We talk with the living Estonian legend Erkki-Sven Tüür about his recent Ondine release while he composes in his studio, close to his country house on the picturesque island of Hiiumaa - a fact that surely seeps inexplicably into his spectacularly rich music.
A curious question to start: how did your band In Spe come about?
(Silence). Long silence. (hahaha!). Well it all happened so many years ago. It was an evolutionary and important step of my band business because already before that I formed a band with some of the same members who continued with In Spe. So it was not from a 0-point. I was active in rock music-making before this. But it just happened that with this group we achieved something very remarkable on the Estonian music scene. Have you by chance listened to any of it?
Yes I did. It reminds me a bit of ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer'...
Yah, something like this. And maybe some connections with Oldfield and maybe with King Crimson. But our music was very polyphonic. The texture in the music we played was mostly notated with some free improvisations flying above these notated structures. During these three years with In Spe it was a main laboratory for me, as a beginning composer, to test my ideas. The situation was very flexible in the sense that I would have a new idea in the morning and then sketched the material on to paper, and then already a couple of hours after, I had a chance to test how it worked would with the real instruments. So it was the most fluent and organic way to test my ideas and the compositional concepts - having a chance to hear them live with real instruments. I think this was very important. Because when I left the band, I have to say, my music didn't change that dramatically - just the scoring changed. The ideas moved from this music I wrote for In Spe to larger scorings. So it was never a jump from one stylistic approach to another. This was very evolutionary. [In Spe] was a the second step from an initial band that wasn't very well known. We were given many restrictions by the soviet authorities and I had to change the name. We had to play these 'tricky' games [with the government] because our texts were not acceptable for the ideological power-keepers. We constantly had problems with getting the permission to give concerts. This is something you cannot imagine because it was living under the soviet rules which was absolutely different. It was a totalitarian ruling system. At one point I felt with the initial band, which was named Ezra, that I couldn't go forward. I also wanted to get a better level in technical music terms. So I invited some new members and changed the name to In Spe. This was a common 'trick' when one band was banned- to change the name. So then the authorities of the cultural affairs would think "Oh, this is a new group" and would be put on the 'clean' list, so to speak.
When you mentioned your concepts and ideas didn't change much, I can actually hear refined and sophisticated elements in your clarinet concerto.
I had the early works from the eighties in mind while saying this, e.g. Piano Sonata, First String Quartet etc. But this is a very long journey I’ve made since then. My orchestral writing has gone through a major evolution throughout the years. All the principles I’m using now to form and shape the musical material are as though from another planet - compared to 35 years ago.
You were commissioned by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra to write the clarinet concerto, but was this a piece you had already been interested in writing or did they specifically ask for it?
They asked for a clarinet concerto. But I had inner-readiness, so to say, to write for this particular instrument for a long time. So these little details matched together. There was a wonderful clarinettist Christoffer Sundqvist, and I'm very proud of the commission from the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra because they usually only commission from their very best Finnish composer. Seldom do they commission from abroad. Especially when it comes to their closest neighbours, you see. I felt honoured that they wanted a piece by my pen. Then of course we worked closely together in many aspects with Christoffer - especially in regards to the special effects and expanded techniques of clarinet. This was a fascinating time for me. This went very smoothly without too much struggle. With some pieces I struggled much more. But this was, I wouldn't say easy, but was fluid and filled with joy during the composing process.
I can definitely hear that in the music - especially the solo writing - it sounds quite effortless and natural under the fingers.
Good! It should be like this. I hope so too. Yet it is quite demanding for the clarinettist - but it should sound organic while listening!
As a flautist, did this help when writing for the clarinet?
Not much because the clarinet application is completely different. My musical ideas are always connected with the core of the characteristics of the sound of a particular instrument. So while writing the line, I'm always hearing with my inner-ear the specific sound. With the clarinet line I was just thinking of the clarinet and it's sound characteristics. As well as its special tone-quality. And I think this is also something that might feel natural afterwards because everything that emerges comes from the sound and the sound production of a particular instrument - I'm trying to delve into this as much as possible. So it's not like I have one abstract musical idea and I'm trying to fit it with this or that instrument. In my case always the soul of the instrument is telling me what to write to this instrument.
Yes, Noēsis is a double concerto - the title is the Greek word for 'supreme knowledge'. I like to give certain titles - nicknames - to all my pieces either concertos or symphonies. Some symphonies are without them but usually I like to operate with special titles because it opens a little world of ideas behind the music. On the other hand this is never programmatic in the old or traditional way. I am not retelling you a very specific story. But this title gives the listener some hints in what directions their impressions could move while they are listening - but not necessarily. It is more my intention to open up the net of the ideas I had in mind while I was composing.
And this work preempted your clarinet concerto - did your approach vary between the two?
You could find some similarities of compositional techniques. But on the other hand the approach is absolutely different because we had two personas in sound which at the beginning are going their separate ways but then they slowly become interested in each other. Their paths are getting closer until at a certain point they become as one - a sort of love story. The clarinet concerto is a journey of a very solemn person. And from that perspective it's totally different.
Did you also consult with the soloists on your double concerto?
The first performance took place 12 years ago in Detroit with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with Isabelle van Keulen on violin and Michael Collins on clarinet. I didn't make much of a connection during this compositional process with the soloists. So it was also from that point of view that it was a different period of composing because I offered them material which was ready and they were happy with it; they studied it then played it. And later on it was also performed by sister and brother Carolin Widmann (violin) and Jörg Widmann (clarinet) recorded on another ECM disk. The next time [the work was performed] was very interesting for me because Pekka Kuusisto [violin] and Christoffer Sundqvist [clarinet] just took this [piece] and I told them "you now make your own version. I'm not going to disturb you. And to tell you what is wrong or what is right or how I listen to it". I definitely wanted a second recording as somewhat different, because otherwise there's really no reason to do a second recording of the same piece. And so they had the initiative and they took the courage to realise their vision and I'm very happy with it. This is the art of interpretation and I'm really very happy to have two different versions of one substantial piece like Noēsis. I have a lot of different recordings and interpretations in terms of chamber music - my piano sonata of which I think there are 6 different recordings for instance. But When it goes to the orchestral music, it's a bit of a different thing because it's not so easy to get recorded by, as you know, the serious orchestral works.
