Elizabeta Lāce: A Quest for the Last of the Livonians

Performance artist and singer-songwriter Elizabeta Lāce

I set out to travel up and down the coast of Latvia during the Midsummer break this year to find out more about Elizabeta Lāce, a musician and artist who had particularly intrigued me, but I ended up discovering a lot more, about a population that has been largely forgotten, and about the beauty of the Baltic landscape.

The four-hour bus journey from Tallinn to Riga gave me a long time to talk to Elizabeta Lāce (pronounced "Lat-say"), who I had already spoken to at Tallinn Music Week.

Her inspirations come from all over the musical spectrum; a former ensemble musician at the Jazeps Vitols Latvian Academy of Music, formerly the Riga Conservatory, Elizabeta Lāce can thank that classical grounding for her expertise with the harp, one of the most difficult musical instruments to learn and play. Her decision to devote total effort to her solo work and performance art came when she realised she no longer enjoyed being merely a cog in a larger machine, and wanted a blank canvas for self-expression. 

"I graduated from the Academy of Music in Harp, and I've played harp since I was seven years old, so it's coming up to my 20th anniversary this year. At one point in my master's studies, I realised I really didn't want to continue studying with my teacher, or to continue as an orchestra or chamber musician, I wanted to go into the contemporary field as a composer and performer. That's why when I quit my master's, I realised I really had to make it. I needed to make my debut as a solo artist, because for ten years I'd been playing in various ensembles from grindcore and thrash metal, right up to pop music. I thought my stepping stone was to pay my respect to the instrument my mother chose for me when I was a very little girl. In general I have a very spiritual relationship with the harp."

This is the background to her two, drastically different, solo albums, the first, Landside in English, having been released online in March 2016. It is a collection of stark, often chilling, pieces, with minimal instrumentation, on which Lāce's harp is given pride of place. Later in 2016 it was followed by a vocal album, Songs About D.

As she described Landside on the album's website, "Its central theme are borderlines – personal and outer, meeting of opposite worlds and vanishing, drawing a parallel between inner happenings and surrounding cultural geopolitical settings – when finding ourselves in the middle of different powers, keeping together for hundreds of years judeo-christian and pagan beliefs and sometimes trying to wipe them all out completely, and the last – millenniums ago on the both banks of the river delta, at the coast of the sea, colliding Uralic and Indo-European worlds."

It was to explore this collision of different worlds that Lāce wanted to take me far away from Riga, to the heartland of what remains of the Livonian people - the Livs - and their language and culture. "Every time I go there I connect with the place. The Livonians are Finno-Ugric. Archaeological findings have shown that Livonia was inhabited by Finno-Ugric people. The photos [in the booklet of Landside, detailing the Livonian coast] were taken over a period of about eight years."

In Mazirbe, the cultural capital of the Livonian people, the tricolour - green for the forests, white for the fine, delicate sand of the area's beaches, and blue for the sea - flies proudly over the Livonian Culture Centre. Built and maintained thanks in part to funding from the Estonian and Finnish governments, the culture centre receives no grants from the government of Latvia, notably. 

Hosting regular meetings, the white building, which dominates the tiny coastal village in which it sits, is part of the last bastion of a language that, if not for an intensely committed effort on the part of the indigenous population, probably would have died out by now. As this informative article published on Deep Baltic describes, there are no remaining mother-tongue speakers of Livonian, although an estimated double-figure number of people are well-versed enough in the language alongside others that they can speak it with fluency.

Latvia did recognise Livonian as a language and culture after restoration of Latvian independence in 1991, but this has led, some believe, more to lip service than any concerted attempt to increase the number of Livonian-speakers. The Livonian Union hosts a significant number of regular events, all staffed and organised by volunteers. The problem with Livonian, as with any language, is creating a situation of immersion for learners, when it is thought that nobody speaks it as a first language. 

This is essential background before you dive into Landside, because the unspoilt, yet wild, Livonian coast informs the ghostly death-rattle of Dieva suņu ēnas, listening to which you can feel the harsh winds of this part of the world. On Cilvēki, foreboding minor chords make way for resonant percussion, before the closing minutes suggest some hope among the gloom - perhaps some people in the thick fog. The feeling of being uncertain on one's feet is one that persists through the gentle soundscapes of Landside, right into the closing track, Laiks, or Time, which seems to suspend the listener in a moment, unsure where those footsteps are coming from, disorientated by the unending forest.

Lāce explained how the first album was her love letter to the Livonian coast, something that also informed the performance-art experiments she conducted, and that were filmed by me and photographed by friends who joined us on the ride. She performed a series of traditional pagan and christian rituals, observed for generations during the summer solstice.

