Viestarts Gailītis: Latvian Experimental Music from the second half of the 1990s until 2011 (Sound Exchange)
Sound Exchange was a project by DOCK e.V. and the Goethe-Institut which sought to shed light on experimental music making in Central and Eastern Europe from 1950 to 2010. Alongside the organization of events connected to music festivals in seven different countries, between 2011 and 2012, the project produced a rich anthology of texts and documents on a wide stylistic and aesthetic spectrum of electro-acoustic music, composed and improvised music, musical media art and audio art ranging a 60-year span.
The Latvian chapter of this anthology features an essay by Viestarts Gailītis titled “Latvian Experimental Music from the second half of the 1990s until 2011”, which you can read below:
Latvian Experimental Music from the second half of the 1990s until 2011
Andris Indāns aka Andžons, probably 1992. Photo: Jānis Daugavietis
From avant-garde to experimental
In the second half of the 1990s, computers and the Internet changed the Latvian music scene, and at the same time diluted the concept of avant-garde. The »avant-gardists« were no longer intellectual aesthetes with dissident inclinations, but youths from the subculture. The designation »experimental« became more topical, and computers, raves, industrial music and post-punk had a greater influence upon the creative instincts of innovators than minimalist composers, happenings and Postmodern philosophers.
Thanks to the Internet, the range of information was too extensive to focus on established authorities. Rare avant-garde escapades were replaced by frequent and less noticeable activities. The time around the turn of the of the millennium was a very productive period in Latvian experimental music, even though little of this music reached the world outside Latvia.
Those people who still carried the narcissistic avant-garde spirit of rebellion often took the most radical steps. Brilliant performances were taking place: the 60s-style happening, for example, young curator Kaspars Vanag’s interdisciplinary art event »Animal Party«, which was held at a glamorous, soon-to-be inaugurated office building on the road to the resort town Jūrmala, near Riga. There were body art practitioners and video artists in the 80s style, and a wider public became acquainted with »Error« (real name Aldis Ozols). His performance during this gathering was presented together with Pēteris Ķimelis’ eschatological video, created from medieval etchings. Error was one of the first artists in Latvia to use noise music, by using the computer – he once mentioned in passing that he hated the guitar. An aesthetic, inquisitive and provocative instinct drove him to music, and he had no patience for the guitar as it had nothing new to reveal to him. As an outsider who was aesthetically nurtured by a cocktail of the Soviet anti-Utopia, science fiction and 1980s new wave and industrial music Error quickly found inspiration in the absurdity of the new world order, in which the Soviet totalitarianism in Latvia was replaced by an uncontrolled free market. The sweet harmonies of 1980s pop music Error had enjoyed listening to during the Soviet era were replaced by brutal power electronics and deconstruction, regularly alternating with dark ambient works. In his work, romance submits to paranoia.
Error – social deconstruction through noise
Error’s grotesquely original album »Aizlūgsim« (Let’s Pray) became a classic of Latvian industrial and noise music. The raw material for Let’s Pray was religious demagogy in a boyish, grating voice, belonging to a well known Latvian evangelist. The album followed the most merciless plunderphonics traditions, caricaturing the evangelist’s quack demagogy, mixing it with banal market terminology. A few years later, industrial musician Skaida wrote about this album: »Error’s work gained rather contradictory fame, thanks to its quite ironic approach to the creation of sounds […]. On this album, the restless ghost of the Christian radio announcer’s fundamental fanaticism is lost in dramatic collages of noise. Parallel to a superficial perception of ›Let’s Pray‹, the recording could also be understood as an indication of the deficit of values in Postmodern society, comparing it, for instance, with the orthodox perception of the world, which usually receives very superficial assessment.«
When the volleys of Error’s noise music resounded people were sometimes driven from the hall, and the artist once responded by saying: »At least now I can play whatever I want to.« Error immersed himself in digital anti-Utopia and dark ambient music. The idiosyncratic and reclusive group Claustrum should also be mentioned: they played noise music on homemade synthesisers, and frontman Lauris Vroclavs, along with the other members, converted to Catholicism at the turn of the millennium.
