"Lithuania is silence, Belgium is a racket"

Vykintas Baltakas is a Lithuanian classical musician living in Belgium. As a player, composer, and director, he is an artistic jack of all trades. After receiving an extensive musical education, taking him from Vilnius over Karlsruhe to Paris, Vykintas was drawn to Leuven by love. There, he studied philosophy at the university, and he never left. “I love Belgium and its bustling personality. If I were to capture it in a song, it would sound upbeat and active, provoking a sense of perpetual movement.”

The trip from Brussels to Kessel-Lo, Leuven, is a short one. Within the hour, the train takes me from the busy streets of the capital to the pieceful provincial city suburbs. This is where Vykintas Baltakas lives, along with his Belgian wife and two children. He welcomes me at his home, and leads me to his lush and eccentrically decorated garden, for an early-noon conversation in the fragilely diluted sunlight. Vykintas was in the news shortly, as a couple of weeks ago a piece of his was selected as the obligatory assignment for the semi-finals of the famous Queen Elisabeth Competition.

“I always try to keep my feet on the ground, professionally. Of course this is an important and glamourous competition, and it made my family very proud. And I must admit, when I was there, I also felt the glow of achievement seeing people’s enthusiasm, and hearing my piece being played by some of the most talented players in the world. But I’ve had assignments like this before. So I try to relativize it.”

Still, you even met the queen. How was that?

“She’s a very nice and talkative lady. I dare even say I was somewhat enchanted by her. (smirks) Moreover, it was very interesting to meet royalty, as someone who comes from a long-time ‘kingless’ country.”

Every player performed your piece in their own, personal way. Which was your favourite?

“I didn’t have a favourite, I had five or six! And of course, I congratulated all the players afterward. But my personal taste is irrelevant, because music can have so many, equally beautiful faces. A piece is not fixed on a sheet of paper, it changes along with the time, the place, and the person who’s playing it. Every Elisabeth contestant played my piece ‘correctly’, but radically differently.

For example, when winner Lim Ji Young performed my piece, I caught myself thinking “Wow, how did I write such an Asian-sounding composition?” At that moment her background, her philosophy even, surfaced through my notes. The same happened with the American player that came after: he played the same piece, but completely differently. It was fascinating.”

Broadening horizons, musically and geographically

You’ve always been a very musical person…

“I was born into a family of musicians in Vilnius. Plus: I went to one of the best arts and music schools there are (The National M.K.Čiurlionis School of Art), in a country that’s renowned for its musicians in Eastern Europe. At a certain point, I extended my horizons, musically as well as geographically, and I ended up here in Leuven.

Moving around is part of the musician life. You can think of it as the travels of a troubadour in the olden days. I have to travel a lot for work: drive, fly, take the train, … Crossing large distances doesn’t overwhelm me anymore."

But you’re still very much in touch with your Lithuanian identity, aren’t you?

“Absolutely. I still have the Lithuanian nationality, and I don’t plan to change it. It’s just not necessary inside the EU, and I’m still very proud of that part of my identity. I’d even like my children to obtain the dual Belgian-Lithuanian nationality, and learn Lithuanian. Perhaps one day, we’ll even all move there, it’s not that far anyway.

I was in Vilnius during the liberation from the Soviet Union, so I know what it feels like to regain my country. By moving away, I kind of lost part of it again. So now I’m ardently holding on to the bits of Lithuania I still have in me, and I try to amplify them. For example, I’m taking on as many projects back there as possible: conducting a contemporary music ensemble in Vilnius, staying involved in the academy, etc. Finally, I try to visit my Lithuanian friends, my parents, and my brother as often as possible.”

Take the walls down

What are the similarities and the differences between Belgian and Lithuanian life?

“They’re both relatively small countries, which makes for a very liberal collective attitude. It’s easier for a smaller group to be open to all different kinds of cultures, languages, and influences. This is something I love about both countries: the people are very tolerant, and they speak multiple languages. These are all traits you won’t find in bigger countries like France, Germany, or Russia.

But there are many differences as well. Firstly, and most obviously, there’s the difference in landmass and population. Even though the two countries are relatively limited in both: Lithuania has over twice the size for less than half of the people. Belgium is extremely dense and hyper-mobile. It’s not a big deal to take a daytrip to the coast, to the hills of the Ardennes, or to a big city. This proximity and reachability thing also influences the way people think for the better.

Lithuanians are much less mobile, but this leaves more room for nature. If you want to get somewhere, it’ll take long, but the journey will be peaceful and gorgeous. After driving dozens of kilometres without seeing a single soul, you can get out of your car and step into a landscape that keeps a careful balance between bucolica and wilderness. You can cross any field and jump into any lake you fancy, without having to somehow ask someone’s permission, as I feel you’re expected to do in Belgium.”

What can the countries learn from one another?

“Lithuanians could inspire Belgians to take their walls down. Everyone here has their own little living space, and is very fond of their privacy. I understand and respect this, but I find it funny to notice how, for example, everyone has the same stuff lying around in their small patch of garden: trampolines, sandboxes, swimming pools, garden furniture, etc. Lithuanians would probably open it all up, and share. There’s the interesting apparent contradiction: the less space there is, the less likely you are to share it.

On the other hand, the still pretty conservative Lithuanians could learn a lot from Belgium within the fields of politics and social issues like homosexuality, immigration etc. Learning how to function as a democracy again after decades of Russian oppression is a slow and painstaking process. For example, immigrants are relatively new to Lithuania. We never had a colony or any ties to an exotic nation like Belgium, and so having a different background doesn’t have the same connotations. Lithuanians still need to learn the subtle sensitivities of ‘being black’, for example. The only thing it implies now, is that you’re probably a rich and successful basketball player. See how different that is from here?”

Musical reflections

What are the differences between music in Belgium and in Lithuania?

“There aren’t many. They’re both part of the western musical sphere, consisting of several different genres and ways of musical thinking. But of course you have folk music heritages in both countries. In Belgium, this isn’t as present as in Lithuania though, were we have a very strong tradition of ethno music. I’d say that type of music is even the biggest, most important treasure the country possesses.

Lithuanian folk, such as the Sutartinès genre (listen below), stems from our strong pagan legacy. On the one hand it’s very traditional, and it goes hand in hand with certain rituals, dance moves, and old lyrics we don’t understand anymore. But on the other hand it sounds very modern. It’s canonically structured and moves in tetra chords (like C-D-E-F). It’s very pleasing to the contemporary ear.”

If you’d have to capture Lithuania and Belgium in a song, what would it sound like?

“I associate Lithuania with nature, and nature is silence. In silence, you can hear things very clearly. Let say you’re in a remote forest. You close your eyes and, suddenly, you can hear everything: the wind, the birds, your own footsteps on the overgrowth,… Or, if you’re swimming in a lake, you can very clearly make out the ripples and waves you’re producing as you move through the water. So silence and subtle sounds would be the basis of the Lithuania piece.

Belgium would sound active and upbeat, a piece that would provoke a sense of perpetual movement.”

Vykintas in his lush garden in Kessel-Lo - "It's funny to see how everyone has the same stuff lying around in their small patch of garden. Lithuanians would probably open it all up, and share."

Vykintas' unique violin solo adaptation of Mozart's famous Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Make sure to visit Vykintas' website.

New Flemings

This interview is the second of a short series about interesting expats, immigrants, and people with different roots and backgrounds. In short: New Flemings! Make sure to check out the others too.