Rīgas Laiks Aug 20th 2012



Tüür's Sea

Jānis Petraškevics talks to Erkki–Sven Tüür, one of the internationally best known Estonian composers

Rīgas Laiks: "Composers write notes," said Stravinsky. Would you agree? In your opinion, what does a composer do?

Erkki–Sven Tüür: Nowadays the very term music is something that I sometimes would like to question because of the very thin level of the general understanding of what music is. If you walk on the street and start to ask questions about music to very different people, mainly they think perhaps of some pop-songs, some background sound tapestry. I'm sometimes worrying that the idea of composition, of music is seen nowadays only in the key of entertainment; it's very superficial, of course. Therefore actually I'm not able to answer the question, because I don’t know anymore what is the identity of a composer – there are so many different ways to compose music! The etymology of the word composing is putting things together, and to compose something is always linked with organizing something – picking something up, leaving something behind. Is this a person without any musical education who can use a very simple software that allows him or her to put some sounds together and get the sounding result as a piece of music? It’s so different if we compare it with the process of what any other composer does when he or she works with a huge orchestral score, for instance... You cannot compare these processes!

RL: The modernist composer Helmut Lachenmann has thus written on composition: 'If the act of composing is meant to go beyond the tautological use of pre-existing expressive forms and – as a creative act – to recall that human potential which grants man the dignity of a cognizant being, able to act on the basis of this cognition, then composition is by no means a "putting together", but rather a "taking apart" and more: a confrontation with the interconnections and necessities of the musical substance. Whichever way this process is effectuated, be it rationally or intuitively, it alone can make good Schoenberg' s unsurpassable observation: the artist' s highest goal – to express himself."

Tüür: Well, for me personally composing – let’s say, an orchestral score – is like making the design of a building, similar to a cathedral or a theatre, a public space anyhow. And then I create a drama inside the space, with different characters and many forces. A lot of different actions. It’s about creating a certain living form of energy. Of course, I am also very much interested in the sound reality; at the end of the day, this is what counts. You have to know a lot about traditional instruments before you can use them – about the extended techniques, for instance; and you have to have your own approach to the organization of time, or the pitches, etc. However, I cannot reduce it to something which is only about sounds. I’m putting my life into the music – everything I am thinking, longing for, all the hesitations... I think everything somehow gets reflected in the music. Of course, sounds are very interesting; but there are so many other issues to deal with before I am finally getting to the sounds.

RL: Could you possibly explain what are the issues?

Tüür: Sometimes the piece is actually about a certain sound picture or sound sculpture, so that I can imagine without any pitches or harmonies some musical colors – some specific percussion with low woodwinds, or particular multiphonics of bass-clarinet, for instance; and what comes after, how it’s linked with the next sound-complex. This could be the trigger to build up something. On other occasions I have a larger visual abstract image that refers to musical shape, musical form – different curves, different textural levels with different intensities. This visual abstract image often inspires me to find real musical material, which is capable to create such a shape in a potential listener’s memory afterwards.

RL: Indeed, your music, especially the later works, seems explicitly visual to me – it evokes visual associations, sensations. Has the work of any visual artists inspired your music?

Tüür: From the modern era, certainly Anselm Kiefer. Very huge canvases with lot of metal and burnt wood... And Rothko. Many of them. Yet, it’s not that I am trying to depict something with music. The visual images that I mentioned previously are more like schemes of how the energy in music is moving – is it more dense, is it more transparent, is it more opaque... I always perceive music as sometimes dark, sometimes light... It’s always between different lights – like a sunray coming into a dark dusty room from a tiny hole … or a snowy field covered with ice crystals shining under the full moonlight... So drawing at first is like trying to understand what it is all about that I want to do. Afterwards, when working with real musical material, I leave these drawings behind, I don’t need them anymore – I would not follow the schemes mechanically.

The more I have developed my style nowadays, there are like two parallel actions going on during composing: one is very much intuitive and even subconscious, and the other is intellectual and controlling. It’s a permanent moving between these levels. On the one hand, it is as if we would put the seed into the soil and watch the plant growing up, but we don’t know yet what form it will take. I can see more and more clearly, the farther I am with the score, which form it actually wants to take – it’s sometimes like a revelation. So in that sense it’s actually very intuitive. On the other hand – there are quite many predetermined traces I am following in the way I am picking up the material and working with it – certain key intervals and their relations... This helps me to avoid some unnecessary eclecticism, and the work is also structurally thus more coherent, of course.

RL: Can you draw a line between musical thinking and "ordinary" thinking?

