A song for the head and the heart: the music of Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes

by 5:4

As an accompaniment to my Dialogue with composer Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes, the following is an essay written for the Estonian journal Sirp, originally published in Estonian translation last year.

When I first heard the music of Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes, its effect was almost too much to take. It was in 2017, during the Estonian Music Days, at a concert featuring the world première of her choral work To My End and to Its End…. There are many reasons why the piece made such a profound impression on me, but perhaps the most significant was its combination of a radical musical attitude and an immediate emotional resonance. To put it simply, this was music that connected with both the head and the heart, appealing to the intellect and the emotions. In the years that have passed since that first contact, i’ve found this experience repeated with each new composition of hers that i’ve heard.

Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes

There’s something vitally important about this. Contemporary classical music is often described as ‘avant-garde’ or ‘cutting edge’, both quite aggressive phrases that suggest combat or violence and the accompanying possibility (even likelihood) of discomfort. Perhaps, for some people, contemporary music should have as its motto, “no pain, no gain”; we don’t need to look far to find examples of new works that may prove mentally interesting – we understand what the composer is exploring in the music (sometimes only because they tell us in the programme note; otherwise we might not have a clue) – but which are sonically disappointing. Equally, there are composers whose concern is simply with entertainment, superficial pleasure, or pseudo-spiritual superstition, creating a musical balm for the senses, but which, below the surface, is entirely empty, with nothing at all to satisfy any deeper, intellectual need.

What makes Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes’ music so important, and so special – and so worthy of the Lepo Sumera prize, which she was awarded in July 2022 – is that it always, without fail, manages to be unique, individual and original (surprisingly rare qualities in a lot of contemporary music) while also communicating in a way that is immediate, personal and powerful.

It seems to me that this has always been the case. Her earliest composition, Prisma, a 7-minute work for solo piano written in 2001, evokes past and present, suggesting elements of Impressionism yet within a taut, focused contemporary musical language. The piece combines both song and solemnity, featuring a melodic impulse that sounds somewhat trapped between a web of brisk semiquavers and heavy low chords. In an exquisite central episode, filled with light grace notes and flowing complex rhythms, there’s a greater sense of playfulness but the music again becomes stuck, ending up in stodgy repeating chords. The outcome of this tension is an extended final monody, Kozlova-Johannes reducing the piano to just a single line, singing a song that is simultaneously serious and radiant, blending rhythmic precision with – finally! – a sense of freedom, the melody now able to float and fly. In a simple but effective way, the piece satisfies the head, making sense as a musical argument comprising friction between melody, harmony and rhythm; and it satisfies the heart, presenting a clear, emotionally-inflected outcome in which compromise is found and a new form of freedom obtained.

I recognise in Prisma the same balance of attention to both head and heart that characterises all of her subsequent work. This balance is mirrored in the titles of her compositions. Many of them suggest things and objects that are tangible, tactile or immediate: made of hot glass, Snow of Dandelions, Ice Intermezzo, Disintegration Chain, Three Feathers, Lighting the Fire, Lovesong. Yet from the outset she has also explored ideas and concepts that are more elusive, abstract or complex: Prisma, Circles, Horizontals, Towards Inward (Dissolution), Corners, Rooted In.

Not surprisingly, her compositional language has developed to demonstrate the same mix of qualities. To return to the piece I mentioned at the start, in To My End and to Its End… she adapts words by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish to create a dialogue between father and son about the dangers that threaten from nearby borders. This is heavyweight subject matter (even more important today than when the piece was composed seven years ago; and given added poignancy by Kozlova-Johannes’ Russian roots) yet she does not make the piece an exercise in emotional clichés. There is both complexity and immediacy in the musical expression: some of the choir bring to mind the sound and atmosphere of the desert, while a group of soloists articulates the dialogue, passing the words between them, thereby making their sentiments about everyone, including ourselves, whoever we are and wherever we live. This is matched by a musical language that mingles elements that both calm and unsettle. On the one hand, the fluid harmonies are often stunningly beautiful, which, combined with their softness, acts to sound soothing. Yet there is a palpable ominous quality, with indications of exhaustion and fear, and the “end” of the title is a literal one: the music just stops, with absolutely no sign of any form of outcome, positive or negative. The work comes to an end but the danger it describes continues. Thus our head and our heart are both touched and affected: intellectually we understand the nature of the predicament, and emotionally we feel it deeply.

In more recent years, Kozlova-Johannes’ work has displayed a similar concern about humanity’s relationship and interaction with the wider world, positive and negative, in a way that continues to speak strongly to both the mind and the emotions. One of her most large-scale compositions, The Beauty of Decay (2019), engages directly with the simple fact that everything, everywhere, “slips out of control, transforms and perishes”. It takes no effort to empathise and resonate with (and perhaps fear) the deep sense of tragedy that accompanies death and decay. Yet for Kozlova-Johannes this is not only far from being the whole story, it is almost beside the point: she speaks of a beauty and sense of liberation that pervades this loss, and that, ultimately, “into this death suddenly comes light instead of pain”. Our emotions all too easily accept the negative, whereas our mind has to decide whether or not to accept the positive, and this is reflected in the music of The Beauty of Decay, simultaneously heavy and light, resigned yet buoyant, reinforced by spoken texts that unflinchingly confront the fragility and brevity of existence.

Similar sentiments inspired her 2020 piano concerto Blow Your House Down, focusing on the way people construct walls in a vain attempt to hide from reality and avoid getting hurt. Yet Kozlova-Johannes expresses this in an entirely different way than in The Beauty of Decay. The concerto is one of her most violent compositions, and as such, it seems to me that the balance of head and heart does not therefore manifest solely in the music but also in the relationship between the music and us, the audience. From one perspective, it could be argued that the piece itself is the heart – apocalyptic, filled with rage and threat and a thousand explosions – and we are the head: we need to decide whether to run and hide from the musical clusterbombs being thrown at us, or whether to face them, make sense and come to terms with them and, eventually, hopefully, overcome them.

Kozlova-Johannes’ most recent work shows no sign of turning away from this balanced fusion of heart and head. This was demonstrated in her immensely powerful theatrical work etching.ash, premièred at the 2022 Estonian Music Days. Inspired by a book by Maarja Kangro, the piece directly externalises pain and trauma, yet we come to understand afresh that this is a vital first step on the road to recovery.

Such descriptions as these perhaps make it sound as if listening to Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes’ music is difficult and demanding, even hard work. Yet to return to her earliest piece, Prisma, there she demonstrated something else that permeates her music, a trait that is quintessentially Estonian: an unstoppable urge to sing. The nature, the form and the concept of this song is continually changing; sometimes stunningly clear and recognisable, sometimes emerging through (or heard from within) convoluted layers of strata. But whether we recognise it immediately or not, her music is a constant, ongoing song, a courageous song engaging with existence and reality in all its hues of dark and light, a radical song that touches us at the core of our being: a song for the head and the heart.

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