8 August 2017

Female composers in the Baltic

As the push for greater equality in classical gains more and more momentum, I thought now would be a decent time to just stand back and mention some of the many wonderful female composers from the three Baltic states. This list won't be in any form or order, expect listing nation by nation, and will serve as more of an introduction to female composers in the Baltic; especially those I haven't had the chance to mention yet. Gender equality in the region is something I will like to touch upon in future, but that will be for another time. So for now I hope you all find something you enjoy!


Our first composer, Galina Grigorjeva (1962*), was born in Odessa, Crimea, and only came to Estonia after studying with Lepo Sumera. However this does not mean she is disconnected from the scene by any means. Her music is rich and potent, and her exploration of Slavonic sacred music adds an interesting dimension. This intrigue ultimately makes her music an intriguing statement and question of nationality, identity, and personality especially in a nation whose modern identity is still very new. 

The grand matriarch that is Ester Magi (1922*) stands as the oldest composer in the region as well as having a truly unique and individualistic stance; when compared with her peers and the following generations. Her music has the beautiful combination of personal ingenuity and ever responsive to 'tradition'. Despite the brilliance of her compositions, her music still retains and curious modesty which gives it a truly endearing quality. Thankfully as she has aged more attention is finally heading in her direction, and hopefully soon more performances of her music will come this far west. 

Helena Tulve (1972*), a personal favourite of mine, is a composer with very few who can really be compared to her. The originality of colour and inspired nuance of gestures give her music a quality that is always striking a fresh, regardless of how often one would listen to it. The rolling melismas combined with the resonant spaces make her music sit in a space that usurps the listener fully. For me what makes her music quite so brilliant is the ability to use harmonic space to merely allow the music to speak freely. Very few composers internationally can really compete with the skill in her work.

Evelin Seppar (1986*) is quite a recent discovery for me. And it is quite a curious one indeed. Within her music, you can hear the fascination with modal harmonies, but she skillfully finds ways to knock them off kilter; giving you a new way to listen to the harmonies. There is quite an honest beauty to her music and I look forward to uncovering more recordings myself.

Mirjam Tally (1976*) is another truly striking composer. Her raw potency is the first thing that hits the listener, especially in works like Erosioon. But this brutality is not the sole selling point of her work. Despite the intense focus on sound in the most abstract sense, never loses any sense of musicality or drama. Mirjam Tally, like her contemporaries like Helena Tulve, also really  show the profound energy composers had after the break up of the Soviet Union. Everyone wanted to truly immerse themselves into the new world without fear or question. Mirjam does this with a flair. The sheer impact of her music shows this relentless courage and potency within every gesture.

Lydia Auster (1912-93) is another composer who was not originally born in Estonia, but due to her work lead her there. Born in Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan, Lydia studied composition in Leningrad with Mikhail Judin then in Moscow with Vissarion Shebalin. Her composing took her all over the Soviet Union, including stints in Turkmenistan, from 1950-1989 she was the Chairman of the USSR Music Foundation's Estonian Republic Department, firmly planting her within Estonia and the music scene within the region. Her music is charming and witty, and I imagine there would be a huge audience in the UK who would love to listen to her debonair musical stylings.

Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes (1977*) is an Estonian composer of Russian origin. She studied under Jaan Raats  and Helena Tulve and the influence of both of these tutors is apparent within her work, but she never drifts into pastiche. There is an elegant spaciousness to her work, and like her teacher Helena, Tatjana has an inspired ability to entrap the listener. She is still a very new discovery to me, and everything I have found has struck me. I am eager to see what else I can uncover of her work. 

For my last example to represent Estonia, I turn to Liisa Hirsch (1984*). Another very recent discovery, but a truly inspiring one. Her music is extremely direct and unforgiving. The unerring honesty within her music is almost divine. Never hiding or presenting her music in a timid manner. Her music simply is. It is simply remarkable. Her Ascending...Descending is a perfect example of what I mean. The combined elegance of the solo violin's lines accompanied by the perpetual rising or falling of the orchestra is just a joy to behold. 

There were many other names I would love to have mentioned, but it does give me a stronger excuse to return to them in future posts.


Santa Buss (1981*) is a composer I have admired for a significant amount of time, and have also had the joy to interview relatively recently. A music is a constant journey of self exploration. Each piece, its own philosophical quandary being delved into with this highest intensity. No two works sound the same. But her personal 'voice' shines through. Maybe as her internal monologue remains constant, her musical ideas endure the same scrutiny, siphoning off only the gold from the dirt. Its hard to single out one piece as an example so jump to her soundcloud and enjoy! 

