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You cannot improvise and think about baked sausages

Aleksandra Line

A person who leads the process. Raitis Ašmanis and his visible and invisible work of a conductor

Publicity photo

At the end of February 2021, I had a chance to visit a rehearsal space of Jelgavas Big Band, visiting its conductor and art director, Raitis Ašmanis. Last year the big band released the album «Latvijas sajūtas», and the Latvians have already heard a lot about it. Sitting in the creative place of the big band in between empty (during the pandemic) note stands, chairs, and shelves full of sheet music folders, I had a chance to talk to Raitis Ašmanis about his creative path, big band future plans, and peculiarities, challenges and daily life of a big band conductor.

Who were you dreaming of becoming when you were small?

Somewhere deep inside, I knew I’m going to become a musician. I come from Ozolnieki, it’s near here close to Jelgava, I was really small when I attended a small-town school, and they had music lessons there. I was 9 or 10 years old, it was 1974 or so, I was completely unprepared when I went there. So a teacher came to us, an older guy told me, «Hey, buddy, you have something in you». And I thought: «Well, why does he even say so?: Then I applied for the accordionist courses, played a little bit of accordion, then visited solfeggio lessons in Jelgava, and then when I had to finish the 8th grade, my older brother told me: «Hey, it seems like you like that music, go to a music high school». I was playing everything I heard on the radio on my accordion, there were some competitions and awards here and there, I tried to apply to the accordion class in the music high school, and they told me: «Well, no, we have a competition, you need to have a level here. If you want to learn something, let’s go to the horns, they always miss something. They brought me there and said: «It has been some ten years since nobody has studied French horn, so you’re going to play that one». And I really didn’t care what to play. I didn’t even know what that French horn looked like, I was fifteen years old. So I began studying, a teacher came who taught us great conducting skills, and said to me: «Well, you have something in there». This is how I began leading a school orchestra, graduated, and had my own orchestra. I was eighteen.

That’s quite a quick turn from a performer, a French horn player, to a conductor at an early age.

It wasn’t such a quick turn. I’d say I switched to it when I graduated from the Music Academy, some 5 — 6 more years have passed, there was some army in between, I learned French horn and conducting at the Academy, and then a year before my graduation, they offered me to conduct in Riga Circus. At that time, I knew nothing about jazz, jazz was taboo — how can you even like something you have no idea of? I began working at the Circus. I played the French horn at the Academy and then went across the street to conduct an orchestra — I was the main conductor at Riga Circus, aged 23. In 1990 I graduated from the Academy, it’s been four years of playing in the opera orchestra, playing down there, and then you realize it’s all the way up in the Circus. And everyone applauds you and says, «Good afternoon, Maestro!» You’ve asked me about a dream. It hasn’t been a dream, it just came true!

Leading a large big band is a great responsibility.

Of course. And it isn’t a responsibility at that moment, you know, all the work really is invisible — talking, organizing, providing. We don’t meet due to pandemic at the moment, but when we do, we rehearse once a week, but I come here every day to work with these folders, for example. See what’s important for a musician — you open your folder, everything has to be in there. Everything set up, just go through your sheets. Another program in another folder. I have a whole suitcase for one concert with the notes with me. I don’t have a librarian of sorts, I do everything myself. Our musicians are really responsible for speaking of the sheets, they know I’ve put lots of work into it, they don’t throw them away — close everything after a concert, put everything in my suitcase. Leading and leadership are during the process, but I see another side of it as well, the one nobody sees every day.

Do you have someone to help you with management?

There are two extra people, a concertmaster and an inspector, administrator, whom I tell we have a concert at a venue we don’t know yet — then an inspector comes earlier, finds a backstage for the big band, oversees where’s a stage, parking lot. And when I come, there are the note stands, sheet music, percussion, technical things on my bus. Since 2003 we have a professional big band status from the Jelgava city, we have financial support from the city, I write projects, we have our conditions which we’re working at, and I have a work contract, according to which I have a number of concerts I have to organize per year, and soloists I have to invite annually. The only thing is — we’re 14 people officially, and the whole big band with percussion is 20 people. So we just have to take professional outsource extra musicians, however, they are one and the same people who also come to rehearsals which the city pays them for. We somehow couldn’t agree with the municipality that we need the full line-up. But that would be really necessary. Ten years ago, we worked with a significant part of Latvian musicians. And so many new ones have appeared now… Anete (daughter) or Reinis (son) tell me from time to time — there’s a concert like this, let’s go and listen. So I evaluate it, get acquainted with the new music, browse the internet.

