Estonian culture in the world

Review: Kristjan Järvi’s debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker

Kristjan Järvi made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in a performance teaming with the inexhaustible energy for which the youngest son of Neeme Järvi is renowned. In an age where conductors often approach music with an overly academic ethos, one which would restrict the aural size and metaphysical scope of the music, Kristjan Järvi has remained committed to pushing boundaries and expanding horizons.

The reductive approach to musical performance is no more apparent than in contemporary performances of Beethoven. In spite of this worrying trend, Järvi has gone against the grain and recently recorded Mahler’s revolutionary re-orchestration of Beethoven’s 9th symphony with the Tonkünstler Orchestra. It is one of only three commercially available recordings of Mahler’s re-working of Beethoven’s 9th.

Living in an era when orchestral conductors appear to increasingly specialise in one or two specific genres of music, it is refreshing that Kristjan Järvi is equally comfortable conducting in the high classical tradition, as he is in the romantic tradition. His recordings of modern music are likewise highly compelling, and are frequently lauded as such. His 2010 recording of Pärt’s 3rd symphony is universally regarded as the definitive version of Pärt’s most well-known symphony.

Järvi’s debut in front of what is quite possibly the world’s finest orchestra, was long over-due, especially since his brother and father have led the Berliners on many occasions. The Berliner Philharmoniker are indeed an orchestra whose sound is instantly recognisable. Whilst the sound has evolved over the decades, it is the rich, heavy, lush yet aggressive sound developed by Herbert von Karajan that has remained with the orchestra ever since the death of their longest serving director in 1989. Standing before such a band for the first time might well be an intimidating experience for a young maestro, but for Järvi this did not seem to be the case. He appeared entirely in his element, commanding the podium with his overtly expressive and at times dance like gesticulations.

Kristjan Järvi

The centrepiece of the concert was Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony, one of the most important pieces in the symphonic repertoire. Whilst the 4th is a widely performed piece of music, it is all too easy for a conductor to take the majesty of such a piece for granted.

A conductor ill at ease with Tchaikovsky’s compositions may will sit back and allow the deeply involved melodies to act as a substitute for a more individuated voicing of the piece. It is crucial however to remember that whilst Tchaikovsky is rightly remembered as one of orchestral music’s most able melodists, Tchaikovsky was also a master at transforming complex harmonies into lucid aural narratives. He was also far more adventurous with rhythmic syncopation and a far more innovative orchestral arranger than he is often given credit for.

These more subtle elements of Tchaikovsky’s genius became instantly apparent from the opening horn fanfare of the first movement. Järvi was not content to suck the rhythmic and dramatic life out of the symphony by allowing the melodies to float lugubriously over metronomic tempi. His heavy emphasis on tempo rubato and dramatic dynamic surges place him in the proudest tradition of Tchaikovsky performance alongside the great masters of the 20th century; the titans Svetlanov and Mravinsky in particular. In many ways, Järvi ‘s combination of comfort and ability to take creative risks with music speaks to a broader phenomenon within the Estonian classical tradition.

Estonia’s classical music culture has remained unique amongst the great European traditions of classical music. Since the middle of the 19th century, virtually all important orchestral music has sprung either from the Austro-Germanic tradition or the artistically polar Russian tradition. Smaller, but significant central European traditions of orchestral music such as the Czech, Hungarian or Polish traditions have always been more stylistically related to Vienna than to either St. Petersburg or Moscow. Inversely, the music of the Caucuses and Balkans has always been more implicitly related to the Russian tradition than that of the Austro-Germanic tradition.

Estonian performance and composition is not so easy to place. It is something rather apart from both behemoth traditions, this in spite of the majority of Estonian musicians during the 20th century receiving their training in either Leningrad or Moscow. Because of this however, Estonian classical performers like the Järvis have been embraced by audiences from both of these grand traditions and indeed in the wider world. Instances of tension between traditions witnessed in Svetlanov’s punchy, rhythmically explosive Bruckner, so alien to the Germanic ear or Karajan’s steady and heavily legato laden approach to Rimsky-Korsokov so alien to the Russian ear, represent stylistic tensions that mostly bypass Estonian musicians who exist in a sphere outside the tacit dogmas of the two larger traditions.

This is why the two smaller pieces from Kristjan Järvi’s performance in Berlin did not feel as though they were merely incidental to Tchaikovsky’s grand 4th. Carl Neilson’s En Fantasirejse til Færøerne was played with a kind of intensity that made the piece by the post-romantic composer spring to life in a highly refreshing way, and likewise – Järvi’s deeply meditative, yet never undramatic reading of Olivier Messiaen’s L’Ascension demonstrated that it is indeed possible to place a deeply impressionistic piece in a mostly romantic programme without doing so by exploiting the resonant pathos of the larger romantic piece.

The response of the deeply critical audience in the Philharmonie to Järvi’s performance was highly reassuring. Järvi received resounding applause from the Berlin audience, not least after the heroic coda of the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s 4th symphony.

One can only hope that Kristjan Järvi will be making many more appearances in Berlin over the coming years. Indeed, as the Berliner Philharmoniker have not had a German or Austrian director since 1996, the possibility of an Estonian director of the most forward looking orchestra in Europe is more promising than one could have imagined just 20 years ago. Until then, Estonia and the wider classical world will await the next appearance by the youngest and perhaps most energetic of the Järvi’s before one of the world’s top music ensembles.


Cover: Kristjan Järvi (photos courtesy of and Kristjan Järvi).

Artist of the week: London-based stage director Liisa Smith

Estonian World´s latest Artist of the week is UK based stage director Liisa Smith. Liisa left Estonia about 10 years ago, to study performance arts in England. After finishing her MA in Text and Performance (Drama), specialising in Directing at the King´s College and RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), both in London, she embarked on a career as a stage director.

