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Aleksandra Line

A conversation with Mārtiņš Saulespurēns on Riga Sound Recording studio, rushing, soul, and significant plans

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I am on my way to Mārtiņš Saulespurēns, and due to the enormous amount of snow that unexpectedly covered the streets of Riga again, I am a little late. I let the hero of this story know when I’m coming, and he responds with: “What should I prepare, tea or coffee?” A talk we’re about to have is long enough to divide into two parts, and I’m still back home after our second meeting with a little sense of insufficiency – the man has many stories to tell. In the beginning, I wanted this to be a portrait interview, but then I realized I wouldn’t opt for revealing more of his personality than the other mass media already have. Mr.Saulespurēns, in turn, wanted to talk about the new project he is willing to finish by the middle of 2022. However, our talk still leads in all directions simultaneously: from the Sound Recording studio to himself and back because one cannot be perceived without another. While accompanying me to the door, he asks: “What will the name of this interview be, Aleksandra?” I’m still not sure, Mārtiņš. I’ll finish it and then come up with one.

Mārtiņš Saulespurēns (1943) is the son of a famous jazz man, Oskars Saulespurēns, jazz historian and collector, audio engineer, drummer, and inventor. After graduating from the Riga Polytechnical Institute, he worked at the Latvian Academy of Music as an audio engineer; together with his American colleague, he established the Latvian success story — «Baltic Latvian Universal Electronics» or «BLUE microphones», then sold it and turned to work in another company dealing with audio technique. He has left his impact on the tastes of many Latvians, gathering and exchanging recordings with the foreigners, which inevitably led to his coming under the KGB’s supervision. “I consider myself an inexhaustible source of information”, – he said to some of the Latvian press. One of the times when I come to visit, in the hall of the historical apartment, there’s a disassembled amplifier along with an instrument kit near it: “I have to fix it”.

Has there been a recording that has left the biggest impression on you?

I grew up listening to my father’s 78-inch vinyls when I was a school kid – Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington. These tapes and the “Metronome” magazine were what my father was ordering in the times of the first independent Republic of Latvia in the thirties of the last century, and they were there until the Soviet times. In 1955, «Voice of America» began broadcasting a daily two-hour-long program, «Voice of America Jazz Hour» — my father and I listened to it. Thanks to these broadcasts, we mostly found out about current jazz tendencies in the US, although some European recordings were also played. In 1956 USSR released the two-track magnetophone “Dnepr 9”. My father bought it, and sometimes Krūmiņš and Raimonds Raubiško came to listen to these recordings in the summer. I remember only one episode of that kind, but a really bright one, and that recording was from the “Jazz Hour” show where the composition “BeBop” from the vinyl “For Musicians Only”, released in 1958, was played – Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Getz were playing there. I recently found that recording and listened to it again – I can imagine how impressed were the musicians by the unbelievable virtuosity at that time. So it was either summer of 1958 or 1959, and I was 14 or 15 years old. Starting from the sixties, our collection began to expand to vinyl tapes that my father received from his foreign colleagues, and later on, I exchanged the recordings – you can read all about it in my book “Microphones and Art”.

You called yourself a technical person and a big jazz fan. Do these words describe you the best?

I wouldn’t want to describe myself at all. If someone put ten different descriptions before me, I’d probably pick another one, not the one you’ve mentioned. Maybe you can see which one suits me better? It’s hard to tell. Unfortunately, there aren’t people left here, in Latvia, who have known me since the Soviet Union times. There’s just one bass guitar player who has played at REO (Riga Estrada Orchestra) for a while, Valdis Ošs.

It’s December now, and you’ve just mentioned that your new major plan is 54% ready. Please tell me more about it, and what does such a precise number mean?

I’m a Riga Sound Recording Studio co-owner at the Reformed Church. Have you been there? It has lovely acoustics that no country in the Baltics has, with a very precise sound – this hall is unique, and many outstanding recordings have been made there. Unfortunately, this studio has been very run-down technically, so I plan to restore the direct room. There’s new lighting done; the Steinway grand piano, produced in 1982 in Germany, has been restored, so one can already begin recording music on it today without being ashamed of the quality of the instrument. What else can I add to it? Everything is getting done, so I hope this summer the work will be finished, and despite difficulties caused by the pandemic, the studio will be alive again.

How was the idea about bringing this studio back to life again born? Along with the wish to invest time and effort in making it happen.

And money, too. I know this studio and people who have been working here since the mid-60ies. I often met the sound engineer Vilnis Kaksis who unfortunately isn’t among us anymore, and he was always complaining that nothing was happening. So I had an idea of restoring the piano, which would be connected to the Jack Michalitzky fund, but this project was delayed, didn’t happen, and sadly enough, Vilnis Kaksis died. And this somehow pushed me forward – Vilnis maintained this studio so that everything could happen there technically, while Aldis Ermanbriks cared for the clients. In my day job in America, our microphone projects are running smoothly, and everything’s alright, so I’m not quite that busy with it, and I also get my monthly fee, so my financial position allows me to invest in the studio.

