East meets West

  • 2015-12-02
  • By Michael Mustillo

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Peeter Vahi has been described as one of the most original contemporary composers to have emerged from Estonia. His musical language combines elements of east and west, avant-garde and archaic, acoustic and electronic — all without falling into some sort of eclectic abracadabra.

Before embarking upon a career as a classical music composer, Vahi played a prominent role in the Estonian pop-rock scene: from 1978 to 1989 he was a member of the popular band Vitamiin. But In 1990 he turned his back on pop and rock music.

“Certainly, though unwillingly, I have taken something of that rock experience and brought it into my classical music works,” Vahi told The Baltic Times.

“During those 11 years as a band,” he says. “Vitamiin gave 3,000 concerts. Concert tours allowed me to gain invaluable stage experience, taught me to read huge audiences comprising of over tens of thousands of people, and gave me experience with electronic instruments, and studio work — all which is hard to obtain even at the best ‘rock-conservatoire.’”

Vahi has a variety of cultural roles within the Baltic countries. Vahi points out that we could talk about them not only in the capacity of composer, but also as an artistic director of festivals, as well as a record producer.

The Glasperlenspiel and Orient festivals which he runs have been co-producers of concerts not only in Estonia, but also in Latvia and Lithuania.                       

Vahi organised the performances of the exhilarating China National Peking Opera in the three Baltic states. His Glasperlenspiel Festival regularly hosts ensembles from the Baltic states. This year the festival hosted the Youth Choir Kamer from Latvia, and the Klaipeda Chamber Orchestra from Lithuania.

A practising Buddhist,  Vahi has been closely involved with non-European countries and nations for many years.

“During  recent years I have been on three extensive expeditions, each with a duration of three to five months, that have enriched our archives with massive audio and video material as well as photos and  notes that have helped us create TV documentaries, radio programmes, a book, lectures at the Academy of Music,” said Vahi.
These expeditions were the Silk Road Tour 2007, Arctica-Antarctica 2010 (a journey through Antarctica and both the Americas), and the African Round 2012–2013.

This all fuelled a desire in Vahi to organise an Eastern music festival in Estonia.

“It was virtually impossible during the period of the Soviet occupation,” he says, “however, right after the collapse of the Soviet empire we started preparations and the first Orient Festival took place in the spring of 1992. During its first years the main venue was only in Estonia but later many concerts have taken place in Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden and Russia.”

Vahi’s recent visit to Asia was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra, an orchestra he has close association with, and where The Baltic Times caught up with him.

“The Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra has associations with a number of contemporary composers. It’s our greatest pleasure to be able to promote and perform the music of Peter Vahi in Asia,” said Bing Ching Yu, the Executive Director of the orchestra.

The Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra  performed Vahi’s work “Prayer-wheel” during their 2012 tour of Taiwan, and two years later during their European concerts.
“The work had previously been performed by several orchestras in Sweden, England, Latvia and Germany, but I regretfully have to say that I was not pleased with the outcome when it was performed in these countries,” said Vahi.

“It is quite possible that the Buddhist background and the melodics that partly deviated from the traditional Western tempered scale made the music incomprehensible for European orchestras. I had already decided to destroy the score as unfit for further performances, but then I heard the Taipei Philharmonic Orchestra perform it, and it sounded exactly the way I had imagined it. Most probably, in order to fully feel the Buddhist background of the music, one has to have a closer contact with the religion itself,” Vahi believes.

While in Taipei, Vahi presented a loaf of bread baked by the First Lady of Estonia to Yu, and well as the score of his work “Reminiscences of Youth for Flute, Cello and Orchestra.”
At present, neither Estonia, Latvia nor Lithuania have diplomatic representation in Taiwan. At present, the Taipei Mission in Riga mostly fulfils the functions of an embassy.The Baltic Times asked Vahi for his opinion about this, and whether he feels that economic and cultural links with the Baltic countries could be enriched by representation in Taiwan.

“Understandably, as a representative of the cultural sphere, I would be happy to see much closer contacts between Taiwan and the Baltic countries. It is not really that difficult to guess what has hindered a closer relationship thus far,” said Vahi.

As a composer, Vahi has tried to stay neutral, focussing on performance to all prepared to listen.

“Our festivals host mainland Chinese and Taiwanese; Jews and Arabs; Turks and Kurds; Armenians and Azerbaijanis; as well as Christians and Muslims, performing side by side. Through music and culture we to aim to minimise the politically provoked tensions between different countries, ethnicities, and religions.”

Contemporary music must have an important place in the cultural scene, Vahi believes. Vahi has a close relationship to contemporary music; specifically, to the kind of music that is not “only contemporary” but also of eternity and of the future.

“It is not easy to explain and at times it is hard to distinguish that music from the general stream… you see, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were once also ‘contemporary,’ however, their music survives centuries and trends. At the same time the internet, record shops, libraries, etc. are full of music that is ‘very contemporary,’ but the vitality of which will run out within a couple of decades,” said Vahi.