To date, Liisa has directed 13 plays, including 2 in Estonia. Her latest, The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, was staged at the Abbey Theatre in St Albans, an affluent city north of London.

As a member of the Estonian diaspora in London, I come across to educated and successful Estonians making their way in the UK more often than ever before. I first heard about Liisa Smith while ago, probably in connection with Sofi Oksanen’s “Purge”, which Liisa directed for the Vanemuine theatre in Estonia.

I met Liisa briefly for the first time at the London launch of Arvo Pärt´s book „In conversation with Arvo Pärt“, and it was interesting to hear that Liisa had used his music many times for her plays, especially Spiegel Im Spiegel.

We caught up recently, to talk about her current play and theatre generally.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane is a highly rated black comedy by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, which has won many awards over the years. What influenced you in choosing to stage this story?

The play of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” has been close to my heart for many years. I analysed it among many others for my final BA project at the university, and my tutor told me at the time that I should definitely direct it for stage in future. Although my former tutor isn’t unfortunately with us anymore, I finally had a chance to keep my promise to her, when I was invited to direct the play for the Abbey Theatre in St Albans for their 2012/13 season. Actually, there were other candidates to stage it, including some very experienced stage directors. But I guess that my enthusiasm for McDonagh’s plays generally won the hearts and minds of the managers at the Abbey. Their decision was a bit like an early Christmas present for me!

There are many reasons why I regard this play so highly: I like the blend of “tarantinoesque” style, black humour and psychological realism, as well as a somewhat typical Irish melancholy that permeats the play. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is grotesque, yet humane play. Years ago, when I was still a theatre student, I used to think that the narrative of Leenane is a bit over the top and too provocative – yet a conversation with an Irish priest who lives on the west coast of Ireland (where the story is set), convinced me otherwise.

It’s also fantastically clever play, where every puzzle of the story finds its solution in the end. Professionally, it has been a big challenge and lesson, and great experience at the same time for me.

Has the public reception and feedback been positive?

The Beauty Queen of Leenane was received very positively by the local media and audiences’ alike, local BBC radio station also reported about it. The management of the theatre regarded it as one of their most successful in last couple of years, as most of the tickets were sold out quickly, and in fact many people were placed in a queue for tickets, in case someone would cancel.

For the creative team behind the play, it was fantastic, because obviously it´s great to be on a stage with the play, which is liked by the audience and critics.

Local newspaper described the play as such: “From time to time, a must-see production comes to the local stage – and The Beauty Queen of Leenane is just such a one. The current production by the Company of Ten at the Abbey Theatre Studio in St Albans is the drama company at its best as an appreciative audience demonstrated on Saturday night. Even if Martin McDonagh’s black comedy is not to your taste, you could not but admire the quality of the acting, the atmospheric set and the excellent direction by Liisa Smith who clearly has a strong affection for the play and brings out all the nuances of the language.” (EW)

How do you generally choose your plays – what inspires you? And how does this business generally work in the UK – are the theatres choosing the director, or is it other way around?

In the UK, just like in Estonia, the theatres generally propose to a stage director to work on a play together. The main difference is that unlike in Estonia, theatres here are mainly project-based, rather than repertory, and hence they don’t employ producers and directors on a permanent basis. The large theatres do have lists of so called “associated artists” – producers, directors and actors whom they have worked with before, and whom they would like to work with again. It’s useful to have an agent to negotiate and arrange the best working relationship with theatres – on behalf of directors and actors.

When I started to direct plays in England just after finishing my school here, I started as a freelancer, coordinating everything myself – from finding a play and the theatre for staging it, producing and arranging the finance, and organising a creative team behind. It’s not an easy way, but it does teach you how to manage your affairs independently in the world of theatre. The fact that I studied at the RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), was helpful, as it’s generally regarded as one of the most prestigious drama schools in the world. People in the industry know that one can expect a certain assurance from the RADA alumni.

A lot comes down to active networking. Gradually, I made contacts with various theatres, set designers, composers, and actors. Through experience I have now achieved a position where I am able to combine the team behind a play from the people I have already worked with before. There are now theatres, who want to work with me, and people who want to collaborate in future – it’s a great feeling and compliment, but not the one which has come to me easily.

I normally base my choice of plays on a certain emotion – inner voice, heart and intuition, if you like. Potential repertoire either causes some resonance within my mind and soul, or not. I read lots of theatrical texts and also observe other plays a lot – because there’s always something new to learn. There are many plays that I would like to direct, but I feel that I still lack some experience and maturity at this stage of my life – there’s a time and place for everything. At the moment I carry 2-3 plays on my mind, which I would like to direct, and I’m looking forward to it. I have always put a great emphasis on the importance of every new play being another stepping stone in my career, i.e. it would have to provide me with a new challenge and advance me professionally, as well as personally. I believe that I would have to be personally passionate about every new play that I’m directing, otherwise the result would be mediocre, and the audiences disappointed.

Is there a certain pursuing theme or philosophy in your plays, which occurs from time to time again?

I’m not convinced whether I could call it so, but perhaps issues of humanity and psychological realism are the occurring themes. It is important to me that the story would fit within the context of today’s time and space. The theme has to be relevant to me and I would have to know exactly why I want to direct it. It would have to get a message across.

Most of the plays that I have directed so far, are actually quite dark in their theme, or deal with very complicated issues, but I have always tried to find a positive note for a balancing act– the real life is not black and white either.

An Estonian actor once told me that I’m very truthful and straightforward stage director. Perhaps this straightforward approach and honesty – for me, actors, and plays – represents my characteristic style.

You are probably one of the very few Estonian stage directors working internationally – at least in the UK. Traditionally in Britain, with its Shakespearean traditions, the writer remains king, rather than the director which is more often the case in Europe and beyond. What’s your approach on this – are you more influenced by the more modern European or more conservative British school of theatre, and which one do you follow?

