Composer Indra Riše: ‘I get bored if music doesn’t come from the soul’

Whereas the Dutch government seems to regard culture as a superfluous luxury, other countries cherish its intrinsic value. The Latvian Music Information Centre regularly presents new CDs by composers from Latvia. In 2021 it released Trumpets of Angels with six organ works by Indra Riše, named after the first piece on the CD. I asked Riše about her fascinations, the appeal of the organ and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

When I first heard works by Indra Riše (1961) I was immediately hooked. Whatever instrument she writes for, her music always breathes a great naturalness and spaciousness. She has a special flair for composing for the human voice and when one day my chamber choir Amphion planned an Eastern European programme, I immediately proposed some of her songs. Both my fellow singers and the audience loved them. – To top it all off, Riše travelled all the way from Riga to attend our concert.*

Riše grew up in Dobele, about 80 kilometres south-west of the capital Riga. The provincial town has about 8,000 inhabitants and lies in the predominantly agricultural area of Zemgale. ‘But we also have beautiful forests’, emphasises the ever-cheerful composer, who nurtures a great love of nature. – When she came to our concert in 2018, she spent the night in a village in Brabant to avoid the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.

As in many Baltic states, choral life flourished in Dobele, but remarkably, the young Riše did not like singing at all: ‘I avoided it as much as possible and only later became interested in choral singing. Not as a singer, but as a composer. At my mother’s instigation, I went to the local music school, where I learned to play the piano.’

Stalin dictatorship

She was the only child of a single mother. ‘This was very common in Latvia at the time’, Riše explains, recalling how her family suffered under the Stalin repression. ‘My grandparents were among the first to be deported to Siberia in 1941, along with my mother of four and her sister of eight. My grandfather was put on transport to a labour camp in a cattle wagon, my grandmother and the two girls were sent in a completely different direction in another cattle car. She never saw her husband again.’

Indra + Thea after the Amphion concert in Papegaaikerk Amsterdam, 14 April 2018 

As if by a miracle, her grandfather survived the penal camp: ‘He returned to Latvia after 40 years – old and sick, but unbroken.’ Her grandmother was less fortunate: ‘Due to the harsh cold of the permafrost, she died of pneumonia at the age of 35; her grave is unknown. My mother and aunt remained in Siberia under the supervision of other deportees until they were allowed to return to Latvia 6 years later.’

Because of the many deportations and fatalities of the Soviet terror, there was a shortage of men: ‘Of the few who survived, many fled to the West, especially intelligent and enterprising people. This often left the women alone. My father already had a family of his own and did not want to take on extra responsibility. I know little more about him than that he studied forestry.’

War against Ukraine: the agony of an empire

With such a background, many might become cynical, but Riše lacks any trace of this. Though she does admit being highly disturbed by the Russian war against Ukraine: ‘It reminds us of our own recent history of extermination, deportation and 50 years of occupation. These are still fresh in our memory, so we support the Ukrainians as much as we can; we have taken in over 30,000 refugees.’

‘Russia is a very dangerous and unpredictable neighbour, but for the moment everything is OK in Latvia. We listen to the latest news and cross our fingers for Ukraine. However, our country harbours many disloyal Russians, who (still) celebrate the Russian occupation of Latvia on 9 May. This is very distressing, and our government has decided to ban their annual meeting. It seems to me that this war is the agony of the great empire, which causes immense destruction and sacrifice. Let’s hope it all ends in a fiasco.’

Composer Indra Riše: ‘Russia’s war against Ukraine seems to me to be the agony of an empire. It causes great destruction and sacrifice. Let’s hope it will soon end in a fiasco.’

Cultural upbringing

Despite the absence of a father, she had a happy childhood: ‘My mother was a chemical engineer. She had studied in Leningrad, and was an enthusiast for classical music. ‘During my school years, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we took the train to Riga every weekend to go to the ballet, opera or theatre. We also visited as many exhibitions as possible. All in all, it was the best aesthetic upbringing imaginable, but as a child I absorbed it all rather unconsciously.’

