DOMINYKAS VYŠNIAUSKAS — a trumpet as a thought amplifier
A musician dynasty descendant simultaneously living in Latvia and Lithuania on watching emotions and endless fight with his instrument
My first personal encounter with him was at a jazz club, when drummer Artis Orubs said «Well, if you’re searching for someone to join your project, let’s take this guy: he plays tuba». While I was trying to imagine a spoken word project with a tuba, the musician added «Actually I do some trumpet as well». This is how I got to know Dominykas Vyšniauskas, a skilled and versatile trumpeter living in two countries at the same time, regularly touring to more places than he can count, and sharing his knowledge with students in Vilnius, Kaunas and Riga.
Dominykas studied at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre in Vilnius, Leipzig Music College, SUNY Purchase College New York and the Amsterdam Conservatoire. Currently he is teaching at the Music Academy of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, the Juozas Tallat-Kelpša Conservatory in Vilnius and Jāzeps Vītols Latvian Music Academy in Riga. He has participated in major Lithuanian and international jazz festivals and toured throughout Europe, Canada and the US as a participant in various international projects including Latvian Radio Big Band.
Have to admit, I did my homework and listened to all video and audio materials I could find with Dominykas’ participation later than we did two stage performances together and way later than I started to get to know this wise man’s life philosophy. So we eventually had to meet to put all the puzzle together and talk about his childhood music experience, jazz community in Latvia and Lithuania, definition of a successful jazz musician, emotional stories behind music and many other practical and philosophical topics.
At what age did you start doing music?
At the age of 4 or 5. I was discovering piano at my grandfathers’ in a town called Panevežys where I was born. It’s a creepy place, famous for gangs and crime, and it’s pretty dead culturally. They’re trying to make it nice though. So my grandfather had an upright piano, I had no clue of musical notation, but I enjoyed just playing random notes and creating something. I remember that as a visual experience, just seeing stories, sounds evoked something and I could conduct them, or they would conduct me, in a way.
Did your father’s (famous jazz saxophonist and clarinetist Petras Vyšniauskas) career influence your choices in music?
Definitely. Actually, he was never practicing at home, so I didn’t get influenced by his playing directly. We went to a few concerts of his with my mom, I also remember that as a visual experience. At home he would just listen to some records, and that was the biggest influence, molding my musical taste. It’s funny, but I remember records of David Sanborn and Jan Garbarek. I also remember some pop music like Michael Jackson, Tina Turner and Sting. I think, later on he was intentionally starting to make me listen to Coltrane and guys like this. I’ve inherited my first trumpet from my cousin, being jealous of him playing first than me, because he was older, and my mother was a music teacher, so yes, I’ve had a musical family.
Did you ever want to play a brass instrument yourself?
Now I think it was wisely played by my dad — he always wanted me to play some brass instrument, and I was too young to understand. He was buying the records for me, letting me hear some concerts, silently tapping on my shoulder saying — oh, check this out. My father is also coming from a musical dynasty — my great grandfather played trumpet, and then there was a family of village musicians from the West of Lithuania. Those were going out of home, playing at weddings, not going back for a couple of weeks. My great grandfather used to play trumpet, then he lost all his teeth and continued to play violin for the rest of his life. They were famous for carrying on.
Was it tough to be a musician’s kid?
I don’t think so. My dad passed this on me, what gradually became an urge to master that monster. It’s really a constant fight, this instrument. But sometimes it kind of gets to be manipulated a little bit. You kind of feel you’re in control. And then, which was probably said by Roy Eldridge, next morning you wake up, open the case, and it laughs at you. It’s the meanest instrument of all! If you’re trying too hard, it really backs off. Very hard is not to take it all too seriously. We want certain things, we want them badly, we take them too serious, and then the instrument still laughs at us, you know.
Will you accept it if your son wants to become a musician as well?
I wouldn’t want it — it’s hard these days to be a musician. You have to be really crazy to live this kind of life, especially jazz musician. To blow some kind of a monophonic instrument with just one voice — it’s quite silly these days. Everybody can do anything on computer and think they’re geniuses, in every form of art, technology is changing the landscape. I just hope the world of art with technology will not change too drastically by the time my kids grow up, and music will stay valued at least as craft — just a physical act of producing sound is very special.
Speaking of your performing career — have you ever tried to count all of your concerts or at least countries? Which was the place you felt the most cosy at?
I’m always having a real trouble with preparing my biography, each time I have to make a puzzle. Tried to do it a few times, but I couldn’t recall the number. Among them, I loved Iceland. I’ve been there for some 5 times in the last 10 years, this summer going to play there again. It’s changing so fast, you can see how globalization works, tourism is changing people’s attitude towards you. People there were truly friendly at the beginning, then they got just tourist-friendly, getting fed up with a lot of people, so naturally became a bit distant. It used to be very different, but the landscapes is something that sticks. I have a lot of friends there, and I somehow have an image, a feeling, that they are very similar in terms of mentality, close to the circle of people I’m connected to in Lithuania. That country for me feels like home. In any case, home is family, and it doesn’t matter so much where. I would now prefer Lithuania, but I couldn’t say consciously why, I hope, it’s not out of habit. And if my family and I would have to choose another place — I guess I could call Iceland my home.