I am a fairly conservative – I gravitate toward plays, which transmit the psychological message clearly, and which have a beginning and end (although the end could be left open for explanation). So in a sense I am an offspring of English theatre system.

Saying that, before I moved to England, I went to theatre a lot in Estonia – and such contemporary Estonian stage directors like Elmo Nüganen, Jaanus Rohumaa, and Madis Kalmet also had an influence on me. I find the abstract plays very exciting, but I just wouldn’t normally start using the same methods in my work. But you could say that my style is a symbiosis of influences from the theatre of Estonia on one hand, and what I learned and experienced in England on the other.

Do you have any professional connection with Estonian theatres at all?

Yes, I have directed couple of plays in Estonia – Bill Roche´s “Poor Beast In The Rain” in 2008, and “Purge” by Sofi Oksanen in 2010, both of them at the Vanemuine Theatre in Tartu. I would also be interested in working in Estonia again – being a freelancer, I am open to new opportunities both in and outside of Britain, even though the majority of my directing work continues to be in the UK

What are your future plans?

As a freelance director, I have to work hard to get the ball rolling for new projects. I have 2-3 plays on my mind, which I´d like to direct. I hope to stage one in London in mid-2013, but it’s too early to go into detail.


List of plays directed by Liisa Smith


The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh, The Abbey Theatre, St Albans – Director


An Experiment with an Air Pump by Shelagh Stephenson, The Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London / Giant Olive Theatre Company – Director


Purge by Sofi Oksanen, Vanemuine Repertory Theatre, Estonia – Director

(performed by invitation at the Finnish National Theatre in  Helsinki, Oulu City Theatre and Turku City Theatre           in 2011; toured Estonia in September 2011; runs in current repertoire for the third season)


Happy Everyday! by Jaan Tätte, The Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London / Giant Olive Theatre Company – Director


Poor Beast in the Rain by Billy Roche, Vanemuine Repertory Theatre, Estonia – Director


The Bird Sanctuary by Frank McGuinness, Rosemary Branch Theatre, London – Director / Producer

London Time Out – Critic’s Choice, 4*


On Raftery’s Hill by Marina Carr, Rosemary Branch Theatre, London – Director / Producer

London Time Out – 4*

London Evening Standard – 3*


Fractures by Livvy Morris, Guerilla Cabaret, RADA, London, Rehearsed reading – Director


The Highway Crossing by Jaan Tätte, Blue Elephant Theatre, London – Director / Co-producer

Arcola Theatre, London (transfer) – Director

London Time Out – Critic’s Choice, 4*


Photos: Liisa Smith & The Abbey Theatre

Artist of the week: interview with singer-songwriter Ingrid Lukas (video)

Born on 20 August 1984, Ingrid Lukas is an Estonian singer-songwriter, pianist and composer. Ingrid studied piano for three years at the Tallinn Music High School, before moving to Zürich, Switzerland with her family in 1994. In 2007 she graduated from the HMT Zürich (Hochschule für Musik und Theater) as a vocal teacher of pop-jazz music. Since 2007 she has been performing with her own band and is currently signed with Universal Music.

Ingrid’s music is based on the beautiful Estonian music traditions, haunting, extremely lyrical and melodic. Using that background, along with her Swiss influences, mixing jazz and even some pop elements into her music, Ingrid manages to create a unique and personal atmosphere. That, together with an exceptionally clear voice and strong expression of thoughtful lyrics makes her very unique vocalist.

Estonian music journalist Valner Valme has described Ingrid’s music as such: “I’d say that it comes from the Estonian soil, rises through the Norwegian dawn and lands on the mountain ranges of Switzerland.” Canadian music critic John Kelman, of Allaboutjazz, wrote about Ingrid after her last album release: “Lukas’ Silver Secrets is hitting the streets, demonstrating palpable growth in her writing and overall conception, as well as an attendant increase in confidence. A capable pianist, it was Lukas’ voice – a combination of delicate fragility, unassuming honesty and, at times, unexpected power – that separates her from so many young singer/songwriters her age. Lukas’ ability to feel somehow grounded in the music even as her delivery – and that of her fine band – gave it an ethereal, otherworldly quality, made for a compelling and appealing set that felt somehow like being transported to an alternate reality for 80 minutes or so.”

After a debut album “We Need to Repeat”, Lukas recently released a new album ‘Silver Secrets’ under Universal Music, and is back in her home town Zurich, between a tour in the US and another one about to begin in Germany in late October. We met at a café in the Zurich Old Town to talk about her music and future plans, which includes a soon-to-be released third record.


I have recently listened to both of your albums – in fact, my wife and I keep both of them in our car as part of our favourite music to listen to, when we are travelling. I have also noticed that while most artists’ records only have one good song at most, and the rest are so-called ‘filler’ songs, I must say that on your albums the number of songs one wants to listen to again and again, is much higher than usual. Out of many such great tracks, is it hard to select one title song and do you get to pick this title song yourself – or does your producer give you guidance and recommendation on this?

Thanks a lot – I appreciate that. The structure of the record including its title song is never a decision for the producer alone, but rather a dialogue and collaboration between the artist and the producer. For the first two records, the producer played a smaller role in this process, but I expect the role to be more significant, and collaboration with Universal to be more intense for the third album.

Let’s talk about your first album for a moment – We Need to Repeat (Ronin Rhythm Records – 2009). When I listen to it, and especially on certain songs like “Two Souls”, I believe one can hear some remote influences from some of the great artists of our time, like the father of minimalism Steve Reich and Philip Glass – and possibly even the greatest Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. What makes this minimalist musical texture interesting is that it is then interposed with a style that one could call the Estonian Pagan Poetry, or the Estonian vocal folk tradition. But who and what would you name as your influences?