Error concerts frequently featured videos of military, industrial or Christian scenes. The search for more powerful software and more compact »hardware« has been a constant throughout Error’s career. For example, Error played the 2008 Jānis’ Day (the Latvian Midsummer Night celebration) concert from a Sony Ericsson Walkman mobile phone, which was connected to loudspeakers. The musical themes tended to become more esoteric. One of Error’s latest compositions is an intense and suggestive dark ambient work dedicated to the »visit« of a flying saucer to Red Square.
Andžons – the grand veteran of Latvian experimental music
Error’s intellectually defiant freshness was noticed by many, including the veteran Latvian pioneer of experimental electronics, Latvijas Gāze (Gas of Latvia), popularly known as Andžons. This musician started his path with Kartāga (Carthage), an experimental post-punk group which was active from 1994 to 1996 on the legendary label Tornis (Tower). The label’s name comes from the historical water tower where producer Jānis Daugavietis had organised rehearsal space. The group was characterised by dissonant guitars and depressive lyrics. Daugavietis later recalled: »The first performance took place in some kind of Krāmenes  event in August 1994. Very few among the audience were able to appreciate the new group (me included), but already the next concerts of Kartāga were among the most impressive I have ever seen in Latvian rock.« Andžons himself remembered one of these concerts, which established their reputation: »The funniest of all was organised by Frīdvalds  at a pizza shop near the station. Imagine a 1990s pizza place where five underground groups perform, no one buys pizza, and finally the electricity is switched off.«
“Zens ar akmeni” by Kartāga
»Zēns ar akmeni« (A Boy with a Stone) was the most serious and experimental album by Kartāga, recorded during a marathon 36-hour session at Tornis studio. »Depressive philosophical lyrics combined with noisy guitar experiments and banging on metal literally created a shocking atmosphere, which no one else has managed to achieve in Latvian music,« wrote music journalist Uldis Rudaks. Another music critic, Kaspars Ozols, characterised the atmosphere in which this music was born – »The mid-1990s was the most unkind time for the activities of alternative music groups – unconditional surrender to commercialisation and lack of money did not allow even the chance that a broader audience could listen to Latvian underground music.«
From Kartāga to Latvijas gāze
Andžons was by that time already characterised by the ability to diversify, retaining his own signature at all times. »The experimental side had a greater pull over me, but the traditional songs – over Šubrovskis «, Andžons recalls the origins of his longest still-existing project, Latvijas gāze (Gas of Latvia). »In Kartāga these two trends merged, however for me The Residents, AMM, Laibach, Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle were important, i.e. I had many interests. I understood that the music I was going to make was going to be diverse. To avoid a multitude of projects I decided that I needed one title, covering various expressions, with an indefinite make-up and genre. And thus I conceived the title Latvijas gāze.«
Templis rec. (1995–1997) served as a transitional stage between Andžons’ activities in Kartāga and Latvijas gāze. It was his experimentally-focused underground tape publishing facility in an apartment block in Īkšķile, which he established as a physical and mental alternative to his basic activities in Tornis rec. and the band Kartāga. Templis rec. did not publish the albums of existing groups or projects, but each edition was granted a new serial number, which replaced the authors’ names. All tapes, except a few recording sessions made in Andžons’ father’s garage and in Tornis, were recorded in his apartment, using the most striking arsenal of Soviet and home-made equipment – 3 tape decks (also used to make copies of the finished product), backgrounding 12–channel mixer Electronica, a few delay, flanger and distortion pedals, deplorable mikes, Lelj drum machines, RMIF and Junostj 21 synthesizers, a primitive Casio, a homemade electric guitar and bass, a prepared piano, a child’s violin, the bass drum from a brass band, cymbals, a percussion set consisting of children drum and kitchen pots, various improvised experimental music instruments, toys, an old TV set, etc. »Templis Rec. ideas and song lyrics were as existential as the instruments, inspired by newspaper headlines, TV news items and other trivial facts and clichés of everyday life, urban folklore«, Andžons adds.
