Helena Tulve

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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Estonia in Focus weekend: New Estonian Choral Music, Tõnu Kõrvits – Moorland Elegies, Galina Grigorjeva – Nature Morte

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To bring this first Estonia in Focus weekend to a close, some excellent CDs of Estonian contemporary choral music have been released in the last few months. Together they admirably demonstrate the considerable range and richness of compositional thought typical of the country’s new music scene. For a broad but in-depth overview of this scene, there’s a superb new anthology released by the Estonian Music Information Centre, the primary and superbly supportive outlet for the country’s musical output (at present, the disc only appears to be available directly from there). It contains music by no fewer than ten composers, works all written within the last 15 years.

Folksong, whether clearly invoked or implied, is an influence in several of the pieces. Most obviously in Kristo Matson‘s Three Estonian Folk Songs, a strangely-structured work – the middle ‘song’ is so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it that it hardly counts – and perhaps a little too simplistic for its own good, but with some pretty moments, particularly in the opening song. Piret Rips-Laul‘s Paradisi Gloria is similarly simple, and regarding the album as a whole feels like the odd one out, more redolent of the sugary choral styles so prevalent in the US, tapping into a harmonic world not unlike Morten Lauridsen’s but without the scrunchy diatonics. Also with a folk sensibility, but greater invention and beauty, is Maria Kõrvits‘ work for female choir Haned-luiged (Geese-Swans), essentially homophonic but here and there enriched with sustained chords behind, while Mariliis Valkonen‘s Usalduse jõgi (River of Trust) widens the scope of such simplicity, combining relatively rigid underpinning (via drones) with a mixture of unified declamation and bursts of more textural music. Many of the works on this disc have love as a central theme. In Near by Evelin Seppar, setting texts by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it’s implicit rather than stated (Seppar’s partner conducts the choir for whom it was written), though the work’s strong upward movements that coalesce around the phrase “mystic shape”, and the overwhelmingly passionate outpouring heard later, answered by a soft, heartfelt conclusion, make the subtext abundantly clear. Born in 1958, Toivo Tulev is the elder statesman here, and not simply in terms of age: Tulev has acted in the role of composition teacher for four of the other featured composers. Though the two movements from his 2007 vocal cycle Sonnets are unfortunately marred by an imperfect recording (afflicted with a low hum), the stirring melancholy that Tulev wrings from Dante’s La vita nuova is crystal clear. First the choir laments and consoles itself as a kind of close-knit support group, before turning outwards in a more emotionally raw episode that benefits from sounding intuitive, the contrast between loud, high outbursts and sustained softer passages making this arguably the most direct music on the disc. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2017 (Part 2)

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In the previous part, i remarked on Estonian music’s apparent distance from compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And while i also remarked that i don’t believe it’s happening in a vacuum, it is demonstrably removed from many of the attitudes that one tends to take for granted in western Europe, and one of the great positives of this is a surprisingly unconventional approach to the presentation of new music. In this respect, to say that the Estonian Music Days is no ordinary music festival is to put it absurdly mildly: they’re prepared to take real risks yet to do so in a relaxed, carefree way in which creative intent is matched with a sanguine attitude of “what happens, happens”.

Modestly unconventional was the ‘meditation’ conceived by Helena Tulve that preceded Thursday evening’s choral concert by Vox Clamantis (reviewed in Part 1). Lasting thirty minutes, this began as we were entering the Niguliste church, and at first was almost unnoticeable, the four performers (including Tulve and fellow composer Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes) sitting at the four corners of the entrance, each nonchalantly and very softly striking the edge of a glass bowl. What was very clear from the start was that, although aspects were indeterminate, the specific pitches used had been carefully selected (after the concert i noticed that every bowl had a sticker in the bottom giving its precise pitch, including cent deviations). The opening oscillated around the interval of a slightly microtonal minor third which persisted as the players began to move down the nave – joined by a fifth performer whose actions were equal parts music and dance – sliding marbles in their respective bowls, initially barely agitating them, creating a constantly-changing yet static pitch cluster. Having moved to stand at the four corners of the audience in front of tables filled with many more bowls, the pitch range now greatly expanded, still sounding indeterminate yet with a sense of finity, stretching the previously-established stasis. Read more

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