ECM follows up its astonishing debut of Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür with a program of further deconstructions. With his architectonic shovel, Tüür burrows out an idiomatic hovel for himself in the sands of today’s placid musical shores. Every motif is its own voice, building to powerful fruition from the smallest of sparks. To start, the Symphony No. 3 (1997) clicks its tongue with a delicate cymbal. Like the corona of a jazz dream, it wavers through a swarm of failed bass lines and reeds. The lower strings ascend in a brief march before being drowned by a vibraphone. The ensuing cloudbursts recall the composer’s wintry Crystallisatio. Percussion becomes more pronounced as stuttering rhythms break the first movement into pieces. In the second movement, a glockenspiel ruptures the high strings as a snare hit unleashes a brass menagerie. The flute emerges for a solo passage as strings process gently in the background. The string writing recalls Tüür’s Passion, albeit transposed to a different key. The symphony ends with a single note from the vibraphone, dripping like a water clock into mortal darkness.
Tüür’s aesthetic is so fractured that the concerto would seem an anachronism, but his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1996) epitomizes the very essence of his craft, planting as it does a single generative seed firmly in the soil of introspection. His background as a rock musician comes through noticeably in his bold rhythmic choices, while the piece’s single-movement structure ensures that its signals remain explicitly contained. The vibraphone reprises its vital role, oozing like plasma from an open wound. It is not the soloist that arises from within the orchestra, but much the reverse. And as the vibraphone weaves its way deftly through the orchestra’s open spaces, a single note on strings hints at relaxation. Tüür gravitates toward higher notes here, so that even in descending motifs the apex gains precedence as pedal point. He ends with a celestial cluster, a galaxy spinning out of control until it implodes.
Lighthouse (1997), for string orchestra, is one of Tüür’s most cinematic pieces, which, if we are to take the title literally, would seem to render its eponymous structure from the outside in. We track its light first, and the afterimage it leaves on the screen, only to be given view of the mechanism that turns and amplifies its voice in the night like a siren to the dark ships of its surrender. The lush scoring painfully picks apart and rebuilds the lighthouse, turning it inside out, so that its column is now made of light and its reassuring beam becomes the mortar of its foundation, sweeping its potent arm through the air and knocking everything in its path. This is not a violent piece but a purposeful one, sustained by architectural consciousness. It tells its story in hefty chunks, if always through the fog of recollection. Its agitation enacts a sort of tragedy, a body descending from its topmost rail, flailing its appendages helplessly before the sand engulfs its last breath. Yet the music is anything but morbid, only mournful in the realization of its own complicity in the ending of a life, and the beginning of a new one.
Tüür’s aphasic approach has made him one of the most sought-after composers of our generation, and not without good reason. His stable foundations allow him to build teetering creations that never quite tumble. His music works very much like thought, constantly rationalizing its decisions in hindsight. The most transcendent passages are always stirred so that they become muddled without obscuring individual colors. Despite the seemingly disparate elements of these mosaics, Tüür’s is not a process that imposes itself upon the elements at hand. Rather, it recognizes and values its inner life and the varied ways in which one can externalize it.