Electronic music without computers
Gas of Latvia live
Established in 1996, Latvijas gāze anglicised its name to Gas of Latvia after the Latvian gas company complained about trademark infringement. The project rapidly became known as one of the first notable electronic music projects – however, when it began, it had no computers. »Everything happened live,« Andžons recalls. »For three or four concerts there were even 10–11 people: Drummers, two percussionists, bass guitar, an accordionist, me at the synthesizers – a couple of Russians, a couple of Japanese. We needed maximalism. I bought my first computer in 1998 and understood that I no longer had to mess around with getting all those people together, I could do it all by myself, and if necessary attract a musician or two for recordings or concerts.«
After having worked with computers for some time, Gas of Latvia reverted to the fetish of analogue synthesizers and pure hardware setups, giving one of its unforgettable concerts in an orchard on a remote farmstead in Pūre in June 2007, right after the major Latvian festival of Līgo Night, or Midsummer Day, on June 23. »On Līgo Night I was at Jānis Daugavietis’ place, where I found an old spring«, the musician recalls. »I hung it up on a wire rope, added a contact microphone, it produced good resonance. The theme of the evening was water. Kristīne  was splashing water, made sounds, which I ›picked up‹ and processed, at the same time I was playing Jēkabs’ homemade spring kokle  and passing it through the computer.« Kristīne Krastiņa-Indāne also participated in a Gas of Latvia performance during the festival of experimental music, Skaņu mežs, in 2007, »playing« on a sewing machine, the sound of which was processed by the musician’s computer. Gas of Latvia had one of its longest and most productive collaborations with renowned Latvian visual artist Katrīna Neiburga – for several years Andžons has produced sound for her works.
When listening to Gas of Latvia it is possible to trace its lineage back to the »father« of Latvian experimental music, Hardijs Lediņš, and the band Yellow Postmen. Gas of Latvia even met with Lediņš, and a collaborative dub album and tours in France and the US were planned. These would maybe not have happened even if Lediņš had not died in 2004, because the artist too often let things happen at their own momentum. However, their co-operation was recorded in Lediņš’ last work – his remix of Gas of Latvia’s piece »InOut«.
From field recordings and nature Romanticism to sound art
Kirils Lomunovs aka Astrowind
Kirils Lomunovs, known in his time as drummer with the legendary 1990s Yaputhma Sound System (Ya.So.Sy.), is one of the most important and erudite veterans of Latvian experimental electronic and electro-acoustic music. He has changed his image several times: his latest ambient project is »Astrowind«, for a long time he was known as »oloolo«, and his project »Kriipis Tulo« is still topical, which he has self-deprecatingly characterised as »tender and ambient kitsch, saturated with infantile Romanticism«. A Romantic instinct, and experimental trends have always co-existed in his music.
The dominant influences in his music for the last four years have been ambient music, krautrock and minimalism, and before that he was influenced by the aesthetics of musique concrète, Pierre Henry and Harry Partch. Instrumentally, he has vacillated between the computer and vintage Soviet-era synthesizers.
Lomunovs regularly surrounded himself with other artists, including Rotislav Rekuta and Yevgeny Dromovu (another Ya.So.Sy. veteran), who later became known as the musical duet Sound Meccano. These youths were connected to the Riga-based Russian poetry and musical group Orbit, which for more than a decade has been experimenting with poetry in audio and video contexts. Another member of their circle, the talented composer of atmospheric music, Selffish, has been working since 2002 under the auspices of several foreign record publishers: he operates in the border zone between Romanticism and irony. At various periods Lomunov’s activities have been moving towards, in his own words, »sound design«. One of his first partners in this field was Voldemārs Johansons, a major figure in Latvian avant-garde composition and sound art. Johansons was already an outstanding member of the group of young talents, Lolitas brīnumputns (Lolita’s Miracle Bird), together with Mārtiņš Strautnieks, Gonzo, and is considered one of the strongest and most vulnerable musicians of his generation.
