Adam Garrie

Adam Garrie writes passionately about topics ranging from politics and history to art and music. He is currently engaged in various artistic business ventures.

When Tallinn first “rocked” the world

Estonia was once producing revolutionary rock from within the Soviet system. The progressive rock scene even influenced the country’s re-independence movement.*

When one talks about a music in the Soviet Union and the Soviet Estonia, it is essential to define what kind of music is up for analysis. The many cultures of the Soviet Union represented a plethora of musical traditions which came into closer contact during the Soviet rule than in previous periods. At the same time, the 20th century saw music to become more international in virtually every country in the world, due to the increasing ease of long distance travel – and more importantly, the abundance of radio, television and records by the middle of the century.

After Joseph Stalin’s death, it’s fair to say that classical music thrived in the Soviet Union. From 1953 until 1991, classical ensembles throughout the USSR enjoyed creative freedom and prescriptions against musicians and composers were more or less over. By this time, mostly musicians who defected or actively made grandiose political statements, were in danger of being banned from the stage and radio. Crucially, the stylistic tests Stalin applied to music, were more or less abandoned. Yet, during Stalin’s time also, classical music flourished, but in a much different way. Shostakovitch and Stalin for example, had a peculiar love-hate relationship which by 1948 deteriorated beyond repair due to the Zhdanov Decree which proscribed Shostakovitch, Prokofiev and Khachaturian.

But by Khrushchev’s period, all three composers were fully rehabilitated and the uncertainty of the Stalinist years was over. Whilst the great orchestras of Moscow and Leningrad, although never able to afford the high quality instruments available to the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic orchestras, were never in a financially uncertain position – nor were there barriers to audiences enjoying their music. It is for this reason that many, particularly in Russia, look at the post-Stalinist Soviet years as a period of vibrancy and joy for classical music, especially contrasted with the 1990s when many orchestras and other ensembles found themselves completely abandoned by the lack of government funding.

Estonia’s progressive rock scene

For Estonia, it was the great choral tradition which represented the touchstone of traditional music – and the proscription of many traditional songs after the loss of independence in 1940 gave many of these songs a renewed nationalist meaning. But by the mid-century new forms of music were emerging throughout the world. Jazz had matured significantly in terms of musical technicality since its early origins, and the contemporary rock music of the 1960s which began as a British take on older American rhythm and blues, began to become more and more musically literate, technical, and socially relevant.

It was at this time that Estonia established itself as having the most forward looking rock scene in any part of the Soviet Union. To combat the rise of rock in the Soviet Union, official rock bands, the so-called “VIAs” (vocal & instrumental ensemble – editor) were organised by the state. Many of these bands were very good and some are still much loved (by older generations).

But just as rock bands, pre-fabricated by record companies, became unfashionable in the capitalist world, so too did young Soviet citizens become tired of “official” rock. It was in the late 60s and early 70s that Estonia’s rock scene truly established itself. Progressive rock which grew out of the late 60s psychedelic scene in London, became one of the most important styles in Estonia. In the 1970s, it is fair to say that after Britain, Holland and Italy, Estonia probably produced the most authentic progressive rock bands in the world; bands whose neo-classical and jazz infused music most closely resembled the cutting edge founding bands of the genre (bands like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis and ELP).

“In the 1970s, it is fair to say that after Britain, Holland and Italy, Estonia probably produced the most authentic progressive rock bands in the world”

One of the most musically important groups of this period was Mess, led by the multi-talented Sven Grünberg. Their shows were often cancelled by the authorities and the only album they were able to record, was lost for many years – although it has now been fully restored. Their album, “Küsi Eneselt” (Ask Yourself), can now be viewed as a global milestone in the history of rock music. Bands like Ruja, featuring the classically gifted Rein Rannap, became cultural legacies. Ruja had an “on-and-off again” relationship with the authorities. Sometimes they were persecuted, but the official Soviet record label Melodiya nevertheless released several of Ruja’s records, after all.

Rock music as part of Estonia’s cultural identity

Although many rock bands did not have it easy in Estonia in the 1970s, it was still much easier to be a rock musician in Soviet Estonia than in Soviet Russia. In Russia, the persecution of independent rock artists was much more severe and as a result, the organic rock scene in Russia lagged behind Estonia.

In the 1980s the Estonian rock scene continued to expand. New punk bands like J.M.K.E. existed alongside Ruja, who continued strongly in the 80’s, and jazz fusion bands like Kaseke and Data began getting fans outside of the Soviet sphere. Along with traditional choral music, it was the Estonian rock scene which formed the two most important genres of the “Singing Revolution”. Music that in many countries is seen as self-indulgent or party music, became an important part of Estonia’s cultural identity in the years before re-independence.

“Along with traditional choral music, it was the Estonian rock scene which formed the two most important genres of the ‘Singing Revolution’.”

In many ways, the culmination of Estonia’s important role in establishing semi-independent rock music scene – and indeed a great deal of jazz in Soviet times – was the “Rock Summer” festival which began in 1988. The festival saw Estonia welcoming highly renowned artists from around the world who played to delighted audiences. The festivals line-up remained true to the spirit of Estonian rock; it did not discriminate against any particular sub-genre of rock.

The headliners of the original festival included progressive rock icon Steve Hackett of Genesis, John Lydon’s post punk pioneers PIL and the new-wave band Big Country. After years of being one of the few Soviet Republics whose contemporary rock captured the interest of the wider world, in the summer of 1988 some of the world’s most important and most diverse musical talents came to Estonia. With the exception of cancellation of 1990 (difficult to hold a rock festival in the middle of a revolution), the festival continued until 1997, and continued to attract some of the most impressive bands from around the world.

In an age where the internet makes the banning of music impossible and international artists often stop in Tallinn as part of world tours, the resurrected festival would not have the kind of unique significance the original one had. But it is good to remember the period when Estonia was producing revolutionary rock from within the Soviet system. In 1988 many of the biggest stars came not to festivals in Moscow or Kiev, but to tiny Tallinn – perhaps an acknowledgement that Tallinn was the Soviet capital of rock.

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Cover photo: Tõnu Trubetsky (second left, formed a band called Vennaskond in 1984) and singer-songwriter Villu Tamme (third left) with punk band J.M.K.E. in 1986 in Tallinn (punk.bumpclub.ee) * This article was originally published on 17 June 2013. It was lightly amended and edited on 17 August 2017. 

Neeme Järvi and modern orchestral traditions

When one looks back on the career of the still highly active Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi, one can see the model for the 21st century international conductor, something distinct from previous generations of maestros.*

What makes this aspect of Järvi’s career so interesting is that Järvi’s artistic temperament is well suited to the often less than ideal circumstances surrounding orchestral performance in the 21st century, thus allowing Järvi’s art to remain uncompromised during a time when many great conductors of the past might be aghast at working conditions of orchestras.

To understand Järvi’s place in the pantheon of conductors it is important therefore to understand how the role of conductor has changed since the golden age of romantic performance in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Conductors ruling over their orchestras like proud princes

In the late 19th and early 20th century great conductors were typically associated with a single orchestra with guest appearances limited to the geographic and cultural region around the home orchestra. Repertoire generally corresponded to one’s region, certainly in the cities that made up the axis of romantic orchestral music in the late 19th and early 20th century – think Vienna, St. Petersburg/Leningrad, Berlin, Paris and Moscow. Conductors ruled over their orchestras like proud princes over a creative kingdom.

Contrary to a lot of revisionist thinking, there was nothing negative about this “autocratic” orchestral rule, but rather the phenomenon of a conductor being able to shape his orchestra so thoroughly led to performances that were vastly more unique and expressive in quality than much late 20th century performance.