Undoubtedly, Arvo Pärt has been a great source of inspiration for my music and continues to be.  Then of course the great Estonian singing tradition in general has given me a quite a bit of power. Estonians have annual and bi-annual song festivals which are rather grand affairs and sometimes it feels that every third person in Estonia is in a singing choir. In particular, much of my work has roots in the Estonian folk runo-song singing tradition, and indeed I am strongly attracted to the simplicity and power of these special songs, which have survived for centuries. Apart from music, in a wider sense I am inspired by the people around me and my relationships to them. Finally, I draw ideas from the elements of nature, especially nature in Estonia – its sea, cold freshness, and darkness – and Switzerland with its archetypical mountains.

Turning now to your second album (Silver Secret –  Universal 2011), it is widely known that it was produced as a collaborative effort by the Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurdsson, who is also a producer  for Bjørk,  and hence some people have even called you the ‘Bjørk of Estonia’. Do you consider this as a compliment – is it an accurate comparison and do you see any similarities? Or do you see your musical direction as quite something different from that of Bjørk?

First of all, it is a great honour and compliment to be compared to Bjørk, and of course I have been influenced by her music at some point of my career.  I view all influences and interactions with other artists almost like conversations and they all come and go in phases. For instance, my Bjørk’s phase was some ten years ago and I realised already back then that I need to find my own way and sound more like Ingrid Lukas, rather than Bjørk.  As for my collaboration with Valgeir Sigurdsson, I like the way he creates sound and records instruments – and mixes them, which is completely unique. If I compare my music to a nude body, then we could say that he was the right person to dress it.  How did it start? One day I simply emailed him, talked about my music, sent him some samples and asked if he would be interested to collaborate – and to my great pleasure he was!

If you could name few top singers you have been listening to recently, who would you mention?

Bon Iver, Sigur Rós, Radiohead, and Agnes Obel come to mind.

Do you have a specific process of preparing for your next record, such as collecting a library of sound families and lyrical fragments, or does a new inspiration just come to you spontaneously at the most unexpected moment?

I have a general approach, but its particulars vary slightly and evolve with every song and record. I do have a small notebook which I take everywhere since as soon as I get an idea, I need to write it down. I once went running and inspiration came to me, but I had no pen so I had to ask from a passing policeman for a pen and paper to write down my ideas [laughs]!

So whenever I hear some ideas or sounds, I have to write them down immediately not to lose them. Sometimes it is a single sentence which can be so powerful that it becomes the refrain for a song. Then I usually sit behind the piano and start singing and playing with this sentence. Once I have these anchor sentences, accompanying melody comes rather easily – I simply start improvising and see where the music takes me, and I only need to go along, really. I then tape these sessions and later on decide whether there is something to it that could make it into the recording stage. If there is, then I begin breaking down the text into verse, bridge and other similar components, and I start working towards musical arrangements and the interplay of words and sounds. This is the general framework or approach for all my work.

I sometimes even hear melodies in my head while at sleep – I wake up in the middle of the night and start playing on the piano that I keep next to my bed, so I can immediately capture it.

You once said that your roots are in Estonia but your wings in Switzerland, which is a nice metaphor for an artist who is part of the Estonian diaspora abroad.  Which countries do you see your wings taking your music next to?

The immediate plans are to grow my audience in Germany, Scandinavia and the UK, and potentially in the US someday.

Which composer or singer do you dream about collaborating with?

I would love to collaborate with artists such as Thom Yorke of Radiohead or Jónsi of Sigur Ros.  My immediate aspiration is to work with the Estonian poet Doris Kareva, whose poetry I like very much. I have made the first contact with her and I hope that someday she could write the lyrics and I could arrange them into a song or songs.

Finally, what advice would you give to young Estonian singers and musicians who would like to follow in your footsteps and try to break into the world music stage, like you have?

As a musician, it is important to have an independent character and you have to know the strengths and weaknesses of your musical character. I am only drawn to musicians who have a very distinct personality, which you can feel in their music to the extent that it feels like they have poured their soul into it.  Do not try to copy anyone, but try to find your own style and voice, even though it may take a bit longer to find success. Finally, do not be afraid of failures along the road, and make sure that you are able to learn from these failures, and never, ever give up!


Records by Ingrid Lukas:

We Need to Repeat (Ronin Rhythm Records – 2009)

Silver Secrets (Universal – 2011)

For details on current German tour and other information see Ingrid Lukas’ website:

Front page and main photos: Anja Fonseka

The 8th Annual EstDocs Festival successfully came to an end (video)

EstDocs is an annual not-for-profit Estonian documentary film festival and competition held in Toronto, that presents stories from Estonia. Its mission is to provide a 360-degree perspective on Estonian history, politics, arts, culture, sport, and other subjects.

This year’s EstDocs Festival raised its curtains on October 11 in Toronto and drew in over 1,300 audience members to witness unique Estonian filmmaking talent on the big screen in venues across the city. Mark Soosaar, a legendary Estonian documentary filmmaker, and Jaan Tootsen, a rising talent whose film “The New World/Uus Maailm” had its North American premiere at the festival, engaged with audiences each evening in provocative Q&A’s and discussions. Award winners for EstDocs 2012 were announced on its closing night of Tuesday October 16th. The Jury Award Honourable Mention went to Andy Stands Up//Andy astub üles directed by Elen Lotman and produced by Madis Tüür and Juriidiline Keha. The Audience Award went to Ballerina Blues//Sinine Kõrb directed by Ruti Murusalu and produced by Erik Norkroos, Priit Vaher and Umberto Productions, and the Jury Prize was awarded to The Colours of the Islands//Saarte Värvid directed by Madli Lääne and produced by Pille Rünk and Allfilm.

EstDocs also organises a Short Film competition every year. This year, the First Place Award went for “Lauküla Koit”, directed by Maria Kivirand & Robi Uppin.

