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October 11, 2005

Singing tradition in touch with its masculine side

The Scotsman (Scotland):

Veljo Tormis is 75 years old and one of Estonia's most celebrated living composers. He lives several floors up in a modest apartment block near the centre of Tallinn. From the outside, its stark, impersonal architecture reeks of Stalinist utilitarianism. Tormis took up residence 40 years ago when Estonia was under Soviet control. He had little choice. "These were hard times, and these were state-funded apartments assigned especially to musicians," he explains.

His original neighbours in this cultural ghetto included Estonia's other celebrated septuagenarian composer Arvo Pärt, a jazz composer living upstairs, and even the young Neeme Järvi, who, wooed by the West, was later to become a conducting phenomenon in Scotland and then America. In his tiny study, jam-packed with books and scores and with barely room for a piano, Tormis wrote, like most composers working under the Soviet system, extensively for theatre and film. He did well enough to afford his own car - "the inevitable Trabant" he chuckles.

Surprisingly, when he extended his composition studies at the Moscow Conservatory in the 1950s - in the same class as Schnittke - he managed to secure himself enough freedom to experiment with his own compositional style (although in the 1970s he recalls being told he was writing too much in a nationalist folk vein, and was beginning to be treated like a dissident). His vehicle was song, and his stimulus was the folk music of Estonia.

Tormis's music, which centres on the repetitive runic style of ancient Estonian folk song, which he painstakingly researched in remote villages, has, in an Estonia finally free since 1989 of either Russian or earlier German domination, become a potent musical mouthpiece for expressing national pride and identity. His approachable, highly individual music is widely performed in a country where singing is, quite literally, a national institution. Apart from the huge Eisteddfod-style song festivals which grew up in the mid-19th century, and which are a vital part of today's Estonian cultural calendar, the state actually funds several professional national choirs.

At a typical daily rehearsal of the Estonian National Male Choir in Tallinn's main concert hall a couple of weeks ago, I experienced something of the astonishing virility of the national singing tradition. Musical director Kaspar Pistnensa dissected two of Tormis's folk-inspired works - one in which the male chorus imitate a lusty band of balalaikas and accordions - with the same rigorous attention to detail a conductor might inflict on a professional symphony orchestra. The sound was immense - a radiant tenor line that soared effortlessly to extraordinary heights; a bass line so profound as to suggest a lingering Russian influence.

These are professionally trained musicians who earn a state salary. But as William Vesilin, one of its members, explained, they also have jobs to fill the afternoon. He himself works in Estonia's burgeoning real estate industry. Some are employed as chorus extras with the national opera company, and some even work on building sites.

"Choirs like this came about because Estonia didn't have an army," the leading folk musician Jaak Johannsen told me. Estonian men, it seems, promote their nationalist machismo through their vocal chords. A gigantic painting on the wall of the choir's practice room depicts its original director, Gustav Ernesaks. He, like so many Estonian men during the Second World War, was sent to Russia for enforced labour, where he gathered together his compatriots to form what is now the Estonian National Male Choir.

Posted by acapnews at October 11, 2005 12:09 AM