Erkki-Sven Tüür is a contemporary Estonian composer, perhaps the most well-known from his country. His music, which consists of eight symphonies, nine concertos, an opera and a variety of chamber music and orchestral works, is characterized by its intense energy and transformations. One of Tüür’s goals is to prompt the listener to ponder age-old existential questions, including “What is our mission?”. Furthermore, he appreciates that the abstract nature of music allows for every listener to form their own visions.
Tüür studied both flute and percussion at the Tallinn Georg Ots Music High School from 1976 to 1980 before attending the Tallinn Conservatoire from 1980 to 1984, where he studied composition with Jaan Rääts. In addition, he studied composition privately with Lepo Sumera in Tallinn and pursued the study of electronic music in Karlsruhe.
Between 1979 and 1983, Tüür was active with the progressive rock ensemble In Spe, which he founded. He served many roles within the group, including composer, flautist, keyboardist and vocalist. At this time, Tüür was heavily influenced by the music of King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Mike Oldfield and Frank Zappa. He went on to work as an adviser at the Estonian Composers’ Union from 1983 until 1985, becoming musical director of the Vanalinnastuudio Theatre for three years, beginning in 1987. Tüür also served as a composition teacher for a short period (1989-92) at the Estonian Academy of Music, where he taught Helena Tulve.
After leaving the Academy of Music in 1992, Tüür focused solely on composing. His works have been commissioned by many virtuoso performers and ensembles abroad, and as a result, are often introduced to foreign audiences before being performed in Estonia. There are also a number of Estonian ensembles with which Tüür regularly collaborates, including the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, the YXUS Ensemble (which was formerly known as the NYYD Ensemble) and the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra.
Tüür was one of the artistic directors of the International New Music Festival NYYD from 1991 to 2011 and was the featured composer of Musica Nova Helsinki in 1998, Vale of Glamorgan Festival in the UK in 2002 and Klangspuren Schawz in Austria in 2003. In addition, Tüür served as composer-in-residence at the Auftakt Festival in Germany in 2007, the Davos Festival in Switzerland in 2008 and at the Bruno International Music Festival Moravian Autumn in 2015.
Tüür’s compositional style is quite fascinating and diverse, drawing from an array of sources such as Gregorian chant, minimalism, linear polyphony, microtonality, twelve-tone music and sound-field technique. Using these techniques, he is able to combine and contrast many opposites, resulting in a musical language he calls “meta-language”. This language is prevalent in many of his compositions from the 1990s, including Zeitrum (1992), Architectonics VI (1992), Crystallisatio (1995) and the Symphony No. 3 (1997). He is also influenced by the works of J.S. Bach and Gustav Mahler, the two composers he considers most important to him for their emotional scope and abstract narratives, respectively.
It was his composition Insula deserta (1989) that brought Tüür his first wide-spread and well-deserved recognition after its Finnish premiere with by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Juha Kangas. Following on this success, many more works were commissioned including Architectonics III “Postmetaminimal Dream” (1990) by E.A.R.Unit from Los Angeles and Architectonics IV “per Cadenza ad Metasimplicity” (1990) for the Canadian ensemble Sound Pressure. Three more works in the Architectonics series were composed for the New York City guitarist John Tamburello (1991), the Helsinki Festival (1992) and the Festival Musica in Stasbourg, France (1992). The first instalments of this series were composed a number of years earlier, before his breakthrough Insula deserta, by the Estonian groups, the Jaan Tamm Wind Quintet (1984) and the Estonia Theatre Trio (1986).
Since completing this successful series, Tüür has written for numerous world-class ensembles and soloists including works from the 1990s for the American Wind Symphony (In Memory of Clear Water, 1990), Stockholm Saxophone Quartet (Lamentatio, 1995), Cellist David Geringas (Cello Concerto, 1997), Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra (Violin Concerto, 1998), Cabaza Percussion Quartet (Motus II, 1998) and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Paavo Järvi (Exodus, 1999).
In Tüür’s words, all of his pieces are “abstract dramas in sound, with characters and an extremely dynamic chain of events; they unfold in a space that is constantly shifting, expanding and contracting”. Despite this conceptual similarity, Tüür’s compositional style began to change during the next decade; a distinct transitional period can be heard in the Marimba Concerto Ardor (2001) and Symphony no. 4 “Magma” (2002).
His new “vectorial method” was solidified in Oxymoron (2003). Tüür has described this new method, which uses a source code, as “fairly flexible”. He explained that as this source code, or gene, “mutates and grows, [it] connects the dots in the fabric of the whole work”. The method is based on vectors which are defined by intervals, which are represented by a sequence of numbers. All of this works from Oxymoron on, have been written using this new approach.
Tüür received even more commissions during this period, composing for orchestras such as the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Marimba Concerto Ardor, 2001), Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra (Symphony no. 4 “Magma”, 2002), Westdeutscher Rundfunk (Meditatio, 2004), Eclat New Music Festival and Südwestrundfunk (Symphony no. 5, 2005, performed by the SWR Big Band and Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra), Detroit Symphony Orchestra and (London) Philharmonia Orchestra (Noesis, 2006), Nordic Symphony Orchestra (Symphony no. 6 “Strata”, 2007) and the Hessischer Rundfunk and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Symphony No. 7 “Pietas”, 2009). His Symphony no. 8 (2010) was commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. In addition, he composed the opera Wallenberg (2011) for the Dortmund Opera.
Most recently, Tüür has composed the Clarinet Concerto Peregrinus ecstaticus (2013) for the Finnish Radio Symphony with soloist Christoffer Sundqvist and De Profundis (2013), which was joint- commissioned by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. He has also composed the Missa brevis (2014) for the Deutscher Musikrat and Le poids des vies non vécues (2015) for the Orchestre National de Belgique.
Currently, Tüür is working on pieces for the Orchestre de Paris, Wiener Symphoniker, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra.
Tüür has received an honorary doctorate from the Estonian Academy of Music along with an extraordinary number of awards, including the Estonian Music Prize, the Estonian Culture Prize, the Order of the White Star-2nd class and the Annual Prizes of both the Estonian Music Council and the Endowment for Music of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia. He was also titled Citizen of the Year in 2009 and awarded the Culture Prize of the Republic of Estobia in 2014 for his Clarinet Concerto Peregrinus ecstaticus and De Profundis for orchestra. The former work also received “The Young Musicians Favourite Choice” prize in 2015 from the Foundation of Prince Pierre of Monaco. That same year, Tüür also received the Christoph und Stephan Kaske Stiftung’s prize in Munich.
A documentary, 7 Etudes in Pictures, was made about Tüür in 2010 in collaboration with Exitfilm and Estonian Television. In addition to a number of nominations for a Gramophone Award, Tüür has also had one of his works, Requiem, recommended by UNESCO at the Rostrum of Composers in Paris in 1995.