Skanu Mežs: A sonic environment with its own rules

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It’s been more than ten years since the first Skaņu Mežs (“Sound Forest”) festival took place in 2003, but a question repeatedly voiced by festival goers is – what is the festival’s purpose? Briefly – Skaņu Mežs is organised both to give an overview of the latest developments within modern music as well as to nurture an ongoing chain of interesting musical events in Riga, Latvia. Skaņu Mežs is a music festival which has as its goal to widen the audience’s horizons, and to offer alternatives to dominant views on culture. The events can be seen as an opportunity for people to detach themselves from their mundane and everyday comfort zones, in this way refreshing their perspective on the world.

Can you talk about the name Skaņu Mežs and the reason why you chose it for your event?

Rihards T. Endriksons: At that time, most names of festivals of this kind (and not only this kind) were increasingly international. Sticking to a name in Latvian seemed like a refreshing alternative. As for the meaning – “sound forest” implies a sonic environment with its own rules. It might have also been a reference to the famous David Tudor installation/piece – I’m not sure.

Can you talk about the environment/context that the festival grew from?

RTE: The first edition of Skaņu Mežs was basically an Editions Mego showcase + a concert by Bernard Parmegiani. It started because, at that time, there were no local events that would cover our musical tastes – in a certain sense that still hasn’t changed (partially because our tastes have changed – in some cases widened, and hardened/narrowed in others).

Viestarts Gailītis: Around 2000, electronics was the driving force of innovation in music and also in Riga there were good events and musicians, however, they were mainly connected to the underground club music scene with minimal techno, breakbeat, drum’n’bass and dub or on the other hand industrial and noise with almost no musicians exploring the more undefined and abstract electronic sound and early predecessors of that. So it was with that interest that we organised our first events.

How has the concept of the festival – “widening the audience’s horizons and offering alternatives to dominant views on culture” – evolved since 2003?

RTE: The already-then slightly ridiculous divisions of underground/mainstream or avant-garde/traditional seem even less relevant today. Which is good and bad, because, the things that were on the opposite side of our interests seem to have nested quite comfortably in the field of adventurous music nowadays – partially, because of the cunning ways of language and visual attributes through which we identify music, and partially because music that is innovative in its methods isn’t always as innovative in its aims. With our program we try to both carefully reflect these changes, but also propose other alternatives.

VG: Judging by public reaction, Skaņu Mežs still pleases and surprises audience but the audience is also more experienced as well as it has become more impatient and with shorter attention span. So while offering “quality refreshment” from the mass music industry, we also need to use entertainment techniques with frequent musical accent changes and plenty of action – such as offering various styles of music that also coincide with our interests and experimental music “market”. Thanks to Rihards, my colleague, we have incorporated free jazz and free improvisation in the festival programme and this is one part that has gone down well with the audience because of the intensity of the performance. When writing the above mentioned phrase about “widening the audience’s horizons and offering alternatives” we were in more of a post-Soviet stage than now, recovering from uniform and oppressive dullness. However that critical meaning of the slogan still holds true because market pressure still creates dull effects for culture. But we see that young adventurous musicians also manage to use mass music techniques for their own advantage – and the audience likes it.

Can you talk about the programming of your event?

RTE: Our flirtation with experimental music that works with dance music references was very brief: although we still enjoy doing a couple of shows in that direction, we’d prefer such performances not to form the majority of our program. We find it important that sounds which confront the human ear can be no less entertaining than the sounds that seduce and enchant it. The programme therefore deals with both. Also, there are as many acoustic music concerts as there are electronic ones, but that division ceased to be important long time ago, so there probably was no need to mention this. We try to focus on certain genres that will somehow always be part of the “family of experimental music subcultures”, including noise, things that happen outside of the mainstream of academic music, free improvisation, abstract electronics, etc.

VG: In addition to what Rihards mentions, I also like the presence of underground pop music in the programme. Generally it is a healthy difference – in addition to similarities – between organisers’ tastes that create a mixture of performances that also correspond to differences in audience tastes. We also have somewhat different views on borders of experimental music that again creates a healthy tension and contradictions in the festival programme.

What is the relationship with the local scene in Riga/Latvia?

RTE: There is a select group of artists from different fields of music with which we regularly collaborate: the local infrastructure of weird dance music, “extreme” (as they used to call it) computer music artists, couple of free improvisers and a group of composers. Speaking of the latter, it’s a pleasure to observe that the academic music environment is not that separated from the experimental music underground. There are also people who are present on the scene, but we’d rather give them a few more years to further develop their voice, and then see what we can do together. In both cases, I wish there were more, but is there a city in this part of Europe that you can’t say that about?

VG: We have at various times had more collaborations with one or another part of the “scene”. Now I wish we for instance explored and worked more with more adventurous parts of the local rock music. Local musicians who get invited to Skaņu Mežs often try to adjust to it’s format and therefore also sometimes discover a dimension that can be developed further.

How do you see the future of your event and adventurous music festivals in general?

RTE: I would feel comfortable if Skaņu Mežs always remained primarily an event of local importance – of course, there is always a solid part of the audience that has travelled to the festival from other countries, but, to my mind, these are two very different perspectives – to curate the program for the local audiences, and to curate it for the broader audience of international adventurous music festivals. In the first case you work more with what is necessary, but in the second – with what would interest more people and what would stand apart. I feel more comfortable working with the music that, for various reasons, is absolutely necessary to a specific environment. Or maybe the other way around – I have observed that the kinds of music that I enjoy most, are quite underrepresented in my local cultural environment. It’s hard to tell at this point. As for the future of adventurous music festivals “in general”… I’m not avoiding the question, but I feel that it is difficult to speak of them in general, because there are so many different types of these events. For some the future seems brighter than others, but it may leave a mark of either populism or tediousness on their programs.

VG: As Rihards mentions, local aspect is the primary in Skaņu Mežs’ case which is rather in a geographic periphery – other festivals are more international by nature. It has a very good vibe at the moment, we have managed to represent adventurous music in a festive and explorative way and it would be good if that would remain so. Also Skaņu Mežs contributes to the “invisible cultural architecture” in a city contested by various mental and ideological influences.