A New Orchestral Sound: Martinaitytė’s Saudade

A New Orchestral Sound: Martinaitytė’s Saudade

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė © Romas Jurgaitis

We’re used to the classical orchestral sound – the violins, the winds, the mostly ignored lower brass. Žibuoklė Martinaitytė (b. 1973), a Lithuanian composer currently based in New York, uses the symphony orchestra as her instrument of many voices – the different combinations of instrumental timbres and possibilities inherent in the ensemble give her a broad palette. She pays particular attention to what the brass can do, and assigns them new sounds and techniques that challenge the normal.

Her recent work, Saudade, completed in August 2019, was commissioned by the Lithuanian Composers Union. One of the hidden audio parts of this work are the unusual performance techniques she requires of the players. The notes for this piece give a small indication of what you will hear: “Brass players are asked to sing while breathing into their mouthpieces which results in two distinct pitches, the one blown into the instrument and the one that is sung. Cymbals are placed on the drumheads of timpani while the player presses a foot pedal which stretches the drum head, causing the cymbal to shimmer. The harpist strikes a range of strings with the palm which makes a gong-like sound.” The whole work seems to shiver and quiver, with a restlessness and a longing that affects everything.

The title of the work, Saudade, comes from the Portuguese and means “a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves.” It can be an emptiness inside for what is missing, and the composer equates the feeling with the death of her father and her own immigration to the US. Beyond the state of longing, Saudade carries a meta-meaning of “nostalgia for nostalgia,” embedding us even deeper in a sense of a lost past.

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Saudade (Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra; Giedrė Šlekytė, cond.)

Žibuoklė sees the work as summarizing her life for the past decade, wanting that which is no longer there. She also says that decade of sadness has been her “Blue Period” and the whole decade seems to carry that melancholy colour. We can hear the longing in the work, but at the same time, can appreciate how her extreme performance requirements take us to a new orchestral sound level, while imbuing it with an emotional side we rarely see in orchestral music.

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