Measure by Measure

Driving Rhythms, Beguiling Sounds

The music of Erkki-Sven Tüür

By Sudip Bose | August 3, 2017
Erkki-Sven Tüür, pictured in 2013 (Ave Maria Mõistlik/Wikimedia Commons)
Erkki-Sven Tüür, pictured in 2013 (Ave Maria Mõistlik/Wikimedia Commons)


A few weeks ago, during an unrelenting stretch of humid, 90-degree days—when merely standing at the bus stop each morning meant going to work a dripping mess—I began dreaming of an escape, to some secluded northern clime, to a forest perhaps, someplace deep in shade. Someplace, I imagine, like the summer home of the composer Erkki-Sven Tüür, who grew up on the Estonian island of Hiiumaa and now spends the warm months of the year on its wooded western coast, along the cold Baltic Sea.

Lately, I’ve been listening to quite a bit of Tüür, the only composer of classical music I can think of who got his start in a progressive rock band. That was in the 1970s, when he was a teenager imbibing the likes of King Crimson, Frank Zappa, and Genesis. Within a decade, having come under the spell of Arvo Pärt, György Ligeti, and the American minimalists, Tüür was turning to symphonies, concertos, and works of chamber music, well on his way to assembling a visionary body of work as impressive as that of any composer alive today.

Tüür’s early music incorporated a variety of styles and contemporary idioms. Unlike many composers with avant-garde sensibilities, however, Tüür never shied away from the triad, the traditional basis of tonal harmony. Indeed, his polystylistic music can at once be tonal and atonal, minimalist and dodecaphonic, unfolding “in a space,” the composer has said, “that is constantly shifting, expanding and contracting.” Eventually, he settled upon a new musical system, governed by mathematically determined intervals he has likened to vectors. These musical vectors are fundamental to his recent work, and yet, the scores never seem contrived or, well, mathematical. There’s nothing cold or unapproachable about these pieces, even if each is developed from a musical source code or genetic map.

Tüür seems beholden to no particular camp or ideology. His music is a kind of fusion, but with him, the various styles come together so seamlessly that this fusion loses all sense of artifice. It ceases to be a conscious act. When Tüür speaks about his music, he invokes vivid pictorial images: spirals, curves, chains. He also uses metaphors from the natural world. In explaining his Violin Concerto (1999), for example, he describes a system of musical development in which “the material will change completely but in a thoroughly organic way. Like trees grow: if we see a tiny plant we don’t yet know which form it will ultimately take, but on seeing it with its full panoply of leaves and twigs and branches we can only wonder at how logical every curve and movement and detail of it seems to be. That’s an ideal for me, in terms of treating a musical shape.”

The Violin Concerto, beginning with an explosive chord that yields to a minimalist passage suggesting Philip Glass or John Adams, is a study in movement, energy, contrast, and evolution. So is just about every piece Tüür writes. How energy can be coiled and unfurled via harmony and rhythm is one of his principle aims. Listen to such orchestral works as Zeitraum (1992), Lighthouse (1997), and Exodus (1999), the latter inspired by an analysis of a vibrating electric guitar string and featuring a prominent drum-set solo to boot. Listen as well to the magnificent Cello Concerto (1996), in which Tüür imagines the cello not as a traditional heroic soloist, but as a figure lost in a hostile, alien, orchestral world, the two forces—cello and orchestra—coming to a mutual understanding only by work’s end.

Each of these pieces makes for an excellent point of entry for the newcomer, yet I am especially fond of several of Tüür’s eight symphonies, for instance, the Sixth, a work dating to 2007 and bearing the subtitle “Strata.” It’s fun to play the influence game here—I detect strains of Ligeti and Stravinsky and the spectral composers of the 1970s—but this distinctive sound world is very much Tüür’s alone. From the first notes, I get the sensation of a world being formed, as if Tüür had somehow stumbled upon the musical equivalents of rock, light, sand, water, and cloud to create a breathing, evolving world. There’s a restive, obsessive quality throughout, and a strong rhythmic drive that complements the most seductive palette of tone colors. In this symphony, the sound is nearly everything, and it undergoes metamorphoses both great and small, evoking an intense range of emotional responses. Listen to this symphony many times, and it will begin to sound like an accretion of many layers—the strata of the work’s title—each governed by a different sense of time, space, and sound. All this might seem abstract in the extreme, but then, about 10 minutes from the end, a mournful line emerges out of the darkness. There it is: an old-fashioned theme. The effect is superb, as if all along, everything in the piece has been leading to this haunting lament. Then the theme dissipates, giving way to a series of crystalline ascending figures, like a thousand flecks of mica glittering upon some granitic mass. We hear a cloud forming, a soft guttural rumble, and finally, notes from the far distance like soft stabs of starlight. The temptation, when the symphony has ended, is to start it over again, but not for a good while—what I most crave, after hearing those final, shattering notes, is silence.

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