Names like Furtwängler and later Karajan meant the Berlin sound and Berlin repertoire. The same holds for Mravinsky in Leningrad, Mengelberg at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Golovanov in Moscow and later Svetlanov in Moscow. Just as sure as each orchestra had a distinct sound based on the musical identity of the region, so too did each conductor shape his orchestra according to his own artistic vision.

In terms of repertoire, one can hear an otherwise musically educated Viennese audience as recently as 1951, applaud in the middle of the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony, believing the piece to be over (it was merely a pause prior to the coda). This would never, for example happened in Vienna in 1951 during a performance of Beethoven or Brahms. The performance led by Wilhelm Furtwängler (one of the finest if not the finest conductor in the Austro-Germanic tradition) demonstrates how distant Russian music remained from the Germanic music world even after the Second World War.

Likewise, the music of Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss took a long time to reach Russian audiences. Mravinsky was one of the first Russian conductors to master Bruckner, whilst Svetlanov more or less brought Mahler to Russian audiences. Within the Czech tradition the names of Václav Neumann and Rafael Kubelík immediately spring to mind.

In Amsterdam Mengelberg helped bridge gaps between the Russian, Germanic and French traditions, holding one of the widest repertoires of his day. But even long after Mengelberg, the great conductors of the middle and late 20th century remained more of less confined to their roles as leaders of a musical tradition.

Karajan recorded the numbered symphonies of Tchaikovsky and conducted some Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, but his recordings of the classical and romantic Germanic titans dwarfed his Russian or French output. Likewise, even though Svetlanov conducted Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler, he is most remembered for being the first Russian conductor to record every piece of Russian orchestral music in what he rather accurately called ‘The Anthology of Russian Music’.

Järvi represents a departure from a trend

Neeme Järvi represents a departure from this trend. Järvi is of course known for conducting and recording more Estonian composers than any other conductor, but to say that he represents for Estonia what Svetlanov did to Russia, denies Järvi’s ground-breaking contributions outside of the Estonian tradition.

When someone says Furtwängler, you generally think of Beethoven. When someone says Mengelberg, one might think Strauss and Mahler (two close friends of Mengelberg); when one says Mravinsky, one thinks Tchaikovsky; when one says Svetlanov, one might think of Borodin and Myaskovsky, or Scriabin. But to say when one thinks of Järvi, you automatically think of Pärt, misses the larger aspect of Järvi’s output.

Järvi was one of the first internationally renowned conductors not to be confined to any particular repertoire, yet he added something unique to everything he conducted. He is not only equally convincing with Brahms as he is with Tchaikovsky (he’s recorded the complete symphonies of both), but it is something of a passion with Järvi to give lesser known European composers the exposure they didn’t have in previous generations. Composers like Kurt Atterberg, John Svendsen, the Estonian composer Eduard Tubin, Wilhelm Stenhammar and Alfred Schnittke represent just a very short list of composers that Järvi has not only brought to public attention, but committed to record – thus preserving their music for future generations.

What is interesting about Järvi is that in spite of proficiency in 20th century music, much of his focus outside of the great composers focuses on the lesser known composers of the late romantic period, composers who were contemporaries in terms of time with the likes of Scriabin, Dvorak and Bruckner. Beyond this, Järvi is keen to perform and record lesser known works by extremely celebrated composers. The much neglected, but magnificent 3rd Symphony of Aram Khachaturian and the two symphonies of Wagner are just two such examples of neglected pieces by otherwise well-known composers that Järvi has recorded.

In terms of orchestral homes, Järvi is probably best associated with the Gothenburg Symphony, but associations with the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, orchestras in Britain and throughout the United States also have seen productive and artistically rewarding days under Järvi’s direction. Most recently he took the helm of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, becoming the orchestras most important director since the orchestra was founded by the Ernest Ansermet (whose orchestra made many early stereo recordings for Britain’s Decca Records).

Breaking the mould

Järvi therefore breaks the mould of the conductors who generally restrained themselves to one or two orchestras and to a culturally defined musical canon. His rehearsal methods also seem distinctly modern. Sadly the days of lengthy and stringent rehearsals, which Mengelberg and Karajan were famed for, are becoming a rarity as a cut-throat business ethic runs rampant through classical music. But this development has not harmed Järvi whose rehearsal method has never been as exhaustive as many conductors of the past. Järvi creates a sound based on a balance of fluidity of intonation and timbre with a tempi that flow easily whilst remaining generally faithful to the score. In other words, his tempi are neither monotonous and heavy, but nor do they have the grand flourishes of rubato associated with the likes of Golovanov or Mengelberg.

In spite of helping bring more Estonian music to international audiences than any other conductor, Järvi doesn’t claim to bring “the Estonian sound” to his orchestras, but rather prefers being known for an individual sound that isn’t specially linked to any cultural tradition.

For Estonia, it is doubtless a source of pride that it was an Estonian conductor who has helped to make Arvo Pärt become the world’s most listened contemporary composer, but it is also good to know that it is an Estonian conductor who has brought obscure works from around the world to the forefront of music internationally.

Many other conductors remain content to confine themselves to works which are so widely known that many have multiple recordings by the same conductor. As the head of one of the great musical dynasties in the world today, the only question is which works will Järvi draw attention to as he continues to work actively in Switzerland, Estonia and beyond?

 

* Neeme Järvi is celebrating his 80th birthday on 07 June 2017. This article was originally published on 23 May 2013. Cover: Neeme Järvi (credit: Simon Van Boxtel.) Video: Neeme Järvi conducting Residentie Orkest in Hague on 20 September 2011 (compositions by Wagenaar/Bruch/Dvorák.) Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

Intimately Estonian: Maarja Nuut captures London’s musical imagination

Review: Estonian fiddler and singer Maarja Nuut wows London with her mix of contemporary sounds and Estonian traditions.

Musical minimalism has become something of a catch-all phrase, generally used to describe the mostly American and British composers who emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Their works are known for ambient arrangements and simple, often driving melody lines that contrast both with the complexity of post romantic music as well as the technical acrobatics of modernist composition. Thus, when I read that Maarja Nuut’s music was considered an exemplar of minimalism, I was rather surprised because it is something entirely different and insofar as it is, it is original, compelling and immersive.

Maarja Nuut - photo by Kris Süld

Appearing on the simultaneously sun-kissed and windswept terrace of London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on 20 July, the only thing minimal about Nuut’s performance were the performers on stage; just her along with Hendrik Kaljujärv on electronics. Not purely a musical recital, Nuut’s set consisted of multifaceted performance art incorporating spoken word, dance and poetry with her music.

Nuut’s music is a tasteful and often irresistible blend of Estonian folk traditions with contemporary experimental music. The apparent contradiction between ancient folkloric themes and a highly contemporary sonic aesthetic is not a musical concept easily synthesised. It is in Nuut’s clear individuality that this paradox is metamorphosed into a cohesive sonic pallet which she employs to create whimsical music that is often haunting and at other times deeply warming.

She combines vocal work with violin. Nuut’s violin playing is advanced without resorting to classical clichés while her vocal work is assured and enchanting. This was augmented by the electronics of Kaljujärv that are at all times tasteful, avoiding the house music clichés that plague many electronic performances as surely as neo-classical clichés often plague those attempting to use traditional western orchestral string instruments in a contemporary or improvisational setting.

Nuut’s set in London saw her spoken word and narrative poetic story telling meld with her violin and voice. At one point she incorporated dance into her performance with the sound of her footwork subsequently sampled by Kaljujärv, who transformed it into a bewitching rhythmic pattern.

