Helena Tulve

Estonia in focus weekend: Helena Tulve – Extinction des choses vues (UK Première)

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In the UK, while it’s not that difficult to find performances of music from many parts of the world, opportunities to hear music from Estonia – with the obvious exception of Arvo Pärt – are extremely rare. So the decision of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to include in their season a concert devoted to Estonian music – celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the country’s independence – came as a surprise and a very real treat. The concert took place on 4 July at the BBC’s famous Maida Vale Studios, and was broadcast earlier this week. Conducted by Olari Elts, the orchestra performed works by three generations of Estonian composers, Eduard Tubin (who died in 1982), Erkki-Sven Tüür and Helena Tulve, all three of them pieces that have been around for some time, but which could do with being a lot better known. In this Estonia in focus weekend i’m going to explore two of them, starting with the piece by the most junior composer of those three generations represented at the concert, Helena Tulve’s Extinction des choses vues (Extinction of things seen), composed in 2007 but only now receiving its UK première.

The way Tulve uses the orchestra in this piece – and in all her orchestral pieces – is to transform it into a kind of giant organism, a single entity comprising innumerable interconnected elements. This is something she and i discussed in some depth during our Dialogue together earlier this year. By keeping the title deliberately abstract, Tulve has also made it interestingly misleading: the musical ‘things’ in the piece are indeed ‘seen’ (or, rather, heard), but often not clearly: we glimpse them, but we cannot necessarily grasp or understand them. Read more

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Mixtape #49 : Untitled

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For the latest 5:4 mixtape, i’ve turned my attention to that most elusive of artistic statements, the untitled work. When i set out to assemble a shortlist of pieces in my library that had adopted the word ‘untitled’, it wasn’t immediately obvious what i’d find. Yet, with one or two exceptions and to varying extents, untitled tracks tended to yield a very particular type of soundworld: generally dark and/or monochrome in terms of their tone, tenor or palette, with slow, patient use and deployment of sound, often including extended periods of quietness, overall lending the music a pensive, deliberate quality. Above all, i found these pieces to be music highly abstract in character, and while use of the word ‘untitled’ can often provoke frustration when we encounter it in works of art (“doesn’t the artist know what they’re trying to say?”), the intangibility of such music seems to strongly justify the suitability of this word. However, artists use the word ‘untitled’ in ways that are as playful and deceptive as they can be aloof and distancing, and for this mixtape i’ve therefore included not only tracks that are simply untitled but also tracks that use the word ‘untitled’ as part of a longer title as well as untitled segments of larger titled works.

In the first hour, having begun with something of a red herring by Hecq, i’ve concentrated on calmer, darker examples that tend to focus on explorations of texture, from both static and variegated perspectives. Near the centre of the mix is the unexpurgated 15-minute Untitled Drone by Aidan Baker that isn’t just the highlight of his wonderful 2009 album Blue Figures, but one of the most beautifully coruscating exercises in slow-burning ambient that i’ve ever heard. In the wake of this, in the second half i’ve explored untitled tracks that are generally brighter and more colourful, introducing more beat- and pulse-based pieces, some of which even feature vocals (a real rarity in the world of ‘untitled’ music, it seems), and more overt use of instrumental sounds, both raw and cooked.

Throughout the mix, there’s a wide temperature range demonstrated in these pieces, from the warmth (not always gentle) and/or balmy intimacy found in pieces by, among others, Subsea, Zbigniew Karkowski & Kelly ChurkoJames Clarke, Sea Oleena, Ochre, Aphex Twin and 36 to the varying forms of chilly remoteness, some of it seriously aggressive, exhibited by the likes of Noto, CD-R, AutechreHelena Tulve, Nordvargr, Lethe and Christopher McFall & Ben Fleury-Steiner. And that playfulness i mentioned before – plus a fair amount of inscrutability – can be heard manifesting particularly in tracks by Natasha Barrett, John Wall & Alex Rodgers, Marc Behrens, DJ Yo-Yo Dieting, Øyvind Torvund and John Oswald.

Ultimately, though, i don’t want to labour these descriptive terms or indeed the putative aesthetic connections i’ve been making between them, as they may belie the fact, as i said at the outset, that these are above all strikingly abstract pieces of music, and their ostensible lack of a title (if indeed that is what it is) is perhaps all that needs to be said about them.

Two-and-a-half hours of unidentified musical objects; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music (interesting to note how many of them are available free of charge: another ‘untitled’ connection…?). Due to the inherent ambiguity of some of the track titles, where relevant i’ve also included in the tracklisting the track numbers. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded via the link below or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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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 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: 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: 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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