These included the performance below, where Lāce makes a crown of thorns, the traditional symbol of Midsummer Day (St. John's Day). St. John the Baptist's mother's name was Elizabeth, and Lāce has always felt a strong connection to her. The performance is a tribute to John the Baptist, also showing Salome taking his crown. "It's also a turning point in the Bible," she said, "where women become more determined." 

Perhaps the most resonant of Lāce's performance art work over the solstice took place on Cape Kolka, known in times past as the place where countless sailors met their fate. The aggressive waves as the Gulf of Riga juddered around into the Baltic Sea, along with the exposed nature of the cape, bringing constant winds, made for a quite extraordinary location - not modern Latvia's northernmost point, but a knife-edge almost equidistant from Saaremaa to the north-west and Ruhnu, the island once disputed by both Latvia and Estonia, to the north-east.

Photo: Anna Vilane

Photo: Anna Vilane

Photo: Anna Vilane

A monument, with candles ablaze, paid tribute to all those who had lost their life at sea. Lāce set out to pay her own tribute. On the video, shown and described above, you can see Lāce walking out to sea, before producing a knife and cutting into her leg. This is symbolic of the way that pirates, operating around the cape for centuries, would, according to legend, cut the feet off stranded or dead sailors, taking their shoes. Often, cosseted in 21st-century Tallinn or Riga, it can seem like there is little out there presenting true danger. To go to Cape Kolka, also known by some as the Plague Cape, is to see a place that is so treacherous, people who wished to navigate its seas, studded with sharp rocks that pierced hulls in an instant, would have to take their lives in their hands every time they did so. 

Songs About D. is a stylistic volte-face from Landside, and yet it also deals with the theme of the precariousness of life, as D stands for death. When Lāce performed a selection of the heart-rending piano-and-vocals songs on a visit to Tallinn Music Week 2017, the audience, crammed into a small book shop in the city centre, knew they were watching someone special, and keenly focused on her art. The mood of the album swings from Summers, a contemplative, wistful look back at lost love, to the macabre Mortal Combat, which takes its title from the video game, but carries a foreboding ambiance that closes with Lāce laughing and then crying as she contemplates the impending death of the subject of her song. 

I had put it to Lāce that the inspiration for the soulful sound, anchored by her honey-smooth vocal tones, seemed to be from American soul. While admitting a liking for many legends of the genre, Lāce instead pointed to the narrative tradition of Russian storytelling. "The American songs, as you called them - actually I think of them as based on a Russian tradition. They're based on the music of people like Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky , and many others - they wrote piano ballads for the female voice, and they were of particuilar interest to me at the Music Academy. My interests are diverse - metal and doom metal on one side, Amy Winehouse and Beyonce on the other side. That's why because of the themes of my songs, I can't deny religious thought, or my critique of religious thought, play a strong role."

There is a constant dark side to the music on Songs About D. "I don't want to say I'm obsessed by the letter D, but death is a strong character for me in my songs. When I perform those songs, I get really terrified and I feel fragile."

"There is something that I think has affected my parents' generation, my generation, and it's always in the back of your mind - I'm talking about suicide. It's genetically-inherited, a mental disorder. It took me years and years of existential psychotherapy to recover. Shortly after I released the record, someone else I knew committed suicide. He wasn't particularly close to me, but I'm grieving now," she said at the time of our first interview, in April. "It leaves so many unanswered questions."

Photo: Anna Vilane

A very private person, Lāce likes to keep her art separate from her personal life. What impressed was the way she was willing to draw from the history around her to fuel her own work. Too often, artists resort to introspection for the creative fuel they need to write music, or to make visual works. Lāce gets her energy from the nature and people around her, and from the places she visits. The aim of this road trip was partly to bring me a story, but also partly to create a new piece of performance art, that would at the very least provoke intrigue and would also provide the artist with ideas that she could take forward to her future compositions.

"I understand it's very delusional to imagine art can change the world - what I do, and what other artists do, I find completely useless. At the end of the day, though, I think people who want to be creative - I'm pretty sure they will eventually find a way to do that. It doesn't make a difference for me if they're a full-time professional artist, or an accountant practicing it in their spare time. We can do whatever we want, but for some people it's about the will. I really, really, want to do this, and I'm doing this because - I'm not sure it's what I'm supposed to do, but I know I'm desperate to make art, and I'm very motivated to do it. That's the difference."

Elizabeta Lāce on Bandcamp