Baltic Music Days 2021, Estonia (Part 2)

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Despite its name, it’s important to note that not everything performed at this year’s inaugural Baltic Music Days originated in the Baltic (though all of the performers did). Among the most striking of the international pieces was Spur by Austrian composer Beat Furrer. Composed in 1998, it was especially interesting to hear how its mess of jittery, spiked staccatos somehow coalesced into a single, united ‘voice’. While the music’s essential character never fundamentally changed, it was nonetheless compelling and – as in so much of Furrer’s work – hugely entertaining. Given a superb performance by Lithuanian ensemble Synaesthesis, one felt unable to lose concentration, practically hypnotised by the close-knit consistency of the material and the questions it continually raised: what is it doing? where is it going? will something else happen? Somewhat similar in tone – initially, at least – was French composer Régis Campo‘s Pop Art, a jaunty chamber work that gradually found its pitch content being erased due to changes in the performing techniques. Though a bit too reliant on gestures Synaesthesis kept it exciting. The opposite of exciting was not wind, fire by Dutch composer Antoine Beuger, a predictably empty-headed collection of disparate, disconnected, dispassionate isolated notes and gestures pretentiously masquerading as something meaningful. Ensemble U: deserve serious quantities of kudos simply for being able (on the surface, at least) to take it seriously.

The most impressive piece among the non-Baltic music was Aphorism, by Iranian composer Arash Yazdani, which opened the final concert of the festival, given by the Ensemble for New Music Tallinn. The programme note described utilising lines from diverse texts as the basis for the work, yet while this was essentially impossible to discern, it didn’t matter. As a long-form exercise in highly unusual, slowly-transforming textures, Aphorism was completely engrossing. Specifically, I found it induced a palpable tension by, on the one hand, being so sonically fascinating that I wanted to listen with my eyes shut, while, on the other hand, having such a wealth of visual interest – especially towards its conclusion – that watching the performance was essential. There was great subtlety in the way its collections of sound objects slowly altered, becoming either attenuated or greatly expanded, often rising in altitude, tending towards behavioural poles of ethereality or boisterousness. Its culmination, bringing together hair being rubbed on piano strings while blowing through tubes, was the perfect end to a deliriously strange but successful piece.

The range of fascinating musical identities from the festival’s host nation Estonia was considerable. As i said in my introduction to Part 1, and as i’ve observed and commented upon in previous years, there’s a tendency in Estonian music to place the focus and, in some cases, the whole point and purpose – of the music on the creation of either attractive or energised surfaces, at the expense of something more deep and meaningful beneath. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Baltic Music Days included more than a few examples of this, among them Lauri Jõeleht’s blandly noodling Stella matutina, Mirjam Tally‘s surprisingly one-dimensional Spiral Leap, Riho Esko Maimets‘ stale piece of neo-Delius pastiche Two Pieces for strings, Lepo Sumera’s In Es and Kristjan Kõrver’s Sic!, the latter two works concerned with mere activity rather than actual substance.

Happily, the best examples of Estonian music bore no resemblance to any of these. An effective demonstration of simplicity (as opposed to simplification) was heard in Rhythm Convergence by Taivo Lints. A short electronic piece, the emphasis, as its name suggests, was on the gradual creation of a dense, multi-layered network of syncopated pulses. Culminating in a bass-soaked climax, it was a triumph of pure, exhilarating fun. Elis Hallik’s new ensemble piece Some Paths Will Always Lead Through the Shadows could hardly have been more of a contrast to this, exploring an intimate, united but tremulous lyrical sensibility (bringing to mind Boulez’s Dérive I, also using a very similar line-up of instruments to that piece). In a similar way to the bunched-up nature of Žibuoklė Martinaitytė’s Solastalgia (discussed in Part 1), performed at the same concert by Synaesthesis, the instruments moved together so closely as to become a united, multifaceted entity. The heightened quality of its drama was significant, with climactic moments emerging from plateaux that were already considerably elevated. It was interesting to contemplate whether the “shadows” in the title were external in origin (a cause implied by its effect) or self-generated from within due to the music’s internal nervousness. Whatever the cause, the lack of any pauses or even moments of repose in its continuous group texture only increased the mesmeric hold that the piece had; it was really fabulous.