The family was not rich: ‘We lived in a one-room flat with wood-burning stove. Yet we owned a piano, probably the only thing left from my deported grandparents; it had been played by my grandmother, who was a primary school teacher in the small town of Durbe.’

From the age of seven, Riše was taught piano according to the strict Soviet education system: ‘First you had lessons for eight years at the children’s music school, then four years at the secondary music school and then another five years at the conservatory. This means I had seventeen years of full-time piano lessons. I had started because of my mother, but playing came easily to me and gradually I came to enjoy it more and more.’

From performing to composing

In 1985 she completed her piano studies at the Jāzeps Vītols Conservatory in Riga. Not long after, she shifted her attention to composing: ‘During my piano studies I got to know a large repertoire of beautiful music. But increasingly I felt that I was somehow limiting myself by performing the music of others. My imagination demanded a different kind of expression, and by and by I started composing my own pieces. At first mainly for piano, but soon also for other instruments and ensembles.’

Initially she combined her professional practice as a pianist with composing: ‘But this was tough, and I only managed thanks to the unbridled energy of youth. At some point I understood that I had to choose one or the other.’ She decided on composition, and went to study with Pēteris Plakidis at the Riga Conservatory.

This turned out to be a bull’s-eye: ‘Plakidis was an exceptionally erudite musician and composer, and a walking encyclopaedia at that.’ Her teacher was not easy-going, though: ‘He was extremely strict and critical, and quick to find clumsy or meaningless passages in my compositions. But he taught me to solve such technical and orchestral weaknesses in a creative way. I enjoyed every lesson, he was a true master!’

Pēteris Plakidis

She graduated in 1990, the same year in which the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra premiered her first orchestral work, Metamorfozes. The title is telling, says Riše: ‘At the time, I led a restless and active life, with the motto: today I am no longer who I was yesterday and tomorrow I will be different from today.’ Indeed, the twelve-minute piece is a succession of rapidly changing atmospheres, but the melodic richness that is so characteristic of her later style is already abundantly audible.

Denmark: new musical territories

In 1993, she won a scholarship for a postgraduate course in Denmark. ‘In 1991, Latvia had regained its independence, and Denmark was one of the first countries to recognise us.’ The country offered young talents from the Baltic States a scholarship for further studies and launched a competition, which Riše won. Being accustomed to the strict hierarchy of the Soviet system, moving to Denmark felt like a relief: ‘I got more creative freedom and could spread my wings internationally.’

Musically, Riše entered a new and unfamiliar world: ‘In Denmark, contemporary music was very abstract and far removed from the classical tradition as I knew it. Because of our strong tradition of folk music and choral singing Latvian composers wrote in a more conservative style.’ In her new homeland Riše started experimenting with modernist techniques: ‘I dabbled in all of them, but after a while I decided this was not my way, and returned to a clearer and simpler musical language.’

Electronic music turned out to be quite inspirational though: ‘Its many possibilities have definitely changed my thinking about music.’ She employed electronic processes in several compositions, such as the naive-estranging Pictures of Childhood from 1996. A mezzo-soprano enters into dialogue with a wondrous array of recorded sounds, and her own electronically distorted voice. But above all, thanks to electronics, Riše has developed a skill for eliciting special timbres from acoustic instruments.

Latvian sobriety

Throughout the years of experimenting with modern composition techniques and electronics, Riše has remained true to her Latvian roots. ‘I may have gained many new impressions outside Latvia, but my background and inspiration always shimmered through my music. Nowadays, I can honestly say that I belong to the contemporary Latvian composing scene, in which sobriety, simplicity and clarity of form predominate.’