Performing for over an hour, the London audience demanded more, clearly transfixed by Nuut’s 21st century take on timeless Estonian traditions.

Maarja Nuut - Kaupo Kikkas

In a contemporary music scene dominated on the one hand by cosmopolitan instrumental and ambient musicians and on the other by musicians who are often forced to sing in English as a means of reaching wider international audiences, Nuut’s unapologetically Estonian performance helps expose the intimate and personal nature of Estonian music to a global audience more familiar with the grandeur of Estonian choral music and the contemporary orchestral music of Arvo Pärt.

Musical audiences seeking to push the boundaries of often repetitive artist ought to look out for Maarja Nuut and her exciting brand of musical performance art.

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Cover: Maarja Nuut (photo by Kaupo Kikkas)

Mirjam Siim’s London debut: an international Estonian artist on the rise

Estonian contemporary artist Mirjam Siim’s solo exhibition, River of Life, opens in London on 18 July. It is her debut exhibition in Britain and follows her receiving first place in the Ashurst Prize for emerging artists. In her series of paintings and drawings, Siim alludes to the topographic river as a metaphor for both the physical and emotional life cycle. Challenging the Faustian notion of a linear existence, Siim’s art suggests life instead is perpetually circulating both in periods of violent flux and serene placidity.

Against this thematic backdrop, Siim has fashioned works that explore humanity’s symbiotic relationship with nature and with fellow individuals throughout moments of our love, laughter, triumph and struggle. She also portrays humanity’s propensity to toxify these relationships and exploit the vulnerabilities of our shared experiences.

River of Life has its genesis in Siim’s desire to create a series of works inspired by Island, the final novel of Aldous Huxley. In the book, Huxley explores the possibilities of an individualistic yet collectively intertwined utopia as a distinctive contrast from his earlier dystopian novel Brave New World. It is this spirit of enlightened optimism Huxley pursues in Island that is reflected in Siim’s art.

Mirjam Siim (Agnieszka Żywczyńska)

Like Huxley, who traded the terraces of Bloomsbury for the mysterious Hollywood Hills, the Estonian-born Siim has gone from the northeastern corner of Europe to its inverse geographical extreme, the sun-kissed sands of western Portugal. Siim’s travels have informed and inspired her work leading her to understand “home” as a relative concept, one which like her river of life is in perpetual flow, often ending in the place from whence it derived.

Art has been a central part of Siim’s life since childhood. Estonian World interviewed the artist ahead of her London exhibition.

Can you recall your first artistic experience?

The one that first comes to mind happened when I was six years old and had to do a drawing test to get into the local primary school, which was art-oriented. We had to draw a still-life of a toy car and a few more things that were placed on a chair, covered with linen. The teacher kept telling me I was drawing the whole thing too small, so I started over at least five times. In the end I was very disappointed in myself, but I managed to get in and thanks to that, eventually fixed my sense of composition also.

Who were some of your early artistic influences?

Probably my sister, who is five years older than me and was always very creative. Since we were small, she was very talented when it came to building doll houses or making cards for different occasions. Later on we both adapted to more serious occupations in the creative world.

treasures

Another artist, who has inspired me since I was around 15, is Gustav Klimt, whose work my art teacher at the time recommended to see, to look for inspiration for my middle-school’s graduation work.

What elements of Estonian culture have impacted and influenced your style and subject matter?

I think there has been more influence from Estonian culture hidden away in my work than I realise, as it is a natural part of me and my mentality. But what I can bring out consciously is probably the love and communion with nature, as it has been in Estonia throughout history. Also present in my work is the tranquillity and rationality that I believe is common among Estonians. Although I have to admit that during the period I lived in Estonia, my works were rather gloomy compared to my current works and topics, probably due to the long winters with minimum daylight and their effect on my mood.

Were your artistic talents encouraged in your childhood?

alice1Had to check that with my mother – in her words I drew a lot in the kindergarten and now and again my works were displayed in the corridor and she always felt very proud. At home I was busy playing other games and running around with the kids in the neighbourhood, but I do remember always preparing cards or small drawings for my friends and family for any kind of occasion.

I think I got motivated to continue with art more seriously when I was around 12-13, after winning a few art competitions and hearing the encouraging words from my first art teacher, I quit my sports-training and went to an evening art-school instead.

What led you to make Porto your home?

I fell in love with Porto after my first short visit here. I was determined to come back through the Erasmus programme during my third year of university. After staying here for one semester I decided to stay another and during that time I had already made a good friend, who later on became my boyfriend and with whom we adopted two cats. And now I am stuck here. But honestly, Porto is a wonderful place to live in and I have never felt as comfortable anywhere else. Also, compared with many other places I have lived, the personality of the people here is surprisingly similar to Estonians. So basically I have found my own kind, but on the other side of Europe, with more sun and cheaper wine!

How does the landscape and culture of Portugal impact your work via-a-vis that of Estonia?

The Portuguese people and culture have had a massive impact on my work since I arrived here. Even though I consider the personality of Portuguese and Estonian people similar in a lot of ways, there are so many differences in terms of culture, habits, interaction between people etc. I have been observing it since I arrived here and new subjects for painting just keep popping out!

Portugal - Mirjam Siim

To me it seems the Portuguese are quite simple (in a very good way!) and value the right things in life and truly enjoy living (even though they also enjoy complaining… but then again, who doesn’t?), and all of that has brought me to re-think many things I considered right before and has added perspectives that I never thought of before.

When did you first read Huxley’s Island and what was your initial reaction?

Mirjam SiimCoincidentally I read it while I was living on a small island myself – the Isle of White to be precise. Although the island I was living on was nothing like the one Huxley described in his book and maybe because of the contrast of two worlds, it left me with even deeper impression.

The book wasn’t an easy read, but since the beginning it fascinated me a lot and I was determined to do a series of illustrations about it. I only got to it years later, after finishing my university and with more time on my hands to read it again, analyse it and draw the images that appeared in my mind during the process. I think it is a book that everyone should read once in a life to understand how the world should really function.

What are your impressions of London’s contemporary art scene?

My contact with London’s art scene has been quite brief – during the times I lived there for short periods I was mainly working and only had time to visit the bigger galleries like Tate Modern, National Portrait Gallery etc. I am aware that there is a lot more than that in London and from my short experience in the other galleries I visited during my stay there I wouldn’t say that it is too different than the art scene in Tallinn or Porto – there is something for every taste and it is always changing.

What are your plans for the future?

Now more motivated than ever, I will keep concentrating on my art and the objective is to get better with doing it and also managing it.

Mirjam Siim III

I would like to continue participating in different projects, involving street art, product design, graphic design, collaborations with other artists and anything else that I can use my creativeness for. Ideally in a way that I can also make a (more stable) living with it at the same time.

Mirjam Siim’s River of Life opens at the gallery space of Ashurst, LLC in the City of London. Visit the website to make an appointment.

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Cover: Mirjam Siim – ‘River’

Adam Garrie: Brexit – before and beyond

As Britain decides its future relationship with the European Union, it is important to understand the implications for other European countries and people as well as where it all began.

It may surprise and perhaps delight many in Estonia to discover that the foremost founder of the 20th century concept of European Unionism was intellectually conceived by a man who was half-Japanese. Richard Nikolaus Eijiro, also titled as the Count of Coudenhove-Kalerg, was half Japanese and, of course, Estonia and Japan have for many years held a fraternal bond in respect of culture, sport, art and, most importantly, interpersonal interaction. Unlike Latvia and Finland, Japan has never been nor shall ever be a member of the European Union and yet, most Estonians, like most Japanese, feel a mutual and fraternal bond between one another. This is a clear example of how culture, heritage and fraternal relations are more compelling and important than political considerations.

