Jazzkaar 2011: Tallinn, Estonia, Days 1-3

Jazzkaar 2011: Tallinn, Estonia, Days 1-3
John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6 | Days 7-8

Punkt Festival in Tallinn / Talvin Singh and Niladri Kumar
Jazzkaar Festival 2011
Tallinn, Estonia
April 20-22, 2011
It's one thing to visit a European country and marvel at the history that has been made in centuries past; it's another to arrive somewhere where the history was recent; yet another, still, to stay where that history was actually made. When the relatively small (current population: 1.3 million) country of Estonia gained its independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, it was a time of massive change. Twenty years later, there are still plenty of reminders of the country's past, but, equally, there are signs, everywhere, of the results of free speech, free thinking and free expression.
But staying at the Sokos Hotel Viru, where "new" Tallinn meets "old" Tallinn, it's hard not to be reminded just how invasive the former Soviet Union was, not only in the lives of its inhabitants, but to those who came to visit, during the time of its regime. The hotel's elevators suggest that the building—Talinn's first skyscraper, built in 1972—has 22 floors, but there's a door, on the supposed top floor, clearly marked "no unauthorized personnel beyond this point." To the average person, that might simply suggest a laundry room, or some such facility for hotel staff. But, prior to 1991, that door led to stairs, climbing to a 23rd floor that was once home of the KGB, the infamous Soviet intelligence agency. The hotel was built to encourage tourism to the seaside Estonian capital, but the visitors were, in fact, under constant surveillance. Tourism may have been encouraged, as a means of economic stimulus, but it was considered essential that visitors to Tallinn be kept away from the locals, to prevent exchange of information and to ensure that visitors left with a vision of Estonia that was of the Soviet Union's construction, and not, in fact, the truth.

Sokos Hotel Viru, Tallinn's first skyscraper, on the cusp of Old and New Tallinn

The hotel was built by laborers, brought across the Baltic sea from neighboring Finland—the story, to provide a job opportunity to these poor, starving people; the truth, because they were more efficient, with superior tools and materials—but amidst the city's most beautiful hotel, with every possible amenity and service a visitor could want (there was even a recording studio), there was a separate and, at the time unknown, infrastructure of cameras and microphones. The story goes that one tourist, alone in his room, complained to himself that there was never any toilet paper in the room. Two minutes later, a knock on the door, and he was handed a roll. Like every room in Sokos Hotel Villa, there were hidden microphones being monitored by KGB staff on that "invisible" 23rd floor; staff who made a very quick exit, overnight, during one day in 1991, leaving the floor to become the KGB Museum, opened in January, 2011, as part of Tallinn 2011, the year where Estonian culture is celebrated as part of the European Union's annual choice of a city as a "European Capital of Culture."

Each year, one (sometimes two, occasionally three) cities across Europe are selected for the honor—an honor that the cities bid for (usually against other cities in their country). Winning the selection means a 12-month celebration, like that of Stavanger, Norway in 2008, and for Tallinn, it means 251 projects, ranging from theater and film to music and poetry. There are also celebrations of the country's history in other areas, such as architectural design and textiles, but the overall purpose of Tallinn, as 2011 European Capital of Culture, is to present a vibrant picture of the city, and the country: of its past, present and possible future.

Some of the events are expanded versions of existing ones, such as the Jazzkaar festival, now in its 22nd year. A festival that has always balanced a roster of international artists with the growing jazz community in Estonia, the 2011 edition has a number of vital things to offer, but most importantly its presentation of a two-day version of Norway's Punkt, the festival that has literally changed the way music can be heard and developed, through its premise of live remix: regular musical performances taking place in one room but, immediately after their conclusion, a second performance, in a parallel music space, where additional musicians take selected fragments from the first show as inspiration for a real-time remix that sometimes weighs heavily on its source music, but invariably goes somewhere altogether different. The remixes, true laboratories of musical experimentation, don't always succeed, but in their relentless risk-taking, are always worth experiencing.

But that's just one of "251 projects, that end up being something like seven thousand events, if we count every day of an exhibition as an event," says Maris Hellrand, International Communications Manager for Tallinn 2011. "It started in '85, when Athens [Greece] was the European Cultural Capital. The whole thing started at the initiative of Melina Mercouri [former actress and then-Greek Minister of Culture]. She felt there was a lack of a European cultural dimension in the EU, so that was the idea behind it. Of course, over time, it grew, because they noticed that, when they awarded the title, it benefitted the cities in terms of tourism, and it helped mobilize the people in the city to come up with new ideas, and to get new ideas implanted that would not otherwise have been. So it's become very, very popular, and you have many, many cities applying for the title each year, so after awhile, they decided to give it to two cities at the same time, otherwise, there are so many cities that they would have to wait fifty years for the title.

"The jury decides which country, and within the country the cities compete with each other," Hellrand continues. "In our case, it was decided it would be Finland [Turku] and Estonia, and there were four cities in Estonia competing. Tallinn has better infrastructure, and having seen a few of the other cities that have had this title, the size of Tallinn fits perfectly [population: 400,000]; if it's a smaller city it's just too large a task, too difficult to do it in a meaningful way; if it's too large a city, take Istanbul last year, nobody even notices something going on."

