Gulf of Finland Shore near Tallinn
Blogging from Estonia: Creative Energy and New Perspectives

Blogging from Estonia: Creative Energy and New Perspectives

If I had to choose one word to describe the contemporary music scene in Tallinn, it would be dynamic, as in “pertaining to or characterized by energy or effective action; vigorously active or forceful; energetic.” [1] The keywords in this definition are effective action; here in Tallinn, I am under the impression that if one has even the smallest idea for a concert, it will happen with little to no red tape. During my first three months in country, I attended more than thirty five concerts of various shapes and sizes, which is more than I usually attend in a year. Granted, it is easier to attend concerts here than back home in Boston. I do not have lesson plans to create, 8am classes to teach the next day, or an enormously cute dog whose eyes always seem to say “stay home, please!” Yet I think the main reason I attend so many concerts is that there are simply more to choose from than I am used to, at least of the contemporary classical or improvisation ilk. The performers I have met are all genuinely vigorously active in terms of how many ensembles they play in, performances they give, and their eagerness to learn new repertoire. Of course, musicians like these are not unique to Tallinn, but having so many that exude an energetic attitude concentrated in one small city is invigorating. I have spoken with Helena Tulve about the impressively proactive behavior of Estonian musicians. She contends that a happy combination of creative impulse and general human goodness creates this demeanor, rather than a desire for prestige or career advancement.

The six members of Ensemble U:, four standing and two sitting.

Ensemble U:

Ensemble U: is one of the most active contemporary music ensembles in Tallinn. The sextet, led by pianist Taavi Kerkimäe and flautist Tarmo Johannes, puts on concerts of both Estonian and international composers. Their dedication to contemporary music is commendable. I am fortunate to be working with them on a new piece for sextet and electronics, and the ensemble has made considerable effort to learn who I am and what I am interested in musically. We had a meeting early in the process so that I could share some of my past compositions and talk about what I am interested in pursuing in my new piece. I will also have the opportunity to work with the players individually and to bring bits of material to their already packed rehearsals for testing and experimentation. As a relatively young composer, this degree of attention is both noteworthy and vastly constructive.

Taavi Kerkimäe is also involved in the improvisation scene that I mentioned in my third article. He is constantly performing with various musicians in some very creative ways, often through his curated monthly series Improtest. One of the most memorable concerts thus far was an hour-long improvisation of Kerikmäe on electronics and French saxophonist Michel Doneda. The concert took place in Tallinn’s St. Nicholas Church, a restored medieval building that is now used as an art museum and concert venue. The concert was scheduled to begin at midnight. I arrived around ten to help setup some of the technology, assuming that we would have a relatively small audience. Setting up a surround playback system in organ lofts and amongst ecclesiastical artwork was an experience I will not forget. As we approached midnight, I was surprised to see a large amount of audience members entering the church. The resulting concert was mesmerizing: Doneda meandered throughout the space, engaging with the almost infinite reverb in delicate ways. Kerikmäe both reacted to and influenced Doneda’s gestures to create a striking soundworld that kept the audience rapt and awake for the full 60 minutes.

The facade of St. Nicholas Church late at night

St. Nicholas Church before the concert

In addition to the dynamism of the musicians in Tallinn, there is also an overwhelming sense of balance between genders. I have met just as many female composers as male, which is not something I can say about the situation in the United States. I have asked several female composers if they ever feel a discrepancy between genders and the answer is always no. I wish I could say the same for my experiences, but unfortunately it is not the case. I came to Tallinn hoping that I would discover some secret behind this balance, but of course the answer is not so simple. Helena Tulve and I have discussed the situation and she has her own personal theories, some of which are more positive than others. Yet no matter the reason behind the parity between male and female composers, the result, at least from an outsider’s perspective, is a healthy and equal-opportunity environment for creativity to thrive.

On a stage, Taavi Kerkimäe playing an electric keyboard (far left), Esa Pietilä playing saxophone (center), and Mart Soo (right) playing an electric guitar attached to  a variety of foot pedals as audience members look and listen

Taavi Kerikmäe, Esa Pietilä, and Mart Soo perform at IMPROTEST

I recently passed the halfway point of my Fulbright experience. The latter half will most likely be markedly different; not only do the CoPeCo students leave for Stockholm, Fulbright Scholar and American composer of electroacoustic music Scott Miller is also heading back to the States. Miller’s presence in Tallinn during my first few months in country was a happy coincidence, as we were able to help one another put on several concerts of Miller’s electroacoustic music. Both he and the CoPeCo students worked eagerly and ardently to put on as many concerts as possible during their months in Tallinn, several of which kindly included my music. Now that they are in different countries, I will need to take a proactive approach to sharing my music and working with new players. I doubt that this will be difficult. I have felt such a revitalized creative energy since arriving in Estonia, largely influenced by the musicians who surround me. I have noticed that after concerts, rather than saying “congratulations” or “bravo”, most audience members will say “thank you” to the performers and composers involved. This practice reflects the feeling I get from the community in Tallinn. There is a passion to create and a graciousness for new experiences.

Gulf of Finland Shore near Tallinn

Gulf of Finland Shore near Tallinn

Uprooting myself from my life in Boston to go to Tallinn for an extended period was a difficult decision to make. I left family, friends, and a musical environment where I had established my own modest place. I now know that it was exactly what I needed in order to replenish my creative energies. I am sure that the majority of people who have the opportunity to take Fulbrights [2] or other similar programs feel renewed and inspired; this is a large part of why people go on various types of sabbaticals. I have a lot to look forward to in the second half of my time in Estonia. Warmer weather and longer days will allow me to travel back to the bogs and forests to explore and take field recordings. My earlier trip with Veljo Runnel and Helena Tulve left me curious and inspired to search for new ways of connecting my musical ideas with the environment aside from abstract inspiration. I will be working closely with Ensemble U: on a new piece and hopefully engaging in smaller projects with other local musicians. What excites me most is the potential for experiences I cannot yet imagine, the unconventional concerts I will surely attend, and the new perspectives I will gain.


1. Dictionary.com Unabridged (Random House, Inc., accessed January 15, 2015)


2. The views presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

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