These facts become even more salient when one examines the topic of the day: the so-called Brexit, the United Kingdom’s proposed withdrawal from the European Union. From the year 1973, the United Kingdom has been a member of the EU. Like most relationships, there have been ups and downs. On the one hand, being a part of a European community has allowed Britain to manage its gradual decline as a geo-political power in a manner that is graceful and, in doing so, gain access to trading, cultural and social/migratory opportunities that would otherwise not be afforded. On the other hand, such a relationship has emphasised and, indeed, expedited its demise as a country that could command power and influence over a wider world, including and especially parts of the world it once ruled as an imperial power. It is something of a Freudian divorce with all the overtones of a party political ideological orgy.

But where are we today? Not in a good place. Britain, like Russia, is intrinsically not a European country. Britain and Russia are countries that bookend the European plain in such a way so as to be manifestly involved yet transcendentally apart. This is a fact of culture and political considerations no matter how violent cannot change one’s culture. The survival of Estonian culture is one such example of this.

“Britain, like Russia, is intrinsically not a European country.”

As things stand now, I shall declare my own position. I am opposed to the European Union as presently comprised, not just for Britain, but for all member states. I find it to be a boated, corrupt, bellicose, interventionist, economically deterministic and un-democratic bloc that does not work in the interest of the men and women it proclaims to represent. But do I favour a return to the small, insignificant, warring states of the inter-war period? Of course not. I am an internationalist in the most linguistically literal sense of the phrase. I believe all nations should cooperate to decrease trade barriers, ethnic and religious tensions, the plague of nationalism and strive to create a global community based on pragmatic understanding rather than suspicion and ideologically driven competition.

In terms of Europe, how can this be done? Not through a bloated bureaucracy but through a simple treaty or perhaps set of treaties which enshrine the following:

  1. Freedom of movement
    2. Freedom of trade
    3. Basic standards of product quality control
    4. Basic standards of living/working conditions.

This could be easily implemented via a treaty rather than via an overblown organisation which increasingly seems more concerned with re-making the world in its theoretical image than improving the lives of the people under its rule.

“Cooperation could be easily implemented via a treaty rather than via an overblown organisation which increasingly seems more concerned with re-making the world in its theoretical image than improving the lives of the people under its rule.”

This is what the Brexit debate should have been about, but alas, this hasn’t come to pass. Instead, politicians of left and right have proved to maxim of Lord Acton that “all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. A debate that should have been about sovereignty, identity in a post imperial world, proper economics, the nature of post-modern democracy and relations with friendly peoples, has instead been turned into the most vulgar mudslinging spectacle Britain has witnessed in a generation.

The “remain” and “exit” campaigns must share blame equally in this respect. Both have let down the people they seek and claim to represent. In an ideal situation, both sides would have agreed to the following: the prominent Brexit campaigners of all parties and none who are not currently members of parliament in the House of Commons should have been given seats in the House of Lords so that they could form a caretaker national/all parties government, should the people of Britain decide to vote for European withdrawal. Likewise, people should have offered and formed a cohesive manifesto for a Britain outside of the European Union. Simultaneously, the parties and individuals campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union should have put forward a manifesto based on the advantages of remaining rather than sound bites based of frightening people about the supposed realities that might occur upon withdrawal. All sides much share an equal portion of the blame in this respect.

“A debate that should have been about sovereignty, identity in a post imperial world, proper economics, the nature of post-modern democracy and relations with friendly peoples, has instead been turned into the most vulgar mudslinging spectacle Britain has witnessed in a generation.”

But what for Estonia and Estonians? Estonia is a proudly independent country, its citizens are generally good people, beautiful people, intelligent people. But Estonia also has problems. Substitute the word Estonia for Britain and the statement remains factual. Estonians, like most Britons, are happy to be members of a collective unit that ideally is based on free trade among small nations, a corporation among generally like-minded people and a fraternity among those who seek to live, work, visit and retire in one another’s countries in a manner that is free from the pains of bureaucratic interference.

But how does the vote in Britain on 23 June impact on this? The short answer is, it does not. Even if Britain exits the European Union, Britain will still be part of the European Economic Area and it is this agreement which guarantees the right of citizens of counties who are mutual signatories to such an agreement the right to live, work or retire in all signatory nation states. Taking things a step further, Switzerland is not even a member of the European Economic Area, let alone the European Union, but an Estonian has every much right to live in Switzerland as he does in Finland, Britain or Germany.

In reality, British voters, like many others, are cautious voters. While I am in favour of a system that offers a pragmatic alternative to the European Union for all current member states, I am so ashamed of the vast majority on both sides of the Brexit campaign that I am perversely delighted to say that I believe British voters will decide to remain by a margin of approximately 53%.

“The position of Estonians in Britain and Britons in Estonia shall not change. Fear is combatted not with paranoia but with pragmatism, it is with this spirit that all the peoples of Europe ought to properly unite in the name of peace, prosperity and freedom against its governmental antithesis.”

I hope that in future years or maybe even decades, peoples from all European Union countries will realise there is a better way. I hope people will realise that one can have all the benefits of a customs union and a free movement area without the corrupt and un-democratic bureaucracy that currently exists in Brussels. But until then, have no fear. The position of Estonians in Britain and Britons in Estonia shall not change. Fear is combatted not with paranoia but with pragmatism, it is with this spirit that all the peoples of Europe ought to properly unite in the name of peace, prosperity and freedom against its governmental antithesis.

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover courtesy of Shutterstock. Read also: Brexit: hidden implications for Baltic security

Adam Garrie: Nordic by Nordic East: Estonia’s regional identity

In terms of both historical accuracy and political strategy, more and more Estonians are turning to the concept of a Nordic political identity. Shaking the toxic “Eastern European” label could only be politically beneficial to Estonia.

National identity has always been and always will be a controversial subject, but what about regional identity? Few people have the sentimental or romantic feelings about regional identity that they do about national identity. The only exceptions to this are when large regions are summarily colonised by states from faraway places. In these instances, a regional identity is used as a means of asserting collective independence over a former imperial overlord. Sub-Saharan Africa in the 20th century is a prime example of this.

But the last 300 years of European history have been about forming national identities and increasingly associating those identities with the state. This is especially true of nation states born from the remains of the German, Austrian, Russian and Ottoman empires.

The European Union is a political unit which has the potential to represent a kind of regional identity, but in spite of the EU identity entering the legal framework of many governments, it hasn’t entered the cultural vocabulary. I have never heard anyone describe themselves as European. Even local identities are more likely to come up in conversation.

Because of this, regional identities within Europe are more to do with political strategy and salesmanship rather than anything emotional, let alone violent. There are no “regionalist” neo-fascist groups as there are nationalist neo-fascist groups and one must be thankful for this. Understanding the importance of using language (in this case English, the world’s most international language) to change misconceptions of a nation becomes more clear when one listens to debates within Britain about EU membership.

Of course there are many intelligent eurosceptic views throughout Europe and, of course, this includes Britain, but here it is important to focus on the more demagogic strand of eurosceptic. Politicians like Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, like to talk about the European freedom of movement as the “immigration problem”. Already we see how Farage is using language to his advantage. Freedom of movement is, by definition, not immigration; it is migration, yes, but so, too, is a German moving freely from Berlin to Munich.

