Estonia is home to a wealth of contemporary composers, and a striking 40% of the members of the Estonian Composers’ Union are women. If you are new to the Estonian music scene, you might find it challenging to decide where to start your listening journey, so we picked six women composers that we think are a good representation of the wide range of styles, experiences and voices heard in Estonia today.

A good place to start is noting how many new composers are featured in the upcoming Estonian Music Days, an annual contemporary music festival organized by the Estonian Composers’ Union, under the direction of Helena Tulve. This year’s festival will take place from the 16th to the 24th of April, with most concerts also available for online viewing. The programme will include works from women composers across multiple generations, styles, and influences, from internationally established composers to up-and-coming young talents.

Helena Tulve
© Kaupo Kikkas
Festival director Tulve is one of Estonia’s most widely-performed composers, with her works performed regularly across the globe – from America’s Spoleto and Ojai festivals to the International Society for Contemporary Music’s World Music Days in Stuttgart and Hong Kong. In addition to her role as the artistic director of Estonian Music Days, she has been on the faculty of composition at the Estonian Academy of Music since 2000 and has trained successive generations of Estonian composers.

Tulve was born in 1972 in Tartu and began her musical studies at the Tallinn Secondary Music School under Alo Põldmäe. She continued her studies at the Estonian Academy of Music as the only student with Erkki-Sven Tüür, followed by further studies at the Conservatoire Superieur de Paris with Jacques Charpentier where she won the Premier Prix in 1994. Her works draw upon influences as diverse as the French spectralist school, the compositions of György Ligeti and Marco Stroppa, and Gregorian chant.

She first came to international prominence when she received numerous awards for her exploration of unusual sounds and timbres. lumineux/opaque, written in 2002 for piano trio, is one of Tulve’s emblematic works. The opening combines accented trills in the piano with high string harmonics, and goes on to alternate episodes of near-inaudible stillness with moments of primal intensity. Halfway through the piece, the pianist moves away from their instrument to play a pitched wine glass, echoing the harmonics in the violin and cello. By the end of the piece, all three players are playing their wine glasses in a ringing major chord – it’s a disconcertingly beautiful effect.

One of Tulve’s most recent works for full symphony orchestra, Extinction des choses vues, shows her roots in French spectralism. Here, sounds emerge out of nothing, punctuated by woodwind trills and scales like sudden gusts of wind. Unusual combinations of instruments achieve unearthly sonorities, with moments of great sensuality in the shifting harmonies. The work builds to an enormous climax, taking advantage of the full weight of the symphony orchestra, before fading into obscurity – here, once again, Tulve ends the piece with the ringing of a wine glass.

Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes
© Kaupo Kikkas
Among Tulve’s many students, Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes is one of the most established. Born in 1977 on the Russian-Estonian border, Kozlova-Johannes studied at the Estonian Academy of Music with Jaan Rääts and Tulve. She continues in Tulve’s artistic tradition – in fact, the two teach masterclasses together on spectralism and on the idea of “sound objects”.

Kozlova-Johannes’s oeuvre encompasses both electronic music and that of the traditional concert hall. Blow Your House Down, written in 2020, is a piano concerto with string orchestra. It begins with a startling crash in the piano, followed by pulsating dissonant chords in the orchestra. This intensity fades almost to nothing, with groaning string glissandi punctuated by single notes in the extreme upper register of the piano. As the strings slowly fade into obscurity, an arpeggiated melody in the solo piano line brings the concerto to a fluid, almost impressionistic close.

In contrast, her Aria for electronic ensemble opens with a searching keyboard melody, which subsequently goes through a series of modulations and that collapse, draw out, and invert the initial harmonic progression. As in her concert music, Kozlova-Johannes captures an impressive array of sounds – some startling, some eerie, some incredibly beautiful. These effects draw as readily from the concert hall as they do from nature or the digital sphere. 

Galina Grigorieva
© Ilmar Saabas
One of Estonia’s other influential composers is Galina Grigorjeva, renowned for her choral music. Grigorjeva was born in 1962 in Ukraine, and studied at the Odessa and St. Petersburg Conservatories with Yuri Falik. She moved to Estonia to continue her studies with Lepo Sumera in the Estonian Academy of Music and has been based in Estonia ever since. Her compositions are influenced strongly by Slavic sacred music, and achieve a sense of timelessness, spirituality, and repose. Most striking is her use of texture, achieving dynamic contrasts between minimal melodic lines and dense polyphony.

