The Dialogues: Helena Tulve

by 5:4

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 with the time in the audio when they occur, 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.

List of excerpts:

  • 00:00:04 Silmaja [Beholder] (2006) for kannel [unavailable]
  • 00:12:39 Ithaka (2000) for soprano, violin and piano [from Sula]
  • 00:16:17 Sinine [Blue] (1998) for ensemble [unavailable]
  • 00:23:25 Ma kuulsin sind laulmas [I Heard You Singing] (2010) for 3 percussions [unavailable]
  • 00:29:18 Reyah hadas ‘ala [Perfume of myrtles] (2005) for voices & early music consort [from Arboles Lloran Por Lluvia]
  • 00:33:48 Blindly (2018) [unavailable]
  • 00:41:06 Öö [Night] (1997) for saxophone quartet [from Lijnen]
  • 00:48:52 nec ros, nec pluvia… [neither dew, nor rain…] (2004) for string quartet [from Lijnen]
  • 00:54:49 Anastatica (2011) for orchestra [unavailable]
  • 01:03:24 Extinction des choses vues [Extinction of things seen] (2007) for orchestra [from Arboles Lloran Por Lluvia]
  • 01:08:56 Lendajad [Flyers] (2005) for 2 flute players [unavailable]
  • 01:12:24 Mäena vaikin ma paljust [Being Mountain I Remain Silent] (2013) for orchestra [unavailable]
  • 01:17:32 lumineux/opaque (2002) for violin, cello, piano and 3 wine glasses [from Sula]
  • 01:24:13 Südamaa [Heartland] (2014) for piano & orchestra [unavailable]
  • 01:33:10 abysses (2003) for flutes & ensemble [from Lijnen]
  • 01:38:26 In Silence – I. The Silence of the Forest (2016) for female voices and optional trumpet [unavailable]
  • 01:42:52 You and I (2017) for mixed choir [unavailable]
  • 01:47:12 Delta (2003) for tape [unavailable]
  • 01:52:21 Sula [Thawing] (1999) for symphony orchestra with didgeridoo [from Sula]
  • 02:01:26 silences/larmes [silences/tears] (2006) for soprano, oboe & percussion [from Arboles Lloran Por Lluvia]

Footnotes (with approximate timings)
  • 1:10:46 “Being Mountain I Remain”: the full title of the piece is Being Mountain I Remain Silent – for some inexplicable reason i forgot to say the final word.
  • 1:26:32 “the piece that’s in the exhibition…”: this is a reference to an exhibition called Sacred Scriptures, taking place during the 2018 Estonian Music Days, that featured pages of original manuscripts by various Estonian composers alongside recordings of the music; the exhibition included a page from Tulve’s 2015 chamber work Iga säde on arvel II. Loori varjus (Every Spark Is Numbered II. Behind the Veil).
  • 1:36:16 “Was it not Martin Luther…”: no it wasn’t – the theologian i was actually thinking of at this point was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Further reading

For more information about Helena Tulve’s music, the Estonian Music Information Centre has comprehensive details including a complete list of works, and for further listening a small selection of pieces can be heard on Tulve’s Soundcloud page. Beyond this, there are many interesting insights to be found – about Tulve’s music specifically and Estonian contemporary music more generally – in Eugene Birman’s excellent Ph.D. thesis, Twenty years of independence : modern Estonian music, EU integration, and effects on identity.

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