In addition to conventional acoustic and electronic music, there was the opportunity to explore a variety of audiovisual work during my time in Tallinn. This was primarily due to COMMUTE, a fringe festival run by the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, with late evening concerts each day, after the final event at the Estonian Music Days. i first experienced COMMUTE in 2020, and the strong impression it made then was emphatically repeated this time at the three events i was able to attend.
Tomorrowland was the name given to the opening concert, premièring a large-scale collaborative work featuring the three singers of ViiiP³ (Ivi Rausi, Kärt Sepp and Sirje Medell) in conjunction with electronics and video. Over the course of its hour-and-a-bit duration it was interesting to contemplate the relationship between the multifaceted, episodic behaviours of both the voices and the visuals. Was one following the other? Were they operating in parallel? While there were times when it was hard not to make a link between them (whether real or imagined) the video element ultimately paled beside the music in terms of its range of imagination. The three women, not at the front but positioned among the audience singing into microphones, explored the whole gamut of vocal possibilities, though speech was never more than an allusion, via a kaleidoscope of suggestive syllables. Often it was hard to believe only three voices were singing, being transformed into choruses of real force. Throughout, they projected a wonderfully cohesive and immersive soundworld, developing into intense ritualistic chants and ululations, finally subsiding into individual melodic meanderings while electronic insects chirped around them. i felt a bit guilty closing my eyes in during an audiovisual work (especially as, at times, the visuals were marvellous), but the sonic performance was so nuanced and potent that it ultimately demanded it.
The mid-week COMMUTE even, ‘The Listening Eye’, was held in Kino Sõprus, Tallinn’s beautiful Soviet-era cinema. On the programme were eight audiovisual works by a mix of EAMT students and artists from throughout Europe. The best of them were a seamless, often stunning blend of simplicity and clarity. Revelation by Georgian-born, Oslo based composer Mariam Gviniashvili, placed stylised human forms into an abstract environment to create an elaborate ballet. Yet while it was more about the subtlety of its sounds and images than aiming for a big impact, if anything that only heightened the effect of its ecstatic climax. Andrea Pagliara‘s A Stubborn Illusion III, with visuals by Vincenzo Madaghiele, was similarly restrained, taking simple beats floating in a warn ambient broth and elevating them through exquisite granular patterns. Their shifting amorphous shapes occasionally arranged themselves into highly geometric forms, raising the question of whether the beats were responsible for order or chaos in this context.
Gorgeous and graceful, Bret Battey‘s much more visually abstract Estuaries4 was like a futuristic combination of a kaleidoscope and a music box. Battey’s tendency was to keep the music light and delicate, though injected by occasional capricious bursts of flamboyance, causing the visuals to pulsate with energy and colour. Though at first glance it wasn’t obvious that it would be, the unquestionable highlight of the evening was Void by Andrew Knight-Hill. The work navigates a quietly mesmerising journey through almost static shots of ostensibly uninteresting bits of architectural detail. Yet as it progressed, the work’s carefully orchestrated shots, cuts and minutiae were rendered utterly fascinating and unexpectedly beautiful. Its mesmeric power partly due to the way that a sense of scale was often impossible to judge, the images hard to identify or make sense of, but also in no small part thanks to Knight-Hill’s music: cool and measured, embellished with sounds possibly pertinent to, maybe even derived from, what we were seeing, it made the total audiovisual effect all the more arresting.
