Antanas Jasenka: music, first and foremost, is science

Important | 2020-09-14

Art seeks to bring harmony and evoke emotions, meanwhile, technologies seem complex and seeking accuracy. These two fields, which previously seemed almost incompatible, are now hardly imagined functioning without each other.

Antanas Jasenka, composer, a lecturer at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU) Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities talks about how arts and technologies interact with each other in his personal and professional life.

Since childhood, you have been engaged in music, and recently you have introduced yourself as a painter. How did you become interested in the arts? What was the relationship with them in your family?

A human being is born akin to a white sheet of paper: it is empty, nothing is written on it, no thoughts are expressed, no visual reflections are drawn. Then we are influenced by nurture and education. Why does one child in the same family become a cultural person, a scientist or an intellectual, possessing not only the knowledge of the multiplication table, but also the inner, spiritual education, and the other grows up into a very negative person, or even becomes a criminal? There is a reason for everything. Perhaps that child who grew up and became negative did not receive the love they needed from their parents and their close ones.

I received that love. A lot of it! My parents took care of me and gave me as a child the necessary information, tools, and “toys” that later became my working tools and allowed my creativity to evolve. I am talking about musical instruments. Of course, when I was growing up, not everything went great right away. I was not a high achiever at school. I would say that school was quite difficult, I had rather bad teachers. But there was a lot of parental support, a belief that I would succeed was with me always.

The person who put great effort into educating me and helped me discover myself was my music teacher. Later, I encountered people and their creative works, which provided me with more life lessons. And then, when you already are on the road, you cannot stop, you continue learning your whole life. Even now I sometimes feel like a child from that time, who does not understand something, who sometimes is lazy… Now I study, I learn and showcase the results at the same time. In both music and painting.

I remember myself from a very early age. I was maybe four or five years old, but even then I knew that I would be a composer. This was something I wanted very much. However, soon I felt the desire to draw also. My first music teacher helped me again: when I couldn’t understand and play one of J. S. Bach’s inventions, she offered to draw it. And I did. Once, when I was eight, my relative, a photographer Rimas Daukša took me to Moscow. We spent a few days over there. We visited the Tretyakov Gallery – one day is not enough to see everything there. I still remember the impression the images I saw made on me, the smell of the oil paint, the scale of the city, the industry. It leaves a mark on the brain and heart.

In previous interviews, you had mentioned that even during your studies you were very interested in electronic music and the possibilities that were provided by technology. What stimulated this interest?

Antanas Jasenka, composer, KTU lecturer / Tomas Petreikis photo

During my studies, I realised that music is not just a combination of beautiful-sounding chords. Music, first and foremost, is science. It contains mathematics, architecture, physics, and biology. I realised that it is necessary to know why you need to use certain sound combinations, to join them into a whole and to try to say something to the listener, to the audience. I could not ignore the fact that there are synthesisers, sound recording capabilities existing. Technologies have been evolving rapidly since the middle of the 20th century, new musical electronic instruments, modular synthesisers Moog, Buchla were created. Any so-called “gear” could seduce a young man like me at the time. I was very interested in it. The problem is that in Soviet times these things were very expensive. It was practically impossible to have them, only in very exceptional cases.

My first electronic instrument that I used for long was VILNIUS-5. By the way, I am looking for it now, but I cannot find it anywhere. Nevertheless, it was a rather good instrument. Synthesiser, technology, sound synthesis has been a testing ground for my explorations and creativity. I am talking about 1982–1986.

Much later, after regaining independence, the access to devices was available, everything became much simpler. This is why I have and use those instruments in my works and experiments. So, in times of independence, I discovered the history of 20th-century music. Composers, such as Giedrius Kuprevičius, Algimantas Kubiliūnas, Osvaldas Balakauskas, Bronius Kutavičius and Feliksas Bajoras appeared in my life. I was able to study with them not only theoretically, but also in practice. I was able to talk to them, to listen to what they had to say, to understand their desire for new music, and different, but reasoned, search for musical solutions. At the same time, I discovered Mindaugas Urbaitis’ lectures on contemporary 20th-century academic music. This pushed me to take an interest, to delve deeper and to learn further.

What were creative solutions in electronic music like when technology was not yet so advanced? How had your creative process changed as the tools have improved?

I started in 1991 with the aesthetics of Noise music. I have several albums that were released at the time, I created them using a magnetic tape, a mixing console, and a few effects. I did not have a computer at that time, and they were not common in our country. A Macintosh computer already existed in the United States, but its price was enormous. For such money, you could have probably bought a one-bedroom flat in Vilnius, so for a student of that time, it was beyond imagination. However, the lack of such technology encouraged even greater interest in what was not taught at the Academy of Music, what we were not learning to do. Therefore, my path of learning more technological things, creating music or sound design for theatre and cinema was longer but maybe that is why it was stronger.