Lolitas Brinumputns demo cassette cover
Johansons is a committed perfectionist, one of the first to take up digital technologies and field recordings, while always maintaining a background interest in nature and Latvian folklore. In the vacuum of Latvian sound art he quickly became one of the few pioneers, working in the border zone between music, science and installation art. His brief and conceptual installations unite ascetic, monumental visual imagery, interesting technical solutions and minimalist sound. For example, one of his latest installations – the concert instrument Concord – is a kind of huge harpsichord, which starts sounding certain tones when alternating currents induce vibrations in its strings.
The new generation
An evolutionary leap occurred around 2007. A group of young artists appeared, then aged between 20 and 27, who had grown up without being significantly influenced by a Soviet or industrial music heritage. Among them were the noise improvisation group »1/2 h ½ w« or »puseH puseW«, digital musician Mārtiņš Roķis, computer musician and artist Kaspars Groševs, academic composer and factory worker Platons Buravickis, and sound artist Evelīna Deičmane.
Deičmane, known for her ability to situate exquisitely subconscious and existential dramas in harsh industrial installations, developed a reputation as a video and photo artist. In 2009 she represented Latvia at the Venice Biennial. During the festival of experimental music, Skaņu mežs, she created the work »Diametr 761«, consisting of a microphone which was rotated at a very high speed by an engine, installed in a room separated by bars. The mike recorded the sound it created itself, moving at the speed of sound (761 miles per hour). »Diametr 761« was intended as a prototype for a machine which is able to record sounds before they are created!
Evelīna Deičmane. Video still from video and sound installation “Season Sorrow”. 2009
The majority of Deičmane’s works are existential allegories, created with the practical ingenuity of a craftsman. Her work for Venice Biennial, »Pārejošās bēdas« (Season Sorrow), is a video and audio installation which uses a snowball as a metaphor for thriving and excruciating emotions and absurdity. »The small cog-wheel sets the large cog-wheel into motion: it, in its turn, plays a vinyl record, playing the sound of rolling snow«, the artist explains the impressive mechanism. »You roll the small ball until it turns into a huge ball, which you can no longer move, and you are exhausted. And then spring comes, melts it and brings order into everything.« »Two Variations of Season Sorrow« is a continuation of this piece – an unwieldy iron mechanism which allows two accordions to be played simultaneously (though with great exertion), both tuned to sorrowful tones.
Free improvisation and controlled digitalism
When hearing ½ h ½ w for the first time in 2006, it was not difficult to see that the group, established in 2006, was breaking with existing traditions. If Latvian music had up until then in general been characterised by certain frameworks and methods, i. e., restraint, or, in the opposite direction, punk-like anarchy, these five relaxed youths freely and collectively improvised with guitars and electronics. As I later learned this style was a musical extension of their personalities and attitudes. They represented a new generation that grew up free of Soviet mental constraints, false certainties and distrust. They sounded like early Throbbing Gristle, even if they didn’t know who they were. Sometimes they needed time to get started, sometimes the interplay just didn’t work at all – but when it did work, the result was hypnotic.
½ h ½ w describes what they do as esoteric music for avant-garde theatre. The black and white photo sessions of the group with mirrors, outside in the dark, indoors, sometimes dressed, sometimes naked, provoke Freudian associations. Members of the group describe their own music as symbolising »general nihilism and the absurdity of material existence.« Their claim to be influenced by Hinduism and Satanism, as well as the post-war academic Dadaist avant-garde, is only partially ironic.
