In a couple of weeks’ time, on 24 February 2018, it will be an especially significant day for Estonia, marking the 100th anniversary of the country’s declaration of independence, something they’ve had to fight hard to retain through the twentieth century. Estonia is a country i’ve got to know a lot better during the last couple of years, and much of its contemporary music is almost entirely unknown and unheard outside its immediate vicinity (for various reasons, which i’ve touched upon in previous articles). So i’ll be taking the opportunity of this important anniversary to devote a number of weekends throughout the year to exploring more of their contemporary music. This weekend, i’m going to focus on some premières of impressive new works by two of Estonia’s best-known composers, Helena Tulve and Erkki-Sven Tüür.
Helena Tulve’s latest choral work, You and I, sets a text by the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. It’s one of a number of pieces Tulve has composed in the last few years to have explored Rumi’s words; North Wind, Sound Wind (2010) for voice, flute, kannel and cello uses them in conjunction with the Biblical Song of Songs, but the closer antecedent for You and I – in terms of both subject and character – is I Am a River, her 2009 choral work that i wrote about last year. Both are concerned with expressions of love, but in comparison with the earlier work, You and I is less playful than mystical, concerned with physical and spiritual union.
In absolute keeping with the words, Tulve’s music is overwhelmingly – at times, almost unbearably – intense. Unity is made to permeate the work in part due to the voices moving as one; they’re not always homophonic, but they usually are, with occasional, significant, instances where individual voices briefly branch out from the central choral cluster. And ‘cluster’ is both what they are and what they do: the voices are intimately bound together, almost always moving in close proximity, resulting in a sense of harmonic movement that on the one hand creates a sense of progression, yet at the same time often sounds as though it has absolutely no inclination at all to move forward, reinforcing a sense of ecstatic elation that imbues every single note in the piece. This elation finds particularly passionate expression in the recurring phrase “you and I”, a refrain that each time it appears is lingered over, as if each of those words were being lovingly caressed, Tulve occasionally adding a touch of silver through soft overtone singing. There are climaxes of a sort, though the moments when the choir soars are literally moments, not remotely lingered upon, making them all the more excruciatingly potent, short-lived instances of overload.
In lesser hands, You and I would turn into a kind of meandering mush, sacrificing its emotional content in favour of the kind of superficial scrunch that persistently serves as a substitute for substance in so much contemporary choral music. But never here: the continual push and pull between consonance and dissonance – from the outset blurring which is which – has the acute sensitivity of exposed nerve-endings. Beyond this, the way Tulve enables the words to unfold so slowly, almost gingerly, without ever seeming to lack a sense of purpose or direction (quite the contrary) is enormously impressive, charting a seamless progression from separation to union to a closing contemplation of transcendence. Anyone who’s ever experienced that aching infinity of feeling that only conjoined love can engender – which led another great poet, E. E. Cummings, to proclaim, “we’re wonderful one times one” – will find recognisable echoes of it everywhere here: as such, You and I is among the most gorgeous, genuinely moving choral works you’re ever likely to hear. And to anyone who hasn’t yet experienced such things – this really is what it’s like.
You and I was commissioned by one of Estonian’s most renowned choirs, Vox Clamantis. They gave the world première in June last year, at the 2017 Båstad Chamber Music Festival in Sweden, and the Estonian première took place at the end of September, in Tallinn’s glorious Niguliste church; both performances were conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve (the composer’s husband). Each version has its merits: the world première has a drier acoustic that provides greater clarity to the slithering vocal writing going on within those ever-shifting clusteral forms, and in this respect the music sounds generally brighter and more appropriately intimate. Yet the Estonian première, necessarily performed slower, benefits from the rich reverberant acoustic of the Niguliste, making the work’s rapturous bliss all the more present, the singers almost sounding like they’re struggling not to swoon within its heady atmosphere. But they’re both wonderfully transparent renditions that belie the complexity and difficulty of this incredibly beautiful music.
Happy is the moment, when we sit together,
With two forms, two faces, yet one soul,
you and I.
The flowers will bloom forever,
The birds will sing their eternal song,
The moment we enter the garden,
you and I.
The stars of heaven will come out to watch us,
And we will show them
the light of a full moon –
you and I.
No more thought of ‘you’ and ‘I’.
Just the bliss of union –
Joyous, alive, free of care, you and I.
All the bright-winged birds of heaven
Will swoop down to drink of our sweet water –
The tears of our laughter, you and I.
What a miracle of fate, us sitting here.
Even at the opposite ends of the earth
We would still be together, you and I.
We have one form in this world,
another in the next.
To us belongs an eternal heaven,
the endless delight of you and I.
(translated by Jonathan Star/Shahram Shiva; from A Garden Beyond Paradise: The Mystical Poetry of Rumi)