Tuur, Estonia's modern Bach

  • 2006-05-10
  • By Paul Morton

ELECTRIC GUITAR AND VIOLINS: Erkki-Sven Tuur began as Estonia's favorite rock and roller. Now he's a beloved classical composer.

TALLINN - Erkki-Sven Tuur is Estonia's second most famous composer. At 46, he's a good deal younger than the country's most famous composer, Arvo Part, the father of "holy minimalism." Born in 1935, Part's influences are centered on Russian classical and Orthodox church music. Tuur has written spiritual pieces as well, but he is very much a product of his generation, which apparently had a little more freedom to enjoy a thousand influences thanks to its late placement in musical history.

In his house in Hiiumaa Island, he absorbed his father's record collection of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. Then there was the church. "It's very weird, but my parents were very sincerely religious people. Almost every Estonian had some relatives in the West, so some American gospel choirs and bands [Mahalia Jackson, The Imperials] reached our house." Later as teenage student in Tallinn, he was introduced by some older friends to the best progressive rock, like King Crimson, Yes and Genesis.

A professor in Tallinn with good contacts in the West played Central European and Scandinavian modernists like Boulez and Xenakis in class. From other sources, Tuur listened to Philip Glass and Steve Reich. "We couldn't analyze the scores of modern music, there was nothing really new in the music library. So there was a feeling of isolation. Still, we had better chances than the rest of the Soviet Union, so the situation wasn't so dark." He started composing music in the late '70s. In 1979, he and a few friends formed In Spe, a tremendously popular rock band in 1980s Estonia. He was always bringing in a range or instruments, sometimes the cello, sometimes the violin. Once he used brass instruments. When, by the middle of the decade, he decided he wanted to compose classical music, the transformation, such as it was, had occurred "absolutely naturally."

Though he mentions the most obvious influences here 's Gregorian chant, Bach ("the king of music") and Mahler 's he has his own style, in which tonal and atonal rhythms play against each other quite smoothly. One can only take so much. "I don't like to listen to music as background," Tuur says. "I like to concentrate on what I'm listening to or I prefer silence because my own music is playing in my head." He does listen to music in his car when he drives from Hiiumaa Island, where he lives, to Tallinn, where he keeps an apartment: jazz, rock, Brian Eno, and King Crimson, along with all the usual classical greats and modernists.

Classical stardom
Tuur sat down to talk on a Saturday in Tallinn a few weeks ago, during one of his excursions onto the mainland. He's a tall, thin handsome man, with mildly unruly hair. Though he sat for the entire interview, he was very physical, swaying from side to side when he was trying to illustrate a difficult point. He was dressed head-to-toe, in black, as much hipster rock and roller as classical composer. There's nothing novel anymore, if there ever was, about classical composers and musicians playing across genres. Too often, the exercises sound like failed experiments, the work of unimaginative provocateurs. "I like to build up synthesis between these separate 'musical islands,'" he says. "When you combine rock and orchestra, the result, too often, is empty crossover and very cheap. I'm interested in synthesizing the very essence of these things." When Tuur, for example, sets the soft lingering notes of a piano against the falling strings of an electric guitar in "Architectonics V" (1991), he is creating a perfectly natural call-and-response. His Symphony No. 5, which premiered in Stuttgart last year, included an orchestra, a jazz big band, and an electric guitar, whose part was completely improvised.

"I'm interested in the interaction between polarities…I like to have extremely smooth changes, from one polarity to another."Though critics have suggested that his work creates a fantasy world through music 's one critic said his "Desert Island" (1989) was reminiscent of the phantasmagoria of Arnold Bocklin's paintings - he cites less ephemeral influences. "I am a great fan of contemporary architecture... Sometimes, I draw shapes on paper before I shape my music. These images help me capture the musical form. There's a very tight connection between the visual and the sonic imagination." Does one building influence one specific piece of music?

"No, it's not so literal." Looking at architecture helps him meld together a musical composition from many different materials. "In architecture, houses are made of wood and concrete, steel and glass. In musical composition, one source for the material could be totally atonal, and another source can be tonal and simple. I try to build a coherent musical work from these elements." Going back to "Architectonics V," again just to take an example, you can almost hear some undefined structure taking shape. That piano and that electric guitar are building something together. Whether or not it is something you can live in is another question, but it still must be something nice to look at.

On the program
Tuur's two children 's a rock guitarist son and a daughter who studied theology and now works as a translator - are grown up. His daughter recently had a son, and he and his wife, a pianist who he met back in his In Spe days, are now enjoying life as young grandparents. "This is a very interesting time for me." He has a schedule of commissions that will keep him busy for the next three years. Tuur is currently in the middle of a piano concerto for the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher and the Frankfurt Radio Orchestra. One small part of it "will have a jazzier approach. It sounds like it was improvised."

Tuur, like everyone else, hated the Soviet system, and though his life as a rock musician in In Spe in the '80s "had the smell of rebellion in it," he was never much of a political activist. He was always doing his work more or less unaffected by great events. At one point he set rock music, which was permitted, to liturgical texts, which were forbidden. Somehow it passed the censors. "[The Soviet cultural authorities] were so stupid, they figured that if it wasn't set to classical music, it couldn't be religious." He wasn't trying to make a political point when he wrote that piece. Then as now, "it was always art for art's sake for me."

Now he is composing in the shadow of the McDonald's capitalization of Estonian music culture, in which you can hear Britney and all the worst American music in every cafe and restaurant.
"What can you do? You have to find a right way to act against these kinds of cultural movements. All you can do is write something yourself. I just keep writing music, keep adding little bricks to my culture."