Birthdays and anniversaries provide an excellent opportunity to stop and look back, and contemplate everything that’s happened along the path of time that leads to here and now. This week – on Wednesday, in fact – marked the 60th birthday of Estonia’s most unconventional and irrepressible composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür. i’ve been listening to the most recent CD of his music, Spectrums, and considering how this impressive cycle encapsulates different aspects of his musical personality. In some ways, the four parts of Spectrums, each of which involves the organ, are like snapshots – selfies, perhaps – of Tüür at different stages of his musical life. Together, they present a fascinating portrait of an ever-changing yet always consistent composer.
From the outset, Erkki-Sven Tüür has embraced polarities, never afraid to veer between opposites of elegance and energy, lyricism and noise, restraint and overload. It’s something we find in almost all of his music, from the oldest to the newest. In Raerituaal (2004) [excerpt] – a re-working of one of his earliest compositions (Rituaal, composed in 1982) – Tüür slams together ancient and modern idioms, recklessly moving back and forth between the stiff formality of Tudor music and the wild freedom of modern rock, helmed by an electric guitar. And in one of Tüür’s more recent compositions, Symphony No. 9 ‘Mythos’ (2017), the work similarly moves between concrete, tangible ideas and abstract, effervescent shapes that seem impossible to identify.
A similar polarity is at the heart of Spectrum I, a work for solo organ written in 1989 [excerpt]. The two poles could hardly be more different: softly flowing lines of melody that suggest the beginnings of a toccata, and massive chords that appear from nowhere and threaten to squash everything in sight. The imbalance between such different kinds of music is enormous – the effect is like a giant intensely flexing their muscles – and Tüür does absolutely nothing to minimise this. Yet somehow, due more to persistence than power, the softer music prevails, and though it doesn’t seem possible, Spectrum I manages to sound balanced.
Another aspect of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s musical personality that’s directly connected to polarity is conflict. In many of his compositions there’s a strong sense that within the music itself lies a dramatic inherent turmoil that threatens to pull everything apart. This is a feature throughout the opening of his 2007 accordion concerto Prophecy, the soloist and orchestra pulling in opposite directions.
A more severe kind of conflict can be heard in Spectrum II (1994) for organ, trumpet and percussion [excerpt]. The catalyst for the conflict is the percussion. While the organ and trumpet combine to explore a sequence of fast-flowing melodic ideas (which can be heard as a continuation of similar material in Spectrum I), the role of the percussion – initially providing a glittering embellishment to the other instruments – soon becomes belligerent and combative. A direct consequence of its unpredictable clatter is to derail the flow and break up the music, eventually causing it to sound completely lost. While it’s clear in what follows that there are some wrangling attempts by the organ and trumpet to work through this and return to where they started, Tüür bravely prevents the piece from having a clearly positive resolution. If anything, Spectrum II ends in a collapse, concluding in what is in essence a kind of robust lament from the trumpet, a final act of assertion in the face of disaster. In Erkki-Sven Tüür’s music, it’s a mistake to always assume there’ll be a happy ending.
Implied in these aspects of polarity and conflict is another important characteristic of Tüür’s music: extremes. More than many composers today, Tüür is not only prepared but very happy indeed to go far beyond the limits of what we might expect to hear. When considering this, some people might consider Tüür’s early experiences in the experimental prog rock group In Spe to be a vital part of this, but this is too simplistic. The personality of a composer – and their impulses toward (or away from) extremes – is deeper and more fundamental than the stylistic tropes of different musical genres, which surely arise secondarily from that same personality and impulses. Furthermore, the attitude demonstrated by In Spe, as heard on their 1983 self-titled album featuring pieces composed by Tüür between 1979 and 1981, is gentle and restrained, inclined to be meditative and mild: plenty of prog, but not so much rock. This is a world away from the intimidating levels of musical weight and energy contained in Tüür’s concert music. Listening to the opening of his Symphony No. 4 ‘Magma’ (2002), for example, it would be easy to believe that the world had been ripped wide open, its contents spilling out into the void in a maelstrom of raw, elemental violence.
Spectrum III for solo organ, composed in 1999 [excerpt], is one of the most searing demonstrations of extremes in all of Tüür’s music. While there’s not necessarily a continuity between the four Spectrums pieces (they were, after all, composed several years apart), it’s easy to hear the divisions and struggles of Spectrums I and II reaching a climax in Spectrum III. We are confronted by an almost literal wall of sound: dense clusters that expand and rise, towering in front of us, at first blank and characterless, later chugging rhythmically like a colossal, weirdly convoluted machine. Here, again, is a polarity; in the middle of the piece there are vestiges of something smaller and more lyrical trying to speak. But they don’t stand a chance: Tüür absolutely crushes them beneath the extreme pressure of a climax of chord clusters underpinned by a deep, juddering drone.
The way I’ve described these aspects of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s music, polarity, conflict and extremes, possibly suggests that it’s all about confrontation and struggle. Certainly, there is a great deal of this in his work, where ideas are not simply presented clearly and neatly, but become the protagonists in a complex drama the outcome of which is very far from certain. Yet perhaps the most significant aspect of Tüür’s music, encompassing these other three aspects – as well as others one might also add, such as energy or lyricism – is its playfulness. It’s not hard to imagine how a stark polarity can become the basis for a mischievous tug of war, or extremes can be transformed into flamboyance. We hear this in the endless splashing stream of notes in one of his earliest compositions, Kristiinale for piano, composed in 1981 [excerpt], and it has remained a recurring feature of his work. The last movement of Tüür’s Symphony No. 8 (2010) avoids a conventional finale in favour of dance-like counterpoint and rhythmic grooves, while in Flamma (2011) the spreading fire is depicted as a sequence of dancing flames.
In Spectrum IV (2004) for organ and cello [excerpt], there’s a different kind of play. Conflict is replaced with an atmosphere of sympathy, the two instruments taking part in a close duet while at the same time retaining some independence. As such – particularly when compared with the previous three Spectrums – their interactions sound innately playful, the product of spontaneity and caprice, each player either taking the lead or following closely behind the other. There are no more signs of extremes, and what remains of polarity here takes the form of transcendence, a forceful climax at the centre of the piece contrasting with gorgeous shimmering music at its beginning and end.
Erkki-Sven Tüür stands apart from all other Estonian composers, his music clearly influenced by and infused with ideas from around the world. It is open, outward-looking, forward-looking, unafraid of mixing and combining new and old, foreign and familiar. It is bold, courageous, unique – and, above all, enormous fun. In the four parts of Spectrums, we experience a microcosmic portrait of this remarkable composer who, at 60 years old, remains as radical as ever.
Spectrums was released on CD earlier this year by the Estonian Music Information Centre, performed by organist Ulla Krigul with trumpeter Indrek Vau, percussionist Lauri Metsvahi and cellist Leho Karin.