Justina Repečkaitė: Music Composing – like Coding

In year 2018, in the World Music Days held in Beijing, the work Tapisserie (Tapestry) by the young composer Justina Repečkaitė was performed. On this occasion, Ona Jarmalavičiūtė talked with the composer about the creative joy, compositional principles, the newest musical projects and the most productive year in her career.


As far as I know, you have created compositions inspired by medieval cathedrals, tapestries, stained glass, literature, poetry… How do you seek inspiration in creating?

I give myself space for thinking. I create a situation when the starving mind starts working out of boredom. I also discover that many stimulating topics awaken my creative thinking. For example, I studied Daiva Vaitkevičienė’s book “Lithuanian incantations: treatment formulas” (liet. – Lietuvių užkalbėjimai: gydymo formulės). Not only the magic phenomena, the formulas themselves, but even their classification by the methods of incantation and their function are extremely inspiring! Indeed, in all my creations I am looking for proportions of beauty and repetition. Let’s say Chartres cathedral is fascinating to me not only for his mathematical precision and symbolism, but also for his improvisational breakthrough – after a fire, one of its towers was rebuilt with different stylistics and the cathedral became asymmetrical! I found the poem by Oscar Milosz as a means to learn French. I chose this very mysterious poet as the bridge between French and Lithuanian cultures. The decorative cosmatesque style, tapestry and stained glass is a visual coded expression of medieval thinking that always inspires me with its symbolic and decorative character.

Some composers are looking for inspiration, others work consistently from dawn to night. And what does your creative process look like?

Composing in my life takes a lot of time – I can work from morning to evening, days or weeks, but ultimately decide that the idea will not work in music… This is not healthy, composers need to have some leisure time. They need to do sports! It is very important to me that the space where I compose is clean and tidy. It helps to focus to the source of inspiration, or simply to the icon or calligraphy picture. When I wrote the symphonic work Cosmatesque, I had a lot of technical work with the score, so I just harmonized it while listening to the hymns of Buddhist Gjut Monastery. The compilation of the material is important to me when composing. Often I overwrite my musical systems until I learn it and then purge them into a “musical key” of a visual form. Only then do I start writing the score. A composed piece always sounds in the head. But I have strict rules – not to compose and talk about composition in the evenings, otherwise it would be difficult to fall asleep with boiling thoughts. In fact, composing provides the opportunity to dive into a very deep metaphysical level of concentration that I cannot achieve in any other way. Composing is hard and slow, because I rethink every aspect of writing, but when the deadline comes, my creative pace is accelerating within my system spontaneously.

What has inspired you to choose the creative way of your life?

I believe that every person is called to create. He can accomplish this vocation in various fields, and not necessarily in a professional life. But being able to create as a professional is a privilege, so you have to justify your expectations. In music, the most important thing for me is identity, to have my own way of understanding sound. It is also fascinating that music exists and is not only created by the composer, not just the musicians as intermediaries, but is also interpreted by the listener himself. It is so subjective. I want my music to be multilayered, and then the listener would be free to interpret it creatively. A good piece of art has the potential to reveal something new to the listener. There is a lot of criticism and pressure to “adapt” to fashion in the professional environment, but with too much focus on it, it is risky to blend in and loose yourself. The composer must have something to say, he must be a true artist, because art is not enough to master the craft. Great value is the development of a distinctive musical language, regardless of whether it is aimed at experimenting with newly discovered instrument capabilities, notation, form, material, or even the composing method itself. I appreciate the concentrated idea in music because it electrifies me.

As a composer who studied both in Lithuania and France, you had the opportunity to get ideas from both cultures. Or maybe there is something else – styles, composers or works – that have most affected you in life?

I remember that when I first heard of Luciano Berio’s Visage electronics, I was so affected that I cried. It was not a radical change of attitude, but rather a wake-up of something I had in myself. Psychologically, the voice has a particular impact on emotions and the body, because the listener mimics what he hears with his or her own voice strings in micro movements. Roberto Ashley’s electro acoustic compositions also awaken something very ambiguous in me. For inspiration, it is sometimes enough to hear the idea of music, and this already triggers a creative wait. Here’s a French composer Jean-Luc Hervé, who develops his musical projects in gardens. There he has sensory and tiny sound speakers (just on earth or under plants!). When the listener walks in the garden, the technology responds to his movements and plays recorded musical gestures according to the algorithm. This interactivity mimics the natural world as the garden is full of sometimes timid animals, but their voices are unknown and mysterious. Mauro Lanza and Andrea Valle are a duo of Italian composers who compose music for instruments that can be heard by both performers and household appliances, such as the accordion played by the accordion! Such experimental projects are not new to me, but it awakens joy and desire to experience more. In general, like most of the composers I was influenced by teachers who have noticed the value in my compositions and advised on how to promote it: Osvaldas Balakauskas, Richardas Kabelis, already mentioned by Jean-Luc Hervé, Johannes Schölhorn, Philippe Hurel.

Your compositional methods are often based on strict principles. For what reasons do you build schemes in music, create rules?

