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How much of the music nowadays will be left to the future generations?

Aleksandra Line

Aldis Ermanbriks. Seeing today through the viewpoint of experience

Oskars Upenieks

A rare Latvian hasn’t heard the name of Aldis Ermanbriks (1939) — it seems that this one doesn’t demand any further clarifications to many. A saxophone player, journalist, and record collector, Aldis studied journalism at the Latvian University and worked as a literary editor in the Music show section of the Latvian Radio. This man is known to the broader audience because of some fifty years spent at the «Melodija» factory as a chief editor in all three Baltic studios; at the moment, he’s working at the Riga Sound Recording Studio, still in the same historical hall of the Reformed church on Mārstaļu street. And, of course, everyone remembers the Latvian Television and Radio show «Varavīksne» (Rainbow) of the 1970s-1980s, whose audience got acquainted not only with the news from the Latvian stage of that time but also with popular music of the West that was considered to be a forbidden fruit for those living in the Soviet Union (not to mention that the ways of getting that music weren’t exactly the easiest ones). People remember about all of this also thanks to the availability of this forbidden music and praise the memories of the past to this day, for example, Liepāja culture house «Wiktorija» called last New Year’s eve party «Disco Aldis Ermanbriks».

Aldis Ermanbriks himself still talks seriously, laughs loud, and jokes a little bit dirty over the phone. I’ve called him to arrange an interview, and his voice tone became a little bit sadder: «So what exactly do you want to talk about, the past? Everyone here needs me like a piece of furniture. I’m just an old rococo chair with an old times ornament». Respecting the experience of Aldis and emotionally yielding to his sad smile, I decided to switch to nowadays, which, I believe, Aldis is up to reflect on. So I came to the church, went upstairs, and met him on the sofa, instructing his grandson about Latvian literature lessons.

Aldis, let’s talk about the present instead of the past? I’m still under the impression of the interview I just watched yesterday (with Uldis Rudaks) about your experience stories of the past, strict censorship connected to the field of music every day. What influence do you think today’s freedom and permeability have on music?

Well, it wasn’t exactly that you couldn’t say anything about things in the past. But, of course, you couldn’t say anything about the anti-governmental content — they checked the content. Avant-garde or heavy music, heavy rock wasn’t supported. The good thing in the capitalist society was that the ones who censored music let something slip out — for example, the producer came, and if he liked the singer, we could record him. If he didn’t like him — we couldn’t do it. And now everyone can do just the way he wants to. It’s hard to say if it’s a good or bad thing. I think there’s lots of low-quality music nowadays. Back then, there were many professional composers — the ones who got their way of speaking, all of them had the academic education received in the conservatory. And it was a positive thing. Now, this connection is lost, even though many musicians have graduated at least from a children’s music school to be able to get something from that piano at least. If we mention the deceased Mārtiņš Brauns, for example — all of them were learning academic music, there was some harmony, there was arrangement, and if you had that academic education, you could use many variables.

There was a composer’s union ASCAP, and many were its members. And the Radio was a member of the broadcasting union BMI, broadcasted its music without paying anything, and in the 1940s, ASCAP said, «You can’t broadcast this; you have to pay for it». And then BMI said, «Alright, then we won’t». And invited everyone: «Come join, everyone who can play or sing anything, housewife music, we will broadcast you». And rock music evolved exactly like this — actually being the opposite of this academic music. In the beginning, the gates were opened for everyone to come to join. And now everyone can, too, but I’ve no idea if it even makes sense. You have to have some kind of control. That same «Melodija» — it’s been 50 years since I’ve been here. Earlier, there was some control, an artistic council who listened to what we were recording. And it was just the same on the Radio — we called it a song market. It wasn’t anything bad there; there was an arranger or an orchestra, Zaķis or Rozenbergs who decided what can we come up with, who was going to sing it, who was at least a little bit professional.

Do you listen to the radio nowadays?

Yes, I listen to Latvian Radio 1 a lot. I’ve been working at the Radiofons earlier on, decided on the music, in the beginning, there were only Ivars Mazurs and me — we made copies of vinyl, tried to have the foreign music in. Nowadays, it’s a terrible situation with that music indeed. There’s no professionalism on the Radio, as well as in Latvia itself. And if there are no musical qualities, beginning with melodicity, there’s nothing much. Not many had at least some quality, neither of arrangement nor playing.

Oskars Upenieks

Do you tend to listen to modern music, except on the radio?

Not much. There were swing and large swing orchestras in my time, and I like a real band. I was playing long ago, and I played nicely arranged things. Now I just want it to be less music and more talks on the radio about some current news on the borders and the pandemic.

Don’t you miss your instrument?

Thank god, I know how little talent I have. I don’t play much anymore for 50 years already, and I don’t miss it. Sometimes I sit at the piano, but I’m not a pianist either. If you play brass, you can’t just stop doing it for ten years and then begin again — it demands your muscles, too. So I’ve got other things to do.

Do you think that not only professionalism and education could have influenced the modern music market, but also the fact there’s no market? No such demand as it was before, no such record print runs.

Well, people weren’t buying just everything; they were buying what they liked. I’m not that aware of the situation with the downloads, but it’s a real catastrophe that there’s no market.

What do you think about the modern vinyl rebirth trends?