The Third Place Award went for “Kati and Me” – a lovely and humorous short film, created by a Canadian couple Kim Bagayawa & Mike Dell. It’s about how they discovered Estonia via their Estonian friend “Kati”. We have published the film at full length here – and highly recommend seeing it!


Photos by Nicholas Jones/EstDocs.

Video: short film “Kati and Me”.

A trend in tradition: fashion designer Liina Viira modernises the traditional folk costumes

Estonian designer Liina Viira is changing the way we see the traditional folk costumes.

Since regaining independence in 1991 Estonia has conceived a reputation of notable achievements. As the inventors of Skype, producers of Olympic medalists, and hosts of renowned song festivals, the people of this nation have a lot to boast about. Yet modest Estonians are often reluctant to flaunt their accomplishments. This may be the reason why the country of Estonia is still unknown to some people, and it might be surprising to learn that famous people such as actresses Erika Eleniak, and Mena Suvari, as well as models Carmen Kass, and Tiiu Kuik, are all Estonian.

Photos by Liina Viira

Yet beautiful women are not Estonia’s only contribution to the film and fashion industries. Designers Kirill Safonov, Liina Stein, and Aulikki Puniste, to name but few, have each carved a name for themselves in the competitive world of haute couture. Although these designers possess  their own unique style, signature characteristics of Estonian design does not appear to be wide spread amongst their designers.

So what is considered typically Estonian when it comes to their clothing? Ask any local and their first response would most likely be their national folk costumes. These cultural uniforms have a history that date as far back as the 11th century and are as distinctive and diverse as the Scottish kilt. Colours and patterns vary and are differentiated by the region they belong to. Today these folk costumes are most often seen during national holidays or at events such as song festivals and ceremonies that commemorate Estonia’s heritage. During the 50 years of Soviet occupation they were often worn as a form of protest against Soviet oppression. Now that this European Republic has established over 20 years of independence, is there a danger that these cultural identifiers will be deemed old fashioned by the younger generation? Is it possible they will disappear completely?

Perhaps not, as one Estonian designer feels they don’t have to. Liina Viira, an Estonian Swede who left Stockholm and moved to Tallinn in 2005, felt a compelling need to preserve this part of Estonia’s heritage in a creative way. While studying Estonian language at Tartu University in 2006, she entered Supernoova – a popular design contest held in Tallinn. With her background in fashion (Liina learned her trade at H&M in Stockholm), her friends felt she had a  good chance of winning the contest. In fact she placed third in the professional category, and the publicity that followed brought offers and opportunities for her to design for national theater and dance companies.

“Back then Estonians were a bit shocked (in a good way) that I took the traditional clothes and turned them into something modern, and used them in a new way. Nobody had “pushed the envelope” quite that far before…I even made knitted underwear!”, says Liina. Viira’s blend of traditional Estonian folk patterns fused with trendy and modern designs were met with enormous approval.  As a result of this support, her collection grew and her own unique clothing line was born.

Viira’s flagship store Naiiv, located at 33 Pikk street, in the Old Town of Tallinn, has been going strong since 2010. So why the name Naiiv when it’s obvious that this designer knows what she’s doing? According to Viira’s business partner Katri Sander, “Liina took the first naive step toward trying something new, and she believes taking things too seriously can kill the opportunities and the creativity.”

The youthful spirit of fun is certainly evident with this designer, and her quirky style could be likened to that of the famous designer, Betsey Johnson. Viira’s Scandinavian influence stemming from her years in Sweden is obvious in the vibrant mix of colours that she uses, while the Estonian folk dresses are an apparent inspiration of the knitted designs. Sander and Viira both feel that fusing traditional and modern is a great way to keep the folk dresses alive. As Sander points out, “It doesn’t need to look old fashioned, combining traditional folk patterns in the clothing and then wearing them with a pair of jeans or sneakers enables the traditional to move forward and remain current.”

So how does the younger Estonian generation receive the clothing? “It depends on the individual, the younger generation want to remain unique and have their own way of dressing. But the line is not only for tourists, in winter time locals want the wool too – especially when it’s -25°C outside,” laughs Sander. The 100% lambswool used in the Naiiv line is sourced locally and is of the highest quality. Yet wool may not be the only fabric used in the future, Viira currently has plans to include other materials such as linen, and leather. Interior design products including pillows and blankets will soon be added to her collection, as well as the arrival of both a children’s and men’s line of clothing.

Sander hints that the business is expanding, “We are developing a network with companies in Germany and Sweden who have shown an interest in Naiiv.” Is North America on their radar too? Sander laughs, “You never know.” Recalling her statement made earlier, expansion into North America may only be one more naive step away.


Pikk 33

Tallinn, Estonia

Artist of the week: Toomas Vint

Our latest “Artist of the week” is a legend of Estonian art and literature scene, writer and painter Toomas Vint. Undoubtedly Mr Vint deserves a more special and elevated spot than “artist of the week” but in this case it’s a nod to the fact that his book An Unending Landscape was recently published in English by Anglo-American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press.

Toomas Vint has been described as a painter who writes, or a writer who paints – rather unusual feat. Vint was born in Tallinn, the son of a scientist. He studied biology and geography at Tartu University. He published his first prose in 1968 and became a member of the Estonian Artists’ Association in 1973 – and is a successful painter of what could be described as “neo-navist” metaphysical landscapes. His works have been exhibited in art galleries all over the world – in Tokyo, Helsinki, Montreal, Essen, Moscow, Budapest, Paris, New York, Gdansk, Berlin.

Toomas Vint

Vint as the author has not yet been discovered widely abroad. Paintings are more readily accessible than things that have to be translated – which is why the publishing of An Unending Landscape is a rather special occasion.