Tüür: I cannot clearly separate them; however, the abstraction of musical thinking is absolutely different, of course. If you are trying to solve a very complex mathematical exercise, the way you are thinking then also differs from "ordinary" thinking, but in a different way than when composing music. I am thinking with sounds, with colors – one leads to the other, there are links, there exists its own logic there. And sometimes you are hesitating, you are questioning your own thoughts – is it right or am I wrong; do I see it correctly or is there something else behind this and what is it actually? In musical composition the specifics of material logic are strangely mixed with intuition and subjectivity.

RL: In the beginning of 80ies you headed the rock group In Spe, which quickly became one of the most popular in Estonia. How would you characterize your musical pre-occupations at that time?

Tüür: At that time my main interests were progressive-rock (King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Yes, etc.) and early music in the widest sense. The compositions we performed then were mostly notated, the texture very polyphonic and sometimes akin to minimal music yet mixed with improvisations. Often I called for extra instruments (cello, violin, brass quintet etc.) and therefore I even invented a name for my style – chamber rock. And, actually, my first pieces for chamber ensembles at the beginning of 80ies were not much different from the ones I wrote for In Spe – in terms of harmony and intonation. I felt a need for more instruments and so my focus just shifted more and more to composing – it was a smooth evolution.

RL: Arvo Part has stressed that he has nothing in common with the American minimalism; you, on the contrary, were influenced by it in 80ies and 90ies. What caused this particular interest of yours and what caused your later detachment from it?

Tüür: In the beginning of 1980s, I had weird ideas to play between quasi-minimalistic patterns and serial, rhythmically non pulse-centered patterns, so I was trying to make musical architecture out of these very different blocks. But I lost interest about this at the end of 1990s and left this period behind. I was not happy with what I was thinking I am capable to do – I couldn’t make a kind of unified language from these different stylistic approaches. Then I found some other methods and some other ways to develop my style which I call vectorial, because there are so many aspects of directions and curves leading the voices... And it’s very important whether the movements are going up or down, or if they are rotating around an axis pitch... It sounds too scientific or theoretical, but actually it describes the general principles I am following.

RL: Does the approach also reflect your mathematical interests?

Tüür: Yes, I think so, because numbers are always present in music in terms of harmony and acoustics generally; they just are there, you cannot avoid them.

RL: Nowdays – would you place yourself in any trend of contemporary music?

Tüür: I feel some affinity with people like Magnus Lindberg, Anders Hillborg, Marc-Andre Dalbavie, James Macmillan, but I don' t know if there is any name for this trend. They are also quite different – some have more or less been touched by spectralism – like Lindberg or Dalbavie, but Macmillan hasn't.

RL: Have you?

Tüür: Not theoretically. However, I have been, of course, very much fascinated by works of Gerard Grisey and Tristan Murail, so I think I have embraced their sonic world and learned from them something intuitively. The sound as such and the slow changing of its parameters are fascinating to me.

RL: John Cage much appreciated the urban sounds he heard in his New York flat. You have chosen to settle on the tranquil island of Hiiumaa. Have the peculiarities of this location influenced your musical thinking?

Tüür: Yes, could be so. I have been so many times thinking about my new work while walking on the seashore. You find a kind of sameness there – like the Chinese Tao – it’s the same, but always changing. The sea is never the same. You see the surface – there are so many components! The waves... the wind comes suddenly and makes the cross-waves, then the light comes, makes it glittering... So the texture is always like this (shows) – there are some huge, low flows which are very slow, and some very fast actions... You can find the same things in my musical textures. When you listen to some of my recent pieces, you certainly can detect that there is a lot of wave-form development going on. You can even say that there is the fractal geometry ideology behind it: the same idea – some melodic or rhythmic motif – shows itself in ever bigger and bigger scale, so the particles are quite organically linked together. Sometimes I can detect it afterwards when analyzing what I have done – then I find that I am following this kind of spiral development again. It’s different in details, but the general shapes are somehow the same. It comes to me very naturally, and I don’t want to abandon something that comes from the very depth of my nature – not reproducing it mechanically but finding always a new way to work with it. And perhaps the flow of nature... When you see how it slowly wakes up in spring, how the wind plays with leaves on trees, or how light is changing in winter and sun slowly moves just a little bit above the horizon and you have these branches without leaves, and how this texture is changing slowly... Yes, definitely staying there in the middle of nature has affected my thinking. It’s not so much that I am painting the nature with sounds, no. It’s little details that I have described which could be perhaps structural analogs in my music. At the same time, I have to say that I like extremes. So, as much as I enjoy to be there in my studio in this lonely place, I feel that a couple of times in a year I need to visit big cities and be in the middle of urbanistic milieu.

