Estonian Music Days 2023 (Part 3)

by 5:4

Despite the quantity of abstract music featured at this year’s Estonian Music Days, it wasn’t surprising – with the theme “soul” looming over the Tallinn part of the festival – that many composers avoided abstraction and sought to create more tangible, referential and / or emotionally-charged music.

Indeed, this was etched into the entire fabric of Obsessive Thoughts by Ukrainian composer Sofiia Shcherbakova, one of a number of interesting works performed at a concert of student compositions given by the EAMT Sinfonietta, conducted by Toomas Vavilov. Shcherbakova immersed us in a febrile microcosm, a volatile world oscillating between clear simplicity and gnarly surges. Her musical language encompassed late- and post-romanticism (suggesting an instinct to look for, or cleave to, something familiar) as well as free atonality, making the work’s impact all the more effective. Yang Ren‘s Sinfonietta No. 3 suggested deep thoughtfulness, as if considering its progress and direction continuously. With a nicely sinewy melodic sensibility, it felt its way forward through a vaguely Berg-like harmonic environment, arriving unexpectedly at a brief, accented climax before, equally unexpected, evaporating in soft cymbals rolls.

EAMT Sinfonietta: Estonian Academy of Music & Theatre, Tallinn, 3 May 2023 (photo: Rene Jakobson)

The highlight of this concert was If You Take Away Your Black There Will Not Be My White by Viktoria Grahv, who clearly has a strange and fascinating, highly individual compositional voice, skirting around conventions and expectations. A burst of turmoil, a moment of elegance, a sequence of vaguely forlorn tremors, yet garnished with glitter – nothing about the piece was easy to pin down, which only made it more compelling. Even the introduction of a drum kit later on was simultaneously incongruous yet integrated, the music walking a fine line between rocking out (the instinct of the kit) and troubled orchestral material, which ultimately prevailed.

One of Estonia’s most radical composers, Liisa Hirsch managed to take a group of Torupill, traditional Estonian bagpipes, and transform them into a slowly rising clustery glissando in her new piece Earth Veins. It was astonishing: occasional kinks in the ascent sounded like gear changes, and the remarkable combined effect gradually assumed the appearance of a wild, intense, never-ending, ever-expanding combination of crying, wailing, howling and keening, perhaps (considering the title) coming from the Earth itself. Though the nature of this cry was kept distant – pain? anger? despair? hope? – its effect was immediate: everything about it sounded necessary and utterly urgent.

EAMT Sinfonietta: Estonian Academy of Music & Theatre, Tallinn, 3 May 2023 (photo: Rene Jakobson)

Neither urgent nor remotely necessary was Music in Eduard Wiiralt’s Engravings, a new work for pianist Talvi Hunt by Jüri Tamverk. i say “new”, but everything about it was wilfully, defiantly, stupidly old. Relentless pseudo-romantic noodling – arpeggios everywhere! – all of it stolen from past music, occasionally sprinkled with equally out-of-date cheese and presented, with meaningless flourish, as if it were more than just a tepid exercise in abject timidity. i’d love to think of it as a comment on emptiness or overblown verbosity, but the truth of it was that the piece was simply empty and verbose, unbelievably entering into Richard Clayderman territory toward its close. Perhaps its incessant, unstoppable character was an attempt to distract from its total lack of original ideas.

There were two highlights in Hunt’s recital, both of them all the more spectacular for being so low-key. The first was Mat’Selesnya by Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes, a piece that requires the pianist also to blow through long tubes wound round their neck. It was like a pair of fantastical voices meeting and singing a duet together, one (tubes) limited to overtones, like a post-Varèseian new form of siren, the other (piano) a rich palette of beautifully prepared notes, all of which – unlike much prepared piano music, which emphasises a percussive aspect – retained the basic timbre of the instrument, gently recoloured. Though it reached a plunky-squealy climax, the music was for the most part exquisitely intimate, the tubes in particular softening to barely a whisper.

Talvi Hunt: House of the Black Heads, Tallinn, 29 April 2023 (photo: Rene Jakobson)

Yet more immersive was Elo Masing‘s Bird Music for Trees 3 for piano and electronics, a work exploring the strange, other-worldly sounds apparently lurking within the piano, just waiting to be released when touched, stroked or otherwise coaxed from the strings and soundboard. The result was like a field recording of unfathomable alien creatures in their native habitat, focusing around a wonderfully bizarre song, its timbre an impossible mix of trumpet, flute, recorder and accordion. Sometimes sounding as a single voice, other times a stunning chorus, this piece again emphasised intimacy, receding to soft squeals and muffled moans, as if we were listening in on private activity.

A similarly enigmatic soundworld occupied Age Veeroos’ new work Outlines of the Night, premièred by the Ensemble for New Music Tallinn, conducted by Arash Yazdani. A skittery nocturne playing out in a place of dark mystery, its ideas were not so much directly heard as glimpsed, emerging as mercurial, ethereal and tremulous forms. As such, it was hard to discern whether the players were acting as an ensemble or a group of separate individuals. Veeroos increased the mystery, reducing the music to mere slivers of moonlight and shades of black garnished with whispers. It was an intoxicating soundworld, located at the fringes of perception.

At the same concert was one of the most impressive new works of the entire festival. In the extensive programme note for Excarnation, Israeli composer Dror Feiler went out of his way to suggest that enjoying music, if possible or desirable at all these days, was in any case only “a minor part of listening” due to being “a historical experience”. It’s a weird sentiment to assume that an engagement with challenging, avant-garde music is somehow incompatible with enjoyment and pleasure. He’s 100% wrong, of course, but that didn’t change the fact that Excarnation was a hugely engrossing experience. The work’s modus operandi was the presentation of two parallel, conflicting expressive worlds. The first: wildly, joyously individual, full of contrapuntal freedom and soloistic colour; the other: the ensemble stuck as a group in the grooves of a strict metric grid, not devoid of complex rhythms but nonetheless bound to the pulse. Over time the opposition became more acute, the former revealing ever more personality, extending beyond their instruments to various accoutrements (the flautist, for example, crinkling and tearing paper). By contrast, the metric music sounded ever more blank, at one point like a birdsong with the melody erased, increasingly zombified to the point that the players practically seemed to become puppets on strings. It was a surprisingly affecting performance, culminating in a deeply uncomfortable, halting kind of blurted out unison followed by a final, tremulous burst of freedom. Considering his stated outlook, i’m not sure whether Feiler would be pleased or disappointed by me saying i could hardly have enjoyed it more.

Ensemble for New Music Tallinn, Arash Yazdani: Kultuurikatel, Tallinn, 26 April 2023 (photo: Rene Jakobson)

Some of these performances are available to stream (for free) either as audio via Klassikaraadio and/or as video via the festival’s EMP TV service (sadly, the EAMT Sinfonietta concert is unavailable in any format). Links below:

Bagpipe Orchestraaudio / video
Talvi Hunt: audio
Ensemble for New Music Tallinn: audio / video

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