Despite other instruments outranking its popularity amongst Lithuanian musicians, the accordion still plays a key role in contemporary Lithuanian music, thanks to its standing in the country’s musical history.
Speaking to Music Export Fund, the President of the Lithuanian Accordion Association (LAAS), Raimondas Sviackevičius, suggested the roots of the accordion’s popularity are to be found in rural and small town life, before the country’s first declaration of independence in 1918.
“I think the tradition is quite deep,” Sviackevičius told MXF. “ Almost every family had an accordion at home and it wasn’t uncommon for grandparents to teach their children to play it.” He also pointed to dance after World War Two as a factor in increasing the instrument’s popularity.
“This tradition was brought from Europe, and after the war, during Soviet times, Polka, Waltz and Tango music was played on all radio stations in Lithuania,” he said. Furthermore, Sviackevičius believes “any type of music can be played on the accordion.”
This ease of transferability was another driving force behind its popularity on the Lithuanian music scene. Dance halls across the USSR, into which Lithuania was incorporated in 1944, performed Polkas, Waltzes and Tangoes on the accordion. The instrument became further engrained into Lithuanian musical life. Fast-forward to 1959, and the accordion again benefited from the Soviet regime. At the Vilnius Conservatory, now known as the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, Accordion Studies were introduced. According to Sviackevičius, the decision to run the courses was “very important in how the instrument developed, how it changed in Lithuania, and how it was used in different fields.”
Ironically, it was under the Soviets the development of the accordion stagnated. Until 1959 Lithuania’s borders were closed to non-Soviet tourists, and the Cold War climate between the Soviet Union, the West and their mutual allies, meant it “was difficult to communicate with other European countries.”After Lithuania gained independence from the USSR in 1990, its appetite for the accordion had not lessened due to its entrenchment into the national musical psyche.
“I think the accordion is in a good position [in 2015],” says Sviackevičius. “In Vilnius and other cities, we have music schools who take in many, many students each year to study the accordion. It’s not as popular as guitar or saxophone, because young people tend to like those more, but now I think it’s quite popular.”While musical tradition and national history are key to interest in the accordion and its popularity, Sviackevičius believes accordion music is not exportable. Moreover, music export is not an objective of the Lithuanian Accordion Association.
“The LAAS is not a Non-Governmental Organisation,” so export isn’t an aim of ours, he explains. “Exporting music from Lithuania overseas is very difficult…”
One artist who may disagree, however, is Lithuanian artist Martynas Levickis.
Aged 24, the Tauragė native relocated to the United Kingdom to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 2008.
At the age of 12, he was encouraged by his music teachers to enter a number of musical competitions, after a promising academic background at various Music schools in Lithuania. He took their advice, and in 2004, was the first accordionist to be awarded Lithuania’s Queen Morta prize; an event that allowed him to export his musical talent from Lithuania, and an undoubted factor in his acceptance to the Royal Academy.
In 2009, he won the 71st American Accordion Association competition, and followed that up with second place in the Gala-Rini International Competition in California in 2010. That same year, he also took top-spot in the Accordionist’s World Cup and won Lithuania’s Got Talent.
It was, however, 2013 when British label, Decca Records, allowed Martynas to become the flag-bearer of traditional Lithuanian sound, which he combined with his own unique style.
His self-titled debut album, also released in 2013, sees him switch between contemporary and classical genres. At the end of that year, the young artist also embarked on an international concert tour.
The artist, who in his own words, wishes to “change the image of the accordion”, caught up with MXF to discuss, amongst topics, the differences between working in the British and Lithuanian music industries.
Music Export Fund: Do you feel without the opportunity to study at the Royal Academy of Music, you would have moved abroad to pursue your musical ambitions anyway?
Martynas Levickis: No, I have always imagined myself living and pursuing my career here in Lithuania. But only pushed by other people I tried to apply and audition at RAM and it was successful.
I mean, it was successful and the greatest decision I have ever made in the long term. At the time I arrived in London, I realised this was going to be more difficult than I imagined. I am quite sure I needed all that experience.
MXF: How has working with a Western label changed your perspective on the music industry and your creative process?
Martynas: It has definitely had an impact in many ways. My career has become very intense and exciting, many different opportunities have come to me and I have tried to use them in the best possible way.
In terms of the creative process, I think I’ve changed in general over the past 3 years. My work speed has become faster and there is less time to sit and think; you just have to do things. Although I like it, at the same time I am sure an artist needs to have time to sit and think.
So, this year I am working on that in order to ensure I don’t get lost in this intense lifestyle and always find time to be creative with my music.
MXF: Where did you come up with the unique idea to transfer classical and contemporary compositions to the accordion?
Martynas: Studying at RAM gave me lots of useful knowledge and experience but I always felt this was not enough for me.