RL: Which are your favorite big cities? Is there any you visit again and again?

Tüür: Manhattan is this kind of urban jungle I have been many times to and always looking forward to return. Of other non-European cities Sydney and Singapore. Rome fascinates me as a symbiosis of antique and contemporary metropolis. I am not original, but I also love Berlin, London, Paris. Often I wander aimlessly, discovering new “cityscapes”, just following my nose, so to say.

RL: The differences between the sound-worlds of your 5th and 6th symphony come to my mind: while the 5th with its electric guitar solos occasionally seems to carry the spirit of an urban jungle, the 6th with its perpetual evolution, whereby each sonority gives rise to another, reminds me of genuine processes of growth in nature.

Tüür: Yes, definitely; I think it’s a very good point you made. I am really interested in huge contrasts and extreme polarities. But even more I am interested in finding the seemingly missing link between them – how one substance slowly grows up and changes into something opposite.

RL: Let me ask you, do you accept the possibility for music to function as an ambient background sound rather than an object of concentrated listening?

Tüür: Often the ambient background sound irritate me. I cannot remember, in what airport exactly, but I think it was the only time I found it enjoyable – the ambient music of Brian Eno was sounding in a long tunnel between two terminals or something. But there was an aspect of moving, the time while listening this was limited by one's walk through this space. I never put something to play on the background at home. There is a rich array of natural ambient music in my studio coming from outside – wind, rain, birds and grasshoppers in the spring and summertime.

RL: What are your feelings when visiting a super-market and hearing the background music there which is obviously not chosen by yourself and which you ought to cope with?

Tüür: Usually I just try not to be annoyed. But all the jungle-bells before Christmas in every shop drives me crazy. All right, I can leave the building. But what about the sonically poisoned salespersons?

RL: And what about the cafe culture? What would be your ideal background music there if any?

Tüür: Again, I personally prefer the sound of the mixture of conversations in cafe. However, a delicate jazz or some special period music – depends on the style of the cafe or restaurant – could be very fine for the atmosphere. Yet I cannot tolerate loud mediocre pop music in a bar where I have to shout to my friend to make myself audible. Give me the loud music in the club for dancing, not anywhere else.

RL: What is beautiful music?

Tüür: It's always the same old truth that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder – you can't judge objectively. For me it's a matter of quality, of real art. For my ears, music composed by, say, Iannis Xenakis, which is full of intense dissonances, could be a very beautiful piece while some kitschy, tonal, sweet sort of piece could be really ugly. Yet another consonant piece, by Arvo Part, for instance, could be fantastic and very beautiful, but an atonal piece, which doesn' t carry any inner meaning and is full of empty pretensions – very ugly. This is a very complex issue to discuss. In most cases nowadays the very term “beauty” has been somehow understood through a cloud of distortions. Sometimes it can happen that a rare beauty reveals itself unexpectedly in the middle of ugliness...

RL: You have said that Johan Sebastian Bach and Gustav Mahler are the two most important composers for you. Why?

Tüür: I have been inspired by them perhaps not stylistically, but rather by the qualities and emotional scope in their works. In Bach we find a very strict musical structure, but the music as if reaches beyond, being capable to reach the deepest spiritual levels of mankind – and it' s very beautiful. Mahler – because of his grand abstract narratives and his will to execute his principle that symphony must embrace the world.

RL: You mentioned that in Bach the music reaches beyond its structure. I am reminded of Pierre Boulez' s point, when attempting to characterize the process of comprehending a musical structure. He said that a piece of music at first is a secret; then, after the process of analysis, everything becomes clear; finally, in the moment of performance, it becomes mystery again. Thus he implies that the temporal unfolding of music tends to transcend its 'atemporal', paradigmatic structure that we can detect in a score. To what extent can a musical work be comprehended?

Tüür: I like that quote. I think that some mystery should always remain: it is one very specific value which is typical – that' s my personal view, of course – for the whole musical art-form. Maybe the main goal for me about this comprehension thing is – my scores, as they are sounding, should touch the creative side of the listener. Like a trigger. Besides, music should also ask existential questions. So it' s not a matter of entertainment for me; it' s a matter of existence.

RL: One philosopher has said that every philosopher carries some trauma from his past. Could you relate this to composers as well, including yourself?

Tüür: In the post-war modernist paradigm it has been very typical for composers to manifest themselves through negation – they turned their back to everything that was before, very much indicating to some sort of trauma, of course... Well, maybe in my case the wound – what hurts – is the superficiality, against which I am reacting. The fragmentation and copy-paste culture. I often create extended narratives that call for concentration and a different kind of attitude.