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Simona Smirnova: Cultivating Timelessness

Jazz vocalist and composer Simona Smirnova has fashioned a form of jazz that preserves and promotes her Lithuanian heritage, while also expanding the genre into new and exciting realms.
Earl Hines once said, "I always thought jazz was like the trunk of a tree. After the tree has grown, many branches have spread out. They're all with different leaves and they all look beautiful. But at the end of the season, they fold back up and it's still the tree trunk."

For the citizens of Lithuania, the relationship between trees and music has been an integral part of the culture. Throughout its pagan years, ancient Lithuania's polytheistic beliefs utilized music not so much for entertainment, but for ritual purposes; especially when it came to funerary rites.

Here, music was used as a narrative tool to retell the deeds of the deceased. Importantly, the deceased themselves were directly connected to the instruments being played through the material they were made from. For ancient Lithuanians, trees acted as vessels for human souls. Often made from linden, ash, maple and oak, the melodies of these instruments became the very voices of the dead.

At the center of this ancient culture was the idea of the World Tree, or Aušros Medis. In his book, The World Outlook of the Ancient Balts, Lithuanian folklorist Norbertas Vėlius describes the World Tree, often depicted as an oak, as a tree standing at the very center of existence; its widespread branches and strong roots symbolizing the structure and order of our planet. In fact, the village of Stelmužė in the Zarasai district of Lithuania is home to the Stelmužė Oak. Reaching 23 meters in height, it is believed to be at least 1,500 years old and possibly as much as 2,000 years old; making it the oldest oak in Lithuania and one of the oldest in Europe. Interestingly, the Stelmužė Oak is older than the nation of Lithuania itself; allowing it to act as a symbol of eternity, where the spirits of a nation do not disappear and instead continue to grow and influence the present.

The idea of channeling a nation's pagan beliefs and practices into contemporary forms of songwriting is at the center of jazz vocalist and composer Simona Smirnova's art, heard to great affect on her album Kanklės in New York (Simona Smirnova, 2023). The album comes with an accompanying book of sheet music for her compositions, which offer a genre-bending style that often includes compelling vocal improvisation techniques. Earning a degree in jazz vocals from the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater, Smirnova takes elements of chamber music and Lithuanian folkloric chant and inserts them into the foundations of jazz composition. One instrument that plays a vital role in many of her songs is the Lithuanian zither, known as a kanklės.

The name for this member of the Baltic zither family, according to Finnish linguist Eino Nieminen, possibly comes from the proto-Baltic name "kantlēs," which translates to "the singing tree." Although kanklės vary both regionally and individually, there are some common elements to its construction, such as a trapezoidal piece of wood hollowed out to create a cavity, and sound holes traditionally carved in the shape of a flower or star. The opposite ends of its strings are attached to a row of tuning pegs inserted into holes at the opposite side of the body. The kanklės usually rests on a player's lap, and is played with fingers or a pick made of bone or quill.

The incorporation of folkloric elements into contemporary music has been a favorite practice of Lithuanian artists, especially when it comes to Lithuanian jazz.

Ever since Lithuania's first period of independence, from 1918 to 1940, jazz has been a significant catalyst for cultural development. According to the Music Information Centre of Lithuania, in the early days of the 20th century, nearly every Lithuanian town had its own jazz band. In 1940, the first official jazz orchestra in Lithuania came into being and was led by Abraomas Stupelis, who is often considered the father of the Lithuanian big band. In June of 1940, the Soviet occupation of Lithuania began, temporarily dimming the vibrancy of the jazz scene. It wasn't until 1970, that the real jazz breakthrough in Lithuania came with the arrival of the Ganelin Trio, who became known as the founders of the Vilnius Jazz School movement.

Led by Vyacheslav Ganelin, the group combined free jazz with elements of Lithuanian folk and classic music. In fact, music critic Chris Kelsey once described the group as, "arguably the world's greatest free jazz ensemble of the 1970s and 1980s."