When pressed to clarify what politicians perceive to be an “immigration problem”, figures like Farage or Theresa May (the UK home secretary who is less internationally famous and rhetorically brilliant than Farage but vastly more powerful) talk about “Eastern European immigration”. They never define what “Eastern European” means, but there is an unspoken sentiment amongst certain people that gives it a very clean meaning.

“Eastern European” does not, for example, mean Greece, although it’s one of the easternmost countries in the EU. It doesn’t mean Finland either, even though Finland has one of the EU’s largest “Eastern” frontiers. What it means are the A8 states, the states which entered the EU in 2004. These states include the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Malta.

With the exception of the British Commonwealth member Malta, these states were all members of the Warsaw Pact (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were occupied by the Soviet Union at the time). In spite of some politicians in Britain and other non-Warsaw Pact states claiming solidarity with these states in the decades after the Second World War, since the 1990s these states are increasingly looked upon as socially, culturally and economically backward by certain groups. This generalisation is then extrapolated to the individuals born in these states. The tabloid papers are full of negative generations about the people they refer to as “Eastern Europeans”.

While the geographical position of Eastern is not derogatory by itself nor is referring to someone coming from one of the world’s seven continents derogatory, the power of language has turned two seemingly innocuous words into a powerful statement of prejudice.

How does this effect Estonia? Well, first of all, as the country with the second smallest population of all the A8 states, Estonian migrants could hardly “flood” or “swamp” any nation. So how then to re-brand Estonia? There’s the idea of a Baltic states’ identity, but this comes with its own negative connotations and historical inaccuracies.

The Estonian culture and language is not related to that of the other Baltic states. Furthermore, the term, “Baltic states”, only entered the wider English political vocabulary when all three states were occupied by the Soviet Union at the same time; hence there are more negative than positive associations with the term Baltic states. Then there’s the geographical problem that Russia, Poland and Germany have large Baltic coasts and these states have never been termed “Baltic states”.

In terms of both historical accuracy and political strategy, more and more Estonians are turning to the concept of a Nordic political identity. The Nordic countries have traditionally comprised of the Scandinavian language states along with Finland. Because Estonians are ethnically a Fennic people and speak a Fennic language, many are drawing closer to the idea of presenting a regional Nordic identity to the wider world.

“Because Estonians are ethnically a Fennic people and speak a Fennic language, many are drawing closer to the idea of presenting a regional Nordic identity to the wider world.”

In terms of intellectual realities, these wider questions of a regional identity are quite silly. What’s the point of creating labels for this or that group of people when in the age of Wikipedia, anyone with a smartphone can read the basics of Estonian history in 15 minutes. But shaking the toxic “Eastern European” label could only be politically beneficial to Estonia and because no other Nordic states were in the Warsaw Pact, the Nordic brand name sells better than most others.

Exploring this topic reminds one that categories used to divide people do little to push the world further from an age of suspicion and closer to an age of cooperation. But since such labels exist for the sake of convenience, better to have a label that attracts positive attention than one which has unfortunate negative connotations.

I

The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: the Oeselians were a historical subdivision of Estonians inhabiting Saaremaa island. The Oeselians were known in the Old Norse Icelandic Sagas as Víkingr frá Esthland (vikings from Estonia). Photo of the restored Viking ship by Kaarel Mikkin (courtesy of EAS).

Maestro Paavo Järvi talks Paris, Estonia, Russia and music with Estonian World

On the eve of conducting the opening concerts of the new Philharmonie de Paris, Maestro Paavo Järvi found time to speak to Estonian World about the new hall in Paris, as well as Estonia, Russia, and music.

As Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris, one of the main resident ensembles, renowned Estonian conductor Paavo Järvi conducts the opening gala concert at the brand new Philharmonie de Paris building in France.

Celebrations begin with the inaugural gala concert on 14 January, when Järvi and the Orchestre de Paris are joined by soloists Hélène Grimaud, Renaud Capuçon and Matthias Goerne. Commissioned especially for this opening, the programme includes the world premiere of French composer Escaich’s Concerto for Orchestre. The long-awaited new concert hall in Paris, designed by the award-winning French architect, Jean Nouvel, will be inaugurated by French President François Hollande.

In advance of the opening, Estonian World spoke to Maestro Järvi about Paris, Estonia, Russia and music.

So, first of all, the new Philharmonie De Paris is opening this week and you will be leading the opening concert. What programme have you selected for the evening?

It’s an all French program and they’re all chosen, sort of, to showcase, if that’s the right word, different areas of French music – French repertoire. We are starting with a funny piece by Edgar Varèse called Tuning Up. It is a piece where everybody goes on stage and pretends to start tuning [the instruments] but the tuning itself is already a piece and it’s kind of a witty and slightly symbolic piece, because it will be symbolic to the hall fine-tuning for the first performance. It was written for “Carnegie Hall” – the film – and it was never used, because it was too modern and too quirky. It was, I think, the only time Varèse did something for a film or had some involvement with Hollywood.

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The second is going to be Dutilleux’s “Sur le même accord”, a little violin piece written for Anne-Sophie Mutter in the eighties and here it will be played by Renault Capuçon.

Next is going to be four selections from the Fauré Requiem, to show a more romantic and vocal side of French music. We will have our chorus of the Orchestre de Paris, with Matthias Goerne, perform it.

After that we will have a world premiere, it wouldn’t be right not to have one on an occasion like that, by Thierry Escaich, a composer who I consider maybe one of the most interesting composers of the younger generation, well, the middle aged generation really. He’s a wonderful living composer, a French composer and also an organist. It’s a piece called Concerto for Orchestra and it’s 30 minutes long, a big and very involved piece.

philharmonie-de-paris

We will finish with Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No.2” performed by our chorus, as well. Did I mention Hélène Grimaud?

Oh, sorry. Hélène Grimaud, in the first half, will also play Ravel’s Concerto.

So it’s a very long programme you’ve put together.

Yes, it’s kind of a gala program, trying to sort of show a little bit of variety in the French repertoire and French soloists.

There’s been a lot of controversy about the new hall. One of the reasons being it’s not in the centre of Paris and a few other things. Have you been involved in that at all or have you stayed neutral? What’s your view on that?

To be honest with you, I think that whenever there is something that major and massive being built – and this is a huge, expensive, grand undertaking – there are always going to be positive and negative sides to it. There’s always going to be controversy and polemics but that’s the way it should be, I think it’s important to discuss and voice opinions.

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The upside is that it’s a new hall and I can now say it’s a wonderful hall from the point of view of acoustics because yesterday we were there for the first time on stage with the hall full of people and it is a big success acoustically. The downside of it is that it is not in the centre but on the other hand it is still in Paris and it is in the Cité de la Musique, which is the kind of a vision that Boulez had at one point – to create a city of music with a new music centre. That kind of completes that mission, so the idea is not new and I think in the best-case scenario it will rejuvenate this area and recreate it as an artistic centre.

How willing are the hard-core, mainstream, classical music lovers to follow and make that journey every week, to something which is about 45 minutes away from the centre, remains to be seen. But today, standing right now, at the brink of opening a new hall I think all of these discussions are pointless and a thing of the past.

Paavo Järvi by Ventre Photos

I think today the things we need to celebrate are the facts that we’re opening it, the acoustics are good and it looks absolutely sensational. Inside it has one of the most attractive halls I’ve ever been in and that includes all the great new halls I’ve recently conducted in: Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall, the classic old-new hall Berliner Philharmonie, which is maybe one of the best examples how a modern hall can become great, despite its unorthodox design and appearance.

So today, I think, all these discussions are a thing of the past. It is pointless because we are literally opening it tomorrow night, it’s done. It remains to be fine-tuned, we need to learn how to play in it, because we need to get used to it but it is a huge success.