»The sound is created in the manner of improvisation, disregarding the majority of musical rules and limits. At the same time it embodies musical principles, which border on a controlled and nuanced flow of sounds, creating an emotionally extreme feeling of chaos, emptiness or absurdity, or a meditatively peaceful mental mood.« ½ h ½ w is not the first Latvian group to unite elements of music, performance and psychodrama. »Apziņas parazīti« (Mind Parasites) named after Colin Wilson’s sci-fi thriller, uses similar elements. Their humorously macabre performances border on the Theatre of Cruelty.
Mārtiņš Roķis, a peer of ½ h ½ w, creates meticulous and abstract compositions and installations in contrast to the group’s ironically esoteric and free approach. Roķis points out that his alienated and sometimes noisy psychedelic »digital musique concrète« has been more influenced by science, technology and contemporary art and philosophy than by Western musical traditions and means of expression. It is true that it is easy to discern in his music the aesthetics of Iannis Xenakis and of the 21st century digital music inspired by the Greek composer. Roķis predominantly synthesizes and implements his sound ideas in digital environments, merging planned generative strategies with elements of improvisation. His current range of interests includes mechanisms for perceiving and interpreting sound, the space-sound relationship, audio illusions and non-standard sound synthesis. Roķis sometimes co-operates with Kaspars Groševs, an artist active both in music and video and performance art. Groševs’ electronic music attracted attention for its playful, light imagination and lack of pretension, which conceals the work of a perfectionist with a firm grip and impressive musical erudition.
Playfulness, or rather cheeky urban psychedelics, can be attributed to the author of a self-invented genre, the so-called »shit-core« – Kodek. In Latvian experimental music it is not that easy to discern between serious conceptual art and entertainment. Kodek, the apologist of lo-fi and electronic trash, runs dexandthecity records. He controls quick, broken and dissonant rhythmic volleys, generated by toy instruments, computers, etc. Cassette tapes are currently en vogue in underground experimental music, but Kodek goes even further – at one point he started publishing his recordings on the even more hopeless and out-dated floppy discs.
Response abroad – Latvian dubstep
A cassette release by Mārtiņš Roķis
Since the collapse of the Iron Curtain it is the market, and not the repressive system, that has proved to be an obstacle for musicians. Paradoxically, a bigger market and greater opportunities marginalised Latvian experimental music even further.
Up until the 1990s and afterwards, Latvian experimental music existed in a rather isolated state – its contact with the external world was predominantly one-way, i. e., it absorbed influences, while the flow in the opposite direction was severely limited. With time people became accustomed to it, and even if the artists, while creating music, are not placing to much hope in the market, certain historic dynamics have evolved. Experimental music in Latvia has developed outside the official categories, and influences have freely intermingled. Influences from the academic avant-garde have been more awkwardly assimilated, demonstrated by musicians like the aforementioned Mārtiņš Roķis and Platons Buravickis.
It is difficult to say whether a new generation with improved adaptability is appearing, or if Latvia has gradually come to the attention of the international music world, but there are certain results in »export«. Artūrs Liepiņš is a successful case – the guitarist from post-rock group Dun Dun, or Oyaarss, which was also promoted by the aforementioned Mary Anne Hobbs. However, these musicians will probably not become a part of some kind of »Latvian wave« in experimental music, since the Latvian scene is too fragmented to be unified by any common denominators.
Due to a strange coincidence since the 2008 crisis Latvian experimental music in all its expressions has finally transgressed national borders, especially with regard to cooperation with foreign improvisers, as well as in form of concerts and sound art exhibitions. It is difficult to say, whether a new generation with improved adaptability is appearing, or if the name of Latvia has gradually reached the international music world.
 The legendary sanctuary of the subculture in the glasnost period in a basement in Krāmu Street.
 Edmunds Frīdvalds, a writer and industrial musician.
 Edgars Šubrovskis – Andžonš colleague in the group Kartāga, who in 1997 established the group Hospitāļu iela (Hospitāļu Street).
 The musician’s spouse Kristīne Krastiņa-Indāne.
 Jēkabs Voļatovskis – noise musician and metal artist.
 A Latvian national musical instrument similar to the harp/zither.