In previous years at the Estonian Music Days, Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes has been represented by works predominantly lyrical in character (particularly her two ravishing choral works To My End and to Its End… and I Will Cross This Road). So the long-awaited world première of her new piano concerto, Blow Your House Down – postponed from last year’s festival – came as a genuine shock. In the work, Kozlova-Johannes takes issue with misguided attempts to avoid pain and suffering through hiding from reality:

I feel that it is important to face reality, no matter how terrifying it is, being the wolf who blows the house down and, at the same time, the piglet who becomes vulnerable.

In practice, there was a lot more evidence of the wolf than the piglet, as the material in her concerto – featuring soloist Age Juurikas with the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra – wasn’t so much presented as detonated. Huge pianistic clusterbombs exploded in what almost immediately became a tense, nerve-racked, borderline apocalyptic soundscape, the product of a very obvious, extremely forthright rage. As such, the piano acted as both a focal point and a catalyst for the orchestra, together articulating the emotional state of the work via intricate textures.

There were times when it seemed as if some kind of resolution might be taking effect – or at least a modest calming down – but these turned out to be either false or hopes or downright red herrings, Kozlova-Johannes immediately veering the music away, setting off a new round of intense carpet bombing and filling the orchestra with angry buzzings. A different, if anything more disquieting, reaction occurred later, when it seemed as if the music might finally be dissolving: now, instead of raw power everything became nebulous and vague, turning inward, sounding emotionally remote and hard to penetrate or connect with. Even now, over a month after its first performance, i find myself ruminating over that turn of events, the piece apparently – tragically – coming to embody (or being forced to accept?) the very thing it was so ferociously railing against, a turning away from the pains inflicted by and upon the world. Displaying arguably the most fearlessly austere and aggressive identity heard during the whole Baltic Music Days, the power and ferocity of Blow Your House Down has proved impossible to ignore or forget.

Infinitely more calm was Night Frost, a short work for orchestra and electronics by Malle Maltis. Given its first performance by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, its introduction was tantalising. Slow and suspended, with small fragments of filigree that became broken up by a series of lovely pulsations, agitating and breaking up the orchestra and appearing to modulate their actions, resulting in an admixture of smoothness and undulating chugging. With an organic sense of development, the music glistened, evoking ice, before seemingly freezing solid at its end. Evocations of nature are common in Estonian music, but it was very nice to hear such a strong example of this that didn’t simply resort to all the usual musical clichés, and where the electronics were not kept as a separate element but made an integral, seamless part of the total sonic effect.

Possibly the most unique Estonian musical personality came at the end of the festival, in the very last piece performed. The wonderfully-named streeeeeeeeeeeeeeeetch by Ülo Krigul combined ensemble and electronics to form a homogeneous environment completely filled with activity, yet all of it small and distant, seemingly microscopic. Premièred by the members of the Ensemble for New Music Tallinn without the aid, or need, of a conductor, there was movement to be found literally everywhere, sound continuously sliding up and down, or from side to side, at the same time shifting between noise and pitch, low and high, stable and unstable, clear and indistinct, a mass of flux caught in a plethora of endless continua. Despite this morass of movement, Krigul managed to ensure that all of its sounds were held in place – underpinned by some lovely deep bass – with nothing predominating. It was an unexpected, wonderful and above all gorgeous way to bring the Baltic Music Days to a close.

So, to return to the question posed at the start of this survey: is “Baltic music” something that possesses a tangible identity? Reflecting on everything i heard during the first Baltic Music Days festival, the answer to that question is definitely “No” – and even the discrete prevailing trends that i previously described, exhibited independently by Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, demonstrate a similar conservatism to that which tends to pervade most countries’ mainstream contemporary music. Ultimately, considering the extent to which all three Baltic states have independently produced such marvellously individual musical languages, personalities and identities as the ones mentioned above – music that, beyond the Baltic, is all too easily completely unknown and unheard, but which should be loudly celebrated – it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

All the concerts from this year’s Baltic Music Days are available to stream via the Estonian Music Days website; simply select an event and then click on the ‘Watch EMP TV’ button to stream the concert.

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