The interpretations are different but is there one you prefer over the other?
No. I love them both. They are different. Here [on this recording] the sharpness and the very specific kind of intensity is outstanding.
This intensity - a certain energy - that you talk about - you also look for this in the music itself, right?
Yes, I think if there is something [there], then this certain energy is maybe connected with my passion towards this old progressive rock - examples of ELP and King Crimson - on an abstract level. Perhaps you can hear or see a connection with my progressive rock past in the way I use the percussion section in the orchestra, and how I create certain tensions. This reveals itself on a very abstractly and the inner-energy is maybe the key word which could describe this connection in the best sense.
Would you describe that as a relationship occurring within the material itself?
You mean how the material is developing inside the piece? (Yes). What I'm really interested in is organic development. It may sound contradictory because I talk a lot about the numbers and intervals and this vectorial way of building up curves - and it is important - yet at the same time, these intuitive steps are equally very important. And so, at every second I must have the ability to identify the pre-imagined structure if the inner-feeling demands something different. Then I have to give up what I have previously made in the formal shape or scheme, because very often I imagine the whole musical shape as an abstract form of art - like a graph or even like an abstract painting. And this gives me the catalyst I need to start the work - an imagination of the whole - [to be aware of] 100s and 1000s of parameters and aspects. At some point I find myself deep in the material dealing with real notes, and it's here where I may feel the inner-necessity to give up the previous concept - knowing that everything is going to change right from the whole concept. And I must be able to do it. To not hold on mechanically to what I had before. Because somehow the material is evolving to something else which is more natural. You have to trust this instinct then and not all these drawings and calculations. And then again I see the whole but in a different light and mood. So it's always two-sided. You must very acutely know what you are doing and you must be aware of these harmonic progresses etc, but you can't be too schematic. At a certain point you have to trust your intuition. If it tells you "this is not right. You have to do something different here" then you have to do it. So I'm always taking care of the organic natural development.
I would describe it this way: if you put a seed in the soil, you don't know what kind of shape it will finally take. It always surprises you and yet it's always so natural. If you look backwards, then you have this feeling that it's the only way it could exist. There's no other way. This is something I want to also achieve with my compositions when I listen to them. You don't know where it finally ends up. But after you've listened to it, you decide this is the only way.
Le poids des vies non vécues or 'The weight of un-lived lives'. Could you explain the meaning of the title?
This was commissioned by the Orchestre National de Belgique because they wanted to commemorate the First World War. This title indicates something which I consider very important because if mankind doesn't feel the weight of these un-lived lives, they are going to make the same mistakes over and over and again and again. On my side, this was the exact state of mind I wanted to express. [...] I dedicated the work to all the young people who lost their lives in this senseless killing orgy. Never made their own families, never had children, etc. So if you feel the senselessness of this kind of madness and the weight or the burden of these un-lived lives, I think this will give more responsibility to avoid these kinds of escalations - but here speaks the idealist! I know in reality it is different. However, we as artists, we are not in our ivory towers. I have a responsibility to bring these political and social themes through my music. I wanted the contour to be one breath - it goes from the dark low registers and gets more intense, makes an arch, and then slowly dies away. This is just one very clear statement against the senseless violence called war - which is considered to be almost legal political act. And that is why it became this shortish requiem.
Estonia turns 100 next year - do you have any plans for that?
Actually I was commissioned to write a large scale work. Again I picked up something very abstract. It will be premiered on 18 January 2018 in Brussels. It was commissioned by the State of Estonia and will be performed at this time because Estonia will assume temporary leadership of the EU council. The Estonian Festival Orchestra with Paavo Järvi will perform it and it'll be my 9th Symphony nicknamed Mythos. It's associated with these myths that arise about nations and how they achieved their independence. So it's not just a celebratory work, but much deeper. It deals with the long long history of Fenno-Ugric tribes and our Nordic/Baltic nature. Indeed it is a piece of celebration also. And this will be the first European tour for the Estonian Festival Orchestra and I'm very happy that this world premiere is part of their tour.
You'll be here in Amsterdam at the end of the year for a world premiere with the Concertgebouw Orkest. Can you tell us a little about that?
Yes. It came absolutely out of the blue! The piccolo player of the orchestra, Vincent Cortvrint, approached the board of the orchestra with the idea of a solo piccolo work and they gave him a list of composers and (as he told me) I was his first choice. I'm going to write a piece which is on the one hand a tour de force for orchestra, then the piccolo acts as a trigger to call up the different movements in the orchestra. So again it's not a concerto in the traditional way, but again a musica concertante; the piccolo has a specific leading role but it's always interacting with the orchestra. The title, Solastalgia, is actually an neologism that describes a form of psychic or existential distress which is caused by environmental change - such as mining or climate change - which is the very theme [of my piece]. It's invented by an Australian philosopher, Glenn Albrecht. Even here on the Island I can see the environment changing but this is really a global issue. So the music maybe tells you a story of this sort of change yet at the same time also expresses the very feeling of what these processes are calling up - that is the meaning of the word/title: the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root -algia (pain).
Erkki-Sven Tuur in conversation with primephonic's Anthony Dunstan