Berkeley universities

A language of its own

Lithuanian musician Simona Smirnova is on her fourth visit to New Zealand, but her first to Dunedin this month. Rebecca Fox talks to the musician known for her love of the traditional Lithuanian folk zither, the kankles.

From an idyllic childhood in a Lithuanian village surrounded by nature and animals to playing on the New York City subway and singing jazz on the streets for money for food and rent, Simona Smirnova has quite the story.

“There were times when I didn’t have a cell phone or shoes or a jacket that was appropriate for the season. I was just going through every day and trying to do well in college.”

These difficult times are now behind her. She has a degree in contemporary composition and production from Berkeley College, lives in New York and has just released her third album, Bird language.

In this work, she says she shows listeners her “true face”.

“It’s the very first one where the audience can really feel my personality, my story, my character. It’s sensual, it’s sad and hopeful at the same time, it’s a bit offbeat.

“It’s also the biggest instrumentation I’ve done so far; we have 11 musicians on this record: string quartet, double bass, drums, piano, saxophone, two backing vocals and myself on vocals and zither.”

His previous works were based on other people’s stories.

The first is inspired by the short story by Franz Kafka A Hunger Artistpresented as a live performance with modern dance, and its second, Joan of Arc, for string quartetwas written as the soundtrack to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc and performed with a silent film.

“As we age, we begin to shed some of our influences and let ourselves be who we really are, allowing us to express our ideas unabashedly,” Smirnova says.

“I think my journey is about that – getting closer to true creative expression of myself.”

This true creative expression has its genesis in the Lithuanian village where she grew up. Her family lived in a small wooden house without a television or running water.

“I learned a lot about gardening, animals and the changing seasons. I remember going to a well to get buckets of water. I think my early years defined a pattern for my personality; I am deeply connected to the natural world around me, to fairy tales and books, to folk songs.”

Born during the revolution when Lithuania regained its independence from the Soviet Union, she grew up in a “highly patriotic” climate.

“I think it had a huge impact on me. Even now, having lived in the United States for 10 years, I often return to Lithuania and am very involved in the Lithuanian community in the United States.”

When she was 7, she asked her mother to take her to music school and, despite initial reluctance, began learning the kankles of the folk zither (a plucked string instrument).

“The kankles were not as popular and cool as the guitar, but I was ready to try it. I did not know this instrument. When the teacher showed me the kankles and how it sounds, I was fell in love and have always played with it since.”

The following year, once they moved to a small town where she spent the rest of her childhood, she began taking piano and voice lessons, the training covering both European classical and Lithuanian folk.

It was only when she wanted to continue her musical studies that she moved to the capital Vilnius where she studied jazz singing at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Drama.

“Since I come from classical and folk backgrounds, jazz has really intrigued me. It’s a very technical and complicated style, but also with plenty of room for creativity and improvisation.

“It was my thing – technicality and freedom at the same time.

“Also, at that time in Lithuania there were not many singing styles available to study professionally. You could study classical opera singing or jazz, so I chose jazz.”

After graduating, she felt she needed to continue her education, so she auditioned for Berkeley College of Music in Boston and received a European touring scholarship.

Those early years as an international student were tough as she tried to keep herself afloat financially by supplementing her scholarship with busking.

“It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. International students are not allowed to work in the United States, which makes it very difficult to overcome financial difficulties.”

She earned a degree in contemporary composition and production and stayed in Boston for three more years.

“I started composing on my own right away when I started learning music. I remember that time when I came home from my first or second music class and drew my own laid down on a blank sheet of paper and started creating my own eight bar melodies.. All those short songs had titles of different flowers and plants.I guess after 26 years not much has changed.

After releasing her debut album, she moved to New York.

“I played in Boston for a while, but it’s not a big city. I wanted to move to where the music scene is vibrant, competitive, extremely interesting and challenging. And that’s New York! loved it from day one.”

She found New York challenging but also liberating and it helped her to appreciate herself better.

“It’s a place where you can create and recreate yourself from scratch over and over again. It’s a place where you can be creative and daring, you can experiment and make lots of great friends. That’s why I live here.”

Despite this, his heritage continued to play a big role in his music.

“Since I grew up learning folk songs, reading Lithuanian fairy tales and dancing folk dances, it’s been deeply ingrained in me. My legacy runs through my lyrics, my melodic lines, even my presence on stage and my outfits.”

This also shines through in her playing of kankles, which she describes as a unique instrument with deep traditional roots.

“It comes from ancient spiritual practices when Lithuania was still a pagan country. I love the sound of the instrument – the combination of this vibrant, ethereal sound and modern harmonies and rhythms makes for a very unique and fresh blend .

“Kankles brings that ethnic flavor to my music, the modal quality. But I also try to push the boundaries of traditional playing and use different audio processing and effects pedals, to make my kankles sound more modern.”

Over time, she continued to develop her musical style, which she describes as jazz with Eastern European folk influences.

“I combined my experience of Lithuanian folk music and jazz education, as well as the essence of my personality – love for nature, human connection, deeply emotional life.

“It has developed over many years of performances, rehearsals and collaborations with different musicians.”

He is strongly influenced by his love for nature and his love of Carl Jung’s writings on this subject.

“I love to deepen the human connection with nature. It inspires my lyrical writing, my singing and my compositional techniques. I draw inspiration from the seasons, plants, volcanoes, oceans, clouds… everything around us.”

Smirnova also plays the piano and the theremin (an electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact), as well as the guitar, which she uses for community events such as children’s music and summer camps.

“But out of all of that, I love singing the most. Singing comes very naturally to me and I enjoy it a lot.

“The theremin is my latest musical adventure. I got into it barely a year ago, hoping to incorporate it into my future shows.”

His trip to New Zealand is his first tour since the Covid-19 pandemic. She spent time in confinements composing and teaching an online course.

“It was a good moment of reflection, rested from the journey. I created a lot of new material and once the borders opened, I am on the road again.”

Smirnova has never been to Dunedin before but is looking forward to her fourth visit to the country.

“I fell in love with New Zealand at first sight. It’s such a vibrant and beautiful country with poetic landscapes, creative and warm people, attentive audiences and a very unique music scene. Very excited to Seeing Dunedin for the first time. I’ve heard a lot of good things so I’m very much looking forward to experiencing it myself.”

The smaller venues on the tour attract, offering the possibility of having contact with the public.

“I love the community aspect of the performance. I love feeling the local audience, getting to know them and talking to people after the show. I love learning about new places, their history, landscape and local anecdotes.

“All of that is also a big part of my inspiration for my creative work. I’m a people person.”

In Dunedin, she will perform a duet with local jazz musician Bill Martin on piano.

The show will feature Bird languageSmirnova singing and playing pegs.

This is the kind of performance she likes to do the most.

“I love making music with different musicians from different backgrounds, making new friends, making memories, sharing my energy and love with my audience.”

She also uses the tour to raise awareness about climate change.

“I hope my music will inspire us to connect with nature and be more resourceful and mindful of consumption, recycling and everyday habits.”

The show

Simona Smirnova plays Bird language at the Dunedin Folk Club, tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.