Flutist Balčus releases first full length album Conarium

Singer, songwriter and flutist Elizabete Balčus has, in a short while, become a notable and creative voice in Latvian pop music. Initially performing with Latvian ‘indie pop fairy’ group Sus Dungo, Balčus shortly thereafter began her solo career. Her debut EP – Wooden Horse – won the Latvian Music Recording award for best debut in 2011.

Balčus has now followed up that effort with her first full length album entitled Conarium. Released in 2016 by the indie UK label Liminal Noise Tapes, it provides a showcase for Balčus’ creativity and musical versatility, with its collection of quirky and cheerfully odd songs.

Balčus’ music has been described as avant garde pop, neo-psychadelia, dream pop, among many other descriptions, but it is difficult to find an accurate label for it. Though quite often displaying refined pop sensibilities, the music can often still surprise, but can also be jarring and opaque, and might occasionally remind the listener of the Icelandic singer Bjork. It is music that does require active listening, as Balčus’ arrangements are carefully and intricately woven, providing an appropriately dreamy and ethereal listening experience.

The album’s title – Conarium ­– has two meanings. One refers to the pineal gland in the brain, that produces both melatonin during sleep and serotonin during the day, and, as per the notes in the CD booklet, this keeps us ‘happy and buoyant’. The word can also mean ‘the earliest larval state of the Velella velella’, a type of jellyfish that floats upside-down. Though those are two radically different definitions of the word, both seem quite appropriate for this collection of songs.

The songs, all but two of which are in English, evoke a child-like, yet mature approach. The song “Out”, begins with the sound of a small woodwind ensemble, then Balčus sings with a dreamy naiveté lyrics like ‘butterflies in the winter – I see – they are alive’, as the song then progresses into an atmospheric vocalize that is complemented by Balčus’ flute performance.

The lullaby “Negribas iet gulēt” (lyrics by poet Ojārs Vācietis), is a tender and beautiful ode about a child that is reluctant to go to sleep. Balčus melds the words of Vācietis with a lush musical tapestry, revealing the effective simplicity of the text and resulting in one of the most memorable songs on the album. One does wish that the artist had recorded a few more songs in her native language though, as this song and “Vienīgais ceļš” (with lyrics by Aspazija) are two of the strongest tracks on the record.

Balčus’ lyrics often have a stream of consciousness feel to them, adding even further to the dreamlike atmosphere, such as “Behind the Castle”, where she sings ‘in this city pure desert dimness fills all the shapes’, then repeatedly singing ‘is the castle real?’ as the song fades out. Though her usage of vocal effects is very effective throughout the album, the vocal echo does seem to be occasionally overused – though it does enhance the etherealness of the album, there could be more of a balance with the singer’s natural voice without effects.

One of the truly avant garde (or perhaps just odd) songs is “Jellyfish”, which is an occasionally discordant collection of sounds and somewhat nonsensical lyrics like “sneaky creepy royal harlot tangle jangle is your knowledge”, and then becomes less of a song and more a sonic experiment with non-sequiturs like Balčus declaring “I’m a vegetarian” as well as “eat a jellyfish!”, making for a rather tangled, but intriguing performance.

Balčus’ talents are not limited to music – her design for the CD booklet is one of the most intricate and beautiful booklet designs in recent memory. Filled with photographs, drawings, translucent pages, and the song lyrics in various forms, it is clear that much preparation was put into this artistic presentation. The booklet provides a visual representation for many of the songs, and is appropriately whimsical and esoteric.

Conarium is an accomplished album from the young Latvian talent, engaging and involving the listener from its opening to its conclusion. The songs, though often eclectic and diverse, flow together to provide a thoroughly satisfying listening experience. Ranging from curious experiments to more traditional melodic and vocal approaches, Elizabete Balčus displays an extensive creativity throughout the album, not just in the vocals and lyrics, but in the album booklet as well.

For further information, please visit Elizabete Balčus’ website.

