Estonia

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.

Read more

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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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Estonia in Focus weekend: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Symphony No. 9 ‘Mythos’ (World Première)

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i’m now turning my attention this weekend to Erkki-Sven Tüür, a composer whose work in many respects sounds distinctly different from a lot of Estonian contemporary music (and as i’ve previously mentioned, he remarked to me last year that he feels himself to be something of an outsider). To get the 100th anniversary festivities of Estonia’s declaration of independence up and running, Tüür was commissioned to compose a new work, which received its world première a few weeks back. The combination of this being Tüür’s ninth symphony, and also being part of an important national celebration, have evidently guided Tüür towards writing a work of considerable epic scope. Subtitling the work ‘Mythos’, Tüür’s Symphony No. 9 is a 35-minute, single-movement work that to an extent sets itself apart from the most familiar aspects of his compositional style. Instead of a preponderance of rhythmic and gestural cavorting, Tüür has created a large-scale slab of meticulous musical evolution through shifting textures and atmospheres. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Helena Tulve – You and I (World/Estonian Premières)

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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. Read more

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Proms 2017: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Flamma (UK Première)

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i’ve written a fair bit about Estonian music this year, and in many ways composer Erkki-Sven Tüür breaks the mould. There’s not, of course, just one approach to be found in contemporary music in Estonia, yet significant evidence of outside musical influences (as i’ve noted previously) can be difficult to find. But this is not the case in Erkki-Sven Tüür’s music. Indeed, so emphatically is it not the case, that a few months back, talking with Erkki-Sven about his work during the Estonian Music Days in Tallinn, he went as far as to say that he feels he’s seen as an outsider, not even regarded, compositionally speaking, as Estonian. In due course, i’ll be devoting some articles to recent orchestral music from Estonia, which may prove that Tüür is not quite so isolated as he believes, yet the ferocious bullishness that often recurs in his work does set him apart from the majority of his compatriots. And it’s no different with Flamma, a work for string orchestra composed in 2011, given its UK première at the Proms yesterday evening.

It’s not just the bullishness, though; Tüür’s interest in working with tangible but abstract ideas – having not so much programmatic as metaphorical content – is another aspect that distinguishes him from much Estonian music. In Flamma (Latin for ‘flame’), he’s evidently seeking to tap into the physicality and connotations of fire. i don’t want to get too literal about it, but in the opening minutes one can almost hear Tüür stoking the work with fuel. Considering where the piece goes, it’s a nicely-judged opening, avoiding throwing us into a pell-mell firestorm in medias res. Instead, the first few minutes exhibit an alternating sense of momentum, grinding and surging but pulling back and even momentarily pausing before shoving its way on again. Only after this, two minutes in, does Tüür light the fuse. Read more

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