Rytis Bulota

VMU Ph.D. in Political Science

In the first year, the university belonged to us

We met with Rytis Bulota, Ph.D. in Political Science, lecturer of philosophy at VMU, bassist of Mountainside and second-generation VMU student, to discuss philosophy, music, freedom at the university and the parallels between concerts and lectures.

As a science, philosophy has a very wide range, it is divided into numerous branches and movements. Which philosophical movement is the closest to you?

I can say with certainty that I find the ideas of philosophers like Josiah Royce and Richard Rorty close to me. Individual rights and freedoms are the most important values, so ideologically and politically I could be called a liberal, though in terms of economic issues I am not a pure liberal and do not agree with some economical viewpoints of neoliberals.

How does philosophy and being a philosopher affect daily life?

I feel a particularly strong influence of philosophy  when I evaluate my work and consider what can be done and what should not be done. Moral dilemmas arise often in life. I’d say that a philosophical foundation is very important, because it is a frame containing all of my assessments and thoughts. On the other hand, I dwell too much on some things, such as debating what is good or bad, how one should behave, etc.

Philosophy also affects the music. Our lyrics are not very political, but they are related to various political and philosophical issues, which we present through our individual perspective.

As a young man, you were no stranger to the idea of punk rebellion. How much of the punk spirit is still in your life?

I think the core elements are still there, i.e. that commercialism is wrong. Also, the idea that the main criteria when choosing an activity should be whether or not it is relevant and significant to you, instead of the financial benefit. Such an attitude is still very important to me and I’d say that its influence diminished only in certain areas of life. Of course, unavoidably, when you start a family, all kinds of responsibility emerges, and you have to adapt to new circumstances. I sometimes feel like I’m not acting authentically and if I had a choice I’d do things in a completely different way.

Punk heritage is evident in the evaluation of the society’s success or failure. If someone has a certain occupation or a lot of money, it is not a yardstick to measure their success. Status and wealth does not necessarily bring honour. Honour comes from knowing that someone strived for it, that it was his true desire: then he achieved his personal goal. But if he is an entirely different person authentically, if he’d much rather prefer to create art , but he’s unhappy because he’s not creating it, even though he holds some kind of office, has a lot of money, etc. — I see him as an unhappy person. To be honest, when I see people who live in a hierarchy, I feel sorry for them, because they are very boxed in, and they have no freedom or choice, unlike those who distance themselves from hierarchy. This attitude, of course, was influenced by punk rock as well.

What is the style of music you play?

Hard to say. Our music has very many influences, so we try to keep it loosely defined: heavy rock and that’s it. This is indeed heavy rock, but there are influences of metal, punk rock, progressive rock and post rock – we aren’t restricting ourselves to anything. Even when picking the name for the band (Mountainside – Ed.), we sought for it to be ambiguous, so that it would not pin us down. I mean, if you are Cannibal Corpse, then of course you must play metal.

So how did the name of your band come about?

The name has simple origins: there was this coffee shop called Pakalne (Lithuanian for “hillside” or “mountainside” – Ed.) where we, the VMU students of the first generations, would sit. We translated the title to English and it stuck.

Which generations of students do you mean?

I belong to the second class of VMU Alumni. Students used to gather in Pakalne, which was on the other side of the street in front of what is now the Pompeja restaurant, for at least ten years. Later the name changed, there were dance music events as well. I think even RyRalio started organising their events there. There’s nothing there now.

If I understand you correctly, VMU came first, music appeared later?

No. I started playing in bands when I was about sixteen. There were all kinds of them. The first was Pionieriaus Garbės Žodis, a punk rock band. Speaking of the development of Lithuanian rock, there was this punk rock festival called Purvina Žiema, where we played – it was like an inspiration to young people, and a bunch of bands emerged after that event. Later we also had this band called Delirium Tremens, where I played with Vikis, a colleague and a graduate from the first class of VMU. But we had met each other much earlier, before the university, we only started playing together during the study years, in the university’s carnivals, etc. So, the connections are strong, but music started earlier.

So you started playing in the Soviet era? Was rock music seen as a rebellion at the time? Did it cause any problems?