Elizabete Balčus

Conarium
Liminal Noise Tapes, 2016

Track listing:

      1. Out
      2. Tourist
      3. Behind the Castle
      4. Negribas iet gulēt
      5. They’re coming
      6. Jellyfish
      7. The Moon Asked the Crow
      8. Monument
      9. Purple & Gold
      10. Dusk & Recession
      11. Vienīgais ceļš
      12. Luna City
      13. The Hanging Garden

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

New album features Raimonds Pauls’ choral works

Latvian popular music legend Raimonds Pauls, who celebrated his 80th birthday in 2016, is unquestionably the most significant figure in Latvian music in the second half of the 20th century. Composing the music for literally thousands of songs, including timeless classics such as ‘Mežrozīte’, ‘Mēmā dziesma’, and ‘Tā es tevi mīlēšu’, to name just a few, he long ago ensured his place as the most significant Latvian composer in modern history.

Though Pauls is best known for his popular songs, as a prolific composer he has written in many different genres, including jazz and choir music. Recognizing the significance of his contribution to Latvian choir music, the State Choir Latvija and conductor Māris Sirmais recorded an album of Pauls’ choir music entitled Rozes gars, released in 2016.

As popular as Pauls’ music is, his choir songs are not as well known. His best known choir song – ‘Manai dzimtenei’, a regular part of the Song Festival repertoire, actually began life as a pop song (and, it should be noted, is not included in this collection). Beyond that song, choir songs by Raimonds Pauls are not frequently encountered in choir repertoires. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Sirmais and Latvija decided to record and present these songs, as there are many hidden and neglected treasures among Pauls’ choir works, and reveal many facets of Pauls’ compositional style.

The choir song ‘Rozes gars’ (lyrics by Jānis Peters), which gives this collection its title, is dedicated to composer Emīls Dārziņš. It is an appropriate dedication, as the work could be considered a spiritual successor to Dārziņš’ romantic and emotional works written at the turn of the 20th century. The choir, with their at once precise and emotive performance, provides the necessary tenderness and delicacy for this work.

One of Pauls’ earlier choir compositions is his music for the famous Latvian epic poem ‘Tālavas taurētājs’ by Rūdolfs Blaumanis. The poem, about a trumpeter who sacrifices his life to ensure King Miervaldis and his people are awoken in time to defend against plague of demons that are approaching the castle, provides a number of different stylistic opportunities to musically present the events. Still, though, perhaps due to being one of Pauls’ early choir compositional attempts, though the music closely follows the story, it does seem a bit ‘academic’ at times. Here is the heroic section, and here is the tense section, and here is the mournful section, and so on. However, Pauls’ music does provide an appropriately theatrical interpretation of Blaumanis’ poetry.

Most of the compositions on the album are very brief – three minutes in length or less. However, Pauls is clearly most comfortable and adept with these miniature forms. For example, the song ‘Grezna saule debesīs’ (lyrics by Inese Zandere, and originally composed for the youth choir Kamēr… as part of their World Sun Songs project). This short song, with its jazzy elements and complex and colorful chords, paints a beautiful portrait with Zandere’s lyrics about the sun and the Daugava River.

Of course, Raimonds Pauls’ talents for catchy melodies also imbue many of the works in this collection, such as ‘Lielais vaicājums’, featuring Pauls himself on the piano. With its easy, rolling melody alongside the spiritual text by long time Pauls lyrical collaborator Jānis Pēters, the song is one of many examples of how Pauls’ melodic talents can easily fit into a choir setting.

The collection comes in a handsome velvety book, and includes all the lyrics, as well as biographical notes on Pauls, Sirmais, and the choir in Latvian, English, and Russian.

With the State Choir Latvija, undoubtedly one of the best choirs in the world, and with veteran and visionary conductor Māris Sirmais, these choir works by Raimonds Pauls come alive on Rozes gars. Not that Raimonds Pauls’ compositional talents were ever in any doubt, but this collection shines a new light on this somewhat less familiar section of Pauls’ oeuvre. Rozes gars is a fitting tribute to the choir music of Raimonds Pauls – a composer who has been an essential part of Latvian music for more than half a century.