His books have been described by his peers as such: the protagonists of his works are mostly people with conflicting moods, rather rootless contemporary people. The idea of being a loner is accentuated, as is unsureness and longing. In the forefront of his works are the psychology, present state and ethical bearing and inability to form a sense of responsibility of his characters. Another aspect is the opening up of characters to new impulses. His characters often act in an irrational way, are rarely happy, and “live past one another”. It is the inner life of characters that counts. The story often evolves in the direction of the grotesque. Vint likes the concepts of “game” and “playing roles”, especially in his short-stories. In his more recent novels and stories there is an examination of the opposition of art to life. Vint takes quite an interest in sexual matters and roles, and his books contain sex scenes, usually of a complex kind, and can involve prostitutes, peeping toms, and so on. Stylistically, Vint is definitely postmodernist in his recent literature, playing as he does with levels of narration and novels within novels.


An Unending Landscape is a subtle, humorous, mind-bending novel about the origins and fates of three different manuscripts. The first is an autobiographical sketch concerning an Estonian writer’s old schoolmate, now a government official, who is trying to recruit our narrator to spy on his fellow citizens. The second, composed by the hero of the first, is a fictionalized (and far more exciting) version of these same experiences. Finally, the self-aggrandizing hero of this second story decides to write his own novel, which seems on one hand to be a plagiarism of Chekhov’s “Lady With the Lapdog,” and on the other to be retelling the same story we’ve already heard twice over—until it’s no longer entirely clear whether these stories relate to one another like Russian dolls, or are three parallel versions of the same events, each no less valid than the others.

I caught up with Mr Vint for a quick chat to talk about his book and work.

It doesn’t happen very often that Estonian books are published internationally. How and when was the idea to translate your book into English conceived?

US publisher  Dalkey Archive Press has shown lively interest for Estonian literature and culture for a while now. For example, they have published four novels by Mati Unt and recently presented “Arvo Pärt in Conversation” in London – an interview and essay collection about the world famous Estonian composer. John O’Brien, who runs Dalkey Archive Press, was interested to publish An Unending Landscape, and so it happened. I am always happy to see my work being translated. To me it means that the literature of our small Estonian language is getting more exposure. Gaining a broader audience is the natural purpose of writing literature.

An Unending Landscape was originally published in Estonia quite a few years ago, in the late 1990’s. Do you think that it would still be relevant for an international reader now?


Although An Unending Landscape describes Estonian life in the mid 1990’s, it deals with problems and issues which are still important and relevant today – and some of them are universal. Human beings change slowly and the processes started in the 1990’s sometimes show their unpredicted and awkward side today and beyond. I think that national traditions no longer have a significant role in the contemporary literature. I can see the formation of a new cultural space, embracing the best of all cultures. It is the individuality of the author that is gaining more importance—the uniqueness of his inner world that he reflects in his work.

Do you feel that the meaning of your thoughts and ideas have been preserved in the translation?

The main task in being an Estonian writer is to preserve our small language. A writer is a mother who must raise and nurture her child. If a writer can use his language to give a better understanding of human life to his readers, then his work has served its purpose. Exact translation is an impossible thing, as each language leads a life of its own. However, a good translation can capture the intellectual essence of the story. If I can recognize myself in the text while reading the translation, then it has succeeded. An Unending Landscape was translated by a very good translator Eric Dickens, whom I trust 100% – knowing that he has explored and researched the framework behind the novel so well, as if it was his own book.

You are sometimes called a writer who paints – or an artist who writes. How would you categorise it yourself and how easy or difficult it is to be one or another?

As a writer, there’s always an anxious anticipation before a novel is published – you never know what the public acceptance will be and how successfully it will be sold. Ironically, when I prepare for an exhibition, I see myself as an artist who writes – and when I’m writing a novel, vice versa. Sometimes it creates a confusion – among the public, as well as in my own creative soul.

Lately I have been more of a writer who paints. I worked very intensively on my new novel called “Openly About the Marriage” for about a year and currently feeling a bit saturated from writing. Hence, I’m planning to work on my paintings again, as there are two exhibitions planned for 2014 – “Nude in Landscape” and “Meaningful Landscape”.


An Unending Landscape by Toomas Vint is now on sale via Amazon.

Pictures by Toomas Vint.

EstDocs 2012 Celebrates a Century of Estonian Cinema in Toronto (Video)

EstDocs is an annual not-for-profit Estonian documentary film festival and competition held in Toronto, that presents stories from Estonia. Its mission is to provide a 360-degree perspective on Estonian history, politics, arts, culture, sport, and other subjects.

Established in 2005 and so far visited by over 10 000 film lovers, EstDocs has raised the profile of up-and-coming filmmakers and had the pleasure of featuring the country’s top internationally recognized filmmaking talent. All public screenings are either in English or have English subtitles.

As EstDocs announces its 8th annual return to Toronto, this year also marks the 100th year anniversary of Estonian film. In spring, the occasion was commemorated around the Europe, so it came to EstDocs to invite cinephiles to celebrate the birth of Estonian cinema in Canada. The festival showcases North American premieres from Thursday October 11 to Tuesday October 16 in Toronto.

Canada is home to one of the largest Estonian populations outside Estonia. However, EstDocs audiences are not limited to people of Estonian heritage. The festival’s award-winning documentaries (all with English subtitles) appeal to film lovers of all backgrounds and ages. Keeping with tradition, certain screenings are preceded by a reception and followed by a provocative Q&A with the filmmakers.

“The films chosen for EstDocs are sure to provide you with a window into the heart and soul of our small country. Without the might of larger nations, Estonian self-reliance, tenacity and inventiveness has translated into unique perspectives on the world and how to thrive within it,” said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, President of Estonia. “As you view this year’s films, look for these traits in the characters and the stories they tell.”