Smirnova has continued this Lithuanian tradition of music curiosity, and has fashioned a form of jazz that preserves and promotes the heritage of her nation, while also expanding the genre into new and exciting realms.

Here, Smirnova speaks about her music and what keeps her inspired.

All About Jazz: Where did your passion for music begin? Were you drawn to music and music composition from a young age, and when did your attraction to jazz music come about?

Simona Smirnova: Well music, and the arts in general, had a mysterious pull on me. I have to imagine it's similar to the way spiritual leaders suddenly have spiritual callings. You see, my childhood began in an environment that didn't possess a wealth of cultural offerings. I was born during Lithuania's revolution, so perhaps that's where my rebellious spirit comes from. Growing up, my family lived on a farm in a village. We had cows, pigs and chickens, and as a kid I would have to tend to the land and the livestock. But, when I was seven years old I asked my parents to enroll me in music school. When we got there, I really wanted to play guitar and the administrators told me that my hands were too small for guitar. I would have to wait a year until my hands grew a little bigger.

I didn't want to wait a year so I said, okay, what instrument's available to me now? And they said well, there is this folk instrument called the kanklės. As soon as one of the teacher's plucked its strings, I fell in love with it. It was a real magical moment, and I knew that from that time on not only did I want to play the kanklės, but I wanted to be a musician for the rest of my life. Unfortunately, in the beginning it was a difficult process.

Because we lived in a village far away from the main town, I wasn't able to commute every day and use practice rooms. So instead, I drew the kanklės on a piece of paper and began practicing on that; imagining that notes and sound were sprouting forth from this imaginary instrument. I played on this paper kanklės for one year, until we moved to another town where the music school was closer and I could actually attend the classes and use the practice rooms on a regular basis.

When the time came to enroll at the Lithuania Academy of Music and Theater, the school's jazz department had just opened up and it really changed my life. Up until that point, I really didn't know much about jazz. In fact, the first time I heard a jazz record was when I was 16 or 17 and listened to a Billie Holiday album. But by the time I was 18, all of my studies were dedicated to understanding jazz. I wanted to listen to as many albums as I could and learn all of the standards. My four years in college were strictly dedicated to learning the jazz tradition. And since that time I really haven't looked back.

AAJ: The kanklės is such a beautiful instrument, and one that has a rich history amongst the Lithuanian people. What's interesting is that the kanklės naturally has a sound that reminds one of the past; as if it were calling out from Lithuania's pagan times. On the flip side, it also has a timeless quality to it and one that you use to great effect in your compositions. What gave you the idea that kanklės could complement a jazz arrangement?

SS: It's interesting that you use the word "timeless" because the kanklės has a deep tradition amongst the Baltic tribes. You see, the kanklės is directly linked to death. Here, people used to believe that when a human being would pass away, their soul would be transported into a tree. So, when someone from the family would die, other family members would cut down a tree and make an instrument out of it. They would then play this instrument and feel as if the sound being produced was the soul crying. It was a way for them to communicate with their loved one's spirit. Also, the shape of the kanklės is associated with death. The structure of the instrument is supposed to resemble a ferry boat; one that would transport a human soul from this world to the afterlife. That's why the kanklės has a deep, almost muddy sound to it. It wobbles like a boat moving through a body of water.

It wasn't until I moved to the United States ten years ago that I began incorporating kanklės into my jazz compositions. During this time, I started experimenting with custom-made kanklės'; I actually have eight of my own. Each kanklės has a unique shape which produces its own unique sound. By hearing these different sounds, I was inspired to see how I could combine the richness of my folk traditions into my love for jazz. I was trying to find my own unique voice; one that would express my deepest emotions and desires. I think through this combination of kanklės and jazz I was able to realize that.