The final COMMUTE concert was a special event to mark the 10th anniversary of the audiovisual composition curriculum at EAMT. It featured Belgian ensemble Ictus, soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac and conductor Georges-Elie Octors returning to a work that they premièred almost two decades earlier, and of which which they’ve been giving annual performances since 2014, Fausto Romitelli‘s remarkable An Index of Metals. Created in 2003 in collaboration with director Paolo Pachini and poet Kenka Lèkovich, while it’s accurate to describe An Index of Metals as audiovisual, it’s perhaps more appropriate to use its creators’ term, “a furnace of sensations”. That gives some indication as to what to expect, though i confess too often the visual component felt either superfluous or simply inadequate in relation to what Romitelli’s music was doing. And what music! On the one hand, its endlessly restless nature – which, being charitable, could be called “episodic”, yet was stop-start and volte-face to a degree that seemed almost stylistically schizoid – meant that it took some time to get the measure of the music. Furthermore, i’m not sure the piece projected a convincing sense of long-term coherence. Yet what music! Beginning from strange halting fragments of Pink Floyd’s ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, progressing through endless ensemble escapades that varied between the impenetrable and the uproariously immediate, being periodically interrupted (or refocused?) by gargantuan electric guitar power chords, it was a literally overwhelming experience. i’m honestly just glad to have been lost in the midst of it, coming out the other end feeling a mixture of exhaustion and elation. Definitely a work i’m itching to experience again as soon as possible.
Though an impossibly tough act to follow, the concert closed with COLD, a short work by Einike Leppik using the same audiovisual setup as An Index of Metals. Exploring the “conditionality and finality of human life”, the work took a meditative approach, though a robust one, an portentous tone within growing via images of decay to create a sumptuous doom music. It was the sense of tactility with which the piece began that prevailed, Leppik ending the work with tender, melancholic music, resigned yet maintaining peak intensity to the last, projecting a potent air of defiance in the face of our inevitable end.
Returning to the Estonian Music Days festival, the only audiovisual work this year was “etching.ash”, a new hour-long piece of music theatre by one of the country’s most radical composers, Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes. The piece is less a conventional drama than a lengthy scrutiny of an intense emotional and psychological state. The cause of this state is not part of the work but is instead an implied fait accompli, the unspoken cause of the extended effect playing out in front of us. However, Kozlova-Johannes provides a small number of clues in the form of quotations drawn from her source material, the novel Klaaslaps (The Glass Child) by writer and poet Maarja Kangro. In the book, the main character needs an abortion due to extreme malformation of her foetus, but the quotations used in “etching.ash” (and the contents of the programme note) avoid these details entirely, thereby generalising the work as a response to extreme trauma.
Kozlova-Johannes bifurcates the role of the woman, exploring voice (soprano Iris Oja) and movement (dancer Kärt Tõnisson) as separate but connected aspects, accompanied by a small ensemble of flute, electric guitar, clavichord and electronics. The internal relationship between these vocal and physical aspects, and the wider relationship between both aspects and the instrumental parts – which to a limited but significant extent directly interact with them – was especially interesting. The woman’s progress was initially slow and painful, Oja pulling Tõnisson behind her in large swathes of fabric. The music almost literally held its breath through this slow sequence, Oja articulating nothing more than croaks and fragmented syllables. As voice gave way to movement, Tõnisson now emerging from the fabric, the music responded with one of the most dazzling things i heard during the entire festival, a vast, glorious climax from ensemble and electronics that, coming in the wake of near silent darkness, felt genuinely awesome. From breath-holding to breathtaking.
The work’s progression was extremely slow, but this felt entirely necessary due to the very evident weight of trauma and the degree and depth of the wounds it had caused. An interaction with the highly florid flute was ambiguous, the latter initially seeming to proffer help but soon after appearing to be a hindrance. It was a brave choice by Kozlova-Johannes to focus entirely, and at such length, on the aftermath and gradual outworking of psycho-emotional damage, but it worked. Not always: a sequence where the clavichord was brought out (from behind a curtain where the ensemble were situated) to the front of the stage to accompany Oja during the work’s coda felt strange and clunky, lacking the more seamless back and forth that had been an effective feature of the piece (both singer and dancer move either side of the curtain at different points). But nothing could diminish the scale of the emotional apex as Oja’s voice increasingly found song, and strength, in her voice, and even more so as Tõnisson triumphantly fought her way through a seemingly never-ending pile of ashes, causing the most amazing vortices of air – and triggering a second tutti climax on a similar scale to the first one – to emerge reborn, like a jet black phoenix. “etching.ash” was a tough, painful watch, but one that seemed to reiterate by its very existence the necessity of externalising pain as a first step on the long path to recovery.