Veljo Tormis (1930) is an Estonian composer, regarded as one of the greatest living choral composers and one of the most important composers of the 20th century in Estonia

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Veljo Tormis (1930) is an Estonian composer, regarded as one of the greatest living choral composers and one of the most important composers of the 20th century in Estonia. Internationally, his fame arises chiefly from his extensive body of choral music, which exceeds 500 individual choral songs, most of it a cappella. The great majority of these pieces are based on ancient traditional Estonian songs (regilaulud), either textually, melodically, or merely stylistically. His composition most often performed outside Estonia, Curse Upon Iron (Raua needmine) (1972), invokes ancient shamanistic traditions to construct an allegory about the evils of war. Some of his works were banned by the Soviet government, but because folk music was fundamental to his style most of his compositions were accepted by the censors. More recently, Tormis`s works have been lionized in worldwide performances and in many recordings, particularly those by Tõnu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. In the 1990s, Tormis also began to receive commissions from some of the pre-eminent a cappella groups in the West such as the King`s Singers and the Hilliard Ensemble. Tormis has famously said of his settings of traditional melodies and verse: "It is not I who makes use of folk music, it is folk music that makes use of me." His work demonstrates his conviction that traditional Estonian and other Balto-Finnic music represents a treasure which must be guarded and nourished, and that culture may be kept alive through the medium of song.

Erkki-Sven Tüür (1959) is an Estonian composer gaining progressively more international recognition. He started his musical activity in the second half of the seventies as leader of a progressive rock band, influenced by the music of King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Mike Oldfield, Frank Zappa, Yes and Genesis. In the second half of the eighties he entered Estonian music life as a professional composer. Instrumental music makes up the main body of Tüür`s work. He is the author of eight symphonies, several instrumental concertos, a lot of chamber music and an opera. In his work Tüür uses a broad spectrum of compositional techniques. He has been interested in Gregorian chant and minimalism, linear polyphony and microtonality, twelve-tone music and sound-field technique. To describe his attempt to contrast and combine musical opposites - tonality versus atonality, regular repetitive rhythms versus irregular complex rhythms, tranquil meditativeness versus explosive theatrically - the composer has used the term "metalanguage". His newest compositions, however, base on a completely original vectorial method of composition, i.e. on a certain code that is further "translated" into music by giving pitch sequences a particular direction.


Riho Grünthal (University of Helsinki)

Vanishing voices, living sounds: the Finnic language area as a musical landscape

In the modern global world the local roots are easily lost in the networks spreading around the world based on free mobility and effective technical applications. Nevertheless, every natural language has its roots at a local level and in its cultural, ecological and economical context. Even the music, the most global language, often emerges from a local level, its cultural and linguistic background. This is one of the most typical starting points in Veljo Tormis’ works.

The Finnic languages, a northwestern branch of genetically closely related and geographically adjacent Finno-Ugric languages play a central role in the music composed for choirs by Tormis. Oral tradition and folk music used to be the platform that combined language with rhythm and tunes into a performance. In the most concrete case the structure of language corresponds to the needs of a rigorous musical rhythm, an old characteristic of this particular language group and characteristic that is succesfully exploited in Tormis’ music.

Common lexicon and shared grammatical basis illustrate the similarity between the Finnic languages. In certain cases a common historical background facilitates mutual understanding between individual variants of Finnic languages. However, beneath the surface, there are considerable typological differences between Finnic varieties, such as Standard Estonian, the more conservative Ingrian, and Livonian that has many innovations and has been strongly influenced by language contact with Latvian.

The geographical area wherein the Finnic languages used to be spoken faced many political turmoils in the 20th century. Numerous language communities have seized to exist. The diversity of documented languages and vitality of the music are an invaluable window to this world.

