Helena Tulve: Lijnen (ECM New Series 1955)

Helena Tulve

NYYD Ensemble
Olari Elts
Arianna Savall voice
Stockholm Saxophone Quartet
Sven Westerberg soprano saxophone
Jörgen Pettersson alto saxophone
Leif Karlborg tenor saxophone
Per Hedlund baritone saxophone
Emmanuelle Ophèle-Gaubert flute
Mihkel Peäske flute
Silesian String Quartet
Szymon Krzeszowiec violin
Arkadiusz Kubica violin
Lukasz Syrnicki viola
Piotr Janosik violoncello
Recorded between November 1997 and June 2006

Helena Tulve, part of a new generation of young Estonian composers, has the honorable distinction of being the only pupil of Erkki Sven-Tüür. Like her mentor, Tulve breaks down her music into bite-sized morsels, so that even her large-scale works feel like congregations of chamber ensembles. In this representative selection, we get a taste of the latter. Encountering these works for the first time, I hear them as a single story:

In à travers (1998), the ensemble opens with distant calls. A pack of animals wanders, guided by communication alone. These calls come closer as they are taken up by woodwinds. Rather than antagonize one another, they join forces, comingling in search of a new language through which they may repopulate their frozen world. An oboe soloist raises its cry, occasionally overblowing as if to wrench out as much emotion from its solitude as it can: the firstborn of the newly formed colony, flexing its hybrid voice as the pack falls into silence to hear what it has wrought. A viola bravely joins in. Lijnen (2003) continues this conversation, and introduces the lone soprano, who approaches with trepidation. She wanders the landscape like an anthropologist on her first solo field assignment. Her mind desires all the fame this study is sure to bring her, even as her heart yearns to be accepted into the fold, that she might shun the world’s obligations in favor of danger. She scours the terrain with her instruments, her notepads, and her books: all the material culture she has brought from a faraway land. The animals respond with confusion, putting up a dense resistance, not so easily thwarted by her sensitive approach. Her song is half lament and half appeal. Öö (1997) gives us a peek into the anthropologist’s dream. Only in slumber can she approximate this animal language in private. Abysses (2003) awakens her with warning cries. In her half-sleep they seem to come from beyond the forest, but as she grows more aware of the gravity of the situation, she reacts. In the opening haze of cendres (2001), she immediately abandons her tent and hides in the trees, peering out into the valley below. She watches the slow, careful dance that signals the battle to come. There is so much tension in the air that every hair on her body stands on end, and for that instant an invisible thread instinctively connects her to the very subjects of her study. There is a swipe of claws, a bid for distance, but this sets all eyes aflame as reinforcements emerge from thickets and underground hovels, with more yet hidden in reserve. Brief spats of chaos erupt. Eventually, these conflicts subside. The territory has been successfully defended. In the final piece, nec ros, nec pluvia… (2004), the anthropologist weeps because her favorite has been brutally killed. She stumbles down into the valley and weeps over the fallen body. The more she holds it, the more she smells like blood. The rest of the pack surrounds her and kneels to the ground. Once they have licked her clean, they watch her until she has shed her last tear. They no longer fear her, for she no longer fears them.

Lijnen is among the more exciting recordings to grace ECM’s New Series in the past few years. The beginnings and endings of these pieces are open links, flowing into one another in an ongoing chain. This allows us to approach them any way we wish and makes for an utterly genuine listening experience. Tulve is not interested in resolution, but in leaving us with more questions than we started with. In this way, the music stays with us, even if we don’t stay with it. Let’s hope partnership with the label continues.

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