5 Questions to Helena Tulve (composer)

Just over one year ago, I travelled to Tallinn, Estonia for the joint presentation of Estonian Music Days and the International Society for Contemporary Music’s World Music Days. In a time where the thought of international travel, live performances, and gathering in large crowds seems surreal, these memories hold greater meaning. One of the most striking things I observed in Tallinn was the vibrant and fearless group of women at the center of the local contemporary music scene. Behind Estonia’s beloved Arvo Pärt is a new generation of composers, operating in a tight-knit network built on mentorship and mutual support. 

Helena Tulve is arguably one of Estonia’s most influential composers living and working today. Her compositional voice is dark, rich, complex, and challenging–a brilliant counterpoint to Arvo’s minimalist tintinnambuli style. She’s been commissioned by Bang on a Can to compose a solo cello work for Canadian cellist Arlen Hlusko for the second virtual Bang on a Can Marathon, which will feature six hours of live streaming music on Sunday, June 14, 2020 from 3-9PM EDT. In advance of her upcoming premiere, we asked Helena five questions about composing in quarantine, the benefits of technology, and international collaborations. 

How are you, and how is Estonia working to support individual artists during this global crisis?

Despite the deep and lasting impact of this crisis, I am doing relatively well for the moment. Composers are solitary people, a big part of this job is done in solitude, so one has to have certain qualities to work in this field. Many performances have been postponed, but the composing process can go on. Estonia is a country where nature is very present, and it has been very supportive and grounding. I have spent these months mostly in our countryside home far from the city. It has given me a different perspective on natural and societal processes, a different look on what is happening in the world. The state has, of course, taken measures to support individual artists and also organizations working in the field of culture, but the hard times are likely still ahead.

Helena Tulve--Photo by Tarvo Hanno Varres

Helena Tulve–Photo by Tarvo Hanno Varres

With all performances shifting online for the foreseeable future, what opportunities do you see for increased international artistic collaborations?

I still hope that we can come back to live performances and meetings soon, but for the time being, one has to discover the benefits of the international network that is in action in the field of music anyway. I believe that we can get used to all the tools we have at hand and prepare for the comeback of live music making, that in many forms requires a shared time, space, and energy. What we keep, hopefully, is the experience of being connected despite the distances—after all, every single one of us lives under the same sky.

Speaking of international collaborations, you’ve been commissioned by Bang on a Can to compose a work for Canadian cellist Arlen Hlusko. Had you worked with Arlen before, and were there any distinct differences in your creative process for this piece?

This was my first point of contact with Arlen, and I am very excited to experience this virtual process of collaboration. I am always interested in imagining my musical partner and the context of the performance while composing for a particular musician. I somehow got a paradoxical feeling that although the performers and the audience are going to be far away from each other, the situation might turn out to be more intimate than a regular performance. Also, at the moment when the world suddenly came to a halt, I was just about to have several premieres I had been working on very intensely. So, unexpectedly, I had a period of rest and the commission arrived exactly at a good moment when I was ready to come back to composing. Surprisingly, I felt a joy and an ease that are not always there.

Arlen Hlusko--Photo by Jiyang

Arlen Hlusko–Photo by Jiyang

With our current reliance on technology in mind, are there certain compositional elements that you have specifically highlighted or avoided in writing this piece for virtual performance vs. writing a piece for live performance?

I think my approach did not change that much. A solo cello is a very singing instrument, a kind of equivalent to the human voice among the instruments, and I imagine that the sound will also cross the virtual barriers well. Cello has a very rich palette of colors, and at the same time, a fascinating capacity to create virtual harmony—so I tried to unite the intimacy of a song with the intensity of the musical flow.

Related to the situation we are in, I felt deep sadness and grief, witnessing the pain many people are experiencing and also the larger context that all of this is happening in. We have been, for quite a while, losing more and more of the certain things in life—especially our bond with nature, with each other, and with ourselves. It has happened without us even being aware of it—little by little. Now it has become evident, and even forced to be seen. Being pushed to the extreme, we have the opportunity to return more consciously. So my inner response was love and compassion, and my initial lamento became a love song.

In what way do you see our current virtual interactions informing the way that we create, share, present, or teach music in the future?

As I mentioned before, there are many things that need a real exchange of energy. If the technologies evolve to transmit and play back the sound with minimal delay and maximal sound quality, many aspects can change in the teaching process. There are technologies that allow musicians to play together from far away corners of the world. Tutoring is possible in a similar way. The lessons, however, are definitely not limited to music and creativity. It has more to do with a need to change our way of life in general—living mainly in huge cities where the cultural fabric is very dense and rich in opportunities. Living in closer connection to the nature, paying attention to local communities and their needs without losing the connection, and nourishment from the world-wide network of friends and fellows–it is not a new perspective, but may become more widely considered as a fulfilling possibility. Being local, but staying connected and aware.

Tune in to the second virtual Bang on a Can Marathon on Sunday, June 14, 2020 from 3-9PM EDT here: https://marathon2020.bangonacan.org/