This year’s EstDocs moderator is Mark Soosaar, Estonian film director, cinematographer and a former member of parliament. Soosaar is widely and positively revered as the Grand Old Man of Estonian documentary cinema. With former Estonian President and author Lennart Meri, Soosaar founded the successful Pärnu International Documentary and Anthropology Films Festival. Previous moderators have respectively been Kiur Aarma, Jaak Kilmi, Ilmar Raag and Artur Talvik .

“One hundred years later, Estonian cinema continues to bring such unique and transformative films to the world stage and I’m thrilled that EstDocs plays a role in shining a light on these distinctive documentaries,” said Ellen Valter, festival director of EstDocs. “Our festival is solely comprised of volunteer efforts; people who are passionate about providing audiences with the chance to view critically acclaimed films they would otherwise not have the opportunity to see in theatres here.”

For Estdocs 2012, award-winning Estonian producer Jaak Kilmi and director Jaan Tootsen present “New World”, awarded Estonia’s Best Film of 2011 by the Association of Estonian Film Critics. Also included in the line-up are “Outside the Sphere” by award-winning Canadian filmmaker Marcus Kolga, “Another Dimension” by Moonika Siimets, which caused quite a stir in homeland, and  “Playing on Water” – film about the renowned conductor Neeme Järvi. “Songs of the Ancient Sea” (trailer) by Rose-Marie Schneider and Erik Norkroos features renowned composer, Veljo Tormis’ journey from shamanism to modernism to uncover the roots behind ancient folk songs.

Artist of the week: underground musician Maria Minerva (video)

Maria Minerva aka Maria Juur is an Estonian underground musician, based in London, and currently touring the US. She is releasing music on the prominent and prolific Los Angeles independent label Not Not Fun and its dance-oriented sub-label 100% Silk. She is known for her eclectic and dreamy music style and lo-fi videos. She has cited Brian Eno, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Moodymann as her influences.

Before moving to London, Maria was studying at the Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn, where she earned a BA in Art History. In 2010, Maria moved to London to do her Masters in Aural and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London. Maria has also conducted an internship at the The Wire Magazine and published art and music criticism in Estonia. Maria’s releases have received favorable reviews from websites such as Pitchfork Media and The Quietus. One of Maria Minerva’s supporters has been the influential music critic Simon Reynolds. Maria’s track “A Little Lonely” made it to The Guardian’s top 40 singles of 2011. She was also hailed as one of the underground starlets to watch by the French Vogue. With a kind permission from music review site Bowlegs – we are republishing their recent interview with Maria.


Bowlegs was chuffed to touch base with a very ‘siked’ and constantly on the move Maria Minerva in the midst of her first US tour. We talked California scheming, white magic, h pop and voodoo breathmints. She was sweet when we got her lyrics a bit wrong and gave us some tantalising insights into her dreamlike, fuzzy pop logic.

The new album seems to have themes of language and representation running through it. We think of lines like ‘I don’t want my voice to be heard’, ‘I’m coming of age, so strange to see myself coming of age’. How much do themes of self- representation manifest themselves in the lyrics?

Yeah, the line “I don’t want my voice to be heard” is and isn’t a joke. When you’re a singer/songwriter (which I sorta am) then this is namely what you should want. This track was written after I had been in the music biz for a year or so, actively touring, and doing press and meeting people etc, had survived my first bad reviews and rumours, heartbreaks etc. At that time I was living in exile in Portugal so felt good writing these lines and being sorta cut off from the rest of the world. Not trying to be mysterious here or anything, but being in Lisbon made it possible to take a step back from all the London life/big cities/touring madness. Also I became kinda critical of my own success, everything just seemed like a bunch of bullshit at that point. So I wrote this song sorta to say to myself and others something like  ”I do love music a lot and being blogged about whatever, but its not all I care about, quite the opposite”. So yeah, a coming of age record for sure, ‘cos when you first put out music you get so siked, and then the comedown.

Repetition also seems to be a key technique; the way you use vocal lines like samples or other pieces of audio in the overall collage. Can you tell us a little about the song building process and how your songs get started?

Yeah, repetition is a form of change says Brian Eno! I love minimalism, also motorik, krautrock and all that. Estrangement thru looping. Timewarping and spinning around one’s own meridian, or whatever. I don’t know how the songs come about. Such an abstract process, songs come outta nowhere I suppose, and the musician has to finish them.

As with other artists on your label there seems to be a kind of ‘magic realism’ to the soundscapes conjured to express your ideas. The line that springs to mind from the new album is ‘my magic future history’. Can you give us a flavour of the key sounds in the Maria Minerva soundscape and any productions that influence your approach to sound?

I have this theory that all the tracks that end with a gradual fadeout still go on somewhere in the world but we can’t hear ‘em….I am influenced by traces of tracks, little elements. I live for bass but I don’t really have that much bass in my own music. “My magic future history” sounds sweet but actually I sing “white magic, future history”. Yeah white magic is important, gotta approach everything with a warm open heart. Though I really like D’angelo’s voodoo, dark (sex) magick too. Once I sent my friend some breath mints in an envelope, he thought it’s a voodoo present from faraway relatives…

Location seems to be a strong theme in your work. Do you find that currently being located in London with its vibrant underground scenes influences your approach and outlook and how much does location in general inform the music making itself?

I am not currently in London! Currently I am in the car on the way from Columbus, Ohio to Chicago, aka I am on my first US tour. USA is blowing my mind. Next ep and lp I am gonna put out will be recorded in New York. After this tour is over, will stay there to work on music and play more shows. Yeah I am all about changing location. Changing location actually makes it hard to focus on making music, it’s like kinda impossible to work if you don’t have a place to live, but it’s a good way to clear your head from all kindsa bullshit. I left London August 20th and flew to Australia and New Zealand, then from Melbourne to New York, all this in two weeks time, now I am travelling in the US for over a month. Next week I’ll make it to California….I have a song called “California Scheming” about wanting to go to Cali. Now it seems I schemed my way there, took almost two years! I feel like the luckiest girl when I think about it, ‘cos back in the day in Estonia I was like I will never be able to afford to travel and when I can afford it, I wont probably have the time and the freedom. So yeah, it all worked out. Thank u for the music!