Turning to various musical approaches. Two of my favourite recent cycles of symphonic works have been your Beethoven and Bruckner, which were recorded over a long period of years.

You’re just biased. (Chuckles.)

Well, no, I’ve enjoyed them both. But what I did notice is you took a very different approach, I would say, to the two cycles. Obviously different composers but two of the great symphonists of the 19th century. Did you consciously take a different approach to the two composers?

I do. I make every decision completely consciously because I think that Bruckner and Beethoven were both in their own way in the need of a re-evaluation in one way but of course re-evaluation cannot happen in the same way. What Beethoven, I felt, needed is something that works for him and something else works for Bruckner. Bruckner is not helped by historical point making. There is a very fine line between the academic lessons of how things used to be and also listening to the piece itself and how the evolution from Beethoven on has affected Bruckner.

paavo-jarvi-prague-spring-festival-zdenek-chrapek

I never was out to go on stage trying to make a point; I always try to see what the music tells me and try to listen to it. Because when you listen hard enough, it will tell you exactly what it needs. Of course it’s very subjective, different people hear different things and that’s why we still play these pieces, to have a different point of view. I find that over objectifying Bruckner doesn’t, in the long term, do him any favours. I think there’s a very fine line between following the historic or the hip, as we call it, historically informed performance practice and allowing the use of artistic license. At the end of the day with all the scholarship and all the historic analysis one does, you have to trust your personal intuition and inner direction.

Yes. So going on from that, do you think, for you, there would ever be a possibility of exploring Beethoven in this more modern, less hip, sense? Or do you think Beethoven, at this point, only works in a more focused, more historically informed, steady context?

I think Beethoven, in a strange way, works convincingly in a very old fashioned, I mean in a romantic sense. And it can be very historically informed. The success of a Beethoven symphony depends on the strength of the personality of the performer. I find it difficult to listen to the modern romantic performances because they simply are not convincing. On the other hand I listen to Furtwängler and I’m very convinced. And yet it is kind of a romantic approach but somehow something about that personality, the way he manages to keep the tension and intensity, works. So I think there’s no right or wrong. For me personally, I don’t think I can go back to sort of Bruno Walterish approach to Beethoven but I wouldn’t say it’s wrong.

I see. So it really is more about the personality than, saying that one style is superior to the other?

I think so.

You are also, in addition to conducting, known for your sense of humour, your online posts, which many people read. Do you think, to quote Frank Zappa, that humour belongs in music, in classical music in particular?

Absolutely. Life without laughter would not be worth living. In so many cases it’s the only thing that allows us to see absurdity and relax, to look and laugh at ourselves. One of the healthiest and most important things is the ability to laugh at yourself and to see how absurd this world is. Laughing at others is not that important.

paavo-jarvi-photo-by-jean-christophe-uhl

I have two children who are 8 and 10. If there’s one thing I could give or pass on to them, being constantly away from home, is the ability to laugh, to have a sense of humour, to see the absurdity of life. It is actually still startling, to take a step back and look at what’s going on around you and see how absurd life really is and how difficult would it be to bare any of this nonsense, without being able to laugh at it.

I will have to agree with all of that. We are from Estonian World and I would like now to turn to the music scene in Estonia. I was wondering, as of now, what do you think the condition of music is in Estonia? Is it healthy? Is it leaving much to be desired? On top of that, where are the strengths in Estonian music right now and where is there room for the most of improvement?

I think all in all, the musical life in Estonia is in very good shape; it’s very healthy. I like the fact there are a lot of strong personalities who are creating their own thing. I like people who are creating their own festivals, who are creating their choirs, who are creating new music ensembles. I like people who are creating festivals of various directions – opera festivals, new music festivals, vocal festivals and so on. I am impressed by the ingenuity and also the will to be creative and to fight for things that they are interested in and believe in. There is a lot of energy.

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I must say – although I am always cautious when praising politicians, because it is a type of activity that can lead you in wrong and unpredictable directions – I feel Estonia is still a country that is doing extremely well when it comes to politicians supporting and understanding the importance of art. Within their own constraints, budgets and possibilities, they still support Estonian artists, festivals and orchestras. I really want to encourage this, because it is, whether we like it or not, our number one calling card to the world; it is Estonian art, music and especially classical music.

Do you have any plans to do any major projects in Estonia in the near future?

The main project, and it is probably the closest to my heart, is the Pärnu festival that I’m doing every summer, we are doing, I should say because it’s a very collaborative effort. I am the artistic advisor. The conducting course that is called Järvi Academy has been going on for four or five years now and it’s really gaining momentum. We have a very international following and there’re a lot of people taking part. You can see some good, young conductors coming out of there; in fact, one is my assistant here in Paris, a young French conductor, who I first saw in the conducting course in Estonia. So this is something I definitely want to continue and see flourish.

Ventre Photos

What I wanted to make you aware of is something we did last year, a rather scandalous performance with the Estonian national orchestra, where I was also an artistic advisor and have been for many years. It was a whole evening of Shostakovich cantatas. He wrote three of them. One of them is an absolute masterpiece called “The Execution of Stepan Razin” and the other two are very Sovietic cantatas – “The Sun Shines Over Homeland” and “Song of the Forest”.

We played them last year and the record is coming out from Erato Records this April. This is something I hope you will get a hold of because it is exactly this duality which is so important to point out, especially in the light of what is happening in Russia at the moment; of how great artists in Russia, in order to survive and do their thing had to play a double game, like a lot of great artist are doing it now.

Shostakovich, Oistrakh, Rozhdestvensky, Rostropovich and you name it; all of them did the same thing, they had no other choice. It is very interesting to see all those three cantatas under the same label, on the same record, because you see the two extremely opposing sides of the great genius composer.

When I was in Estonia, it got so out of hand that I actually had to have a bodyguard with me because the local papers started publishing articles about me praising Stalin in my concert program. It was because the lyrics in one of the cantatas were praising Stalin but during the Brezhnev time, the texts were changed so that Stalin’s name was not mentioned. I put all the original lyrics back together with the absolutely incredible and absurd twists, which were cleaned up after the regime change, so you get something really scary.

paavo-jarvi-photo-by-ixi-chen

Then comes the cantata of Stepan Razin, which is kind of a critical view of the Soviet regime, looking through that historic precedent. It is a very interesting thing. By the way, so that you know in April I am having the 7th symphony of Shostakovich released in pentatonic scales, with the Russian national orchestra. So it’s going to be a month of Shostakovich and both records very much reflect what is going on politically in Russia now, because the 7th symphony has also nothing to do with the German Nazis, it has more to do with the Soviet Nazis. If you are interested, look it up when it’s released in April. I am particularly proud that one of them is coming out from Estonia with all Estonian choir and orchestra, although we do have two Russian artists.

Can I just ask you from the perspective of orchestral technique, do you find working with Russian orchestras significantly different than the main European ones, whether it’s Paris, Frankfurt or anywhere else in Europe?

I have only worked recently and regularly with two Russian orchestras. One is the Mariinsky theatre orchestra, which is absolutely excellent, and the other is the Russian national orchestra in Moscow, usually conducted by Pletnev, which is also absolutely excellent. But we have to keep in mind that these orchestras are cream of the crop, they are the two best in Russia. It is hard for me to compare them with the rest of Europe. These two orchestras have an exceptionally strong string quality.

