Today’s Advent Calendar featured work is a choral piece i’ve returned to many, many times since first hearing it in 2018, at the Estonian Music Days. Gerta Raidma‘s je suis sets a text of her own devising, words that are achingly personal and intimate, mingling fragility and disorientation with faint but distinct signs of determination and hope.
On first contact with the piece, i was somewhat ambivalent, but over time i’ve come more and more to appreciate its gentle and original power. Raidma’s approach to word-painting is subtle and not dogmatic; the effect is tactile, as if she were slowly and carefully turning each word over in her fingers, weighing it up in terms of its secret, interior meaning. A harmonic tilt on “assourdissant” (deafening), a tiny melisma on “fragile”, a numb oscillation on “blessée” (wounded), a phrase tossed upward as if carried by “les vagues” (the waves), and a registral descent as the words become “perdu dans les bras de la nuit” (lost in the arms of the night). Such shaping of the music as this feels at once familiar and recognisable while retaining a uniquely personal language, particularly when Raidma goes against expectation, making a reference to “lys des vallées” (lily of the valley) all about the valley and barely about the lily, turning everything dark. This occurs around the mid-point, making the first half of je suis a pained rumination on frangibility and gloom.
The second half pushes in a more positive, upward direction, introducing overlapping strands and a powerful accumulation of registers as the words reference light and fire. But an unexpected tilt from love to death, via a self-identification as “la Faucheuse” (the Grim Reaper), triggers a strange, sudden collapse. Control is regained simply through suspending everything, continuing as a slow, lovely, increasingly internalised music that moves with the same care as at first but now rooted over a drone for extra support. The conclusion is about as private as music can possibly be: a half-incredulous repetition – as if struggling to believe it – of “je suis vivante” (I am alive) that evaporates via whispers and a simple closing statement sung by a solo soprano that carries infinitely more weight and conviction than suggested by its delicate, unadorned brevity: “je n’ai plus peur” (I am not afraid anymore).
Considering the extent to which contemporary music weirdly tends to regard lack of overt (or even covert) emotion as a virtue, it’s a genuine relief to experience something as open and honest as je suis. It’s a courageous work that embraces personal anguish and triumph in the most understated, almost discreet way, without a trace of ostentation.
The world première of je suis was given by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Kaspars Putniņš.
je suis fragile, blessée
je suis perdu dans les bras de la nuit
je suis une algue souple dans les vagues
je suis la fleur des champs, le lys des vallées
je suis un papillon de nuit qui veut retourner vers la lumière
je suis le feu, le phénix qui renaît de ses cendres
je suis l’amante, la Faucheuse, la chute libre
je suis la première neige après une longue obscurité
je suis vivante
je n’ai plus peur