Jaan Ross (Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre)

Veljo Tormis and Minimalism: on Reception of his New Musical Idiom in 1960s

The aim of this paper is to examine the reception of Veljo Tormis’s style of composition among the Estonian composers and musicologists in the 1960s. Tormis’s style is often characterised as based on folk music. In the history of Estonian professional music this feature, however, is by no means unique. For over more than a century Estonian composers have found several ways to interpret traditional melodies in their music. In a paradoxical manner, the Soviet official doctrine of ‘socialist realism’ which our music culture was subjected to since Estonia’s annexation by the Soviet Union after World War II, also supported the incorporation of traditional music in professional compositions. In fact, composers in Soviet Estonia were caught in their professional work between two different ideological currents. One of these exhorted them to develop the national origins of their composition style as a requirement of ensuring cultural continuity and the other subjected their work to the doctrine of socialist realism — courtesy of the Soviet occupation regime. Both ideologies actually encouraged the use of traditional music as a source of inspiration and sound material for professional composers. According to a common view, Tormis’s unique style manifested itself for the first time in the massive choral cycle Eesti kalendrilaulud [Estonian Calendar Songs]. In order to better understand the reactions of contemporaries to Tormis’s novel style, I went through the minutes of working meetings of the Estonian Composers’ Association (stored in the National Archives of Estonia) from 1963 to 1970. On the average, during the period between 1963 and 1970, Tormis presented a new work or two every year to be dissected at a meeting of the Composers’ Association. In general, we can say that during those eight years the assessments of his colleagues were quite friendly, and sometimes even amounted to outright eulogies. The presentation of the entire cycle of calendar songs to fellow composers took place in 1967 and can be regarded as an unconditional triumph for Tormis. It is only three years later that the minutes of the composers’ meetings reflect, for the first time, an extended and more substantive discussion of Tormis’s ‘folklorist minimalism’. On 8 September 1970, Tormis presented to his fellow composers four narrative traditionals for male voices. It will not remain unnoticed for an astute observer that the debate was sparked not by Tormis’s choral compositions, but rather by solo songs with piano accompaniment. If one compares the first song Mere kosilased [Suitors of the Sea] and the last song Suur härg [Big Ox] of the cycle to each other, one will of course take note of the extreme minimalist arrangement of the first song in which a sparse chord accompaniment is added to a repeating solo part. In the last song, the character of the accompaniment is much more elaborate, keeping in line with the more traditional composition technique. It is possible that the substantive debate on Tormis’s aesthetic choices was effectively triggered by this contrast between the two songs.
Mimi S. Daitz (City College/ City University of New York, prof. emeritus)

Texted Music that Transcends Language: A Contradiction in the Music of Veljo Tormis
The overwhelming success of Tormis’s “Raua needmine” [Curse Upon Iron], despite most non-Estonian audience members understanding almost nothing of its text, has caused me to reflect upon this phenomenon. It is particularly vexing because Tormis has repeatedly made it clear, in a variety of ways, that understanding the texts he sets to music, by both performers and audiences, is of great importance to him.

The text/music relationship is an issue about which scholars have written innumerable times. I pursue this question from the pragmatic point of view of the performer but particularly from the view point of the listener. I raise questions with respect to languages and translations and also with respect to the vocal genres of solo song and choral compositions.

Urve Lippus (Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre)

The Symbolism of Drumming in Veljo Tormis’s Music

Speaking about Tormis, the first issue to be mentioned is usually his special relationship to folk songs, particularly the ancient runo or kalevala songs, or regilaul in Estonian. Since the 1970s, when Tormis started to propagate singing old Estonian regilaul, he has spoken and written about musical mother tongue as the basis for (national) musical education. At the same time, he became more and more interested also in the songs and cultures of smaller Baltic-Finnish peoples and according to his own words, his work was aimed at saving and giving back to people their own ancient songs. In this presentation, I’ll concentrate on drum and drumming as a sign. Imagine a large frame drum, a shaman drum loaded with meanings and associations through the institution of shamanism. The drum for „Curse upon iron” (1972) was from Far East, but the way how Tormis introduced it lead back to pre-Christian times, probably with similar shamanism and drumming also in those areas. „Curse” became the most famous music by Tormis at all. However, analyzing his later music accompanied with similar drumming, we notice that it is usually associated with negative characters or anxiety. According to his own words he wanted to write dark, dangerous music with this piece. From Tormis’ music drumming „spread” in Estonia and by now it is almost impossible to explain that it was so recently imported. However, analyzing Tormis’ music I would try to demonstrate that drum and other shamanistic sounds belong to the dangerous „other” world, his „home” a safe place in the world belongs to kannel (Estonian zither).

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