And if we turn to your teaching — what’s important to you as a teacher?
To understand the person in front of me. I’m not an amazing psychologist, never was, but that’s my ultimate wish to understand a person, his or her strongest points, what is he or she really striving for. Help to extract the person, even though this sounds creepy. It’s a big responsibility of not interfering with or not influencing a person in a bad way. Teaching is about finding ways to strengthen a person as he or she is, and to offer at least some possibility of directions he or she could choose. Nurturing a little bit.
You’re saying «he or she» — do you feel any difference in how girls and boys take on the material?
I haven’t thought about it much. Girls are very open to emotional associations, more sensitive to that. Somehow my mind is more feminine speaking of this, I’m not so analytical, although I think I’m getting better at it. Becoming more of an observer than a participant. Emotions are not so capable of driving me nuts anymore. In my early year career they used to. Caring less is a better way to go.
What’s the most important idea you usually teach all of your students?
That’s short and simple, and I said it to my student today — keep calm and listen. Keeping calm is not shutting up, it’s trying to find the calm side of the emotions. You shouldn’t put your full trust on your emotions. Ruled, fooled or get harmed by them. Instead just observe them. So you’re actually a participant, but not as vulnerable.
When do you get more emotional — while playing yourself or listening to the others?
It depends. When you’re listening to someone, you need to be very open to let someone in. You have to be insisting to hear something. Listening and hearing are different things. Me and you are listening to some background music right now, but we don’t hear a thing of it.
Spending so much time on the road, what do you usually do there?
I used to drive more, and now choose the bus more often, that’s a big difference. I’m getting less tired, trying to sleep, listening to music, preparing for lessons, answering emails. When I drove, I used to practice trumpet. Probably that’s not the safest thing to do, but I used to enjoy it, discovering long tones, things that I always used to avoid during my younger years of practicing the instrument, some fundamentals, discovering the fun of repetition, doing very simple things.
I cannot skip speaking of the differences between Latvia and Lithuania, since you’re leading an active life in both countries. Did you spot some in the jazz community?
The more I come here, the less differences I see. It feels like another town. It’s just the mental notion — you’re crossing the border, so there should be something different. The language and everything is, of course, but in general, or in the jazz scene — not that much.
What’s your favorite venue to play at? A tiny crowded jazz bar or an arena?
First thing that comes to my mind is a tiny jazz club with good acoustics and as less artificial sounds as possible. As acoustic as possible, a small nice sounding room. A bit nicer when people are not eating in the meantime, because you feel alienated then. I liked to play on the street as well, by the way. I don’t do that anymore, but we did it with this Icelandic band, in Reykjavik, for example, a couple of years ago.
How do you define a successful musician nowadays then?
The question is if successful means earning a lot or doing what you want without caring about business, being artistically rightfully extracted for the audience. Able to open your full potential for the audience without being manipulated by the market. Just being honest and doing what you want without thinking of survival every single time — that’s success.
Do you think there are such in Latvia or Lithuania?
To certain extent, maybe. I don’t know so much, but Raimonds Pauls could be one of those. Maybe he had different kind of barriers, but I think he was pretty much playing what he wants for all his life. We always have to do a lot of compromises in life. The most successful, I guess, are those who don’t make compromises, just going towards what they want — that brings the most happiness for an artist.
But if you’re doing what you really want, and that’s not so «eatable» for the audience — if you have nobody to consume your music, what happens then?
I think that in the end it happens only if you’re not brave enough and not consistent enough to let those people know who you are. If they didn’t have enough time to digest who you are and accept you being just like that. If you go out of your house every day and you see a tree, for example, that you never saw before, someone has brought it and planted it in some crazy place. First you think — okay, this is crazy, it’s in the wrong place, the climate isn’t right, it’s inviting some strange birds and creatures. A couple of days from then you think the same, with your colleagues and neighbors complaining about the same thing. After a while you eventually get used to it, that’s logical. Maybe not everybody likes it, but everyone will get used to it. In the worst case, you’ll cut it down. That’s the way for a true artist — to keep being yourself. Someone has planted you in this country, of this Earth, and it’s you — you have to be yourself, and the others will accept it.
And if your trumpet was a person, whom would it be like?
It’s just a piece of metal that resonates. The sound starts in your head, that’s what I believe. And you are not even responsible for that, it’s vibration that rings in you. You can provoke it by a thought or a sight, or you see it written on a piece of paper, and it starts ringing in you. It’s like talking — all you want to do is to let it out. And the instrument of your choice helps you in that. My trumpet is just an amplification of my thought.
Do you have any dreams right now?
I just want to make as many concerts as possible. Playing the most honest music that is possible to play for the moment. I hope that the trumpet still gets more manageable with years and allows me to encounter some moments when I can express myself more freely than it used to be. It’s a mean instrument. But there’s a lot of charm in it — it’s nicely challenging, you have to approach it from scratch every single day, just to win the day every time. It’s a constant war zone. It’s nice to feel like a winner at the end of the day, if it works out. Usually it doesn’t. At the end it’s all about being happy or not, you know. What makes you happy. If you can let go of everything without any drop of pain or regret — that makes me happy.