The next piece i’m exploring in this year’s nature-themed Lent Series is a vocal work by Estonian composer Evelin Seppar. Pretty much all of my experience with Seppar’s music thus far has been vocal: Поля ли мои, поля (Fields, Oh My Fields) made a strong impression at the 2017 Estonian Music Days, Near (a setting of Elizabeth Barrett Browning) was one of my favourite works on a disc of choral music released the same year, and more recently Seesama meri [The same sea] knocked me sideways when it was premièred at the 2019 World Music Days.
Seppar often sets texts that are in English, but for Seesama meri she has turned to one Estonia’s best-known poets, Jaan Kaplinski. Kaplinski’s poetry is simultaneously beautiful and deeply troubling, filled with references to the natural world – plants, animals, insects, natural phenomena, and their characteristics and colours – which become context, metaphor and even collateral damage in the midst of dark, often distressing evocations of pain and suffering (of which Kaplinski himself was no stranger). With its imagery that draws on aspects of the sea and the wind, the text in Seesama meri is similarly deeply allusive. The opening pair of stanzas hint at our life-blood pumping round the body, initially making the poem’s focus acutely personal. Later, after an almost literal division at the centre of the text (line / of foam through / white / space) it opens outward; references to rowing and the undulations of the sea in conjunction with invocations of fear and darkness suggest a challenging, strenuous turbulence that’s not simply communal, but universal. Another element in this sense of challenge, running throughout the poem, is its line structure; although in English translation the text reads a little more smoothly, there’s a curtness to Kaplinski’s poem, almost entirely comprising single-word lines that clip the continuity and undermine the flow.
Seppar’s response to the text has not been to mirror all of these aspects musically (though there are clear instances of word painting) but instead to channel something of their conflicted psychological affect. Thus the opening stanza emerges as a mixture of hard, sibilant accents (which appear to be echoing each other) that immediately soften; only low registers are used – nothing even as high as the treble stave – and Seppar tilts the harmony down further after about a minute to emphasise the warmth of the words. Further accents emulate the ‘throbbing’ winds of the second stanza, and only now are the voices allowed to rise significantly, their words becoming all but lost in the growing intensity of their mass agglomeration. In the wake of this huge climax, Seppar keeps the work’s epicentre – that aforementioned division – neutral, its ‘whiteness’ echoed in a sparser, female-focused texture, its harmony pivoting several times. This neutrality is ripped open on the closing word, ‘avaruse’ (space), a solo soprano abruptly pulling away from the rest.
This is the trigger for a sequence of unison and closely-imitated lines suggesting the questioning nature of the start of the long final stanza. The notes jostle in close proximity, juddering against each other. The texture thickens and deepens as the presence of ‘hirm’ (fear) and ‘pimeduse’ (darkness) permeates the voices, and the way Seppar brings this to a conclusion i find fascinating every time i listen to it. Hitherto there’s a pretty clear sense of direction, an emotional contour aligned with Kaplinski’s metaphorical language. But now it doesn’t so much break down as is left without an obvious sense of resolution. The latter half of the final stanza, returning us, through the fear and darkness to the prospect of ‘sama meri / ootamas’ (the same sea / waiting), conveys a pressing importance, an unambiguous confrontation with these words as if they were a fact, not a question. i find that both disquieting and impressive; far from being timid at the uncertainty, there’s something defiant, even ecstatic about the voices’ determination in this closing minute, focused into a semi-static chord that practically burns through the air. It’s an unexpected way to articulate these words, and it sounds all the more powerful as a consequence. i said before that Kaplinski’s opens out to encompass the universal, and Seppar turns that universality into a consolidated, unshakeable unity.
The world première of Seesama meri was given by Vox Clamantis conducted by Jaan-Eik Tulve at the Dome Church in Tallinn, during the 2019 World Music Days.
from every quarter
in the sails
of the heart
of foam through
from the oar
on the wave
behind the darkness
or the same
(translated by Jaan Kaplinski with Sam Hamill)