When I began graduate school, I had this naive expectation that when I graduated, I would have my musical project more or less figured out. I assumed I would have an idea as to what I wanted my music to sound like and what I wanted my music to do over the course of my career. My doctoral degree would magically transform my student status to that of a Capital-C Composer. Although I knew from the beginning that this would be a moving target (I doubt any composer wishes to find a style, methodology, etc. and stick with it for the rest of her career), I expected to have a general plan. Yet as each year passed, I became increasingly more anxious that I would not achieve this goal. Every master class, music festival, and colloquium that I attended filled my admittedly impressionable mind with new ideas and models. By the time I was studying for my qualifying exams and finishing up my coursework in 2013, I felt less sure of my musical identity than I did when I first began composing. I knew then that I needed to make a major change, so I decided to uproot myself from my comfortable habitat at Boston University.
Applying to different international education programs, including the IRCAM Cursus, the DAAD scholarship, and Fulbright, had always been on my radar. A year abroad could significantly benefit my identity anxieties; I wanted to throw myself into a brand new musical environment where I would need to explain, to strangers, my intentions as a composer. I decided to focus my efforts on applying for a Fulbright to Estonia for several reasons. Most importantly, I wanted to study with composer Helena Tulve, a composer whom I had admired for a long time and felt I could learn a great deal from. What attracts me most to Tulve’s music is its viscosity; her music pulls you in and surrounds you like a living, breathing, rich environment. Each piece is its own self-sustaining world, yet they all orbit her unique musical language. In fact, that is what I admire most about the other composers I have studied with: Benjamin Broening and Joshua Fineberg. Their music is unmistakably theirs no matter what new ideas they are experimenting with. When I strip away the anxieties surrounding my musical identity, I am left with the desire to create works that achieve the same result; I want my music to evolve, but I want it to remain unmistakably mine.
In addition to wanting to work with Tulve, I also wanted to be on the periphery of the European contemporary music scene. There are definitely moments when I wish I was working in Berlin or Paris, but I am self-aware enough to know that my musical identity needs time and space to develop and gain confidence. Research interests also informed my decision. When most people hear ‘Estonian composer’, Arvo Pärt immediately comes to mind. Yet Estonia has an incredibly diverse contemporary music scene, beyond Pärt, that is connected to the national history, socio-political climate, and cultural identity in fascinating ways. I wanted to examine Estonia’s musical environment firsthand with the hope that my findings might inform my personal thoughts on identity and composition. After several months of application writing, interviews, and nervous waiting, I learned that I received the grant and prepared to move to a completely new environment.
I arrived in Tallinn, Estonia’s northern sea-side capital, in mid-September to work with Tulve at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. The city is small, with a beautiful historic Old Town full of cobblestone streets and coffee shops that also serve as concert venues. Tallinn is also incredibly manageable for an American knowing only a few key phrases in Estonian. Now that I am a temporary resident I am entitled to free public transportation, although most things are walkable. The common description of Estonia as ‘the most wired country’ appears to be true: I had perfect cell service in the middle of the forest while on a mushroom foraging expedition.
My expectations about the contemporary music scene have been both met and surprised since moving here. Although I am sure my observations will shift slightly over the course of my stay, my initial impression is that the scene is incredibly diverse and active for such a small country. Composition students at the Academy of Music are welcoming and lack much of the competitiveness that I came to expect in American schools. There are different aesthetic sectors, much like in the United States, but there also appears to be crossover between them. I am also surprised by the public support for contemporary music. I recently saw a huge banner on the side of one of Tallinn’s major shopping centers promoting an upcoming concert by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir featuring works by Carlo Gesualdo, Salvatore Sciarrino, György Ligeti, J.S. Bach, and a premiere by Helena Tulve. I have a hard time imagining a similar advertisement hanging on the Prudential Center in Boston. The most striking difference though, at least from my experience, is the lack of gender discrepancies: there are just as many female composers working at the Academy as male, and this appears to be a consistent trend rather than a blip in statistics.