A contemporary of Santa Buss, Gundega Smite (1977*) is another composer whose music manages to mystify you one moment and grab you by the scruff of the neck the next. A pupil of Peteris Plakidis, Gundega's music has an elegant sense of craft and purpose which can only be admired. For me, her choral music is what stands out most. Maybe due to the physical and human elements imbued into the music give it that earthy yet mystical quality. Music trapped in human flesh can only dream of transcending its humanity, but Gundega is definitely close to it.

Santa Ratniece (1977*) is another composer I have had the joy of mentioning previously in an article. Like her contemporaries in the Baltic, her music is fascinated with the wider world. Exploring poetry or themes of various cultures, Santa manages to deal with these cultural phenomena with an intrinsic sincerity. So be it exploring historic Jewish traditions or Buddhist art, she manages to approach it with a freshness and openness which only enhances her musicality. I was stunned by the fragility of her piano concerto, I was equally amazed by her ability to produce moments of violence. Santa's music is simply exquisite and needs more performances.

Indra Rise (1961*) stands at a curious point in time. At the point of her studying with Peteris Plakidis in 1990, the world around her had completely changed. This would have left her with the curious circumstances of having the feeling that anything was possible, but also having to fight the crushing sensation of what is our 'identity'. This being said, her music stands strong. Admittedly she could fall into the camp of 'new simplicity' which was heavily celebrated the world over when the Baltic was being rediscovered, Indra manages to not be lost in the labels, and is simply enjoyable. 

Maija Einfelde (1939*) is a composer who only quite recently began to gain some international fame after winning the International Barlow Endowment in the US, this however does not diminish from the elegance of her music. A pupil of Janis Ivanovs, Maija Einfelde is a composer strongly connected to the ideas of a Latvian nationality. She has mostly written for choirs or chamber ensembles, this however does not imply a modesty within her music. Her craft is simply brilliant and stands the test of time. Even though she wouldn't be called a revolutionary figure, her music is simply strong and memorable, and I am struck by every new piece I uncover by her.

Born in remote Ukraine, Marina Gribincika (1966*) is an immensely radical figure. It is extremely hard to pinpoint how she came to be the way she is, but there is a truly potent originality to her work. Within her Smilsu Laiks, the combination of cello octet, combined with shimmering and splatterings of percussion put her music into a whole new dimension. Time simply falls away. It is truly awe-inspiring. Need I say more?

A very recent discovery, Laura Gustovska (1986*) is one of the 'newest' generation of composers now composing in Latvia. Within her music is a vibrancy, and almost optimistic lightness to it. This is not to say, she sounds nostalgic, or to even suggest any naivety in her work, but simply the soundscape produce is truly positive and uplifting, even in darker or most violent passages. When listening to her work, there is a feeling there is a lot more brilliance to come out of her. I wouldn't say she is a done dish, but there is still a large amount of merit to her work as it stands and I look forward to hearing more. 

A contemporary of Gustovska, Ieva Klingenberga (1986*) stands in almost complete contrast to her counterpart. A significant amount of her work is defined by electronics and has a rather colourful attraction to it. The use of electronics combined with abstract thoughts, including Jung's ideas of anima, produces a rather dizzying spell. The hypnotic effect is quite strong, but never fails to kick you when you least expect it. Like Gustovska, time will see how she continues to grow as artist.

To conclude my mix of Latvians, Linda Leimane (1989*) is quite the composer to finish on. Her music is full of personal character and violence. It is almost unforgiving. Her ability to tap into the rawness of musical sound and gesture is remarkable, especially from a young composer in the early stages of her musical life. What strikes me most, is her ability to almost magnify the ensemble. Her chamber pieces like Magnetic Move manages to make a quartet sound like a huge expansive musical beast; which is made all the more impressive when you consider the piece is only 4 minutes long. I think out of all the three young Latvians I have mentioned so far, she has definitely hit me the hardest.

Once again, there are many more composers I could have mentioned and they are mentally added to the list of composers to mention in the future.