The Russian string school is the best. Even though a lot of people are lamenting that it is disappearing, it’s not really. The best string playing in Russia is still excellent, the type of sound they produce and the technical clarity is something that is still there. And if you listen to English string playing, it’s yet another thing because there’s efficiency and clarity but the concept of sound is less warm. Basically it’s more efficiency rather than sound oriented and it has something to do with their vast repertoire, they have simply found this kind of a generic sound for everything. And I am not saying it is a bad thing, I’m just saying there is a certain acceptable string sound that they play Debussy with, as well as Wagner and it sort of fits both but it’s not ideal.

die deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen

If you look at the Berlin philharmonics or, better yet, Dresden or Gewandhaus, it’s obvious they cannot play Debussy but they can play Wagner. So there is a certain reality to bigger cities where they have no choice but to be masters of many trades and while in the old established orchestras, including Russian orchestras, they still very seldom play any other music than Russian, frankly. Only with an exception of maybe Gergiev’s orchestra which actually plays a lot of different things because of the rather interesting and eclectic personality of Gergiev, who goes into various styles and eras of music.

And the Russian brass, traditionally they’ve been famed for very heavy vibrati, almost continually, is that still a tradition today?

I must say that the type of brass playing I heard in Russian national orchestra was excellent. They didn’t have this abrasive, typical Russian brass sound that you would hear from old soviet recordings or even Stravinsky recordings, anymore. But there is still an edge that makes for a very distinct colour of sound and I like it, specifically in the music they specialize in.

Finally turning back to France and particularly to Paris. Unfortunately Paris was in the news last week for something other than music – the attacks that we all saw there. I was wondering if you and the orchestra are doing any kind of memorial for that or how that might be addressed?

It is obviously… We are in the middle of this incredible moment in history where, you know, in the centre of Paris there are targeted killings by Muslim extremists. I mean, this is a kind of a game changer if one can say that things will never ever be the same, a little bit like after 9/11, where certain truths need to be rethought and certain realities will never be the same.

I think the real politics happening in the real world as opposed to our world, the musical world, are interconnected in one way but of course they are so much different and all we can do is to be aware and voice our opinions and certainly we are dedicating, and right away the president of France who is coming, declared that the opening of the new philharmonic will be dedicated to the victims of this catastrophe, this event. Obviously everything now is associated and connected to the shootings.

Yes, I see. Well, hopefully this new opening will bring some light and some more optimism to what’s not been the best of times at all for Paris. Again, maestro, thank you so much for sitting down with me and Estonian World and I wish you all the best of luck for the opening.

Thank you very much!

I

Cover: Maestro Paavo Järvi at Prague Spring Festival/Photo by Zdenek Chrapek.

Estonian company looks to change digital learning across the globe

KidED is a new learning app developed in Estonia that looks to be a game changer both literally and metaphorically.

The first app that is directly integrated into any other activity a child is engaged in on a tablet or smart phone, KidED gives kids the freedom to play the games they love while learning and giving parents the freedom not to have to try and force their kids to play a learning app rather than their favourite game. Estonian World spoke with KidED founder Alari Truuts about how he came up with the app and why this is the right time for it.

KidED is one of the newest learning-games apps for kids on the market. How does it work and how does it differ from older similar apps?

First of all, we’re unsure whether we can classify KidED as a learning game, it’s best to call it an application for parents that provides game-based learning for their kids.

However, KidED differs from every other learning application currently on the market because, unlike other learning apps, where a parent has to sit down with their child and do the educational activities side by side, KidED is an interval based learning application, where a parent just activates the app and educational quizzes will be brought up in specifically timed intervals, pausing the child’s current activity. After each quiz is solved, the game or other activity a child is engaged in will resume right where it was before it was paused.

We also provide the parents with statistics on how well their kid is performing and in what subjects they might need a little more help with.

What inspired you to design this app?

Well, frankly there was a need for this kind of solution. Our kids are always sitting on their tablets or our mobile phones and getting them to do something educational isn’t always easy, especially when you hope to leave them alone as they use a learning app – that just doesn’t work, somehow they always find their way to Angry Birds or something else more appealing to them. KidED solves this by allowing kids to use whatever game or other apps they enjoy using, then intimately pausing this so the kid can solve a quiz before returning back to their favourite games. It’s an app that gives children freedom to have fun and to parents freedom to be assured their kids will be learning without having to constantly remind their kids to “get off angry birds and use an educational app”.

What kind of kids will use the app?

KidED is intended for ages three to eight, although older kids can also benefit from our range of quizzes.

Which platforms will support the app?

Currently the application is only available for Android-based devices. We’ve looked into building it for iOS, but at this time this is not possible because of Apple’s restrictions for programmers.

Which countries are the primary target markets?

Initially we’re targeting our homeland – Estonia – and the UK, the US and Australian markets. But soon we will have versions for German, French and Spanish-speaking countries as well as the other Nordic and Scandinavian countries.

Is it available if different languages?

Yes. Every market gets the app in its own language.

Which subject areas are covered in the quizzes?

Right now we have: learning to read, letters, numbers, math, logic and learning to tell time. These are spread over 70 different quiz packages which contain a total of more than 700 questions. We intend to extend this list in further development, when we’ll also include new types of quizzes. Our goal is to add five to ten new packages each week. All of the quiz questions have been designed by leading pedagogues to ensure to most thorough and modern learning experience.

How can the app be integrated with other e-learning systems and concepts?

In addition to kids using KidED at home we hope to have primary schools integrate the app during various playtime activities.

Where is KidED based?

Tallinn.

Do you have plans to develop the app further?

Yes, we’re very excited about our future plans for KidED. There will be an even more thorough statistics system, we plan on making app-based activation available soon, where KidED is automatically activated when certain apps are used (a kids game) but not activated when parents are using one of their apps whether it be a finance app or let’s say Google Maps. We also plan to add even more types of quizzes and games. Also we intend to bring in voice guidance for kids who are not reading and a lot more.

Tõnu Õnnepalu’s book “Radio” goes live in English

Estonian writer Tõnu Õnnepalu’s Raadio was original published in Estonia in 2002, but this year Dalkey Archive Press has released Adam Cullen’s English translation of the novel. The book deals with universal human problems, including questions of isolation and identity, while also confronting more specific challenges of how to come back to one’s homeland after years abroad as well as introspective crises over sexual anxiety. Each of these themes, as well as Õnnepalu’s approach to fiction, were recently discussed during an event launching the English language edition of Radio at Waterstone’s Books in London’s Bloomsbury.

Radio by Onnepalu

Õnnepalu begins by explaining the significance radio had and continues to have in his own life. He explains that radio provides a deeply intimate connection to the wider world which is crucial when living on a small island off of Estonia’s mainland, as he has done for many years. For Õnnepalu, who has never owned a television, there is a kind of immediacy to radio which can approximate the reality of being at a musical performance or having a personal conversation, something other forms of modern communication devices have never been able to replicate. It was the radio which the novel’s protagonist used as a means to answer questions about his own identity and to better understand the contradictions in society, something which appears to be partly based on Õnnepalu’s own experiences.

The novel’s protagonist is an openly gay filmmaker from Estonia who spent a decade living in Paris where he engaged in a one-off love affair with the aging diva Liz Franz. Upon arriving back in Estonia, he attempts to reconcile what he sees as the pomposity of consumerist Paris with the equivalent pomposity of Soviet Estonia. For those interested in a rather poetical (rather than merely political or materialist) interpretation of the contrasts between the capitalist and communist world, Radio will surely offer a great deal of stimulating material. Likewise for those wanting to explore how themes of sexual frustration and isolation were dealt with by one of Estonia’s most cutting edge novelists in the aftermath of Soviet rule, Radio also will prove an important reference point.

