In unison! Participants of World Choir Games ‘Latvian Voices’
We have met for conversation with Laura Jēkabsone and Nora Vītiņa from ‘Latvian Voices’ on one of the benches found in the courtyard of Riga Dome. It is a little difficult to imagine a written recording of this conversation if all seven of them would participate. Serious stories and dreams are shot through with laughter, they complete each other in dialogue and joke friendly so that it is difficult to discern in the end who of them said what. They are quite in unison – both of them! Good friends and team players – participants of World Choir Games ‘Latvian Voices.’
We already know what Song and Dance festival is, but what would you say the words World Choir Games mean?
Laura: World Quire Games is an event manifesting friendship of nations in the literal sense of the word. People from around the world – choir singers meet there who form generally a very friendly and creative environment in the first place.
For us, it was certainly one of the largest audiences which we had sung for. We will never forget the moment when we heard, in front of a 20 000 large audience, ‘Latvian Voices’ being announced the champions of World Choir Games and winners of gold. Our state anthem played, people taking to their, and the flag of Latvia being raised.
You are very appropriately named – ‘Latvian Voices’ – for situations like that. It makes immediately clear who you are.
Nora: Initially, we were very afraid of it, since it marks a certain threshold of quality to be held by all means. You have to think beyond the stage what are you free to do and what is beyond boundaries. Now, it gradually begins to justify itself for me and, I think, for other girls in the group, and allows to be proud.
Now, almost a year since World Choir Games has passed. What real benefits have followed this moment of triumph?
Nora: There have certainly been many, such as opportunities to give concerts and invitations to festivals, which are mostly outside Europe thou at the moment.
Laura: World Choir Games in Cincinnati was not so much a chance to meet new people from Europe as – from other continents. This summer, we will travel to USA which we first visited as a group precisely for the World Choir Games. It has generated a resonance, and we have a chance to return to the States again. We have been invited to South Korea and Singapore as well.
The concert we will hear is dedicated to memorial stained glass of Year 1991 barricades in Riga Dome. How do you remember this time when you must have been children yet?
Nora: I am from Riga myself and remember this moment very well. We were watching the program ‘Labvakar’ on tv. And they began to urge people to bring warm drink and food to Vecrīga, which I and my mother did. My most vivid memory is the moment when my mother and I were on our way to cathedral [Russian Orthodox cathedral – ed.] from the Old Town to take public transport to Pārdaugava, and we heard bullets begin to sing. I remember it more like an adventure. Mother must have been the one who was afraid as she had to worry about our lives.
Laura: I also remember the Barricades although I am not originally from Riga. I remember my father going to Riga. I wasn’t aware as a child of what was happening and asked him to bring me oranges from Riga [laughs]. Mother said, of course: ‘Do you even understand what is happening? We have to pray for our Dad to come back safely.’ We had a sense of unity, I recall.
What will be heard in this concert?
Laura: It will be program ‘Rūtoj…’ as in one of the titles of our songs ‘Rūtoj saule.’ The concert will be faithful to our style, both, folk songs and our original compositions, inspired by folk-music, will be presented. A special event of this concert will be ethno mass. I imagine, many will find the fusion of ethno and mass in Latin quite interesting.
‘Ethnos’ means ‘nation’ and ‘man’ in ancient Greek; therefore, it is mass of people, mass of a nation, in which man and God are in unity. We touch upon such themes as what is peace, what is belief in each of us? Musically, of course, there is influence of folk music, but the text is in Latin.
A kind of a third part will be world music, in this concert, ranging from English Renaissance to Russian Romanticism; popular hits a cappella for seven voices will be presented.
Special appearance of the concert will be our very good friend Laima Jansone. She will color our premiere of ethno mass in terms of timbre.
Nora: I don’t know whether I am allowed to hint that Laima brought a new kokle (Latvian folk string instrument –tr.) to our rehearsal today. Unseen one, with a very low bass.
Laura:I t has been tailor-made for her. The sound is different now, but it is wonderful.
Nora: I think quite a few guitarists could learn from her [laughs].
What is your summit unconquered at the moment? A place or a country, perhaps, where you have not been, but would like to sing?
Nora: London, I think…
Laura: But we will make our dream come true, we will certainly go to London. We have marked as our destination.
Nora: They have this a capella culture developed close to what I would like to be in, and they have always been keen about ethno singing. We have a few friends there as well, different a capella groups… We could definitely find our niche and our audience in London.
Laura: There are our teachers ‘The King Singers,’ and our friends ‘The Songmen’ [male vocal group from Great Britain – ed.]. And there is girl group ‘Boxets.’
Nora: And, of course, we want to go to South America, Australia, New Zealand [laughs].
To travel along the way!
Nora: Yes! And sing, if there is a need [laughs].
Your repertoire is so versatile – from folk song and ethno to sacred music. What else, from what is not yet included, could be seen there?