The drastic nature of the composite method is an aesthetic choice to crystallize musical material. I strive to move away from the beginning to the end of emotional writing by reflecting on alternative methods to form and material. I am interested in writing music as coding to influence the listener’s subconscious. Score is a necessary mediator for restoring the interpretation of a work. Requirements for recorded compositions should be higher than for improvisation. If the composer writes music intuitively, improvising “on the sheet”, what is the point of restoring it more than once? Nowadays there are so many great improvisers! In my compositions, the concept and responsibility for each score are very important to me. I think that this principle of composing is indeed related to my temperament. I am inclined to plan, rethink all scenarios, rationalize and experience emotions for a very long time. I believe that harmonious life is reflected in harmonious music, and that we must feel a great responsibility for the enduring value of art.

You have repeatedly said that your work is inspired by medieval aesthetics and worldview. Are you also loyal to it in your latest works “Cosmatesque and “the opera Incanta”?

My interest in the Middle Ages is not related to sound. There is no reference to the sound of medieval music. It reveals itself as a principle of understanding beauty and symbolic organization of matter. Medieval thinkers describe beauty according to material and proportional standards. In their time, music entered the quadrilateral of science, and the short period of Ars Subtilior, that is most interesting to me, uses is the sophisticated of proportions in the notation itself. Although I do not borrow specific methods from medieval music, I am concerned with issues such as the temporality of musical material. I still find it interesting to read ancient medieval manuscripts, even about theory, and on the other hand, I am increasingly attracted by compositional techniques using acoustic science.

You have been studying in France for a long time, initially at the Paris Music Conservatory with an Erasmus student exchange program, then returning to the Lyon Conservatory to complete your master’s degree and finally settle in France. How are you and your work influenced by the cultural life of this country?

France associates me with freedom of communication and a high level of culture. The performers here are really good, which gives me the opportunity to implement bolder ideas, gain knowledge directly from experienced musicians. In centralized Paris, the situation for artists is great, which is why we have so many of us from all over the world! It also creates great competition, which is beneficial for development. In a city that has a wide audience of connoisseurs, the art has appropriate requirements. In France, the musical traditions are very profound, and there are also some music codes that are desirable for contemporary music. For example, a musician does not relieve the composer’s craft from being shown in the work. Mostly, minimalist aesthetic creations are regarded as naive, as the thought that composer works and writes from non-payment… French composers are very good at orchestration. Their music is sophisticated, timbre plays a key role. My music tells me that I am not from this medium, but I have studied with excellent French teachers, of whom I learned much.

It’s no secret that you are currently creating your first opera, Incanta. What can be expected?

Opera as a genre asks for renewal and I am more interested in the chamber, the shorter operas, especially with enriched electronic sound. I am currently writing only a short opera passage to present to potential customers. The opera uses linguistic “coded text”. The author of the libretto made transcripts of the language of his grandmother, who suffered from heart attack. Correspondingly, I wrote the texts of Lithuanian incantations to the electronics party. And the idea of opera itself is about self-healing. There are also elements of improvisation in the electronics section – these are the sounds of my voice strings, mouth and lips, which of course I recorded during improvisation. Sounds are recorded and put into polyphony, which deletes identification with vocals. Such a theme is best expressed by focusing on the sound of text as a noise (voice, consonant), rhythm and hidden message, but it is not necessary to follow the text itself literally. I hope the sound of this opera will be mysterious! Part of my opera “Incanta” will be performed this summer at the Carthusian Monastery Church, where the scene will be built on the side where the church wall has fallen. Such space creates the opportunity to use the contrast between the acoustics inside and outside the church. The seven instruments, orchestrate electronics, the recorded voice. There is only one singer and one actress in the scene so far.

I will take this opportunity to congratulate you with the Tapisserie performed on the World Music Days Festival in China. This year, your composition created for the chamber ensemble became the only Lithuanian piece selected by ISCM (International Society of Contemporary Music), and this is the second experience for you, because three years ago, with your bachelor’s thesis, the composition “Chartres” took part in a similar event in Slovenia. So what impressions have you brought from Beijing this time?

The World Music Days program is serious, but has no experiments. This festival reflects only a certain scene, in comparison, for example, Darmstadt summer courses or Gaudeamus’s contemporary music week in the Netherlands. Each country organizing World Music Days takes the opportunity to present as much of their country’s music as possible. In China, like in Slovenia, had to listen to a lot of local music that rarely meets the requirements of the International Music Days Program. However, China particularly surprised me by the status of the composer as a civil servant. All of the composers involved in the program occupy a variety of important positions as lecturers, directors, managers. Sometimes they forget to mention in their biographies that they are composers… Contemporary works of Chinese composers either use traditional Chinese music melodies or traditional instruments, or at least in their annotations links to Chinese culture as a source of inspiration.

I met with the Tapisserie (“Tapestry”) Moscow Contemporary Music Ensemble in Russia in 2013, participating in the project with Tchaikovsky Composers’ Academy. That’s why I knew how well they played and the ensemble justified my expectations. Although the tapestry has already been performed for seven times, the Moscow ensemble is the first to play without a conductor! The work is very complicated with its rhythm, but the talented flutist Ivan Buchujev played and performed at the same time!

What is your biggest dream? Is there something you are about to do?

I really live in the dream of every composer now. This year is very productive, I would like it to continue that way. My dream is the same as it is for every human. I am very fond of walking to the museum, reading a book about art, as well as practicing yoga. I am focused on creation and the present.

Thank you for conversation!

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