by Mary Ellyn Hutton
May 4, 2011
April was a composition month for Erkki-Sven Tüür.
And no wonder, since he lives on Hiiumaa, an island off the coast of Estonia.
Here is how he described it in an interview last month:
"I have a home on an island in the Baltic Sea and this is where I am at this moment, sitting in my studio. It’s lovely, just in the middle of the woods. It’s very quiet, but there are a lot of birds at this time. It is springtime and so much bird song. The cranes are singing like trumpets, very specific and very beautiful, noisy sound, which is full of desire. And the first flowers, small blue flowers are going to bloom. It is only ten minutes to walk through the forest to the seashore, so whenever there is a little bit of wind, I can hear the sea.”
In this idyllic setting, Tüür was working on a commission for the Australian Chamber Orchestra to take on tour in August.
Next week, he will be in Cincinnati to hear the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra perform two of his works: a tenth-anniversary fanfare for CSO music director Paavo Järvi (entitled "Fireflower") and the North American premiere of his 2006 Piano Concerto performed by pianist Awadagin Pratt. Concerts are 8 p.m. May 13 and 14 at Music Hall. It is the final concert of Järvi’s decade-long tenure as CSO music director and nothing could be more fitting than to feature the music of his countryman and childhood friend.
Tüür and Järvi met in their teens when both attended Tallinn Music School. “We had one conducting teacher. I remember one lesson we were together and he was watching me conducting and vice versa, which is now very funny to remember.”
Tüür was studying flute and percussion and had his own rock band, In Spe (“In Hope”). And therein lies a tale untold. Paavo’s father Neeme had been condemned by the Soviet authorities for performing music not approved by them in advance. He faced blacklisting or worse and decided to seek artistic freedom in the West. “I invited Paavo to play mallets in my band and he very happily accepted," said Tüür. "But we couldn’t make any concerts because they (the Järvi family) emigrated.” It was 1980. Paavo was 17, Tüür 21.
Tüür became famous as the leader of In Spe, for which he wrote, sang and played flute and keyboard from 1979-84 (their self-titled first album is a collector’s item). His experience there led him to pursue composition at the Tallinn Academy of Music (1980-84).
People often ask him how his career in rock music affected his composing. “It may sound strange,” he said, “but there’s not such a great difference. One could see my music as very complex, yet very powerful, progressive rock music for full orchestra. It is like this because my use of percussion and the free flow, the energetic flow of the music, often remains at or touches the same level which is touched by a really adventurous progressive rock band.
“I am not talking about mainstream entertainment, pop music, not at all. These things should not be mixed. It’s very misleading if people are thinking, ah, he was a pop musician and he is dealing with classical music. The leading figures I was attracted by (King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Mike Oldfield, Frank Zappa, Yes and Genesis) were very serious musicians with huge ambitions. If you look at my transition from one to the other, it was not a jump from one world to another, but a certain evolutionary movement.”
Tüür’s music has continued to evolve. During his studies and afterward, he absorbed a multitude of styles, from early music to the most intricate refinements of 20th-century atonal music. He has used them as "tools" in pursuit of his own vision, he said. And that is the point.
“I am aware of structure and specific kinds of systems inside the music, but that is not the main issue for me. I think in my recent works I am writing more freely. I trust to my intuition and ability to touch the human soul, and that is the most important thing. I don’t think that the modernists were very much interested in this issue.”
Tüür is not interested in novelty for its own sake either. “It is not my aim to create something absolutely original. I think that is quite foolish. Individuality comes with a strong voice anyway, but I want to deal with higher aims.”
Tüür, who recently joined his In Spe colleagues in celebrating the 30th anniversary of their first concert with retrospective concerts in Estonia, has evolved a structural method which he calls “vectorial composition.” By using a “source code” -- basically certain voice leadings or directions in the music, defined by intervals -- he creates a unified work. The code acts like a “gene,” which as it mutates and grows “connects the dots” in the musical fabric.
For example, “sometimes I use a very ascetic melodic material, but it is always surrounded by a certain halo, which is very timbral (distinguished by color) and always changing. There is the melodic thinking, but it is always embraced by timbral spectra. I want to use both things.”
The manipulation of sound and timbre, creating “abstract dramas in sound,” is Tüür’s ultimate goal. He is a master orchestrator, having learned from sources as far removed as Mahler and electronic music. “Working with electronic instruments has taught me a lot. I know something about sound synthesis and synthesizers and digital processing and effects. I use a lot of what I have learned modeling sound. I treat the orchestra in a similar way and that’s why it sounds different.”
Tüür is something of a maximalist and draws upon all sources. “I want to embrace all the possibilities, what we have left from the modernist legacy and the rest of the 20th-century’s music and more. One reason I have been called neo-modernist is that I have not turned my back on the modernist legacy, to the techniques.”
In so doing, Tüür is very much in tune with the times, which have moved from reacting to and rejecting modernism to embracing all music. “Now we see the younger generations writing in very diverse ways. Some are following Central European modernist patterns, some the French spectral way and some the so-called minimalist way. It’s a very good situation in the sense that there is no ruling or ideology for what they are doing.”
The diversity Tüür cultivates includes traditional compositional methods as well. “It’s always interesting to find a synthesis,” he said. “I cannot understand why one should just exclude the traditional, beautiful way of making the sound and vice versa. You can move between expanded and traditional techniques and this is interesting for my ears. The only thing is that the work must be really convincing. If it doesn’t make sense, if it is only for some experimental effect’s sake, then it’s empty.”
Tüür, 51, who has won all the honors his country can bestow and then some, is something of a rarity among serious composers, a free lancer who makes his living by composing, without an academic or other post to help support his art. “It is a great privilege,” he said.
So is coming back to Cincinnati. “Fireflower” and the Piano Concerto will be the eighth and ninth of Tüür's works to be performed by the CSO under Järvi, almost all of them in their U.S. premieres.
“During Paavo’s tenure, the CSO has been my home orchestra in a very special way,” he said.The CSO led by music director Paavo Järvi performs Erkki-Sven Tüür's "Fireflower" and Piano Concerto and Mahler's Symphony No. 5 at 8 p.m. May 13 and 14 at Music Hall. Soloist in the concerto is pianist Awadagin Pratt.