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Interview with Erkki-Sven Tüür 

Electronic Dialogues/6
Erkki-Sven Tüür 

We first met Erkki-Sven Tuur by way of an introduction from our friends at ECM  here in New York. That was around the time of Tuurís last Miller Theater concert (May 12, 2000) which was an evocative and full evening of the composers music entitled "Architectonics" with the Absolute ensemble directed by Kristjan Jarvi. The ensemble and Kristjan are based here in New York City. Kristjan, by the way, is also Estonian.

The concert which was itself as conceptually different as the music. The pieces segued from one to another-the changes choreographed-one configuration of the ensemble and instrumentation into another. The pieces also segued from one timbre, sensibility and shape into another, sometimes in stark contrast. This juxtaposition of musical elements is an important theme of Tuur's work and musical exploration.

Erkki-Sven Tuur was born in Kardla Estonia on the Baltic island of Hiiumaa in 1959 and is largely self-taught as a composer. He is an austere thin figure who favors a decidedly sleek and understated Eastern European black decor. He has a philosophical but yet approachable vibe about him, he welcomes dialogue and discussion.

In talking with him one immediately get the sense that he knows what his focus is, knows what he is after conceptually and has well thought out his ideas of where things are on todays musical landscape and where he fits into it.

Tuur has two recordings available on the ECM New Series: Crystallisatio with the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir conducted by Tonu Kaljuste; ECM 1590 and Flux with Radio Symphonieorcherster, Wien, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Both of us at S21 found these recordings very enjoyable and listenable and both are well recorded and presented with great liner notes.   --DHG


S/21  First tell us about growing up in Estonia on the island of Hiiumaa in the city of Kardla.

E-ST: Well, yes it was actually not a city. Itís a bit bigger village but it has the status of a city with all the government etc. but it is not like a real city actually.

S/21: You were born in 1959, before Perestroika before...

E-ST:  Yes, of course of course. It was under communist regime and it was like it was there was nothing more special to it. It was of course a bit better place to grow up because it was more around the corner and I was not forced to participate in this children's communist red movement, you know, because my parents were religious people and the teacher knew that there was a certain conflict between this ruling ideology and religious people so they were polite enough to let me out of these games.

S/21: But some of your friends growing up were involved with this.

E-ST: Yes, of course, of course. It was very very general to take part in this October child, this pioneer woman and communist youth organizations and all of these kinds of organizations. But I did not take part in any of them which was quite rare actually. [Yes], to talk about my political past.
But itís not an important issue however. More important for me was the atmosphere of my family because my father used to listen to a lot of classical music and this was the sounding reality which I was surrounded by when I was a child. And  I  think that this was the very start of my musical interests. I canít remember this but my father told me that when I was three years old that I enjoyed listening to Beethoven symphonies, to Mozart and Hayden symphonies. I was counting and conducting. I enjoyed this music!

S/21: You were exuberant about it.

E-ST: Yes

S/21: Was there much music from the west around during the 60ís and 70ís in Estonia?

E-ST: No, not really. [There was] a more concerts approach to the music starting in my case in the mid 70ís actually.

S/21: You were in a rock band around that time.

E-ST: Yes, it was linked with the Methodist Church at first in the mid 70ís. Then I grew up or something  from [the] church [band] and moved outside. I was introduced to the music of King Crimson then around Ď74 or so. I heard ďIn the Court of the Crimson KingĒ which was sort of a shock for me and after this I used to listen also to Yes and Genesis and later on to Mike Olefield and then Frank Zappa and Olfieldís ďTubular BellsĒ rang quite a bell in me and I think that...

S/21: It had a big influence on you

E-ST: Ahh yes yes. and also Arvo Partís Tabula Rasa was premiered in Tallinn [Estonia] this was another huge impact on me. So this was the atmosphere when I started, the musical atmosphere which surrounded me when I started my In spe then. [Editors note: In spe was a very popular, innovative, ground breaking rock band in Estonia founded by Tuur in 1979.]

S/21: You were composing for that band then. You were the main writer for [In spe].

E-ST: Exactly.

S/21: So all of these influences carried through also and you somehow translated them into the ensemble you were writing for [In spe].

E-ST: Right.

S/21: How many pieces were there in In spe? 

E-ST: Seven pieces mostly. I played flute, recorder and keyboards. We had another flute/recorder player. A violin, two more keyboard players, a rhythm set; bass, drums and guitar and sometimes a guest cellist.

S/21: Chamber rock.

E-ST: Yes, chamber rock as I called it. Because part of the music was composed and above it was flowing guitar improvisations sometimes. You know it was [a] half composed and half improvised texture. And this is the reason my coming into so called classical modern music, which is a weird term actually...

S/21: Yes, it is a weird term. [ed. note: modern classical; hey, it is weird but totally zen. Anyone got any ideas?]

