Malle Maltis – Öökülm (World Première)

by 5:4

Today’s Advent Calendar piece is another focused on the coldness of winter: Öökülm [night frost] for orchestra and electronics by Malle Maltis. In her programme note, Maltis speaks a lot about the destruction caused by cold, and a little about beauty. To an extent this emphasis is mirrored in the music, though it’s hard not to regard the ‘destructive’ aspect of the work as being no less beautiful than the rest. A recurring feature in the first two of the work’s three sections is a kind of ‘breathing’ motif, in which diverse ideas swell and recede, and this same dynamic shape applies to the work as a whole.

In the outer sections, Maltis’ music gives the impression of cold as a quietly insistent presence, permeating everything. Sound moves slowly in a nocturnal atmosphere of frigid, faintly glistening stillness. A few ideas show more signs of energy, or internal warmth, pushing through the cold with just a hint of urgency. Some of these ideas collapse and fall, others crystallise into shimmering pitch clashes that catch the light with surprising intensity. Describing it like this suggests a music of complete fragility, but that’s not true – at least, not entirely. Those signs of energy don’t all go one way or the other; a few are allowed a little space to continue and develop, while other, different, signs start to emerge deeper below. Things, it seems, are afoot.

Apropos: following a final, much bigger ‘breath’, the work’s central episode begins. A wonderful collection of pulsations appears, acting as a catalyst to break things up and modulate the orchestra’s actions, resulting in a mixture of smooth, undulating and chugging tones. Many more manifestations of the breathing motif ensue, and Maltis starts to add more and more quantities of weight, so that in the end the whole orchestra is undergoing a large-scale, unified flexing. Despite the obvious muscularity and busyness of this sequence, it’s nonetheless fundamentally static, rooted on a dronal firmament that connects everything to the immobility and numbing effect of cold.

Coming out the other end of this, the brief closing section of Öökülm sounds all the more icy than before, with no signs of the breathing from earlier. Weak woodwind lines become caked in semi-frosted droplets, a process that swiftly overruns all remaining vestiges of ideas in the orchestra. Every instrument has its remaining warmth nullified, ending up motionless, frozen solid.

It’s especially nice the way Maltis doesn’t at any point make the electronics feel like a separate bolt-on to the orchestra; they’re treated just like another (albeit multi-faceted) instrument, fully integrated into a cohesive electroacoustic soundworld.

The world première of Öökülm was given by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, with Karl Erik Laas on electronics, conducted by Mihhail Gerts.

Programme note

Every year there are autumn and spring days blessed with sunshine and the world seems golden and safe, but at night the temperature falls below 0°C. Much of what is blossoming, growing or sprouting is destroyed by night frost. It leaves behind blackened fruit, shafts ruined by frozen sap crystals and withered leaves. The spring night frost destroys the burgeoning buds and plants that have not yet taken root. At the bottoms of ponds, frogs burrow further into the mud to find shelter. But what is destruction on one level, is beauty and joy on another. The frozen blossoms and leaves offers an opportunity to admire time standing still, and frozen fruit is also sweeter.

—Malle Maltis

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