I am the co-founder of a concert series in Boston called Acoustic Uproar. Our mandate is to present new works in ways that bring in audiences outside of our normal circle of composer/performer friends. Concert producers in Tallinn seem to be very skilled at doing just that, and I believe that there is a lot to be learned from how they present contemporary music. The concerts I have gone to, no matter the genre, have all been well attended by enthusiastic and diverse audiences. A great example is being spearheaded by flautist Tarmo Johannes. He is programming a new initiative for community involvement and education that he calls ‘participation concerts’. In each concert, the audience is able to engage with ‘sound games’ that Johannes codes. For the first concert, each audience member could control the amplitude of a particular partial over a given fundamental using a slider on their smart phones or tablets. This led to a small lecture about harmonic spectra and additive synthesis, after which Johannes improvised with the audience and their Csound-produced harmonics. After a brief discussion, Johannes performed a few pieces for flute and electronics that exemplified the harmonic concepts he had illustrated. Later concerts will work with other areas of sound, including reverb, subtractive synthesis, and noise.
Another memorable experience and example of the type of events I’ve witnessed whilst in Tallinn was a performance of Stockhausen’s Tierkreis. Tierkreis exists in many versions, but the version I saw was not like any I have ever read about. The performance was produced by Ensemble YXUS, a group created with the main purpose of doing major Stockhausen works in Tallinn each year. YXUS completely transformed the piece into a staged, evening-length experience. The venue turned out to be an enormous and perfectly disintegrating cinema. The crumbling brick, peeling paint chips, and rusty lightning fixtures felt like a set for a horror film. I imagine staging something like this in the United States would be impossible because of liability concerns and because a venue like that would probably be demolished. YXUS took over the entire building beyond just the main cinema hall. They used small rooms above, below, and behind the great hall to stage different orchestrations of Stockhausen’s 12 zodiac-inspired melodies. Each place housed two musicians who wore elaborate costumes and performed the music with convincing theatricality. Audience members meandered throughout the building to each of the rooms where they could stay for as long as they liked. The rooms themselves had lighting effects and prop staging. My personal favorite was a tiny side room that housed a kannel (a traditional Estonian instrument) player in a bunny suit and a trombone player with an odd assortment of old dental equipment.The whole experience culminated with the singer and piano rendition in the main hall, with video projection on the back brick wall of the theater. The singer wore an elaborate headpiece that looked like an EEG hookup attaching her to the pianist. The soprano sang with haunting clarity in a hall without heat, the moisture from her breath visible in the cold blue light.
YXUS’s concert has been criticized by some for not having enough Stockhausen, that the music became secondary to the elaborate staging and costumes. While I can understand that point, I think the performance has to be seen as a success: it brought out a relatively large number of concertgoers to witness something unlike a ‘standard’ concert experience. YXUS and Tarmo Johannes are both examples of how many Estonians are intent on presenting contemporary music in new and exciting ways. For such a small country, the ideas are big and people work hard make them happen. YXUS’s next project is set to be Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartett, which is problematic because Estonia does not own enough helicopters. I have no doubt, though, that YXUS will find a way.
My later articles for NewMusicBox will focus on working with Helena Tulve, thoughts on gender in Estonian contemporary music, and more observations about the music scene from the perspective of an American composer, fresh with ABD status and eager in her journey to gain confidence about her musical identity. I am not as naive as I was when I began graduate school, and am therefore not expecting to leave Estonia knowing exactly why I am writing and what I want my music to accomplish. Yet this experience will most certainly give me new tools for navigating the often difficult path of pursuing a life in contemporary music.
(Note: the views presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.)
Heather Stebbins is a composer of acoustic and electroacoustic works with a background as a cellist. At the core of her music is a deep fascination with the inner structures and intricacies of sound. Whether these sounds emanate from an instrument, an object, or a computer, Heather uses sounds that strike her viscerally and intellectually as the germinating elements of her music. She is currently on a Fulbright Fellowship in Tallinn, Estonia, where she is working with composer Helena Tulve. Back in the USA, she is a Center for New Music Fellow at Boston University, where she works with Joshua Fineberg.