Will the studio stick to its current name?

While working abroad, I realized how important any story connected to history is. Today we can see that many respectable companies lost for some time are returning to the market with the same name and brand. My work is now connected to the huge enterprise «Turtle Beach» that mostly produces stuff for video games, but some 10 – 15 years ago, it produced high-quality sound cards. And the company finds it really important to keep the line and the name going; they don’t see any meaning in renaming it. And I’m not planning on renaming the Riga Sound Recording studio, too – I think this isn’t necessary.

Who else except you and Aldis Ermanbriks is on the team?

Sound engineer Tālis Timrots actively uses the small studio downstairs under his trademark «Mints Music», but he also has his shares in this whole studio. Some of the old ones aren’t working anymore and have less stress – an excellent sound engineer Kārlis Pinnis who’s retired for quite some time, and there’s Andris Ūze, but they aren’t working here. At the moment, there are actually three of us working. Later on, we definitely have to find more people to join us, but first, we have to get some technically good equipment running.

How do you evaluate this studio as soon as it’s ready, compared to the other sound recording studios in Riga?

I think the primary value of this studio is the hall itself. It’s suitable for recording choirs and symphony orchestras – no studio can compete with it. A recording of Deniss Pashkevich is planned there, the one of Kristaps Vanadziņš trio – some activities connected with jazz, too. Let’s also not forget that we can use this hall for different concerts. I don’t think I wish to compete with anyone – the venue itself will be unique. Yes, nowadays, you can imitate sound with the help of the previously prepared sound post-production, but this isn’t it.

Just the same as holding a printed magazine in your hands instead of an electronic one – it has an entirely different value. Just the same as a compact disc or vinyl format. Speaking of sound, I think modern digital recordings are better, although I’m not saying the analog one is bad. If we get back to technical questions – to listen to vinyl, you need to spend more money on equipment. Nowadays, technology has reached such a quality that you have to have high-quality headphones, but we can also listen to music on the phone. And it won’t be bad at all – I guess you’re doing it yourself, too.

And what’s the way you usually listen to music?

Historically this apartment has once been communal – my family only owned this and the next room. I was working both in the evenings and during the day at the Latvian Academy of Music, Conservatory back then, and at night I could listen to music on my headphones. And I had that correspondence and record exchange with the foreigners, so at the end of 60ies – the beginning of 70ies I had really high-quality headphones. Today I also mostly listen to music using good sound equipment; I seldom listen to vinyl – mostly, I stream or listen to compact discs. Latvian music takes around 10% of my time. I’m mostly listening to jazz to know what’s going on, in what quality, and, of course, if I work with someone, I listen to his previous recordings, too.

Where, in your opinion, is Latvian jazz in the world context?

I think its professional level is way higher than before we regained independence. And that’s due to one reason – back then, such talented musicians as Vyadro, who didn’t have any opportunities, went into jazz only with self-education, listening to recordings. Nowadays there are schools available with good teachers, and that bar is way higher. There are more musicians who can improvise, too. There are a lot of good musicians, but there are no superstars, but this can also be related to everything that’s happening in the world. We see many good musicians with good technique, but what do we lack? How can we name it? Maybe it’s the soul that’s lacking. I think that the biggest problem is that many musicians also lack good management – simply recording music isn’t enough.

I also often talk to musicians about what, in their opinion, can be more important – good technique or emotions, or soul, as you named it. Personally, I think it’s imperative to believe what the musician does on stage.

And one of the main elements of music is dynamics. I was really disappointed during one of my first trips to America – I was brought to a jazz-rock concert. There was only one dynamic level there – loud and louder. And that was such an unpleasant surprise.

So one philosophical question then – what does music mean to you overall?

That’s an integral part of my life – is this answer alright? My parents were professional musicians, and the things I do are connected only to music. Maybe sometimes I listen to some talks or audiobooks, but I mainly listen to music. I don’t particularly like that I haven’t been aware of the questions you prepared – most probably, I could tell you way more about the music if only I had more time to think beforehand because now it’s just improvisation. And I would like to think about it.

When was the last time you played the instrument yourself?

The last time I played drums was a week ago – in Carnikava, where I live; I have a specially built garage with monitors where I work on technical things and where the drum kit sits. But if we mention playing with the band… I have a client in America, and I have a recording that I think cannot be shown to anyone because it’s really not worth it – he has his own blues-rock type ensemble. So I sat in with them and played a bit. And there was an occasion – quite some time ago – where I played at the saxophone player Vilnis Kundrāts’ birthday party, but I’ve never been a professional drummer.

