Punkt Festival 2010
Along with Arvo Pärt, composer Veljo Tormis is one of Estonia's most important cultural exports. Like Pärt, much of Tormis' writing stems from a tradition steeped in religious tradition and folklore. Unlike Pärt, however, Tormis' primary focus has been on choral works based on runo songs from Estonian folk tradition, and the connection between the Baltic state and Finland, which is Estonia's geographic neighbor, less than 100 kilometers across the Gulf of Finland in Northeastern Europe. The idea of bringing Tormisa traditionalist, if ever there was oneto Punkt might seem antithetical to the often technology-centric festival; but Jan Bang's interest in contemporary classical music runs deep and wide, in past years bringing composer Gavin Bryars to the festival (a recording of his 2008 performance has, in fact, been released in 2010 as Live at Punkt on GB Records); putting together the ambitious Wagner Reloaded Project, which brought together a strong orchestra with live samplers, drummers, keyboardists and more at Punkt 2006; and recruiting Jon Hassell for a rare performance of his pre-Fourth World composition, "Solid State," at Punkt in 2007.
Segakoor Noorus Choir, Raul Talmar Conducting
And so, bringing not only Tormis, but the 32-piece Estonian Segakoor Noruus Choir, under the direction of Raul Talmar, was completely consistent with Punkt's goal of bringing any and all music to the festival that might be appropriate for reinterpretation in Live Remix. Dressed in traditional Estonian clothingthe women in black dresses, white blouses and cylindrical red and gold hats; the men in austere black suits with white shirts and hatsthe moving cycle of 11 pieces (some including multiple songs, such as the five-part suite from "17 Estonian Wedding Songs") began with the 13 women alone, singing a gentle Estonian lullaby for soprano and female choir, "Lauliku Lapsepöli ("Singers Childhood"), from Litany to Thunder (ECM, 1999). Solo voice ebbed and flowed throughout the song, as it did throughout the set, but this was largely chamber choral music, more about collective intertwining harmonies and contrapuntal parts.
When 13 of the 19 men joined in, the choir's range expanded accordingly; yet again, when the balance of the men came onstage about halfway through the 45-minute performance. Despite the size of the Agder Theatre's stage, the riser on which the male singers stood, behind the women, was barely large enough to contain them, and when a percussionist joined inplaying a single large gong but culling a remarkable variety of tones and texturesfor the explosive "God, Protect Us From War," it almost seemed as though the theatre itself wasn't large enough to contain a choir capable of singing as quiet as a whisper or as loud as a storm. Tormis' source material, coming from sources as diverse as "The Arrival of the Wedding Guests," from "Votic Wedding Songs" on Forgotten Peoples (ECM, 1992)in a language so close to extinction that in2005, The Economist suggested that there were only 20 people speakers leftto the surprisingly rhythmic "Forced to Marry a Man," from Forgotten Peoples' "Vespian Paths," came together in a journey that crossed cultural, religious and traditional boundaries, culminating in the dark "We Are Given," ending mid-sentence with "Still we feel the... / Still there is air in..."
As static as the choir was, conductor Talmar was a commanding focal point throughout the performance, moving across the stage and encouraging the various members of the choir. Sitting in the front row, it was possible to hear him quietly blow on a pitch pipe and provide a brief hummed segment of the first line of each piece, to give the choir key and tempo. But with Tormis' music demanding in its harmonic complexity, ranging from glorious consonance to disturbing dissonance, it was a remarkable performance made all the more stunning for Segakoor Noruus' broad demographic ranging over 50 years. A couple of the younger women had body piercings, and it was clear that, while they were steeped in a cultural tradition, they were also young women who, outside the choir, were involved in many of the same pursuits found amongst their peers. It spoke to a possibility to be both contemporary and a part of a cultural tradition; a combination that, sadly, is a rare commodity in North America.
It's hard to imagine a better choice to remix Tormis' music and Segakoor Noorus's performance than Maja Ratkje. Ratkje, a multidisciplinary electro-acoustic composer/vocalist, is comfortable in the world of contemporary classical music, having delivered her own masterful River Mouth Echoes (Tzadik, 2008) and both composition and vocals to Norwegian accordionist Frode Haltli's more folkloric but still far-reaching Passing Images (ECM, 2007). She's also a founding member of the all-improv group Spunk, whose 2008 performance at Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville was a highlight of the Canadian left-of-center festival.
Unlike Sidsel Endresen, who works completely acousticallythough often finding herself in electronic environs through the company she keepsRatkje's work involves extended vocal techniques, but also an extensive personal setup of computer, Theremin, sound processing and assorted other devices to create expansive sonic landscapes. Ratkje appeared, in fact, at Punkt 2009, on a double bill with Endresen, that brought into sharp contrast the two singers' radically different but unmistakably innovative and experimentalapproaches to expanding the possibilities of the human voice.
And so, Ratkje's remix of Tormis was a stunning example of remixing, reinterpreting and expanding upon source material from a considerably different space. It was also an early sign that Punkt 2010 was making some subtle changes to its Live Remix presentations in The Alpha Room. Rather than just a couple of small stands with red globe lights to provide the barest illumination, a combination of smoke and gently swirling lighting augmented Ratkje's remix, not so strong as to be distracting from the laboratory work going on, but, instead, drawing the attention into it. Ratkje used snippets of the choir from various points throughout the performance, sometimes creating a lush backdrop of looping, over which she added her own voice, which ranged from pure and melodic to sharp punctuations, created with a small microphone that she actually, at times, kept inside her mouth. She used the airiness of breath, squeaks and squeals, and other unusual textures, sampling them on the fly, processing them, and adding them to an increasingly densifying mix; the volume, too, began to increase, with occasional gut-punching bass shots reaching almost ear-splitting levels.
Watching Ratkje manipulate sound was as impressive as watching Jan Bang do the same. With what looks like a mad scientist's nightmare on a desk in front of her, Ratkje's knowledge of every piece of gear, every device, was so thorough, so intimate, that she worked on an instinctive rather than intellectual level, manipulating her gear with the same natural ease that she manipulated her voice.
As capable as she was of vocal gymnastics, Ratkje never did anything without a purpose, as she pushed and pulled Tormis' music into shapes the composer likely never could have conceived, but which he apparently loved, after it was over. The choir, too, could be seen in the packed Alpha Room, oftentimes appearing shocked and stunned at just how much Ratkje managed to be revere the performance and dispense with its orthodoxy. As the first remix of the evening, Ratkje set the bar incredibly high for what was to come. Fortunately, the rest of her Punkt mates were up to the challenge.