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In 2007, when leading Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür wrote a piece called Whistles and Whispers from Uluru for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, he had never visited the country that inspired his music. It was only when he flew to Australia to hear Genevieve Lacey and the ACO give the world premiere that he was able to experience the magnitude and majesty of Ayers Rock first-hand. It was everything he had imagined in the piece he calls his “tribute to Australia”.
Tüür has been affiliated with Richard Tognetti and the ACO since their 2006 European tour included a concert in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. Commissioned to write a second piece for the ACO to premiere during their current national tour, Tüür “couldn’t resist” returning to “a connection with the heart of this magic place in the world.”
“For a long, long time I’ve been very much taken with the wonderful and very specific nature and sounds of Australia,” he says. “The bushland, the colours, the desert – this is so fascinating.”
The quality of the orchestra and the success of their last collaboration sealed the deal. “I had their beautiful sound in my ears, and I know they are such great players that I can write really demanding material for them.
“When I contacted Richard and told him I wanted to give some more solos for everybody, he told me, 'Give us as many solos as you dare!'”
The result is Flamma, a tumultuous exploration of fire as a “destructive force as well as a purifying force in nature,” the composer explains. Images of the devastating 2009 bushfires in Victoria were at the forefront of his mind as the haunting, highly charged music began to crackle on the page.
So too was the ancient history of fire in this country. “There are qualities of heat and fire blazing in this music, but with the title I also want to refer to the role of fire in indigenous Australian life and rituals.”
The result couldn’t be more different from the ACO’s accompanying work on the program, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony No 6, an idyllic, literal evocation of landscape. But it does complement the intrepid ensemble's engagement with the Australian environment, from the rolling waves of their Musica Surfica project to next year's expedition from Darwin to Perth via the Ningaloo Reef.
If Flamma is a work of explosive extremes – extremes of high and low registers, of timbre, virtuosity and emotions – perhaps it is because of the extreme contrast between the Australia that has captivated Tüür and his native land. “In hard winters, even the sea is frozen into ice. The ice road is open between the mainland and the island, where I have my studio, so I can literally drive over the sea in my car.”
By weaving into Flamma the influence of Estonian runic folksongs, Tüür has built a bridge from one culture to the other; something that was not so easy to do while he was growing up under Soviet rule. Perhaps this is why he’s drawn to the vast open spaces in Australia. “I could never dream going to study, for instance, with Ligeti in Hamburg. Excluded – no way! We couldn’t even go to Finland; we were only allowed to travel inside the Soviet Union.”
But from this isolation emerged the distinctive sound worlds of composers like Arvo Pärt. Tüür is ultimately thankful that “this situation played its role” in shaping his own unique style. “I couldn’t be part of any particular school of composition. Nobody told me, ‘Do this, do that.’ I was more independent, which was a positive.”
Forging his own path, Tüür has come to be seen as a Baltic iconoclast, something that makes his work with a musical adventurer like Tognetti all the more potent. It wasn’t just in the conservatorium that the composer honed his skill: during the 1980s he also played drums in an avant-garde Estonian rock band called In Spe, his “first laboratory for composing.”
Tüür has returned to Australia to rehearse and tour with the ACO as they premiere Flamma around the country. His fascination with the landscape is as strong as ever. “This time I want to go for one extra week to Cairns and see the Great Barrier Reef.” Perhaps it will be the subject of his next work.