It was widely acknowledged that Cullen’s translation of Õnnepalu’s lengthy work was quite a difficult task, not least because there are not many professional translators of Estonian literary works. During the evening, the multi-lingual Õnnepalu was asked if he ever reads any of his novels in translation to see if a translator has correctly captured the original text. Õnnepalu responded that he does not, but rather prefers to put his full trust in the translator even when he is literate in the language into which his novel is being translated. He did however offer an amusing anecdote about when a Taiwanese reader discovered one of his novels in Paris and decided to translate it into a dialect of Chinese based on a conglomeration of the French and English translations. Noting some discrepancies between the French and the English (and not being literate in Estonian), the man sent Õnnepalu questions so that he could clarify which meaning got it closer to the original. This was one of the only times Õnnepalu actually examined his works in a language other than Estonian.

After the event Estonian World asked Õnnepalu further questions about his novel and his general approach to writing.

Do all members of any society suffer an identity crisis at one time or another? If so, are certain kinds of people affected by an identity crisis more than others? 

In a certain extent it is absolutely normal and human to have an identity crisis at one or another moment of your life. It is to ask: who am I, what do I believe, is it real what I’m doing and looking for, or is it just a play, a role? Often it is not so conscious, it just happens in a way and takes a form of, for instance, a divorce, changing (not very wisely always) one’s profession or the place of living. The person tries to move from the situation that seems not to be true to a more real one. But perhaps it is not the outside situation but one’s own attitude toward it that is not true?

Tõnu Õnnepalu by Enn Veevo

Of course, there are moments when a whole nation passes through an identity crisis, like it happened in Estonia in the beginning of 90ies. There were ideals: many people somehow believed that the beautiful (idealised in the false memories) life of the time before the war comes back with the restored republic. Of course, then happened a clash between the beliefs and reality. In fact it gave a great dynamics (even if sometimes unhappy) to the society. There was much creativity, much seeking. In everyone’s life this kind of collective crisis takes a personal form. It may lead to something new; it may lead to bitterness, drinking, suicide, to many things. But altogether the life of a human being is made up of crises. Childhood, school, puberty, love, getting old, dying etc.

It is generally admitted that the people at the marge of society are more apt to have an identity crisis. Ie, gay people. It is a half-truth. If you are different from what a woman or a man is meant generally to be at this very moment of the time, you may start to reflect yourself more, to ask more, who I am and why. A person who believes he is totally “normal” asks more about others than about himself. This is his way to have an identity crisis. It may take a form of hatred, of being very critical toward some other people. But still, it is an identity crisis, it may be even harder as it never names itself, is always seeking an outside object that is always a false object. So one may die in bitterness and hatred, just because one never faced one’s own identity crisis and searched always the reasons of unease and unhappiness from among the others, from outside.

A writer must, in any case, face his own crisis, ask about who he is; must at least try to be honest towards himself: it’s the only justification of being honest towards the others (which is seldom pleasant).

What would you say are the main frustrations of the protagonist in Radio

His main frustrations are his ideals. They are too high. His ideals are impersonated in the figure of Liz Franz, a famous chanteuse whom he idolatred in his early years. The real Liz Franz is never at the height of the ideal one, even if she is sometimes surprisingly better and cleverer than the protagonist has believed. And so about himself, his loves. They are always disappointing. His main task is to learn to face the life and himself directly, not through the perverse glasses of ideals. This is a hard and painful task, but he makes a small progress indeed. Thanks to Liz Franz, her disappearing from his life, he has to remake it without.

How personal a novel is Radio

It is very personal, like all my novels have been. And it is not at all, like all others. I have used my own experience to build up the main character, but it is not me; it’s a character, often he is and acts and believes in the opposite way than I would. It’s like in theatre: an actor builds up a role on the basis of what he or she is. There is no other basis. But the role is not him or her. It’s a way of reflecting what one is and what one might have been. We have many possibilities in us, better and worse of what we are in reality. Acting in the play or writing a book is a harmless and sometimes useful way to live the possibilities you have but you never realise (and even don’t want to realise). It’s a curious experience to be somebody else – who is still yourself. There are all the others present in us, but happily and unhappily we live in the narrow limits of what we really are.

Do you think non-Estonians would have radically different interpretations of Radio than Estonian readers? 

In some topics, most certainly. An Estonian reader takes more personally and perhaps more painfully the relationship that the protagonist has with his national identity, with his country, its culture. For a reader abroad, they are just a country and an identity, a culture. He knows much less about them, but thus he may better catch what really matters in the books. It’s finally not so important that it happens to be Estonia. Well, it is important, but still. I would like myself to be such a reader who knows little about the realities that are in the book. It would be a fresh sight. Some things are more clear while we look from the outside, from the distance.

What excites you most about having your novels translated from their original Estonian? 

Most exciting are the unexpected reactions: often the faraway readers see very sharply the main reason why I had written the book. They have told me very interesting things about myself and my writing. It’s a great privilege to have such remote readers. Otherwise, the readers are similar everywhere, as they are human beings and book readers (which is a universal tribe). Everybody reads oneself in the book, not the author. Being author is a possibility to meet different people through the books you have written. It’s a nice and precious possibility.

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Cover photo: Tõnu Õnnepalu. Photo by Rene Suurkaev (EPL/Delfi).

Radio is available on Amazon.

Concert review: Across genres and nations – the Estonian TV girls’ choir perform with the British soul and jazz vocalist Ola Onabule in London

As part of the London Southbank Centre choral festival, on 6 April the Estonian TV girls’ choir; a leading Estonian saxophonist, Villu Veski; and the British-Nigerian soul and jazz singer-songwriter, Ola Onabule, performed together for the first time in the UK.

With the house lights still up, the Estonian TV girls’ choir entered London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall and formed a circle around the audience. The surround-sound choral performance which followed set the tone for an afternoon of traditional music presented in a highly original way. Artists working in the 21st century are often challenged to come up with ways of refreshing musical styles that have long been familiar to music connoisseurs. This is particularly true of artists working in folk and classical music.

In Estonia, however, the contemporary vibrance of traditional choral music has helped keep this music close to the hearts and minds of young people and the enthusiasm with which choirs present this music to non-Estonian audiences has increased the popularity of Estonian choirs throughout the world.

Although all the singers in the ETV girls’ choir are school-aged, their musical standards are higher than many professional choirs. Thus, when the girls were joined by a band of seasoned professionals, they more than held their own and in many ways stole the show. The jazz ensemble who joined the girls was led by the British soul and jazz vocalist and composer, Ola Onabule, along with the great Estonian composer and saxophonist, Villu Veski. The programme showcased a combination of traditional Estonian folk, contemporary jazz, gospel and soul, much of it composed by Onabule and Veski who have collaborated frequently over the last two years. Although both Onabule and Veski are masters of the jazz and soul idioms, jazz isn’t typically associated with Estonian choral music, but in many ways these traditions have much in common, especially in respect of Estonian choral and gospel music.

Ola Onabule and ETV girls choir in London II

In both European classical music and European sacred music, choral performance is generally not interactive. But in both gospel singing and traditional Estonian singing, the delineation between audience and performers are often blurred, the Song Festival in Tallinn being an example of the worlds largest audience based choral performance. This spirit of interaction permeated the entire performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall where a London audience got to see the fruits of a tripartite collaborative effort between two jazz musicians and a girls’ choir.

The concert proved how it is possible to present traditional music in a highly original way and still leave audiences feeling fully immersed  in an shared artistic experience.

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Photos by Belinda Lawley/courtesy of London Southbank Centre.

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