

I usually think a lot before writing a note. I have a feeling that my past works are built in a particular way that the whole compositions would fall apart if anything would be changed. That’s why I usually never change anything once the piece has been finished. If I wanted to change anything, I would do it in my upcoming works, not the ones already written.

If you could change one aspect of our society through your work, what would it be?

Personally, there are many aspects of our society I would like to change. However, I am also aware of the fact that it is extremely dangerous, short-sighted or even evil to wish to change anything in this world according to one’s own personal preferences. Karl Marx wanted to change our society and, even today, we can still „enjoy” the destructive results of what he wished for. I wouldn’t trust myself to change anything in our society. As a Christian, I would only trust God to do that. Yet, as a musician, I do notice that it is getting harder than ever for most people to concentrate on any kind of music during concerts without coughing or silently browsing through the screens of their smartphones. It is due to the fact that we all are used to consume any kind of information within just a couple of seconds on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Which makes us nearly incapable of concentrating on anything that requires longer attention, be it music or even other people. I wish that would change one day but I am sure it’s not going to.

How much of your own life is reflected in your work?

A work of art is a quintessential reflection of the most relevant aspects of the life of the artist who created it. If it’s not, the artist is a liar in his own art.

Thank you for the conversation!

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