World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 3)

by 5:4

This year’s World Music Days featured a substantial amount of music involving electronics. That being said, relatively few of the fixed media works made as strong an impression as those combining electronics with acoustic instruments. A notable exception was Marianna Liik‘s Mets [Forest], one of several pieces during the festival that, due to the organisers’ need to cram in such a large number of works, ended up being shoe-horned into incongruous contexts. Liik found her music bizarrely serving as the overture to an afternoon of wind and brass music (the previously-discussed concert given by the Estonian Police and Border Guard Orchestra), yet while it took far too many members of the audience far too long to realise the piece had even started – prompting a member of festival staff to eventually stand up and silently shush them(!) – nothing could detract from its evocative power. Beginning from tiny snufflings and shufflings, conjuring up imaginary ‘creatures’ lurking throughout the space, Liik combined these with longer, sustained pitches that sounded vocalised yet seemed almost like an incidental consequence of wind blowing. Kept at something of a distance for most of its duration, Mets built to a hugely overwhelming climax that demonstrated how much potential energy had been locked away, just waiting to be released.

The only entirely electronic concert took place on Sunday afternoon, given by the not-entirely-snappily-named Estonian Electronic Music Society’s Ensemble. Vahid Jahandari‘s fixed media The Vulture was arguably the most impressive work on the programme. Inspired by photojournalist Kevin Carter’s famous troubling image of a vulture lurking near a starving girl, Jahandari’s soundscape transformed sounds from a double bass into an immersive, deeply threatening soundscape. There was something distinctly plaintive lurking within, though, heard in higher register material and fragments of melody, ghostly remnants and traces that seemed doomed in such a glowering environment, and which ultimately disappeared into their own reverb. Though the rest of the concert was somewhat more rudimentary, it had a couple of striking moments. In REMOTE ME, Serbian composer Jasna Veličković utilised two remote controls in close proximity to three electromagnetic pick-up coils to create a really fun, beat-oriented miniature study. Fellow Serb Andreja Andric‘s Pocket Electronic Symphony #1 was similarly engaging, the performer wielding a smartphone to generate what sounded like a datastream being shaped into abstract forms, textures and patterns. It was ‘symphonic’ inasmuch as its elements were often, literally, sounding together, and i honestly couldn’t help thinking of Mahler when an extended loud sequence erupted as if from nowhere. It’s worth saying that while the two performances by the entire six-member ensemble – an improvisation and a new work called Flux by ensemble member Ekke Västrik – sounded rather tentative and uncertain (from both a compositional and performative perspective), i couldn’t help admiring the simplicity of their approach, and their focus on elementary signals as the basis for music. It initially seemed dated, but was it really? Getting away from the usual experience of sound sources that have been subjected to massive amounts of treatment and processing was a tremendous relief.

i was glad to have a second opportunity to hear music by Icelandic composer Ríkharður H. Friðriksson. Though i’d been underwhelmed by his performance at the Dark Music Days in January, his fixed media piece … e mezzo, heard in the reverberant Niguliste Church on Friday evening, was excellent, flooding the space and enveloping us in rapid-fire, anonymous stuff, streams of vocalise and pitchless scrunch and noise. It was by far one of the most abstract things i heard all week, but also one of the most immediate and exhilarating. Elizabeth Anderson‘s 8-channel Solar Winds was by contrast a complete let-down – all the more so due to its inordinate quantity of accompanying tl;dr explanatory notes that turned out to mean essentially nothing in light of its vague, undifferentiated, safe and shrug-worthy material. Sweden’s Thommy Wahlström bravely sought to incorporate the church’s primary instrument in his 2017 invention for organ and EA No. 18. The organ part (performed by Ulla Krigul) was strongly redolent of Messiaen’s 1969 Méditations (both the material and the choice of registrations), though articulated such that it sounded private, as if we were being made privy to a kind of ‘inner’ music, even an ‘inadvertent’ music, made all the more vivid through Wahlström’s use of the sound of the organ compressor. As such, the acoustic and field recording elements blended entirely to form a fascinatingly liminal experience.

Among the other electroacoustic highlights was the world première of Schattenseele [The Soul of Shadow] for violin and electronics by Age Veeroos, performed by Swedish duo There Are No More Four Seasons. As with last year’s orchestral work Skein of Thought, Veeroos managed to create something provocatively intriguing from the most wispy and elusive of ideas. Considering the work’s inspiration, it was impossible not to hear its intangible substance as a manifestation of some kind of ‘soul material’, though seemingly not so much made from shadow but light. In Orison for three music box players and electronics, Canada’s Kotoka Suzuki created an interesting disjunct between the physicality of the music-making process – music boxes, strips of papers being fed into them, all closely-coordinated – and the dream-like bliss of the music. To be honest, ‘bliss’ obviously isn’t quite the right word considering Suzuki’s concern was “the voices of children during wartime”, yet while the electronics introduced more negative connotations, the ultimate emphasis of the work seemed to be more on simplicity than pain or damage. Either way, performed by Finnish group Defunenesmble, it was highly effective. At the same concert, inside Tallinn’s amazing former industrial factory now creative hub the Kultuurikatel, Welsh composer Andrew Lewis improbably found inspiration from the squeals of an escalator, which in Straatmuziek [Street Music] were translated into material for alto flute, bass clarinet, piano and electronics. Initially imitative, thereafter the music became romanticised and elaborated. It was really very lovely in an obliquely lyrical way, a line running through its centre but subject to deviations and splinterings off. The involvement of the electronics, introducing the sound of the actual escalator, was beautifully seamless, providing deep rumbles and enhancing the noise and friction in the ensemble. Brilliant.

Several of the electroacoustic works also incorporated video elements. At one end of the spectrum were Alexander Schubert‘s Star Me Kitten and Stefan PrinsGeneration Kill – offspring 1, two of the most stunningly self-indulgent, masturbatory, pretentious and stupefyingly stupid things i have ever been subjected to in a concert hall. It would be easy to point the finger at the Ensemble for New Music Tallinn’s artistic director Arash Yazdani who, based on the combination of last year’s concert of his music, plus an additional bit of doggerel heard this year, and this entire concert, seems concerned solely with the most dismally superficial and reheated forms of shock, provocation and titillation, but the buck stops with Schubert and Prins. Discreet conversations with many, many people throughout the rest of the festival testified that my response to these pieces was very far from being unique (the exact opposite, in fact), so the buck – and Yazdani for that matter – should most definitely stop.

At the other end of the spectrum, back at the Kultuurikatel, in All Play Norwegian composer Jan Martin Smørdal erased the sound of a typically outlandish performance by guitarist Daniel Meyer Grønvold (shown on a screen above the stage) and replaced it with material inspired by, and perhaps to an extent imitative of, the original. The members of Defunensemble increasingly felt fundamentally connected to Grønvold, seemingly becoming the external mouthpiece – or a kind of multi-faceted loudspeaker – for his gestures and contortions. It was entirely convincing, the ensemble seeming to tease out the inner details and filigree contained within Grønvold’s waves, sheets and slabs of noise. Later that evening, Kristine Tjøgersen‘s Mistérios do Corpo [Mysteries of the Body] for string quartet and video did to Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal’s body what Andrew Lewis had done to the escalator. Based on a work by Pascoal (of the same name) performed by and on his own supine body, Tjøgersen extends his percussive and vocal sounds to the string quartet. Though perhaps a touch overlong (presumably the same could be said for Pascoal’s piece too), synchronised with the muted video the performance, given by members of the Yxus Ensemble, was compelling throughout, by turns mesmeric and downright hilarious.

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