For those who have read my blog on more than one occasion, will know I hold the work of Justina Repeckaite (1989*) in extremely high regard. If you needed more proof of this, you simply need to look at previous posts or my description written for the music information centre. She is without a doubt a remarkable composer who always manages to strike with ferocity and fragility in the same gesture. Her first overtly celebrated work Chartres has an intense richness of colour to it, but more recent works like Unbennant-2 have a serene stillness to them which manage to unless power in the most surprising of ways. This year seems like it will be an extremely busy year for her, and after lots of discussion I am curious to see all the music she is going to produce. Also soon I should have a more in depth article discussing her work soon, as she has agreed to an interview, so watch this space.

Loreta Narvilaite (1965*) is a curious composer within the Lithuanian landscape for multiple reasons. Firstly the nuance and charm to her music is simply like no other, not even other 'simplistic' composers quite have the endearing quality Loreta spins so perfectly. What is also fascinating is the fact she has made such an impact as composer, while staying completely rooted in Klaipeda. As the Lithuanian national scene is so heavily dominated by the capital or Kaunas, it is a genuine surprise to see a talented composer get the praise they deserve, despite not being so deeply connected to the scene in the same way as her contemporaries.

Raminta Serksnyte (1975*) is a composer who as she has grown has become increasingly radical in a truly original and poetic manner. As we briefly discussed in an interview her music has an increase plurality to it, especially in comparison to the early 'minimalist' works like De Profundis. This multilayered approach gives her music a rich palette to work with moving seamlessly from gesture to gesture. The elegance of craft, combined with ingenious ideas keeps her truly original. Any future works are almost certainly going to be magnificent to behold.

In direct contrast to the richness of Serksnyte, Diana Cemeryte (1974*) has a profound austerity within her music. The glistening shimmers of distant sounds, combined with unidentified murmurs lead to a fascinating landscape. Almost like trying to find a rare creature. You follow its minute gestures and movements, hoping the rustlings will unearth exactly what you are hunting for. Combined with the austerity of gesture is clear sense of herself. Her ability to just let an idea live is probably my favourite quality within her music. Her Les essais c'est tout II is a perfect example of this.

Onute Narbutaite (1956*) is one of the few figures in Lithuania who can stand purely on the merit of her work, without desperately needing to teach to survive. One of the few internationally celebrated composer Narbutaite is a one of a kind composer. Her nuanced use of harmony combined with immense dramatic powers makes her music quite the experience to behold. As 2016 marked her 60th Birthday, the year was full of fantastic concerts of her music which were inspiring. There aren't many figures in Lithuania who have defined and left such a lasting impact on the musical landscape of the nation. 

Nomeda Valanciute (1961*) is a composer who is heavily rooted within machinism (a minimalistic trend which appeared in the 90s, spearheaded by the likes of Rytis Mazulis, Sarunas Nakas and other contemporaries). Her music is quite simply a matter of fact. It simply is. There is no question. No hidden meaning. Just. Is. It is remarkable that a composer being so defiantly restrictive, could have such a profound impact, but her music is unerring. Never ending. Just music. 

Another composer who is having a profound impact on her generation is Ruta Vitkauskaite (1984*). For those who have read my blog before, will know my paths constantly cross with Ruta, and even though I am not always convinced by the work it must be said her unfailing desire to explore and challenge the norm is courageous. Her constant challenge to accepted traditions leads her to very interesting paths, and I am constantly reminded of figures like Cornelius Cardew or Eliane Radigue, simply because despite her dissatisfaction with tradition; she hasn't just followed other trends, instead trying to tread her own path regardless of the world around her. When her music has been at its most potent, it does stun, and as she grows her ability to keep hitting that goal will only increase. But in the end it doesn't matter, because she will keep challenging herself and the world around her, which is truly noble.

Now for my personal favourite. Juste Janulyte (1982*) is a composer I have admired for an extremely long time. Her music's greatest strength is it's own ability to simply be. Regardless of the world. The ability to simply sit with a sound, or colour, or space and stay still. Without an itching desire to leave. To just exist. It is simply divine. Though her music has been going through seismic changes since her early success, her personal voice is always prevalent. I have discussed her work on numerous occasions because of its brilliance, and I will continue to do so for a long time coming. 

 Once again, there were many figures I would have loved to feature this time, but will have to return to on another occasion. Hopefully sometime soon. Until then, happy listening.


  1. Fantastic collection of music. Great work, great introductions. Thank you!

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I am definitely thinking of doing another set like this, as there were so many wonderful composers I had to miss out.