Well, I used to walk around with long hair, and the teacher or someone else kept saying: “When will you cut your hair?”. I was even chided in the military preparation classes. When they finally cornered me, I went and cut my hair drastically, I shaved my temples. We had this deputy headmaster, I can’t remember his name, but he was so annoying that we called him Thorn. He came to my class, looked at me wearing that haircut, and said: “Oh, who do we have here all punked up?”. So these were the kinds of problems I had. Also, when we used to sit in Laisvės Avenue, near Laumė, there was always the possibility that you’d be caught by the militia, they’d take you somewhere and cut your hair. On the other hand, the perestroika had already started by then, everything was much looser. I will not delve into the historical side, because we’ve just finished a project about Sajūdis together with the IIRPS, and a lot of attention was paid to rock music there as well. It is all still fresh to me and I could talk passionately about it for hours.

Did the university change or influence your music?

I would not say that it had any direct influence, but the cultural medium was very alive. There was so much anarchy during the first year at VMU, but in a good way: the university belonged to us, the students. We could do anything we wanted. For instance, after the first academic year, when the second year of studies had ended (the older ones had studied before then), we decided that we’d hold dances at the Great Hall. We went to the Silelis House of Culture, ascended up the stairs, took the equipment and brought it downstairs. Of course, it was all for free, we organised all the events for fun.

Nobody was listening to Stasys Povilaitis (popular Lithuanian singer who came to prominence in the 1970s – Ed.) anymore – it was a completely tired business, so we thought that it was funny (hipsters must have already existed even then) and organised a disco called Lietuviškos Muzikos Šventė (Celebration of Lithuanian Music). We played only the old songs, by Povilaitis, Paltinienė, etc. We were dressed retro style, with platform shoes and ties they called “shovels”… So we didn’t just play, we also organised these types of events.

Throughout all of those years, starting from when you were sixteen until now, did you ever hold off your involvement in music?

No, never. Well, of course, I did study abroad for quite a while: 1.5 years in Denmark, 2.5 years in Norway. When you’re in another country, everything stops for a bit, but then you come back home for a month or two of holidays and you play again, and then you leave again. But I never stopped being involved in music completely. I always brought my guitar with me, so there were no periods when I didn’t play music at all.

Lately I’ve been seeing students who look more like serious adult career climbers than students. Were you ever told by someone that it was time to get serious?

No, no, no. It was rather the opposite. For example, the older colleagues at the university, such as Prof. Egidijus Aleksandravičius or Prof. Leonidas Donskis, give me a lot of support and see it as a plus, an indication of a multifaceted person. However, my activities are very divided, I do my best for them to not interfere with each other: university is university, and music is music. Of course, sometimes students come to the concerts as well. But I’ve never heard them say: “You should stop playing”.

Does the separation of these two activities come naturally, or do you try to retain it somehow?

It happens naturally, but I do try for them to be divided as well, though I’m not putting any conscious effort into it. 

Do you give a higher priority to one of these activities? Or are they mostly equally important?

I’d say that they’re both equally important to me. But I think that if I didn’t have any academic work and only had to play music, I’d be very bored.

And the opposite as well?

Yes, the same with the opposite. But I’d give 55 % of importance to academic activities and 45 % to music. The first is a bit more important, but by a very small margin.

Let’s talk about the academic activities. What interests you the most?

If I had to define myself in the academic sphere, I’d call myself a lecturer. Of course, I do participate in various research projects, and they’re interesting, but nevertheless in the academic sphere I’m most attracted to lecturing.

Still, a connection between these activities can be found: both teaching and music (especially the lead vocals) require certain oratorical abilities. Do these connections exist?

Yes, there are some of them. For instance, sometimes you hold a lecture and notice that the students liked it. The satisfaction that comes from this is similar to what you feel after a good concert: in both cases, there’s you and there’s the audience, so there is some relation. There are many similarities.

So feedback is very important?

Yes. You get feedback, especially when you work with Master’s degree students and there are less of them, and the lectures are interactive, they ask you questions. However, when you teach BA students and there are 150 people in the room, there is basically no interactivity. But sometimes I see it in their eyes and feel after the lecture that it went quite well, which gives me this satisfactory feeling: exactly the same thing happens after a show.

Both a concert and a lecture are things that are visible to the eye. There must be a lot of invisible work involved, such as rehearsals, preparation for lectures. So the question arises: do you have enough time both for the rehearsals and the preparations?