In 1997, the first computers, software, and, of course, the Internet appeared. At the same time, software for music was developed. The culture of digital sound emerged, and the performance of such music began to expand. As the technology evolved, the creative process changed naturally. By the time technology became prevalent in the field, I had already developed my own composing systems. I still use them in creating acoustic, electroacoustic, or electronic music.

There are quite a lot of tools that enable creating music with a few clicks of a button. With the help of artificial intelligence, music or pictures are created from various data or numbers. Do you think that this kind of creativity, creative process and results are equivalent to human creation? Why?

Artificial intelligence has to be programmed by a human being. After all, a pencil and an eraser cannot draw by themselves. And no wonderful paintings can appear by the will of the brush. Everything is done by human intellect, by emotion. Consequently, the works that are created by a computer can also be considered human creations. However, the tools used are not paint or a violin, but programmable data that turns into a recognisable sound or image. Nowadays, it is very easy to compose acoustic, melodic, harmonic combinations, but often the solutions are offered by the same software they are composed with. Such a supply of ideas is created by application developers, technicians, engineers. If a person uses those templates, the result usually is just self-expression and not a creative act. Creativity, composition and technology are, of course, slightly different things.

At KTU, I teach the subject of Music Software. I start the course by saying that we must all read “Hamlet” by Shakespeare, and only when we understand what this drama is conveying, we can start thinking about how and with what software we can reveal what we have perceived. In this way, the templates unintentionally offered by the computer become not only uninteresting but also unnecessary, because you start to strategize and create the idea; only then the sound, harmony or melodic thinking appear.

Do you think that creativity is inseparable from technology today? Is it possible to be a successful creator, an artist without technological knowledge (e.g. how to process music with computer programs)?

I have no doubt that we are dependent on technologies. Without them, you cannot write any novel, create music, or express any thematically selected image. After all, composers from classicism and other times used technological advances just like we do now. Joseph Haydn’s sonatas were written for clavier, a mechanical instrument, which was created solely thanks to technological advances, and which later became piano. In the end, the composition itself is a certain technology. Therefore, the study of different music epochs is necessary in order to be able to understand what music composition techniques were used by composers, what technologies and instruments were existing at that time.

One should also understand that just having the best computer or software doesn’t guarantee that one will create a great piece of art. First of all, we need to understand where we are, what historical phenomena have taken place, what Antiquity is in Western European culture, how we are now affected by the nation’s legacy, why it is so, and so on. Having a systematic social, political, cultural, economic view, you have to find your form of speaking and to understand why you want to talk on a particular topic. Only then it will be clear what to do with the services that are offered by technology, how to use technological advances. Only then it will be possible to understand what musical software or technological advancement will suit you.

However, the reverse process often takes place. A person uses thousands of other people’s works that form a technological unit, uses it as a given, thinking that they created something original – music, timbre, style. It is important to create and to discover the idea first. And technology, if you master it, will help make it all happen.

If we look at this from a different perspective, do technology developers also need creativity? Why?

Of course. Technology developers are aware of the needs of other creative professions, so they cannot be uncreative. They make a product that allows somebody else, a composer, an artist to create value. In some cases, engineers, programmers themselves are sound, music, video artists in disguise. And it helps. Perhaps because of that, we have quite well-developed music software, technologies for composing, recording, and broadcasting music.

How would you describe inspiration? How does it occur to you and what inspires you, and what on the contrary, kills inspiration?

I think there is no such thing as inspiration. This concept emerged while misinterpreting the 19th century Romanticism. It is believed that something comes to an artist from somewhere and it provides them with something… Then, the inspiration works its magic. There’s nothing like that in real life! Do not believe such prophets and their claims. There is only thorough, daily and hard work existing. The more consistently, with more discipline you do your job on a daily basis, the more so-called “inspiration” appears. That inspiration I call cognition. And then comes success. It is like a vicious circle – the more you succeed, the more you want to continue and to experience the expressions of processing your idea and achieving the result. This is where the technologies, that help you to develop those ideas, come into play. It is amazing.

How much of your free time is related to your professional activity?

It has been said: choose a job you love and your life will be a vacation. For me, my so-called free time and professional life are inseparable. It is one and the same. I do not know where my free time and professional activities begin and end. When I have an idea, I check it out, test it, and check it out again every day. I go to sleep and wake up with that idea… And I keep doing it until it becomes clear that right now, I will press the key and write “sol” on the stave.

What advice would you give to people looking for a career in the arts?

Study. Discover. Experiment in expressing your experience in the most comfortable form for you. A smart and emotional piece always reaches the viewer or the audience. And vice versa – a stupid composition will remain stupid. Believing in yourself is a prerequisite. Have self-confidence even if you don’t succeed right away. The path will always be discovered by the one who has positivity in themselves. Do not worry about the “wrong” world, think about how much you don’t know about it yet. Then, you will feel the joy because we have all this time to get to know the world. Time flies – before long, death will be breathing at your face asking: “And what have you done right, darling?”


The interview is a part of the Creative Side of Technology project, with which KTU introduces its versatile and multitalented academic community to the society.