Estonia

The Dialogues: Helena Tulve

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i’m thrilled to to present a new addition to my series The Dialogues, which, on this occasion, finds me in conversation with the Estonian composer Helena Tulve, whose work i’ve admired for many years. Although widely-known across Europe, Tulve’s music – like most Estonian music (with one obvious exception) – is very rarely heard in UK concert halls. Considering how radical and unconventional her music is this is unfortunate, though there’s some mitigation to be found in the two albums of her music released by ECM, Lijnen (2008) and Arboles Lloran Por Lluvia (2014) (an earlier album, Sula, released by Estonian Radio in 2005, is extremely hard to find but well worth the effort). Discussion about Tulve’s work is similarly neglected, and as far as i’ve been able to ascertain, this Dialogue may be the first really in-depth interview with Tulve to have been published anywhere, in which case i’m glad to have been able to shed some light on her music and the compositional thinking behind it.

As usual, i’ve interpolated numerous excerpts from Tulve’s music throughout the Dialogue to expand upon and illustrate some of the points being made in our conversation. A complete list of these excerpts can be found below, together with links to buy the music – though it should be noted that many of them are taken from live recordings and are not presently available. Please also note the small number of footnotes i’ve added below which address a couple of ambiguities and errors (on my part) that cropped up in the discussion.

i want to thank Helena for being so generous with her time and so forthcoming in our conversation. It’s my sincere hope that this Dialogue will go some way to the whetting of appetites and a deeper understanding of her music and compositional outlook, and that as a consequence we might hear a lot more of her work, both live and on recordings, in future. In my view, she’s one of the most outstanding composers working today. For those wanting to explore Tulve’s work further, there are some links at the end. i also want to thank Mari Arnover for providing the photo used on the artwork.

Finally, having noted the general absence of her music in UK concert halls, there’s a rare chance to hear one of Tulve’s most overwhelming works, her 2007 orchestral piece Extinction des choses vues, at a BBC Symphony Orchestra concert at Maida Vale next Wednesday. It’s an opportunity absolutely not to be missed – though for those who can’t be there, the concert is being recorded for broadcast at a later date.
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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 3)

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Over the last few years, i’ve been repeatedly impressed – no, flabbergasted – at the ingenuity, imagination and beauty that seem to typify Estonian choral music as well as distinguish it from pretty much everywhere else. It’s by no means the most experimental music to come out of the country, but the subtle way many Estonian composers explore and redefine notions of consonance and dissonance, as well as ways to structure a musical narrative, are consistently impressive.

However, by way of balance it’s only fair to recount that this year’s Estonian Music Days afforded me the opportunity to hear one of the most entirely terrible vocal compositions that i have ever encountered. Completed in 1987, Songs of Death and Birth by Estonian composer Kuldar Sink (1942–95) is a song cycle for soprano, two flutes, guitar and cello exploring five texts by Federico García Lorca. In his programme note, Sink claims that “… it would be misleading to think that I imitate the style of flamenco.” No, it absolutely wouldn’t: virtually the entire piece is a non-stop stream of appropriated and ersatz materials that cleave slavishly to Spanish musical idioms and mannerisms. It doesn’t help Sink that George Crumb’s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed almost two decades earlier, definitively brought the same texts to life in the most vivid and stunningly original way. By contrast, Sink’s song cycle sounds like an early student exercise in pastiche, rendered all the more wretched due to being not just incredibly boring but so impossibly overlong as to be downright sadistic. One can hardly fault the members of Yxus Ensemble for simply doing what the score told them to do, yet soprano Iris Oja (looking as if she’d just walked off the set of Bizet’s Carmen) unleashed her mediocre material with such impassioned zeal that it felt malicious and personal, seeking only to wound and offend. Thankfully, this was the only concert at EMD to exhibit such tenacity-destroying malignance. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 2)

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One of the defining features of the Estonian Music Days is its openness to including decidedly unconventional concert situations. Last year’s Obscure Avenues, a two-hour experience during which we were blindfolded and led around to various performance spaces, remains among the most radical and memorable musical encounters i’ve ever experienced, and while the 2018 festival perhaps wisely didn’t attempt to top that, it had its fare share of surprises.