For further information, please visit the State Choir Latvia website

State Choir “Latvija”

Rozes gars
2017

Track listing:

      1. Rozes gars
      2. Izšuj mani, māmuliņa
      3. Gaismiņ, teci man pa priekšu
      4. Taurenis lilijas kausā
      5. Gleznotājs
      6. Bērzu birzīte
      7. Man pazudis cīrulis
      8. Piena krūze
      9. Tēvis, māmuliņa
      10. Grezna saule debesīs
      11. Ja man saule roku dotu
      12. Dārzs ziemā
      13. Nīcas dziedātājas pirtnieku mates piemiņai
      14. Akmeņi Vidzemes jūrmalā
      15. Tālavas taurētājs
      16. Div’ Piebalgas pravieši
      17. Šūpļa dziesma
      18. Rotaļu dziesma
      19. Vairs nesēro…
      20. Smejies, puce
      21. Maniem vecākiem
      22. Pie savas mates
      23. Ozols
      24. Lielais vaicājums

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Elizabeta Lāce’s album Mōaigā a celebration of the Liv culture

Harpist, songwriter, and vocalist Elizabeta Lāce released her first solo album in 2016. Entitled Mōaigā (or Zemesmala in Latvian, or Landside), the album is a collection of experimental instrumental works, performed entirely on the harp. Lāce, who has performed with groups such as Sus Dungo and Dzelzs vilks, has always been a major creative force in Latvian music, and this album has her branching out in yet another direction.

The album title – Mōaigā – is from the Liv language, and Lāce intended the album to be a celebration of the Liv culture, especially considering that there are very few Liv left. Lāce herself has been studying Liv culture and history, and these studies provided the inspiration for this album.

The atmospheric nature of the album becomes clear with the opening sounds of the song ‘Smiltis’, with the sound of the rustling wind then giving way to a slow procession of notes, evoking a late night or early morning stroll on a beach devoid of any other people. The song ends as quietly as it begins, and seems to almost drift away into the sea.

The song ‘Vētra’ (or Storm) is actually not as tempestuous as the title might indicate, though the deliberate progression of notes on the harp, gradually building to a crescendo, indicates a perhaps more emotional storm, which then slowly tapers off and recedes.

The serene and sacred atmosphere of a walk through a cemetery is presented in ‘Kapsēta’, perhaps the quietest work on this album of hushed songs. Elements of the Latvian folksong ‘Ej, saulīte, drīz pie dieva’ can be heard, and Lāce intertwines the melody with her own vision of a somber search for a particular headstone.

The most ominous work is ‘Ugunskoks’, which is dedicated to the Jews that died at the Salaspils concentration camp during World War II. Its low rumblings, indicating a sense of dread and fear, gradually build in emotional tension, making for unnerving and disturbing listening.

Though the album is purely instrumental (managing to get not just music, but all kinds of sounds from a harp), the booklet with the CD does include some poetry and stories (in Liv, Latvian and English), perhaps as a guide for better understanding of the musical works. Oddly, the booklet makes no mention of those that worked on the album (such as sound engineer Gundars Rullis or Alis P – with whom Lāce played on his album Ciparu pasaule). The album booklet also contains photographs taken by Lāce in locations where Livs live.

The improvisational and ambient style gives the album an overall dreamy feel, though one does wish at times that there had been a few more active, energetic sections to balance the calm and serene ones, though it is clearly intentional that the album moves at such a slow pace, perhaps as a balance against the frenetic modern world.

Elizabeta Lāce, at once creative and slightly eccentric (she once staged a performance while sitting in a rowboat full of water and slowly submerging herself) has made an album that showcases her creativity, but may be difficult to understand for some listeners. Some may hear a captivating sonic journey through nature, while others may just hear someone absentmindedly plucking at a harp for almost an hour. As it is indeed experimental harp music, absent of clear melodies, it does require a bit of imagination to enjoy and appreciate. The songs do tend to blend into one another, which is perhaps the idea, as it is meant to evoke a stroll by the sea, through the woods, and other depictions of natural phenomena. Elizabeta Lāce, on her album Mōaigā, utilizes her extensive musical and creative talents to present many unexpected and unusual aspects of the harp in her unique vision of nature.

Elizabeta Lace - Zemesmala 001

 

Elizabeta Lāce

Mōaigā
2016

Track listing:

      1. Smiltis
      2. Vētra
      3. Dieva suņu ēnas
      4. Vējš
      5. Nakts
      6. Cilvēki
      7. Langa
      8. Diena
      9. Ugunskoks
      10. Kapsēta
      11. Saulriets
      12. Laiks

 

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area who lives in Rīga, Latvia. When not working in the information technology field, he sings in the Latvian Academy of Culture mixed choir Sõla, does occasional translation work, and has been known to sing and play guitar at the Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs in Old Rīga. Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.