Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Sep 23, 2009 on her blog MusicInCincinnati.com
Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür returns to Cincinnati for the U.S. premiere of his Symphony No. 7, "Pietas," with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati May Festival Chorus led by CSO music director Paavo Järvi, Sept. 25-27 at Music Hall. This story, first published in The Cincinnati Post March 27, 2003, explores the background and career of the composer.
When composer Erkki-Sven Tüür was growing up in Estonia, he was like a bird in a cage. He could sing his own songs – as he did with his popular rock group In Spe ("In Hope") – but he could not fly off and enjoy the music of others.
Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union then. Travel outside the country was restricted, and Western contemporary music was not performed. The only way to hear it was through recordings sent by friends or relatives in the West, or by radio or TV from neighboring Finland.
"I couldn’t even visit my sister in Finland," said Tüür. "It was only after some years of Gorbachev’s perestroika that things started to change."
Tüür’s "Exodus" will be performed by Paavo Järvi and the Cincinnati Symphony at 8 p.m. March 28 and 29 at Music Hall. Tüür will attend the repeat March 31 in New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Järvi and Tüür were friends – and nearly musical colleagues – before Järvi emigrated from Estonia in 1980. Tüür’s first trip outside the Soviet Union was to Finland in 1988. He quickly made up for lost time. "I thought this is maybe my first and last chance (he was 29). Things may change again. I was very interested in Western music, so I spent day after day in the Finnish music information center just listening to music and looking at the scores." He also slipped across the border.
"I went illegally, of course, because I didn’t have a visa, but they didn’t control the visa on the border of Sweden and Finland. I visited Stockholm, Oslo, Copenhagen, all illegally. In every place, I visited the local music information centers, took scores, copies, cassettes."
Things changed "quite radically" after that, he said. A year later he was in the U.S. as part of a cultural exchange between Soviet and American composers. Commissions followed, and in 1995 his Requiem won first prize at the International Rostrum of Composers Competition in Paris. Today his music is performed all over the world. In December, famed percussionist Evelyn Glennie premiered his "Magma" (Symphony No. 4) with the Royal Flanders Philharmonic in Antwerp and Rotterdam.
Tüür came to Cincinnati in November, 2001 for the U.S. premiere of his Violin Concerto performed by violinist Isabelle van Keulen with Järvi and the CSO. (He also treated a few post-concert revelers, including Järvi, to a bit of his In Spe vocalizing at The Blue Wisp Club downtown.) Järvi will introduce his "Searching for Roots" to CSO audiences in October.
Tüür’s works utilize a broad spectrum of compositional techniques. He has assembled what he calls a "metalanguage" of 20th-century devices to try to reconcile the disparate trends in contemporary music.
"The first time I was in a real new music festival I was so surprised at the complexity of Central European modernism. I asked myself why do they avoid the repetitive, minimalist aspects? Why are they afraid of a simple triad? I was asking the same things when I listened to (American minimalist) Philip Glass, where some other qualities were lacking for me. I decided, OK, it should be possible to combine both camps into one piece - not to do it mish mash, but to structurally combine them so that the logic can be perceived."
Structure is key to his compositional method, which he calls "architectonics."
"Before I start writing musical elements – rhythmic patterns, intervallic rows, scales, melodic patterns – I have a kind of abstract visual image or architectural processes in mind. Afterwards, I try to build them with purely musical elements." Rather than mere juxtaposition, Tüür aims for "continuous transformation" from one to another.
Tüür, 43, has a perfect spot to evolve his ideas. He has a summer home on Hiiumaa, an idyllic island in the Baltic Sea just off the coast of Estonia. He takes walks in the forest and on the seashore, listening to his inner voice. "I can spend days there without meeting anybody, just thinking over and over again about my ideas for the piece I’m starting to write. Afterwards, when the work is in progress, I can go to different places, but to catch the ideas, it is very essential to be in the silent situation."
Tüür winters in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. His wife Anne (a keyboardist in In Spe) is a pianist. They have a son, 22, who studies electronic music at the Estonian Academy, and a daughter, 23, a theology student at the University of Tartu.
A native of Kärdla on Hiiumaa, Tüür grew up surrounded by classical music. His father, a Free Baptist minister, had a large record collection. "I can remember ‘conducting’ Haydn symphonies as a child and enjoying it enormously," At nine, he began to improvise on the piano. "My father very much wished me to go to the children’s music school, but I was too lazy. Unfortunately, he didn’t push me."
Realizing he was destined for music, he enrolled in 1974 at Tallinn Music School (a secondary school for music studies). It was there he met Järvi.
Tüür founded In Spe in 1979, performing as composer, keyboard player, flutist and singer. The band "rang the bell for local people," he said. "We had a lot of audience and very warm - even hot – feedback" (their 1983 LP "In Spe" was reissued on CD in 1999).
But for his family’s emigration, Järvi might have been a rock star, too. "I asked him to join the band," said Tüür. "He accepted to play xylophone and vibes. We had serious plans. The sad point is that he left before we realized it."
Like his mentor Lepo Sumera – whose Sixth Symphony Järvi performed with the CSO last fall - Tüür has a keen ear for sonority. This can be heard in "Exodus," a 17-minute, percussion-filled work dedicated to Järvi.
"It starts very powerfully, filling the lowest register of the orchestra, very dark, and step by step developing towards the highest registers. It continues with a rhythmic motus (motion) that meets barriers made by huge brass chord complexes, and then runs like waves over them towards a real explosion. It sounds like a huge rock band."
The second part is "more atmospheric, like smoke, then at the very end it just vanishes." Although it has no extra-musical meaning, "Exodus" could be read as "a story about the transformation of character. A human trying to get free from the gravitas of something, or everlastingly looking for a better world."