Nature is an important source of inspiration: ‘It was created by God. You can look at it endlessly and be inspired by it.’ This reflects on the way she composes: ‘I don’t follow preconceived schemes or models, but work very intuitively. I go out and, like a snail, move my “antennae” to pick up vibrations from the universe, bringing them to earth in the form of music as it were. For music must come from the soul. If it comes from the head, I get bored.’

This sounds rather metaphysical, is she religious? ‘Yes and no’, she answers. ‘Yes, because something wonderful has been created, like the earth, nature, the sea, and so on. Something that was not man-made and of which I am just a small part. On the other hand, no, because I don’t need a church or religion to understand and accept all this.’

Trumpets of Angels

Her CD Trumpets of Angels contains six compositions for organ. As a student Riše played the organ herself, and she cherishes warm memories of this period. ‘It is a complicated instrument and practical experience helps enormously in understanding it. Organists are a separate group of people, very different from pianists, wind players or string players; I felt like part of a family. We helped and supported each other, and even today organists give me tips for improvements of a new score. I enjoy this two-way traffic between composer and performer.’

The album offers a fine sample of her skills. The title piece Trumpets of Angels for organ solo is dedicated to a deceased friend: ‘She was a radiant and spiritual personality. When she died, I imagined that an angel greeted her soul at the gates of another world, with jubilant trumpets.’ The six-minute piece opens with playful figurations in the highest registers, set against roaring chords in the low register. The succeeding tender interplay of musical lines seems to depict the gentle character of the deceased, after which the music dies away in peaceful quietude.

Composer Indra Riše: ‘I go out and, like a snail, move my “antennae” to pick up vibrations from the universe, bringing them to earth in the form of music. For music must come from the soul. If it comes from the head, I get bored.’

Indra Riše combines the majestic organ with other instruments and the human voice with obvious ease. As in Songs of Happiness, which she composed in honour of the Latvian poet couple Rainis and Aspazia. Riše: ‘They fought for Latvian independence and are national heroes, I much admire their poetry. Their 150th anniversary in 2014 was celebrated grandly in our country, and the state commissioned me to write this cycle. I chose five poems by Rainis, in fact disguised love letters to Aspazia.’

Illuminated by the Sun was composed for solo organ, yet I also hear woodblocks, exclamations similar to Wagner’s ‘hojotoho’ and birdsong. Did Riše use electronics here? ‘No’, she laughs, ‘I tried to treat the organ as an electronic instrument – without using electronics. I added two woodblocks to the instrument, which are played by the organist. And I used the voices of the organist and the registrant, who also operates a plastic nightingale filled with water. Thus I have tried to imitate sounds from nature, such as a storm, the cries of birds or people calling to each other in the woods.’

Strength and endurance

In Interaction for organ and flute the organ only makes its appearance after five minutes. ‘I wrote it for the flutist Imants Sneibis, who draws an admirable wealth of colour from his instrument. At the time I was very inspired by the music of Kaija Saariaho, feeling attracted to the hushed tones and barely perceptible nuances that create an intimate, emotional atmosphere. The first five minutes are a monologue by the flute, after which it becomes part of a dramatic story together with the organ.’

The concluding Fire Ritual for solo organ harks back to an old Baltic ritual, says Riše: ‘This was organised four times a year. During the summer and winter solstices and at the spring and autumn equinoxes, when day and night are of equal length. In spring, people pleaded for success in tilling the land; in summer, they prayed to the sun; in autumn, they gave thanks for the harvest; and in winter, they burned away all negative energy, emotions and diseases.

Proudly: ‘I feel at home in these Latvian traditions, where strength and endurance are passed on from generation to generation.’

*On 11 June, Chamber Choir Amphion will sing ‘Lūgšana par mūsu zemi’ in Oranjekerk, Amsterdam. In this 4-part song Riše celebrates her homeland Latvia.

Read an urgent appeal on Facebook from Nazar Rozlutky, who fights in the Ukrainian army. He asks us to not look away but help Ukraine fight the Russians.

Nazar Rozlutsky

About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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