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

by 5:4

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.

From here, though the harmony sounds static, the choir haltingly starts to expand outward to the point where they reach the word “brinner” (burning), a strong moment marked with a big upward glissando. Tally breaks things up in an undulating, repetitive texture that builds to a huge cross-rhythmic climax at “Vårmer sinnet / vårmer hjärtat” (Warms the mind / heals the heart). A kind of recapitulation follows, a return to the crotales and air noise, though now Tally brings out the buckets, instructing the singers to strike their crotales and then lower them slowly into the water, causing their pitch to descend. The section that follows is almost a reworked, reimagined version of what came earlier, again halting, again somewhat static but expanding, rising from the lower registers to a rich tutti chord at “Våren, våren” (Spring, spring), repeated quieter through the closing words.

In opting to make the music as simple as Valkeapää’s words, Tally succeeds in creating an attractive, evocative paean to the season that speaks like a kind of secular anthem, earthy but elated; and the delicate use of crotales (which are spun around as well as dunked, the singers deciding which action to use), whistles and other soft vocalisations are a lovely touch, sprinkling some extra magic on the music.

The world première of Vårtidens ljus took place on 15 February 2018 at Studio Acusticum in Piteå, in north-east Sweden, performed by the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble, directed by Erik Westberg.

Vårtidens ljus brinner
Vårens tid, ljusets tid
ljus brinnerVårmer sinnet
vårmer hjärtat

Ser du nu
mårker du nu
livets ljus
Solens jojk
livets jojk
Våren när elden
tänds och brinner

Våren, våren
naturens, hjärtats
levande eld

(Nils-Aslak Valkeapää)

The light of spring is burning
Spring time, time of light
spring days
light is burningWarms the mind
heals the heart

Do you see now
do you feel now
the light of life
The sun’s joke
the joke of life
Spring when the fire
lights up and burns

Spring, spring
nature’s heart
living fire

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