One of her best-known choral works is On Leaving, composed in 1999 for eight-part choir, recorder, and percussion. The text is taken from Orthodox prayers, which she reflects musically in her use of Russian polyphony from the middle ages with its complex rhythms and harmonies. The use of the recorder is unconventional: as it emerges from the texture of voices, it is unclear whether it is a voice or an instrument. Recalling the recorder ensembles of the Renaissance, it achieves the effect of sounding simultaneously ancient and contemporary.

Grigorjeva’s oeuvre is not limited to choral music. Evening Bells was written for the unusual chamber ensemble of harp, harpsichord, and kannel, a traditional box zither with plucked strings from Estonia. A series of repeated chords imitates the sound of church bells, and the sonority shifts as the chord series switch between the instruments. Here, Grigorjeva alternately blends and contrasts the three timbres, and when all three come together at the end of the piece, it’s a completely unique sound.

Elis Hallik
© Kaupo Kikkas
Among the younger generation of composers, Elis Hallik (born in 1986) has achieved particular international success. Hallik studied at the Estonian Academy of Music with Helena Tulve and Toivo Tulev, followed by further studies at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Lyon, France. She has achieved much success in France, with her pieces performed by L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and featuring in the Manifeste Festival organized by Paris’ IRCAM.

Her chamber work To Become a Tree premiered in 2016 at the International Summer Academy Festival at Vienna’s mdw, written for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Each instrument seems to exist in its own sonic world, and the piece explores the idea of communication, collaboration, and co-existence inspired by the idea of symbiosis in nature. It begins with all instruments in their upper register before descending into the threatening depths of the bass clarinet, a slow downward glide brings the piece to an abrupt end.

Written amidst the coronavirus pandemic, The Firehearted eventually premiered in 2021. Originally commissioned as part of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven programme, it draws upon themes from Beethoven’s Leonore overture. Beethoven comes in and out of focus, amplified and distorted by rumbling percussion crashes. It’s witty and somewhat disconcerting, as if seeing Beethoven through a magnifying lens, and displays Hallik’s virtuoso orchestral writing at its most dazzling.

Elo Masing
© Elo Masing
Away from the confines of the traditional concert hall, Elo Masing (born in 1984) classifies herself as not just a composer but as a free improviser as well. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, earning her PhD there in 2015. During this time, she studied with Rebecca Saunders in Berlin, where she is currently based. She has been a member of various free improvisation groups, including London’s London Experimental Ensemble and Berlin’s Reanimation Orchestra.

Masing’s doctorate explored the relationship between the physicality of instrumental performers and choreographed movement. In Planes, written in 2012 for string quartet and dancer, she blurs the lines between the musician, dancer, and choreographer. The piece pushes the boundaries of what is audible – indeed, much of it is inaudible for both audience and performer. This poses a particular challenge: how do the musicians and dancers coordinate onstage in the absence of obvious aural cues? Masing has developed a new form of notation for this, a sort of hybrid between a musical score and the Benesh notation used in the ballet world.

In Study in Entropy, Masing turns to the Estonian kannel, this time combined with electronics. The sounds of the kannel and the electronics are completely inseparable, as if enhancing the tonal range of the instrument. The piece cycles through a few motifs but rather than sounding academic, this trance-like repetition achieves a striking beauty.

Madli Marje Gildemann
© Madli Marje Gildemann
Finally, a rising young star of the group is Madli Marje Gildemann. Born in 1994, she studied in Tallinn with Tatjana Kozlova-Johannes and Andrus Kallastu before continuing her studies at the Zurich Academy of the Arts. She has written for an eclectic range of projects, including for film, games, and theatre, and on the concert stage has written everything from solo works to full symphonic pieces.

Her Three Studies on Plant Biology: Osmosis for piano quartet is a sonic study on the process of water circulating through a tree. The piece begins percussively, with all players alternately plucking strings and tapping the wood of their instruments, then expands into a trilled motif that interweaves and folds upon itself before evaporating into the atmosphere.

Gildemann’s The Land Beyond for symphony orchestra begins with otherworldly low rumblings, with dissonant winds and percussion crashes contributing to the feeling of unease. It’s a slow burn of a piece, establishing her talent for atmospheric, almost film-like music and in maintaining tension in interest through creative use of timbre. A new orchestral piece by Gildemann closes this year’s Estonian Music Days: the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra premieres Transpiration from Three Studies on Plant Biology. A must-hear, and bodes well for the future of female composers in Estonia.

This was only a small dip into what's a very rich and varied contemporary music scene in Estonia, but we hope to have inspired you to explore further.