Did you ever regret any of your choices in life?

Definitely, I remember how «BLUE» was thrown at least a year or two back in its development. We had difficulties with money during the first years, and my route to America was like this – I took a train from Riga to Belgium, then a ship to London, and then a plane from London to Los Angeles. The train went through Poland and Belorussia, and I had two large suitcases which I couldn’t put into the coupe, and I had microphone samples in them. So, at every single stop, I got up and stood by those suitcases, and I remember a moment when I was standing near them, but it turned out I was actually sleeping and dreaming about it all. And at the next stop, I went to the suitcases but they weren’t there anymore. Then I had to sleep in the passage – such a funny thing, but it was a reason to worry for me. I remember it to this day.

I also regret one thing that wasn’t my fault – I regret that my parents didn’t make me play the piano, which would, later on, help me greatly in my “BLUE” business. I would definitely have better ear training, and everything would be different – but this was on my parents, not me. And there’s one more thing about hurrying up – in May of 2005, I had to go to China, and before that, I had to be on time to send out the first microphone samples. So I took Lāčplēša street with a package to send; the light was green, a jeep was slowly turning and suddenly began moving faster towards me. I quickly hopped onto the front of the car, but the car didn’t stop and began moving forward quicker and quicker, so I fell on my side, and it ran me down. There was a woman at the driving wheel who only recently got her license, the car had an automatic gear, and she mixed up gas and brake pedals. Absolutely unbelievable, but I had broken no bones. Apparently I shouldn’t have hurried so much – if I didn’t, nothing would have happened. And one should be careful overall.

Oskars Upenieks

Were you ever scared?

Definitely. First of all, in Soviet times – everything had something to do with the KGB. I had to report on my contacts, and I had a lot of them. That same story with one of the recordings taken out of Latvia and released there. I was scared, but at the same time, I was pretty young, and I came up with some plans and ideas of how to deal with it all. And it was just for a little while until the tape was already outside Latvia – then I could say I had no idea someone was going to release it; I only thought someone would use it for his own listening. But I was scared because I was acting against the laws of that time, against the system – they could have found me, and then I would have two options – either they would make me become a real secret agent or put me in jail. In this very room where we are sitting now, at the end of the 1940ies or the beginning of the 1950ies people could only come to check the documents, nobody needed an arrest warrant. And my father had a friend who was an officer of the Latvian army, they were searching for him and he was hiding, and he sometimes spent a night at our place. This was a communal apartment, everyone living here was relatives or acquaintances, but probably it was one of them who let the KGB know. So one night there was this document check-up, we had a large bed here, I was sleeping with my parents and woke up when someone was shining a flashlight into my eyes. So they checked everything, didn’t find anything, went away, a friend of my father went out from where he was hiding under the bed, and only then I realized a huge mistake occurred – more chairs were standing here and there was a jacket on top of each. If that person would think better, he would ask why there were two jackets. At that moment I didn’t feel any fear, but all of this was a dreadful atmosphere.

At the end of the 1980s there was a little less fear – the Ganelin trio was here, the main secretary of the Communist party Yuri Andropov was ruling, and at that time there was a campaign where everyone had to be at his workplace. They went to the barber shops to check and often found that a person was at the barber shop at the time of his job. And there was a case when I went out of the Conservatory to see the musicians at their hotel, and suddenly the door of their room at “Metropole” hotel opened and someone shouted “Do not move!” in Russian. And I instantly thought – will they really check me now? But it appeared that a day before there were some criminals in that hotel room. And the information reached the government a day too late. So I can keep on telling about the fear, only we’re not speaking about music anymore.

Alright, returning to music – what future do you forecast for the Riga Sound Recording studio?

If I let my imagination flow, I’d like to achieve the point when the studio is widely known across the whole world and quite well advertised thanks to its sound, that it would be used for the records by all possible musicians in Latvia and abroad. That would be the main thing. The studio would be completely busy with work, and that can only be possible on an international scale. Just the same as our musicians would perform works of some foreign composers, and it would be advantageous for the foreigners to record here. This also depends on good advertising and marketing – people cannot always find out about the best and not always can sell the best.

So music can become a business in Latvia, too?

Well, what is business? Business is to sell and get profit as a result. If a musician has a great heritage, he can play for free, but such occasions are really rare. A musician has to earn money, he has to sell their music, otherwise, it cannot exist, beginning with the instruments that cost money. Riga Sound Recording studio also has to have good marketing and advertising – along with time. I feel quite safe because we have that five-year agreement.

What stimulates you to be so active and do so much throughout the years?

That’s my lifestyle, and I feel quite powerful and attentive to not cross the road if the road is too slippery. If we ignore the fact that I’m over the age of retirement, life goes on. The studio will need new people who will be interested in what we do, because my work connected with the microphones continues, too.