The opening night of the festival saw Flame Sounds, a short open-air performance from composer Liisa Hirsch with Australian fire artist Chris Blaze McCarthy. Surrounded by four microphones, Blaze acrobatically wielded a succession of implements – a mixture of bars and chains – that almost looked as if they’d been borrowed from Tallinn’s museum of mediaeval torture instruments, each one burning in a unique way. These were the basis for Blaze’s physical choreography, with Hirsch in turn capturing and processing the sounds into a network of billowing noise formations, projected out via four speakers surrounding where we were standing. Considering this was part of a music festival, it was a shame that the emphasis was almost entirely on Blaze’s actions rather than on Hirsch’s sonic results – Blaze abruptly moved on throughout, despite Hirsch’s music continuing – making for a frustrating, though visually exciting, performance. But what we experienced nonetheless made an interesting connection with the festival theme of ‘sacred’, elusive sounds emerging from the merest contact of fire and air. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 1)

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A few days ago i returned from spending a week in the city of Tallinn, experiencing most of this year’s Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s most important festival devoted to contemporary music. In previous years i’ve commented on the perception that what one hears during EMD often seems remarkably removed from the conventions and traditions that we associate with new music in western Europe, and in tandem with this, that the development of Estonian contemporary music can appear to have taken place – and, to an extent, continue to be exercised – in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble. As my understanding and appreciation of this music has deepened, i’ve come to realise there’s both truth and falsehood in these perceptions, but to say that the situation is a complex one – due to a tangled mixture of political, geographical and cultural elements – is to put it extremely mildly.

For the last three years the artistic directors of EMD, composers Helena Tulve and Timo Steiner, have chosen an annual theme for the festival, which is deliberately pithy and allusive in order not to be too prescriptive and to allow composers and audiences the widest possible scope for interpretation (to date: ‘abundance’ in 2015, ‘green sound?’ in 2016 and ‘through dimness’ last year). For 2018 the theme was püha, the Estonian word for ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’, and this point of reference could be felt as a constant through pretty much every concert, though continually provoking a need for reassessment of what that word means and implies, and from much more than just a musical perspective. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Maria Kõrvits – through (World Première)

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The second piece i’m looking at in this Estonia in Focus weekend is through, a new work for seven players by Maria Kõrvits. In some respects it’s reasonable to think of through as a ‘mood piece’, drawing for inspiration on a series of short lines taken from the opening paragraphs of Virginia Woolf’s 1931 experimental novel The Waves:

Stalks rise from the black hollows beneath.
I hold a stalk in my hand.
I am the stalk.

My roots go down to the depths of the world,
through earth dry with brick, and damp earth,
through veins of lead and silver.

I am all fibre.
All tremors shake me,
and the weight of the earth is pressed to my ribs.

…and I feel come over me the sense of the earth under me, and my roots going down and down
till they wrap themselves round
some hardness at the centre.
I am rooted, but I flow.

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Mirjam Tally – Vårtidens ljus (World Première)

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Towards the end of next week i’ll be heading off to Tallinn once again for the annual Estonian Music Days, and will be exploring what happened in some depth once i return. So in anticipation of that, for my next Estonia in Focus weekend i’m looking at a couple of new works that received their first performances just last month.

i’ve been enjoying the latest new piece by one of Estonia’s most well-known composers Mirjam Tally, a choral work that’s particularly appropriate to the current time of year. Titled Vårtidens ljus (the light of spring), the text is by the late Finnish Sami poet and musician Nils-Aslak Valkeapää, a simple aphoristic text celebrating the season’s light and warmth and their impact upon us both physically and psychologically: “spring days / light is burning / Warms the mind / heals the heart”.

Tally’s response to the text (set in Swedish) takes the form of a blissed-out reverie that occasionally explodes in fired-up climaxes. She equips each member of the choir with a crotale – all different pitches – suspended on a string, and a small bucket of water. More about the latter in a moment. The starting point for the piece is a network of improvised crotale strikes, which the choir then adds to with quiet whistles that Tally adds colour to via wide vibrato and air noise. When the voices finally begin to sing (this opening section can be up to three minutes long), their articulation of the opening words is informed by these sounds, rendering them a mixture of whispers, sibilance and exhalations as much as coherent sung notes. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Helena Tulve – The Night-Sea Journey (World Première)

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To conclude this weekend i’m returning to the music of Helena Tulve and to another world première, which took place last November during one of Estonia’s main contemporary music festivals, AFEKT. A 17-minute work for saxophone, percussion and piano, in a way all one needs to say about it is encapsulated in its title, The Night-Sea Journey. The music is entirely directed toward the implied narrative of that title, inhabiting a nocturnal world of shadows and moonlight, progressing – in my mind, anyway – across water. At least, that’s one way of hearing it, taking the title literally.

Heard in this way, the piece conjures a foreboding, difficult soundworld. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe its music as lyrical – it is, abundantly – yet of the blackest, most brooding kind, drenched in uncertainty and anguish. Initially, there’s a sense of the trio huddled together, not so much playing as making tentative suggestions: a simple piano idea based on oscillating octaves, air noise through the sax, soft suspended cymbal rolls. It doesn’t seem to add up to anything at all, yet in light of where the piece goes from here, in hindsight it’s like lighting a touchpaper. Read more

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