One look at the city, and it's hard to escape the impact of Tallinn 2011. Billboards everywhere advertize the many events taking place concurrently throughout the city. But what's, perhaps, even more remarkable about Tallinn is how rich the culture is, above and beyond its current status. Performance spaces abound; live music seems to be everywhere. Clearly, culture is a big part of the city's fabric. But being European Capital of Culture has created a context where otherwise lofty but difficult to achieve aspirations become possible. Art for art's sake.

"It's a perfect year, because it's also the 20th anniversary of our independence," says Hellrand. "As a lucky coincidence, the Euro was also introduced this year. Everything has become more expensive, yes, but it's all relative. Take a taxi from my home to the ferry terminal, and it's three Euros. Take the ferry to Helsinki [Finland], and take a taxi from the ferry terminal to the town center and it's twenty Euros."

It's no small task to coordinate a full year of programs, and yet the committee running Tallinn 2011 is, in relative terms, quite small. "The Tallinn City Heritage Department initiated it," says Hellrand. "They were smart enough to include people from many backgrounds, both professional and political, so people from all kinds of fields with all kinds of views were involved in formulating the idea. Then, when Tallinn was awarded the title in 2006, the foundation was formed; it still belongs to the city, but it's a separate entity—we're not like city/government employees. There's a Programming Department, and a Marketing/Communications Department, altogether over thirty people now. The first CEO of the foundation was Mikko Fritze, a German who grew up in Finland, and has a professional background at Goethe Institute; he's a very charismatic person, and a very inspiring leader, so somehow he's managed to create quite a good vibe; it's quite an extraordinary place to work.

"There was a year-and-a-half call for ideas, that ended in September, 2009," Hellrand explains, "so until then everyone had to propose what they wanted to do, and there was a creative council that, again, was put together, around ten people from different fields, well-respected professionals in their fields; not controversial or politically disputed whatsoever. So they made the final decisions about what comes in and what does not."

Some European Capitals of Culture, while ultimately successful, have failed to support local artists—a key criteria, it would seem, in succeeding as a means of promoting the culture of the city and its country. Not so, for Tallin 2011. "That was very, very conscious decision from the beginning, that it's not about paying big money for big international stars and bringing them here," says Hellrand. "Rather, it's about having something that comes from here. That is what Turku [whose budget was three times that of Tallinn's] has been criticized for. We do have international projects, and some big names, like during Jazzkaar now [including Bobby McFerrin and Dave Liebman], but it's really not overwhelming or the largest part of it."

Hellrand's assertion that it's more about Estonian artists is supported by the Punkt festival, which occupied the first two days of Jazzkaar 2011. While the festival's co-artistic directors, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, brought a number of the festival's usual suspects—guitarist Eivind Aarset, singer Sidsel Endresen and trumpeter Arve Henriksen—three of the festival-in-a-festival's shows featured Estonian artists: the Segakoor Noorus choir that performed the music of Veljo Tormis in 2010, at Punkt's home base in Kristiansand; Ensemble U:, a contemporary classical chamber ensemble; and Weekend Guitar Trio. In the case of Weekend Guitar Trio, its performance as a second collaboration with Bang, wearing his "live sampler" hat, after their performance in London, England, earlier in the year, but in every case the performances were remixed, by a combination of the Norwegian artists, German producer/composer/soundscapist Jan Peter Schwalm and British producer/composer/songwriter Guy Sigsworth, resulting in an expanding network of international musicians, quaintly known as "the Punkt family," who strive to dissolve borders of style, geography and culture, to respect and incorporate the music from around the world, but ultimately creating new and innovative music where the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

But Punkt isn't the only example of international collaboration—or remarkable innovation—being brought to Tallinn 2011. Sixty Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero turns the premise that live music is something that takes place once, and when it's over, it's over (despite the proliferation of live recorded music arguing otherwise, usually a flawed premise) on its side, and applies it to a medium that has always been inherently about documentation and permanency: cinema. Film directors from around the world have been asked to contribute a 60-second film, with no dialogue and no music, but otherwise with no restrictions. The film collage will be projected in public in August, on a screen built in the sea, but as each frame passes through the projector, it will be immediately burned, and when the entire performance has completed, the screen itself will be destroyed as well.

Not all projects have such brief life spans, but there are others with their own built-in shelf life. NO99—a theater company whose original productions have been simply titled by their numbers, beginning with 99 and decreasing, one number at a time, to zero, at which point the company will simply cease to exist—is building a theater from straw, which will be open between May and September, and will also be destroyed the end of its run.

There's plenty more, leading up to the closing ceremonies, which will include Arve Henriksen and Terje Isungset's World of Glass, a collaboration with local artists who are designing and building instruments made of glass that will be used in a performance by the Norwegian trumpeter and percussionist, not unlike Isungset's Ice Music series, where he builds instruments of ice for single performances, after which they simply melt back into the earth. But unlike those instruments—and, for that matter, Sixty Seconds of Solitude and NO99's Straw House—these instruments will be permanent creations, to be debuted in Tallinn, but hopefully leading to other uses afterwards.

Chapter Index
  1. April 20: Punkt at Jazzkaar, Day One
  2. April 21: Punkt at Jazzkaar, Day Two
  3. April 22: Talvin Singh and Niladri Kumar



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