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.
Performances of choral music, particularly when they take place within churches, can have a tendency to blur the distinction between a concert and an act of worship. In and of itself that’s not necessarily a problem – of the hundreds of people who turn up to services of choral evensong across the UK every day, many if not most will be there for a passive, free-of-charge ‘holy concert’ rather than an active taking-part in the daily round of the divine office. To all intents and purposes this is what we were presented with on Sunday evening, within the magnificent grey-white austerity of St Michael’s Church (used by Tallinn’s Swedish Lutheran congregation), in an event performed by vocal ensemble Heinavanker called Miraculous Chamber, composed and directed by Margo Kõlar. As such it’s a somewhat difficult performance to appraise, being as it was an evensong-like sequence of liturgical works, replete with processionals and (via electronics) the sound of a bell acting to cue certain items. If its aspirations weren’t so obviously elevated one might describe it as a vanity project of Kõlar’s, though despite its obvious honesty and authenticity, Kõlar’s music for the most part consisted of familiar tropes derived from various types of chant. That being said, a recurring idea explored earlier on, involving a repeated refrain becoming more and more diatonically scrunchy with each repetition, achieved a beautiful effect, unlike anything i’ve heard in music of this kind before.
i don’t want to give the impression that Miraculous Chamber wasn’t enjoyable – it certainly was – but in hindsight its value lay more in the questions it provoked than in the music itself. Is it adequate or even legitimate for music to presuppose religiosity, whether embedded within the music and/or implied within the mindset of the listener? Perhaps it is in the context of religious worship, when such presuppositions are valid, but beyond that context i’m not convinced. It’s the same issue i’ve discussed previously with regard to the music of John Tavener, where the ‘implied transcendence’ aspired to in so many of his pieces is nullified due to the lack of any kind of meaningful frame of reference. The same may well be true for some of Arvo Pärt’s music, but that’s a discussion for another time (Pärt’s music was completely absent from this year’s festival, a fact i don’t think is insignificant). i left St Michael’s Church still pondering the difference between an act of worship and a concert, and whether one event could be both simultaneously, and what that might mean.
This question was more convincingly answered by the two choral concerts featured at the start and end of the festival, the latter of which even went so far as to be titled Evensong. Performed by Vox Clamantis at St John’s Church in Tartu (about 120 miles south-east of Tallinn; the church is a remarkable building, appearing to be simultaneously brand new and dilapidated), the programme was largely identical to the one they gave at the start of last year’s Estonian Music Days, including Galina Grigorjeva‘s Vespers and various psalm settings by Cyrillus Kreek. As i noted in my first EMD 2018 article, opportunities to hear new works more than once are rare, so i was particularly glad to hear the Vespers performed a second time. It strengthened my view that there’s much to enjoy in the work, particular in its earlier sections: the combined sense of awe and imploring desperation of the first movement, retreating in reverence at its conclusion; the repeated ‘alleluias’ and recitative-like chanting over hummed drones of the third movement, and its lovely low doxology; the gorgeous light-infused fourth movement, precariously materialising out of the stratosphere. As a whole, i still feel the work exhibits a certain stylistic inconsistency, but to a large extent its high points are too powerful for this to be an insurmountable flaw.
In this particular concert it seemed even less problematic due to the nature of Vox Clamantis’ performance. In contrast to their concert at last year’s festival, this was a simpler, toned-down performance, bringing to mind the kind of unaffected, quotidian nonchalance exhibited by monks when singing plainsong as part of their daily rituals. The result was that, while the music sounded less demonstrative, it nonetheless felt much more powerful, no longer merely emanating from notes on the surface of a page as much as springing from somewhere much deeper. It was the same in Cyrillus Kreek’s Psalms, again capturing the composer’s remarkable melding of sumptuous and solemn word-painting that effortlessly sounds old and new. But in the final work in the programme, Helena Tulve‘s You and I – an intimate, mystical piece expressing physical and spiritual unity within the context of infinite, all-encompassing love – it became so overwhelming that it was almost too much to take. Here was the ultimate justification for hearing a new work multiple times: the combination of both Vox Clamantis’ and my own familiarity with the piece made You and I more than just a piece of music, and myself more than just a listener. In a way that’s hard to articulate, it became an environment being communed that i inhabited. Perhaps what i’m trying to say is that, while it lasted, this music was all that i knew, it was my entire world; however we might define the word, i’d have to call an experience as transcendentally moving as this sacred.