AAJ: What's great about your work, and seems to first start on your debut album A Hunger Artist (Simona Smirnova, 2017), is that there's a strong narrative element to your songs. Each piece wants to tell a story, and it's your incorporation of many musical and non-musical elements that helps to paint a vivid picture for the listener. These could be spoken word, scat singing and more free jazz arrangements. Can you talk a bit about your approach to songwriting? Where do your ideas come from, and what's the process for fleshing them out?

SS: For me, there needs to be one core idea that's driving the song. As many of us know, artistic creation is a complicated path. Here, there are many elements at play; including cultural traditions and personal experiences. These are all interrelated, and for me to pursue an idea for a song or a piece of art, the most important thing is that it has to have meaning. It can't just be oh, I'm going to write a jazzy song and it's going to have this groovy swing beat. There has to be something of personal substance that is supporting the song. For my album A Hunger Artist (Simona Smirnova, 2017), I am a big fan of Franz Kafka, and I was fascinated by this idea of abandonment and conflict of an artist trying to get attention, but also suffering because of it. For Joan of Arc for String Quartet (Simona Smirnova, 2020), I wanted to explore a woman who is one of the first great feminists. In this case, four strings and a little bit of kanklės made it perfect. And in the prelude of the piece, I start with the sound of breath. I wanted to capture the sound a person's breath makes when they inhale and exhale while crying. This is the moment when she hears God's call, and I wanted to convey all of the hope and tragedy contained in this breath.

When it came to Bird Language (Simona Smirnova, 2022), I was inspired by Carl Gustav Jung and the idea of archetypes and the collective subconscious. And in my view, the kanklės embodies all of these emotions. For me, I can relate to the situation of an urban musician living an urban life, and wondering how to remain connected and faithful to one's traditional roots and ancestral practices. So, hearing the internal drama and storyline of a protagonist is the core impulse and inspiration for many of my pieces.

AAJ: Your book of sheet music, "Kanklės in New York" has just been released. Can you talk about how the project developed and why you felt now was the right time to write a book?

SS: This project came about because I felt there was a need that wasn't being met. I've been living in the U.S. now for ten years, and I'm a very active member of the Lithuanian diaspora community. I would be teaching in Lithuanian schools and singing in Lithuanian churches, and inevitably something would come up like we need a Christmas song for a program. Well, there aren't many traditional Lithuanian Christmas songs. Instead of searching for some obscure song, I thought it was easier for me to just compose an original song for traditional Lithuanian instruments. And I found that people were also very interested in learning the kanklės, but much of the sheet music that was available to them were older songs that may not interest a younger audience.

I could see there was a niche here, and so I tried to create a body of work that would be accessible for beginners, and also fun for more experienced kanklės players. So the book not only provides a brief introduction into the history of this instrument, but also provides sheet music and options to listen to recordings of the music being discussed. For the sheet music, there are nine instrumental pieces in different genres and levels. These include two children's songs; a Christian hymn; and two arrangements of traditional folk songs. The great thing is, these songs are composed in a way that they can also be played on piano or harp. Ultimately, this was my attempt to make a very community-driven project, and I think it surpassed my expectations.

AAJ: As an artist and musician, what continues to inspire you and influence your approach to composition?

SS: Well, as I mentioned, the core idea can come from a number of areas; literature, history and philosophy for example. In the case of Kanklės in New York (Simona Smirnova, 2023), the inspiration was my heart for the community, and finding a way to serve Lithuanians and allow the nation's musical heritage to be more accessible to a larger audience. Also, finding the idea is one thing, but putting it down into an arrangement is a whole other matter. For me, I don't really sit around and wait for inspiration. In fact, I treat my music as any other job that requires time and discipline. When I was writing and composing Kanklės in New York (Simona Smirnova, 2023), I developed a very strict schedule for myself. I outlined all of my measures and pieces, and told myself I was going to have them composed by a certain date. Everything was planned out using charts and spreadsheets. That may not sound very interesting or exotic, but those components are essential for getting the work done.

In the end, there are two answers to the question. General inspiration comes from both art and life. You see, music is my livelihood and I can't wait to see where the next stop on my journey will be.

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