You’ve called yourself a ‘sample alchemist’ in the past – could you give us insight into how this process feeds into your work and the kinds of sources you look to for inspiration?

I don’t like the idea of inspiration, this term comes with too much baggage! It’s more about being, like, attentive, paying attention to (sonic) details. It comes down to the joy of stealing and paying homage to the stuff you love!

The reference points on the new album seem quite 80’s based and there is a strong sense that you are playing with the language and ‘catchiness‘ of pop itself. To what extent does this kind of deconstruction inform your overall approach?

1980s? Can u give me an example? Yeah, but the catchiness of the so called “ideal” pop has always been the premise of my music-making. Got nothing going on with the 80s specifically. First and foremost I wanted to make an album that is not so easy to pin down. People can say whatever about it but I think it’s kinda hermetic and doesn’t follow any specific trends. When people talk about h pop then I’m like fine, I don’t mind, but me, Hype Williams and James Ferraro all sound completely different so what exactly is h pop? Would be so much nicer if we got called young musical visionaries of our generation or whatever, who don’t always run along with the latest pitchfork trends, even if the work is sometimes incoherent and of varying quality.

The videos you have put out to date are always very individual and striking. How do you approach the process and can we expect any new visuals to accompany the new album?

I approach the process with an open heart and an open mind and with no budget. Yeah there are videos coming out for 3 other tracks from my new record. I’m siked!


Photos: Maria Minerva

Artist of the week (Video): Ewert and the Two Dragons

Ewert and The Two Dragons is an Estonian indie-rock band whose line-up consists of vocalist Ewert Sundja, guitarist Erki Pärnoja, drummer Kristjan Kallas, and bassist Ivo Etti.

Their distinctive name came from a movie that Sundja was a fan of and although the name states that there are three people in the group, the band describes “one of the dragons to have two heads”. The group members are friends who dreamed of rock stardom from an early age, while listening to and being influenced by the likes of Radiohead, Jeff Buckley, The Police, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Blur and others. Ewert Sundja, Erki Pärnoja and Kristjan Kallas first started playing together in 2008 and in 2009 recorded their debut album The Hills Behind The Hills over three days at the summer cottage of Ewert Sundja’s in-laws in Estonia. Soon afterwards the bassist Ivo Etti joined the band and the follow-up album Good Man Down followed in 2011. The band quickly gained recognition, first in Estonia and Latvia, and futhermore in Finland, Netherlands and France.

The Dragons recently embarked on a European tour, which has taken them to woo the audiences in Finland, Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany and Britain. In Germany they played at the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, while in the UK they dominated the stage this week at the Borderline in London – a venue which has played a host to Amy Winehouse, Belle & Sebastian and Pulp among others in the past. Futher concerts will take Ewert and the Two Dragons to Toronto in Canada and Denver, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Washington, New York and Los Angeles in the US.

The band is content with their tour so far: “The vibe around our concerts has been great, especially in the Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg,” says the lead singer Ewert Sundja. The Dragons were also excited to perform in the UK for first time: ”We grew up listening to British bands, so of course it’s a bit special to perform in London.”

While not touring, Ewert and the Two Dragons is quietly gathering ideas and inspiration for a third album: “The music scene is constantly evolving around us and we are evolving within – so it’s a bit too early to predict the direction for our next album. All we can say right now, is that it will most probably sound different from the first two.”

Estonia sends Toomas Hussar’s debut film Mushrooming to Oscars 2013 (Video)

Toomas Hussar’s film Mushrooming will compete for an Academy Award in Best Foreign Film category at Oscars in 2013. The debut feature premiered at Karlovy Vary film festival, before also showing in Toronto International Film Festival. The story follows a politician who tries to take a break from work by mushroom picking, only to get lost in the wilderness while a media scandal is brewing.

Since regaining independence in 1991, Estonia has been confronted with all manner of changes: new currencies, open borders, free markets, a free media. Toomas Hussar’s Mushrooming addresses the impact of the liberated media on Estonian politics, with frequently hilarious results.

Aadu (Raivo E. Tamm), a stodgy, middle-aged politician, is being rushed off to a television studio by his communications director, who seems more concerned with drying her nails than with her boss’ misgivings about his scheduled appearance. Yet Aadu isn’t nervous about going on TV to be grilled on policy: he’s actually on his way to take part in one of the country’s top game shows, “Hop and Jump”, which pits contestants against each other while seated on large, bouncing rubber balls. It will not be the only indignity he suffers. An ill-advised “traditional” day trip to pick mushrooms in the countryside with his wife, Viivi (Elina Reinold), is about to go horribly off the rails. Worse, a cynical reporter for a major daily newspaper is poring over Aadu’s expense reports.

Hussar’s satire is less about specific politics than the inanity of contemporary discourse, in which fame, no matter how fleeting, is the only thing that’s valued. (When Aadu’s small entourage runs afoul of an angry rural hermit, it isn’t because of what they stand for; it’s because they’re famous.) Of course, it doesn’t really matter how that fame is achieved. A farmer who recognizes Aadu is as impressed as if he’d just met a Nobel Prize winner — or maybe Brad Pitt. As a corollary, Hussar takes aim at our culture’s disinterest in — and growing lack of capacity for — thoughtful analysis or intelligent discussion, abandoned in favour of clichéd, sentimental posturing.

As the shaggy dog in this story, Aadu is a kind of anxiety-ridden Everyman for whom every experience, with the sole exception of nesting in his own house, is fraught with terror. Uncomfortable with the past, mortified by the present and terrified of the future, he’s a subversive and funny emblem of a country undergoing tremendous change, and of would-be shut-ins everywhere.

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