I do, because I am clearly an early bird and I can only work on academic matters until lunch, but I can play music in the evening as well. These activities do not collide because I would not deal with academic work in the evening anyway. So that time is left for the rehearsals.

You play with other bands a lot. What do you think of that environment? Are there more people like you, who have other activities on the side, or are they all professionals who only work with music?

There aren’t many professionals, i.e. those who earn money from playing the kind of music we play. We even joked once that it could be possible to organise a festival of extreme music in Lithuania: doesn’t matter what genre it would be, metal or punk rock, but the participating bands would have to have at least one member with a Ph.D. or at least a doctoral student. We’d have no problem finding at least 7 or 8 such bands.

Did you have any desire to move away from musical idealism, i.e. what you like, towards commerce? After all, many bands went in the direction of pop music.

There wasn’t even such a need, because all members of our band have other occupations, music is not a source of income for us: it’s not like “Oh, daddy didn’t play in the show and now his hungry child is crying”. It is exactly because we have other jobs that we have complete creative freedom, we can do what we want. Also, incidentally our drummer Karolis has his own studio, so we can make records of such a high quality that practically cannot be surpassed in Lithuania. So we don’t even have to worry about finding money in order to make good-quality records. We don’t care at all if someone will listen to our music or not. This is also egoistical: we play what we like, without any commercial considerations.

I’d like us to return to the past a bit. The band was forming when you had, like you said, almost anarchist freedom. This has probably had a lot of influence on the music or even academic life?

I don’t know, that period was interesting. It was all very unstructured, there was a lot of freedom, but, on the other hand, very barren, too. I clearly remember the equipment we played on. It’s hard to believe that it was all so bad. Another problem is that the music market in Lithuania is quite hopeless. When those radio stations appeared (M-1, RadioCentras), they did almost everything possible to almost completely push out the more uncommercial music. People played in basements, without any possibility for their music to appear on the radio. The situation in Lithuania is exceptionally bad, even compared to Latvia or Estonia. Of course, this can be connected to the fact that all rock music was smothered after Romas Kalanta’s self-immolation in 1972. There are some nuances to that, too, but, even though the emerged radio stations were very predatory, their owners had good taste. They just thought that the entire audience is completely infantile and formed by the so-called “format”. In this regard, I think, a lot of damage was done to the culture of music in Lithuania.

Pop artists often complain that they haven’t been earning enough since the inception of the Internet. As someone who’s not looking to make money from music, you probably have a more positive outlook on this?

Yes, because it doesn’t concern me. Of course, after making some good records on CDs and selling them, you make better returns in the material sense. But if you want your music to be heard by more people, it is much better now. In the end, it’s good that all those sharks bankrupted. I feel a certain malicious glee about the decline of the radio.

You described how music changed throughout all those years. But you’ve also stayed at the university since the second generation; how would you evaluate the transformations of the university? There must have been both good and bad days. What memories do you have from those times? What do you think of the changes that have occured?

With age, people start to idealise the past, it’s nostalgia. But I think that even then, in the 90s, there was this charming disarray at the university, students had opportunities for all kinds of activities: the Representative Council and other structures were forming. Noone helped you too much, but they weren’t in your way either: you could implement whatever you wanted. It was very charming. But it was inevitable that everything would become more structured and put in order.

Perhaps now VMU is not as open and as liberal as it was 20 years ago, but I have some experience and can compare. When I first came to Denmark, I didn’t feel a great difference: the academic freedom, the contact between students and teachers was the same. I did feel an enormous difference when I studied at Vilnius University for a year as an MA student: it had this old Soviet spirit, many things seemed inexplicable to me. Then I went to Norway and it was, again, similar to VMU. This is the advantage of this re-established university: it has many lecturers from abroad and it was markedly different from what was available in Lithuania at the time.

You’ve been on both sides – well perhaps not of the barricade, but in both communities: both of the students and the lecturers. Is the university different when you see it from a student’s perspective and when you look at it as a lecturer?

I don’t know if this is because of the difference in perspective, but to me the current students seem much more serious, they already know what they want from life. There’s none of that “being a student” in the classical sense, where you’re still loose, babbling about some ideas with friends, drinking beer at night and discussing Kant or something else. I miss that in students today. They’re already doing everything at once: they join a party, walk in suits, they’re careerists. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s the key difference.