What criteria do you evaluate according to that new music you hear — how do you decide if you want to hear more of it or even collaborate?

Criteria are straightforward, of course — that’s professionalism. The singers, of course, have to have some charisma, charm. I evaluate how they make relationships with the audience. Speaking of inviting them to collaborate — I have pretty limited opportunities, there are not that many concerts. We have five saxophones, someone can always play for someone else, but there’s just one soloist, and there are so many of them in the country. Some people who organize concerts offer me a ready-made range of singers they’ve picked, so I just have to decide on the repertoire. Quite often there are some events with some certain singers. If there would be more concerts, there would be more possibilities. This is what I tell my musicians: «We’re a professional orchestra, we can do a gig tomorrow if we need to». Even right here. But who’s going to pay for that? And it isn’t so easy for a big band, it’s not the same as a choir that can go anywhere, stand at any hall, and sing a capella. Big band is a really complicated thing. Note stands, wires, amplifiers, instruments, repertoire, arrangements, and so on. That’s a real process.

Publicity photo

How do you usually make the repertoire for the big band?

I like some solid works. Unfortunately, it isn’t so often in jazz — symphonies or operas. But I’m trying to do it — now, when it becomes possible, we will be doing fragments from rock operas both with vocalists and instrumentally. And Andrew Lloyd Webber has really beautiful music. We, for example, work with the Jelgava Chamber orchestra lead by Aigars Meri, and we had sympho-jazz with strings, a program by Ella Fitzgerald, Aigars’ projects. Large forms are something whole, people, like it. When ABBA broke apart, Benny Andersson had a rock opera called «Chess», amazing music — so I offered Aigars to do it, and now we’re waiting until we can do that in our city. Now Elga Igenberga turned 100, she has an operetta called «Annele» — music is available, we’re getting prepared to play it. Our goal is to play serious programs.

It’s no secret that I’m conducting the Siauliai Big Band for six years now, it’s right here by the Lithuanian border. That’s a high-class orchestra with a full line-up and really powerful Lithuanian musicians because they’re going to work from Vilnius. There are 220 kilometers from Vilnius to Siauliai, and they go to work once a week.

Can you avoid comparing both big bands while working with both?

Lithuanians have been here, they told me: «You have a paradise here!» We don’t have such good conditions in Siauliai, we don’t have our own place. We have played a concert together once, Jelgavas big band and Siauliai big band — I just changed my suit and kept on conducting. And Siauliai saw that the Latvians were following every gaze of ming. That is because we are whole. It was challenging with discipline in Siauliai in the very beginning — they’re all musicians, I had to apply drastic methods in the beginning. Drastic means — saying that was your last rehearsal here, bye. A director comes, and I tell him: «He bothers me working, he doesn’t have any discipline, choose now, is it me or him». But that was in the very beginning, they didn’t have discipline at that time. And I don’t deal with it. See, everyone is going to tell you that — a conductor always walks on thin ice. First of all, it’s a really difficult profession — you’re a leader, and at the same time, you cannot offend anyone personally by any means. When you play music, you have to forget about personal relationships, music is the third dimension, a soul’s flight. You cannot play music and think of baked sausages, then nothing comes out of your instrument except sausages.

What other traits of character does a conductor have to have to be successful?

A conductor has to be a musician. He has to understand musical thought and help create a line-up. I’m in the front, like a volume button — loud, quiet. When there’s a concert, I don’t have to show it anymore, because we’re all one. Then a conductor also has to understand everyone as a human being, be positively charged, a conductor cannot go up front there and be negative. And then, you know, there’s only one conductor and twenty musicians — you will never understand everyone, so you have to be objective. We have found that common language. A conductor has to be able to sing — he has to have the phrases, accents, he has to be a musician. Being a conductor is really difficult, but one thing’s clear — a conductor is that person who takes full responsibility and leads the process. But we have discussions in the process, I never say it’s going to be like that because I know what’s better. They, of course, let me decide, but the musicians offer good decisions, and we often accept what someone says.

If a young musician or a neighbor boy comes to you and says, he wants to become a conductor — what’s the advice you’ll give him?