Nora: Gregorian chants…
Laura:…I think – not [laughs]…
We rather purposefully build our program on more and more of original music.
Our style is already emerging; we define more and more clearly and concretely. We will definitely develop this folk-music based original style.
Writing for seven girls’ voices is not so simple. You cannot just take any song and sing it. But there are times when you take a pop-music hit and re-write it for seven voices and it transforms into a different song, in the process of rehearsal. And that is ‘Latvian Voices’ and not some ‘Spice Girls.’
Nora: A capella is perceived as un-accompanied singing in Latvia, but it is very diversified genre outside – covering the spectrum from the early music to a capella pop-music and heavy metal.
There are many vocal groups in the world. But you have developed your own ‘handwriting.’
Nora: Exactly. I quite like those groups… essentially [laughs again]. But, seriously, it is difficult to find originality now in this area. We have our style developed thanks to Laima Jansone. It was not quite so easy, but she has found an individual color for each of us, bringing out the best in every girl.
Laura: Yes, it is my luck that they sing something like this [laughs]… But what matters a lot is how we elaborate it in the rehearsal. It is half of the style.
Nora: What is positive for Laura is freedom from conditions when she proposes a work. She allows us to get a taste of it for one, two, three times. Perhaps Laura has the last word to say, but we have the space for interpretation and opinion in between. I like this letting in to each other’s taste.
Laura: We hope to surprise our audience with a new program next spring – world music: how we see sunset in Australia, siesta in Spain and how we feel an African rhythm…
Nora:…and another thing I just understood is that we are growing more rhythmical. There will be lots of rhythm and instruments in this concert, for example, especially in ethno mass. We will not only sing, but also use our bodies and additional instruments, creating rhythm. We become less static – more free.
Laura:And we have been strongly influenced by what we see in our travels, especially, where several groups get together…
Nora:Yes, it is the best training…
The calendar on your website mostly lists concerts in Germany.
Nora: Yes, that is an already well-trodden path. We contract the next concerts there while we tour. And why would not we use the pathway to people, which we share a liking with? We feel welcome there and like to go there ourselves.
Then I must ask what have the reactions been and what are the audiences like in your tours outside Latvia?
Nora: We will have more to tell when we return from Italy, where we go to within a month to sing in ‘Fabrica del Canto’ festival held not far from Milan. We were there last year, before Midsummer. It was the most passionate concert in our history. The audience was destroying the chairs before we were even out on the stage; the gigs were packed to the brim and standing ovation right after the first song – something unthinkable and never to be experienced in Latvia.
Laura: We had a genius gig last Christmas. We had already given three concerts that day and returned to hotel exhausted, but we were asked by the administrator to sing to group of ladies well in their years in a private event.
Nora: At first, we thought we will do it quickly and be free. But we went to this place, and there were ladies in their sixties and seventies, a group of ex choir singers, as it turned out. We had never experienced anything like that concert… Squealing dames in their seventies who tried to sing along, it was simply fantastic, such an energizing evening! We saw what we would look like ourselves that evening in fifty years.
Do you typically sing in such events?
Laura: Yes, of course, but this part does not show on our website. In Latvia, you earn something by singing in private events, but you have to spend money for rent of venue and equipment, if you want to present something by your own initiative.
You travel a lot and meet with musicians abroad. What does the music scene in Latvia look like from outside?
Nora: Its classical music, of course. Radio Choir Latvia, State Academic Choir ‘Latvija’, our orchestras, opera singers are top class. It is indisputable. You can open any music website, and they will list there among the first. But we are in a deep pit in terms of pop-music, in my opinion. It seems too lightweight to many, something anyone can do who is capable to sing karaoke. So easy – we just got to all those shows and sing. But that is not the case.
If Latvians are good in opera, let us strive for perfection there! I am glad that it is our priority because it is Olympic distance in singing.
I think Latvians do not have that pop-music in their veins. Therefore, we have to learn a lot. People I know who have gone to study abroad have a totally different outlook. It is enormous work.
How do you perceive Riga as European Capital of Culture?
Nora: Riga is especially popular in Germany. We often have people come to us at the end of our concerts and tell – they are coming to our Song and Dance festival in summer, and we invite everyone back for 2014.
Rigais very beautiful.
Laura: Yes, very.
Nora: I have to cross Daugava every day to go to work, and Riga is brightly lit – so beautiful!
Laura: I think what Riga can offer in terms of culture is very special and invaluable…
Nora: Yes, it was lucky if the town had two or three noteworthy events in a week just a couple of years ago, but now there are at least a couple every day. And you don’t have to try to pick Wednesday or Friday. There is always something going on.
Laura: And professionally – on a very high level indeed…
Nora: And very tourist friendly in terms of prices. You can get to see everything as long as you want.
As was already reported, ‘Latvian Voices’ will give a concert in Riga Dome on May 28th at 19.00. Tickets – 7 lats, for students, school-children and pensioners – 5 lats. For children under seven, the entrance is free.