You see, I’m not a fan of vinyl at all, but if you want to make it the difficult way — do as you please. Vinyl isn’t eternal — if you won’t play it, it is long-lasting, but if you play it, it wears out physically. And if you want to find the third composition… There are different opportunities for the compact disc, way bigger, the vinyl itself has a physical noise, and the compact disc doesn’t have such noise — the laser doesn’t scratch and create any. Of course, it’s essential how high is the quality of the recording and what record player you have. Now there’s another misfortune that you can digitally record music in every garage with your laptop. The vinyl tape is large; you can put a large picture on top of it, take it and sweep the dust — gourmets want to act. But if it’s not the analog recording, what’s the difference?

Analog recordings are being made nowadays, too.

Yes, but they still glue it together digitally because who is even going to glue the tape? And the majority of factories, I think, just take an analog recording, put it into the computer, and only then do the master. And then everyone’s surprised why old recordings sound so good. Back then, me and Vilnis Kaksis recorded everything with the lamp microphones. Those young sound engineers — good are those who studied in the conservatories, the real sound engineer has to be a musician. And it’s good when a composer is present at the session, maybe there’s a conductor too, who tells if everything’s alright, then the sound engineer doesn’t take artistic responsibility if everything is correct or someone was wrong. Nowadays, anyone can be a sound engineer, this is another reason why there’s more bad music. Fashion changes, not just speaking of dresses, music too, and I’m not following it anymore.

A good question is if everyone is following at all.

Everyone doesn’t need to. I’m not interested in how everyone does.

Why, in your opinion, have the listening patterns changed?

I think that the music became worse from the point of view of a couple of criteria — melodicity, arrangement, theme, smoothness. And at the same time, the old compositions will never get lost — «Gaismas pils» (Castle of Light) by Vītols will never get tacky. I can just tell if I like composition or not, but I can state it for 90% — there will be nothing from the modern music left for the past generations. Songs of Emīls Dārziņš will live forever. Maybe some of it isn’t original enough or amazing enough, but it is played from the heart, and one can feel it. You can invent the music and write it down on paper, but you need that ease to create a natural flow.

Even though there are more educational opportunities nowadays in jazz, too, not just in the academic music.

Yes, but jazz exists on the old themes. Back then, there wasn’t any jazz education, although that same saxophone player Raimonds Raubiško was studying at Edvards Mednis to play the clarinet at the conservatory. Does studying matter in this case? But he knew music, and he played it. Back then, jazz was an illness, and if you got sick with it and had an academic education and academic roots, it was essential. It only made you richer.

During the interview I’ve heard, you also mentioned nobody actually recognizes Latvia outside Latvia. Do you still agree to it, and what, in your opinion, has to be done so that we get known?

To get recognized, you have to get heard — how can you recognize something you haven’t heard? You know, there are many things — of course, you have to be fantastic to get out, but this is a closed world itself, too — you can’t just get out anywhere so easily, the world doesn’t accept you so quickly. You get accepted readily if you’re English or American. Personal acquaintances usually mean a lot.

Here in Latvia, people recognize you really well, too.

This is primarily thanks to the television, thanks to those video clips. Sometimes I feel that I get recognized. Last summer, that woman said: «Oh, Ermanbriks, good afternoon, I remember you. Can you please spare me a euro?» Something like this. Once I got into a tram, and two drunk guys shouted from the back: «Come here!» I approached, and they began telling me they’ve been serving in Liepāja marine forces, and at the times of the «Varavīksne» show they couldn’t get to bed, their superiors couldn’t do anything. So they patted me on my shoulder: «Well done!» That show ended in May of 1989, and people still remember it. It was because we were the only television in the Soviet Union that broadcasted these videos. The way I got them is another story.

Nobody gave them to me officially, but I have the roots of Līvs in my blood. I’ve been friends with the Estonians, and they recorded large 2-inch tapes for me straight from the satellite, and I bought them for my own money. Then they gave me Lionel Richie’s song «Say You Say Me», and Barishnikov was dancing in the background. Then a Chekist called me and asked me where did I get that — and he wasn’t interested if it’s allowed or not, he was interested just to block the channels. I was worried and responded that I got it on the Central Television in Moscow. «Alright, good then». Because who could even check? I knew it well they had nothing like this at that time. And the chairman said: «Ermanbriks has to be warned, and if he doesn’t listen, he has to be fired.» But I wasn’t fired. Those times — we knew that we wouldn’t do anything terrible, but we still could sneak something in.

Have you been scared?

Yes. Every day. Things I did were more or less against the government — it wasn’t our music. I quit the radio because I got asked why I put on air two American songs and only one Russian song. And the Russian songs were difficult to officially get, too. I told them that I couldn’t put three new Russian songs on air every day. Those times. Alright, young lady, I doubt I could tell you much more than this. We can also talk about the history of «Melodija» some other time, but there’s much written in the books. But there’s less of us left — the ones who still remember something.

How do you see the future of Latvian music — and your own future?

Nothing much for me — I just have to live what I have left until I turn 120. Have to help my grandchildren, have to help the Riga Sound Recording studio, Mārtiņš (Saulespurēns) doesn’t let me go yet. And the future of music depends on the talents — if we’re going to have any more skills, we’re going to have more people like Mārtiņš Brauns. No geniuses left — I think not too much music will survive until the future generations.