A conductor? Nobody has ever told me that. They usually come and tell them they want to play. I have two bands — the professional city big band and a district and city young big band. There’s a simple difference between a conductor and a usual musician — all conductors are musicians, but not every musician can become a conductor. There are 15 chief conductors for choirs in Mežaparks, that’s it. But how many conductors are there in Latvia? A couple of hundreds. It’s just the same for orchestras. I have taught academic conducting in school for 30 years. See, there’s one more thing about conducting that all the conductors of the world say — conductors improve their skills for all their lives because that’s the highest dimension. I had a talk with one artist once who wanted to know everything about music, so I told him it’s just the same as he takes his colors. He has a palette, a white piece of paper, and he now has to think which colors to mix, take black or green, yellow or red. It’s just the same in music. And another really important profession for the big band sound is a sound engineer, they play a huge part.

Which colors have you mixed in the sounding of the new big band’s album?

In the beginning, we didn’t have an idea to create an album — we thought to make a couple of arrangements. And when we had a couple, we wrote a project application for the State Culture Capital Foundation, they supported us, and I wrote to an arranger Michael Abene who is well-known in the world. And then I realized we could record it. There’s a lot of Latin music, a couple of Bossanovas — that’s Brazilian style that has to be very sweet, of course, and there are no sad colors in that music. Funk music is a bit more aggressive, the band gives it a push, so the colors become brighter. As an artist, I would paint something that would be yellow, red, and black here and there. And a bit of blue — blue sea, blue sky.

Will you change something in the working process when planning the next album?

There’s one thing that’s really important for any musician — play here and now. Of course, it would be best if we would play all together, then there’s the feeling, that flight, sometimes even not along with a metronome. We were using a new method when working on this album — first recorded rhythm, then horns. I would, of course, want the big band to play all together in the recording in the future. There’s a reason why nowadays big bands often release albums with concert recordings, I would do it like that as well. Another story is that this material is so difficult you simply can’t play it at once, that’s extra difficult, the sixth level of difficulty. And the whole big band, 20 people, have to play 24 bars in unison — it isn’t that easy. The moment one of them fails — that’s it. Unfortunately, that’s what a recording process is like — if you want to get a good recording, you have to use this method. But I’d like us all to record together.

What are the future creative plans for the big band as soon as it becomes possible?

From the beginning of the big band, starting from 2003 — 2005, when we became somewhat capable, we began touring European competitions. Such competitions are sporadic because there’s some specific, but that’s a road I’d like to continue because that competition doesn’t only take a day, it’s a competition. And musicians cannot simply compete who’s better — one listener can like one of them, another can like someone else. But competition means a process that is the school of life for young musicians, mastery of getting prepared, you practice, do concerts meanwhile. And the other way is — during the last 5 — 6 years, we have begun collaborating with foreign soloists. These programs make such a wave, we prepare concerts when we can do them again. And, of course, we have to use the opportunities and perform with the best Latvian soloists. Anete (Ašmane) sometimes tells me something right, and I listen to her thoughts — she advises me to use that opportunity to take something new, play original compositions by Latvian and foreign artists. See, here’s a youth big band CD we’ve released this year — there you go, Daumants Kalniņš, Gunārs Rozenbergs, Raimonds Pauls, but there’s also Ivars Jercums — our big band guitar player who wrote a composition «Zivis» (Fish). These are not the fish that swim — these are horoscope fish, Pisces. And so I offered Artūrs Sebris to compose something, Svens Vilsons is also ready to compose for the big band. We’re also playing a composition by Reinis Ašmanis, which he participates in the big band music competition with.

Now, at the end of February 2021, the times seem harder — we have no idea when we can meet again, perform live, listen to live music… What is your advice to all the creative ones on how not to quit now?

See, I have a completely different scenario myself — I’m a teacher as well, I have my day job. I don’t have any possibilities to do concerts, but I prepare programs, plan ahead. There’s no standstill in my head, I come to work here every day. I have time to arrange it now. We, musicians, can go on complaining, but there’s no point in it if we can’t affect anything when nothing depends on us. Ainārs Rubiķis has told it in his interview — did anyone explore how many musicians got sick in the concert halls? Nobody checked anything like it, they just closed the concert halls down, that’s it, full stop. I was also attending concert halls with my mask on, maybe fewer people could get in, okay, but everything’s closed now — what can we even complain of? We can’t influence anything. A job of a musician is to bring positive emotions. People nowadays can’t give any positive emotions, we can’t give them, nobody lets me. Even if I’ll go to protest, what will it result in? Nothing. It’s challenging for some other musicians who don’t have their day jobs — well, they have to get their patience, they can use some time for self-education in any specialty. Those who aren’t quitting, those keep working — of course, everyone needs some susceptibility, but I don’t see any other way here. Go influence something you can do yourself. There’s just one way to go.