E-ST: And this was not a jump but a very, let's say, small transition because the musical material I used for this In spe band was not very much different from the material I used when I was composing my first chamber pieces. [ed. note: Estonia radio just re-released the In spe recordings. Unfortunately we have not heard them yet.] 

S/21: You were in Estonia [in In spe] and you started to study composition.

E-ST: I started to study composition. My first lessons I took from  a teacher in my last course of music school which is like a musical college before high school where I studied flute actually and where I entered as a percussionist because I had no previous musical training. So percussion was the only musical instrument that they accepted before special training. Of course I studied how to read music and to read notes myself and I had some basis from the first level school of course, from music lessons. But anyway it was more or less self training before the musical school. And then I went to Concervetoir which is a high school in Estonia which is now The Academy of Music of Astonia and I entered as a student of composition. And one of the main works, the basis of works they accepted me [on] was symphony for seven performers which was written for the band In spe. 

S/21: So your writing for In spe carried over and got you [qualified] to start in The Academy as a composition student.

E-ST: Yes, and this was a laboratory for me, a very good laboratory because one could hear [ones] ideas as a sounding [board] the next day after composing them. The different sections of things [I was writing], it was very easy to figure out what things were worth working with and which were not. And this was a very good chance for me to test my musical ideas and to put them really to work.

S/21: So you had an ensemble at you disposal. That seems like a very critical part of becoming a composer.

E-ST: I think so because Iíve always been more interested in the sounding reality not so much in this theories because by my mind a lot of contemporary music especially from this central European heritage of new music from Boulez and the Danshandt (?) school, for a lot of them this music  for me is interesting..... to read, and to see it on the paper and to follow all the mathematics and the fine structures, but unfortunately it does not sound very interesting.

S/21: Sonically it doesnít...

E-ST: Sonically it doesnít touch me so much.

S/21: Sonically it lacks, what would you say, emotion or...

E-ST: Emotion but also imagination which is not in the case of Ligeti of course or many many others. But just only to only be involved with this tradition and poor techniques was not so much and issue that I was interest in.  It doesnít matter that I underrate intellectual process, intellectual decisions in the process of composition, but [mostly] Iím looking forward to finding a certain balance between intellectual decisions and intuitional decisions. And I think that intuition is something that has been given the last word and [intuition] makes a piece of music very special. This is something you cannot teach you cannot learn you must feel it. 

S/21: So you think that in a certain sense in certain schools itís sort of backwards. There is to much stress on theory. You are looking for more of a balance.

S-VT: Iím interested in both of these things because to create a certain texture,  letís say that I know that here I need a really huge, in a particular part [of the piece] I need an always changing sound massiveí with constantly shifting colours with a constantly shifting, changing chorus. One has to know a lot about cluster technique, or sound space techniques like lets say Ligeti has used in his atmospheres. Like you may know something about chaos theory [etc.] this is all necessary, itís all necessary but you can create your own world of sounds by using all these different techniques and experiences [that] the music of the 20th. century has given us and not to avoid this and that and not to deal with Taboos anymore but with ones own creative imagination and the ability to smith them together. To deal with tonality and atonality,  and with very complex rhythmic movements with more simple movements with beat can be really perceived. You know this is something which really interests me; combining different polarities and moving between these polarities. Moving the sound field from a single sustained note, to the contrary, moving from meditativeness towards very aggressive rhythmics. So this is something which is really touching me at this time and of course these later pieces which you can hear on the Flux cd are talking more about this and especially pieces which are yet not recorded but I hope they will be especially my violin concerto and an orchestral piece called Exodus which was premiered last autumn, they both were premiered last autumn. The Violin concerto in Frankfurt by the Frankfurt Twentieth Century Orchestra and Exodus by The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Paul Jarvi. 

Part Two

Editors Note:
Tuur often will purposely betray the listeners expectations but in ways that are very logical and--upon reflection--even intuitive. He will pick up a certain motif and then de-form itn more and more until itís absolutely in another world. These kinds of transitions are the things that interest him the most right now; juxtaposing disparate musical elements and making that pairing and transition seem logical and even natural. Back in the early 80ís Tuur was also influenced by the American minimalists, especially John Adams and  his piece Shaker Loops.

S/21: In talking about,Ēnew music," coming up with terminology is always difficult, but where do you think you and other composers are in regards to staying true to yourself while at the same time trying to cultivate audiences and trying to make this music more accessible on a broader scale?