The other choral concert, titled Sacred Space, was the opening event at this year’s festival. Taking place in Tallinn’s Niguliste Church, it featured two choirs, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Kaspars Putniņš, and the Estonian National Male Choir conducted by Mikk Üleoja, plus the Prezioso String Quartet. The first two works in the concert were forgettable in different ways, Kristo Matson‘s Celeste for string quartet due to its superficial response to the idea of ‘unexpected phenomena’ in deep space, Riho Esko Maimets‘ choral Kolm püha roosipärja palvet (Three Prayers from the Holy Rosary) due to how woefully predictable and generic it was, every moment of it unashamedly unoriginal. je suis for chamber choir by Gerta Raidma was better; there are times when it can seem hard to tell the difference between some Estonian composers and while Raidma clearly hasn’t yet found her own distinctive musical voice (such as her overuse of phrases with sagging or rising glissandi, seemingly quintessential in Estonian contemporary choral music), the spaciousness of the work and its piquant harmonic language showed promise.
The remaining three works were all outstanding. Though frustratingly we weren’t provided with a translation of the poetry (by Indrek Hirv) used in Kristjan Randalu‘s new piece for male choir Kolm ohvrikivi laulu (Three Songs of Sacrifice Stone), from a purely musical perspective we lacked precisely nothing. The first movement (Jõgi voolab, The River Flows) focused on a repeating refrain that was never the same, the harmony continually reforming around it, to hypnotising effect. This was followed in the second movement (Kunagi, Sometime) by another quasi-stasis, rooted yet encountering beautifully rich oblique harmonies, while the final movement (See jõgi, This River) was based on a revolving idea, potentially static again yet feeling much more free, and attaining a very powerful climax, the most emotionally direct moment in the entire piece. Another work for male choir receiving its première was Maria Kõrvits‘ I Am Calling For You, which sets an anonymous text articulating a profound longing spanning time and space: “I am calling to you from afar; Calling to you since the very beginning of days. Calling to you across millennia, For aeons of time, Calling, calling. Since always.” As the text continues, becoming more and more intimate, the nature of the voice opens up to numerous forms of interpretation: possibly the voice of the universe itself, or a divine presence, a kindred spirit or an admirer from afar, or closer still, a subconscious vocation or a repressed desire. The magic in Kõrvits’ music – and it sounded nothing less than magical – was in the sublime way it was permanently caught between sounding changeless yet endless, immobile yet freely-flowing, with infinite bounds. In a way not dissimilar to that in Helena Tulve’s You and I – though from the opposite perspective, a point of current separation – Kõrvits’ ravishingly beautiful music was drenched in an authentic, unqualified love. Choral music – most especially religious choral music – so often does the merest lip-service (literally) to the love that supposedly impels all of its worship and doctrines, yet here was a rare example of it manifesting in a genuinely real way, nebulous yet numinous.
The final work in the concert was by Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes, whose To My End and to Its End… was one of my personal highlights of last year’s EMD. Her new work I Will Cross This Road is a companion to that piece, again drawing on words by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, words that speak of a journey, or an effort, driven on by a mixture of sureness and uncertainty, plus the fact that “I have nothing left to lose”. It’s a deep and quite dark text, yet, as she had last year, Kozlova-Johannes found a way to navigate through it without resorting to any forms of manipulation or cliché. The only work in the concert to use all the assembled forces, the male choir (positioned at each side of the nave) acted as if it were both the air supply and the reverberation of the main choir (at the front) whose solemn, heartfelt melody, achingly, enormously slow, went beyond basic notions of happiness or melancholy, compelled by the overwhelming need simply to be expressed. The quartet was a facet of this melody, sometimes in obvious sympathy but also hinting at something else, injecting surprisingly cold and ominous material into the pervading warmth. Heat, of course, can be as much to do with pain as with comfort, yet while I Will Cross This Road maintained a remarkable balance between positive and negative connotations, the pure stasis of light at its end struck a reassuring note, an emphatic reminder of the possibility of transcendence.
Is there a ‘right’ way to listen to contemporary music? At various points through this year’s Estonian Music Days i found myself reflecting on the extent to which the festival’s theme, püha (sacred), could be a red herring, bestowing connotations on the music that might be inappropriate, and/or coercing one to listen with a particular mindset. In hindsight, i think that in most cases the composers and performers involved created their respective new works and concert programmes with this theme consciously front and centre, clearly responding to it and designing the music to be heard in relation to it. As a result, these concerts were a thought-provoking challenge, less about flamboyance and fireworks than about exploring music’s capacity to communicate and to commune with us, both to embody and to articulate some of the manifold meanings and implications that arise from our understanding of the word ‘sacred’. These three articles are a first attempt to make some sense of that challenge, but it’s going to take time – and much more listening – to grasp more fully the ramifications of what i heard. i can’t recall a time when i came away from a festival more deeply moved, bewildered, provoked and enraptured. This, i think, is the real answer to my question about the possible simultaneity of concerts and acts of worship: maybe the best concerts will always attain precisely this, demonstrating and celebrating that music is capable of being so much more than just sound. At the Estonian Music Days, music is never just sound.