Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Erkki-Sven Tüür

by 5:4

One of Estonian’s best-known composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, makes his second visit to the Proms this evening, for the UK première of his work for strings Flamma by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (he was last heard at the Royal Albert Hall in 2003, with the Concerto for Violin). Like most of his fellow Estonians, Tüür’s music is rarely heard in the UK, so it’s a superb opportunity for audiences to experience his particular approach to composition (anyone expecting something similar to Arvo Pärt is in for a shock). As preparation for tonight’s performance, here are his answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Erkki-Sven for his responses.

1. For anyone not yet familiar with it, could you give a brief summary of your music, i.e. characteristics, outlook, aesthetic, etc.?

A brief summary is not an easy task…

I can drop some keywords for describing the main characteristics: a regularly changing central pitch (or axis pitch – not to be confused with a tonal centre), passages similar to converging/ diverging rays, the appearance/disappearance of a central pitch, shifting focus, always changing vortexes around the central pitch, combination of organic development and architectonic approach, wave-form (or spiral?) development, treatment of the whole material from the vectorial aspect (angles, curves, the regularity of upward/downward motions).

Pulsating groovy rhythms (sometimes associated with ‘jazzy’ rhythmic patterns) versus irregular non-pulsating rhythms, and the transition zones between them. Multi-layered textures to achieve the feeling of very slow and very fast tempi going on simultaneously. Usage of tricks that originate from digital effects processors – like delay with feedback for example.

2. What led to you becoming a composer? Did/does it feel like a choice?

It feels now like a smooth organic development – things just happened one after another. But of course there were always choices to be made.

3. Where did you study? Who/what have been the most important influences on your work?

Influences: as a teenager: progressive rock bands King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Genesis; during my studies (at the Tallinn Conservatory – now Estonian Music Academy) at the beginning of the 1980s: American minimalists and European modernist composers who worked with sound fields (early Penderecki, early Nørgård, Ligeti, Xenakis), but also Gregorian Chant and mediæval music in general.

4. How do you go about writing a new piece? To what extent do you start with a ‘blank slate’ and/or use existing methods/materials?

First of all there must be a concept or general idea on a quite abstract level. Sometimes I make abstract drawings, mapping out the different characteristics of the piece (opaque section, transparent section, high intensity, zero energy … the list could go on and on.) Then I’m getting more into the details – chords, interval chains, melodic cells, rhythmic patterns, timbral complexes etc. etc. And it is always walking on a knife-edge – intuitive spontaneous decisions on one side, decisions which follow my rules on the other.

5. How does the piece sit in relation to your previous work? Why did you particularly compose this piece at this time?

I already had one fruitful collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra (Whistles and Whispers from Uluru for recorders and strings). Richard Tognetti asked me to compose another work just for strings this time. As with the previous work for ACO, I wanted this piece to be somehow linked with the spirit of Australia.

6. If people really like your piece, what other music of yours would you recommend they check out?

Clarinet Concerto ‘Peregrinus Ecstaticus’ (released by Ondine), Symphony No. 7, Piano Concerto, and Symphony No. 6 ‘Strata’ (released by ECM).

7. What’s next?

I have almost completed Symphony No. 9 ‘Mythos’ (being premièred on 18 January 2018 in Brussels by the Estonian Festival Orchestra and Paavo Järvi). However, the closest world premiere will be in Amsterdam on 6 December: Solastalgia for piccolo and orchestra, performed by Vincent Cortvrint, with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Stéphane Denève.

Flamma – programme note

Flamma (a blazing fire, blaze, flame in Latin)

I am delighted to say that this is already the second composition I have created for one of the world’s leading chamber orchestras, the magnificent ACO.

Flamma begins with a brief and extremely intense introduction. The double bass and cellos perform furious ascending passages that reach higher and higher in mutating chains. On this, the violins and violas form constantly shifting “sound clouds” that consist of up to 13-tone chords; at some point the introduction is led to its culmination by the violas with a melodic line that emerges from the contact of the sound clouds and ascending passages. The extraordinariness of the culmination chord lies in the fact that the “low” instruments are playing in their highest and the “high” instruments in their lowest register.

The composition then starts unravelling through solos alternating with instrument groups. Ensembles are formed within the orchestra to contradict the full sound of the orchestra. The principal thematic development takes place slowly – this is achieved alternately by the first and second violins through constantly evolving repetitions. The same material is then presented in its so-called “frozen state”, like a chorale with homophonic texture played by the whole orchestra – at first it intersects the composition in fragments and only later appears in its entirety. We enter the summarising section of the piece in a position resembling the mirror effect: the first violins are playing ascending passages, supported by the static multi-tone chords “below”.

Fire is both a destructive and purifying force – indigenous Australians have understood it well and have tapped the idea extensively in their traditions. Hence the title, rich in allusions. Flamma is dedicated to the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Richard Tognetti.

—Erkki-Sven Tüür

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