E-ST: I think there are no models because each composer is working mostly with his or hers closest performers. Some composers are very sure about this. [They think] the only way is to make a new band or group that is especially dedicated to a certain kind of music and you perform in venues which are typical for classical music. This is something that might be very effective; groups like the Bang On A Can All Stars here in New York and Ensemble Modern--these sort of groups. They are dealing with the sounds, instrumentation and aesthetics of popular and also classical music. This is very fascinating. But, at the moment, I am personally much more interested in working with orchestras. And I have experienced the people who were coming to listen, to hear a classical concert they are positively surprised and very much exited about finding a new name, a new voice and a music that can speak directly to them and I think this is another way to programming the classical concerts--accessible music that also has a message on the emotional level. Itís one thing that is very important to do. I think that there are many, many different ways to bring people closer to the music which composers are writing [in the present day]. I also have a very good cooperation with Tonu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallin Chamber Orchestra and they have toured with my music. Of course, their main course is Arvo Part but the have also taken my music on and they have their own audience and following. So there are many ways but the most important thing is really good collaboration between the composer and the conductor. This is very important. If there is a good understanding and a movement in the same wavelengths then what comes after might be surprisingly positive.

S/21: What is your method for composing, if you have a method? When you sit down to write a piece what are some of the things you do? How does it start? 

E-ST:  It happens very often that I imagine music visually like sort of abstract architectural sculpture or something. I can see the form the shape of the musical whole.  And this helps me to put the thing together [the different elements]. But even more I have to say that this vision can change during the [process of the] composition. Iím not married to it so that I canít change it because the music itself leads to another decision sometimes and if it does not fit with my system I trust my intuition.

S/21: Again weíre back to the intuitive aspect.

E-ST:  Right

S/21: So the idea of Architictonics, youíve said, was just a nice sounding word, your [made up] word, and I like the word too. Itís also the thing about looking at something architecturally. Starting with some view, some perspective.

E-ST: Some view yes, some perspective, some sort of different axis different blocks, materials, something that you can see through, something more opaque, textures. So this is sometimes even more clear visually for me and then I might try to find the sounding world which fits with my images. I can describe it as itís cold, itís warm, itís more melodic itís like this. And then on the other hand when you are really with your notes of course then it depends on this material. Then itís looking for harmonies and looking for melodic motive and rhythmic aspects and altogether itís very hard to separate. This is a unit; a united thing and I really canít tell you how it goes and sometimes very strange things might [happen]. And I say; ďnow Iíve got it. Now Iíve got the idea. In most cases it is not the same. It varies.

S/21: Do you work ideas out, write with the piano?

E-ST: On some parts, I just write by my inner ear. I write and hear it on the paper. And I also use the computer. I test many types of textures and then shifts by typing it in and letting the computer play it back. Thatís another important tool for me.

S/21: Yes, the computer is becoming a more widely used instrument for composition.

E-ST: It helps me so much to control the music. I am a very bad piano player, I must tell you, but I enjoy the possibility to hear my stuff during the compositional process. I can make decisions for timing. Of course I can I can hear it by my inner ear but it takes more energy to imagine all the things. When Iím looking at the score and conducting  by myself and trying to figure out in which exact bar the climax here should take place. Should it be a bar later of two bars before? And itís a very important issue and Iím dealing a lot with this but the computer helps me just to save the energy. I can sit like this [folds his arms and sits back] and push the button and listen and be very critical, very critical. ďThis does not work manĒ And work, ah-ha. This could be quite ok. So itís like a flying simulation before the real [disaster]. You can play with the simulator. Something like this is the computer for me. 

S/21: Do you use the computer or synthesizer to experiment with different sounds?

E-ST: No, not too much. Because I think that the synthesizer can never achieve the richness of the acoustic instruments. 

S/21: But do you use it to just play around with sonically?

E-ST: Yes, thatís it. But electronical sounds have a special part of course. Iíve also worked with different samplings and mixed them in the computer. But this has to be made in a very good electronic studio. I have made [some things] in a very good studio and maybe I can go back to this after a while but at the moment Iím not so much interested in it. Iím interested much more in live electronics. And Iím interested in how to pick up the signal of this, like in Crystallisatio. Like the flutes. Partly amplified and put into a processor which I transposed the pitch and added digital delay and so it just expands the material which is anyway like sort of a sound cloud but I give them an extra but I give them an extra expansion by using these devices.

S/21: Which I found to be unobtrusive. I found it to be another sonic place for my ears to go. 

E-ST: Yes, that is what I meant to do.

S/21: Thatís fascinating to me how one comes upon these concepts and explorations.

E-ST: It is interesting and I try them out myself also. I like to verbalize these ideas of composing. Itís just not very easy to do [sometimes]

S/21: Is Flux (on ECM New series) the most recent thing that you have had recorded.

E-ST: Yes.

Editors note: There is an up-coming cd to be released with Tuurís works done by Kristjan Jarvi and the Absolute Ensemble due out early next year. Keep your ears open. Again Tuurís two ECM discs are excellent.