I am a man of the show, the stage, so I like to exhibit myself and I want to do that in a different way. So while in my personal life, I am way quieter and calmer than I am on the stage, my soul is very active.
Therefore, studying all the serious musical material at RAM I decided I wanted to do a TV show here in Lithuania. It was Lithuania’s Got Talent, and I won it.
Well, I should say the accordion won it because this win took the instrument to another level in Lithuania, and of course it brought me to a broader range of choices and creative decisions.
I want people to be happy and satisfied when they listen to music. Saying that, I don’t mean I play circus music to amuse them. I think music as a form of art has to be fulfilling, uplifting and energising, and if you leave a concert being miserable or fearful after what you heard on stage, would you ever come back to hurt yourself?
So to finish my point, I vary the repertoire according to the audience I play to. If it’s a classical festival I go more classical, if it is contemporary classical, I go that way, and if it is crossover or world music environment I do that. I feel proud to be able to do so.
MXF: How much do you believe this fresh approach has contributed to you becoming a Lithuanian music export success?
Martynas: A lot. But apart from the fact that I am Lithuanian, it has not done much to my musical career. I mean, I appreciate my hometown input towards me and peoples’ belief on me.
However, my musical career has been dependent on completely my own choices and decision – and yes, a bit of luck too. Like, it was luck to be approached by the music management company that found me on the internet and decided that I am interesting and good enough to present the accordion to the 21st century audience.
We took it from there, now we have an album and worldwide interest in the according is growing.
MXF: What are the main differences between working in Lithuania and the UK?
Martynas: This needs a deep analysis. I think as a Lithuanian I love living and working here, but the United Kingdom has become my second home and I have become part of it there, too.
The UK has very clear standards in the music industry, and a long tradition of that. It has way more people in that industry, which allows more competition, and I think that is really good.
What Lithuanians need to realise is they live in a developing country that has broad spectrum of opportunities and not so much competition. Therefore we must appreciate this environment, but I think there has to be more work on creating stronger competition among musicians, especially classical ones.
I see a tendency of musicians being lazy and too sure about the future. Orchestras must start real auditions, organizations have to let the young musicians join them and give their input with new views and ideas. Some more work with potential young audiences has to be done too.
Although I have to say that the audience in Lithuania is quite younger than the audience in the UK.
MXF: How difficult was it for you to leave Lithuania? Why?
Martynas: I have to say this – I cried when leaving. But of course I did, I was barely 18.
MXF: What were the biggest challenges you faced in moving to the UK, and signing to Decca Records?
Martynas: I moved to the UK for studies and that was a big change in my life. It was a difficult and hard time in many aspects – financially, morally, and professionally.
After 6 months, I came to a point when I thought I will never be a musician. Things passed and as soon as I left the Academy, I got an offer to sign with Decca. Lucky bastard!
MXF: Are there any differences in being managed by a British company and a Lithuanian company?
Martynas: Are there any real classical music managements in Lithuania?
MXF: Following your tour from 2013 to 2015, which country’s audience has surprised you the most in terms of reception?
Martynas: I must say, in most countries, people are receptive and appreciative. Most of the times they are also very surprised with the accordion.
My favourite experience was in Korea, I think. I played for hundreds of youngsters in a night club who loved it.
The experience of playing in the Berlin Waldbuhne for 20,000 people, or Mexico City, playing in Auditorium for 11,000 were also very exciting and unforgettable.
MXF: In 2013, your were appointed Lithuania’s Tourism Ambassador. Is this something you would have chosen to do even without your musical career? Why?
Martynas: I don’t know if I would have been offered this post without my musical career. But surely this is something that I would do in any way. I do it all the time, I did it even before I was appointed as Tourism Ambassador.
MXF: Are you planning a different sound with your next album?
Martynas: Definitely.MXF: What are the differences and challenges in switching between pop sounds and classical sounds on the accordion?
Martynas: Not many. It’s all music, whether it’s pop, classical or rock – it all has something to do with sound and the art of sound.
I think classical music can often be interpreted as pop music, and pop music can sound way more serious than classical.
Of course there are subtleties and they are very important and I know that I would not play classical music on my blue accordion but I can play Lady Gaga on the classical accordion. If you add a symphony orchestra to that, the whole thing loses its identity as pop or classical.
It’s just music, which I think is good.
MXF: Do you think the Lithuanian music scene (in terms of classical and in general) is in good shape at the moment? Why?
Martynas: It is definitely getting in better shape, and I think the state funded institutions are getting more innovative and appealing.
They look for better marketing ideas and try to be attractive.
There is still lots to do though, and I am trying to be a part of it too with organising a few festivals and projects.
MXF: At present, which top-five artists are you listening to?
Martynas: Gidon Kremer, Glass Animals, Fink, Giya Kancheli, Charlie Siem, Khatia Buniatishvili, Daniel Barenboim.