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At this point in the history of composition, the intermingling of electronic and acoustic instruments is hardly anything new. Many composers and performers have found ways to set live performers alongside electronically produced sound in the nearly 70 years since Pierre Henry and Pierre Schaeffer premiered Orpheus 53, their jointly composed opera for soprano and tape which is often pointed to as the first electroacoustic performance. Still, however, it’s uncommon to find a composer who successfully balances the two sides of the equation, who doesn’t treat one side as if it's accompanying, augmenting or colouring the other: Estonian composer Marianna Liik is among the few who treat electronic and acoustic instruments as equals.

Marianna Liik © Maarja Liik
Marianna Liik
© Maarja Liik

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Liik sees the two families as kin. After all, that Henry/Schaeffer opera was already old news by the time she was born. Working with electronics came to her not just naturally, but also concurrently with composing for more traditional instruments. 

“It’s related to the beginning of composing in general and inspiration,” Liik tells me, during a video call from her home in Tallinn. She began composing at the suggestion, almost a challenge, of her father. From that first effort, she says, acoustic instruments and electronic sound and manipulation have been intermingled in her mind. 

Liik’s father taught flute at a children’s school when she was growing up, and started her on violin. Their weekly lessons would include improvising together. She was 18 years old when she enrolled at The Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre and accepted the challenge from her father. 

“My father suggested that I try to compose,” she says. “I was feeling a bit... what do you mean compose? I have no ideas! For many months I just ignored it,”  she laughed, remembering her early hesitation. But once she took it up, she recalls, “it was really exciting. I remember two days I spent there and I composed a piece that was 12 minutes long.”  Beginning with recorded violin and piano improvisations, she filled out the lower register with a double bass she found in a rehearsal studio  – “I just took it, I didn’t tell anyone”  – and then began layering the instrumental lines. The process of shaping and moulding sounds lit a spark. She went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in electroacoustic composition and to find her voice as a composer.

“What I like about using electronic tools is that I can create my own combination of sounds,” she says. “Creating details and spatialisation is very challenging. Working with all these layers, maybe some looping and repeating, has influenced my thinking for acoustic instruments.” 

Not all of Liik’s works include electronics. A quick scroll through her Soundcloud page turns up pieces for solo instruments and small ensembles, vocal soloist, orchestral and choral compositions. There are also works for fixed electronics (what might be called “static works”  or, in the days of Henry and Schaeffer, “tape music” ) which themselves often seem orchestral in scale. Throughout her work, there’s a sort of monumental expression at play, tectonic movements that reveal her interest in looping and structuring. There is a singularity of focus that bespeaks an admitted influence of Giacinto Scelsi, fabled for his intense and prolonged concentration on single notes at his piano. The single notes are bricks, the wall a fortress.

“I remember one of my teachers once said: it’s natural that you’re interested in orchestras, you’re dealing with masses,” she recalls. The movement of masses is quickly heard in one of her most recent compositions, Kurzschluß, an orchestral work that was presented at the Ung Nordisk Musik festival in Tampere, Finland, in August, 2020. Despite the title, which translates as “short circuit”, the piece is entirely acoustic. It opens with double basses, then tuba, quickly establishing a considerable foundation of prolonged tones. In short order, pizzicato strings and percussion bring abrupt disturbances that very nearly sound as if they are electronically produced. Short brass repetitions then suggest quick loops. It softens a bit as sustained notes hang in the air but the mass never reduces in scale. It builds with a palpable tension. The whole piece lasts not much more than 10 minutes and feels colossal.

The feeling of suspense Liik creates in her music would make her a natural for working with film, something she’s done little of but indeed is keen to pursue. Composition for theatre also interests the composer who seems ever thirsty for outside influence. “It’s refreshing to do different kinds of things,” she says. “In every piece, somehow, I try to find some new, meaningful content or substance. It’s always trying to find something new for yourself.” 

“But composing is not like inventing,” she adds firmly. “Very often you realise you’re using substances or materials you’ve used before. In order to get the sonic result, you need to have some tools and you need to know how to build up the piece. You have to practice and not invent all the time. To build up sonic structures you need some experience.” 

Working with other musicians and writing for different instruments and combinations of instruments forces her to think and to learn, she says, as does working with artists outside of music. She also values the opportunity to learn both from musicians and listeners. “It’s important to get second or third performances of your work,”  Liik says. “For learning and developing myself, it’s really important to hear different interpretations and different audiences. You can’t always compose. You need some reflection.” 

Marianna Liik © Maarja Liik
Marianna Liik
© Maarja Liik

It only makes sense, given the end product, that Liik composes at the computer with acoustic instruments nearby. She uses a midi keyboard, but also has a piano, violin and guitar within arm’s reach. (“OK, I don’t know how to play guitar,” she confesses, “but I try.” ) 

“Everything starts with building blocks,” she tells me. “It can be one voice or rhythm or some other sound, but the building block has to speak to me somehow and I’m trying to find some related lines or musical layers.”  

“Always, what is important to me is the wholeness of the piece,” she adds. “Each note has to be placed correctly into the whole. I like the idea of some magnetic line that runs through the whole piece. It’s always telling some kind of story and the story’s really abstract. It definitely tells a different story to everyone. Music’s job is to touch people.” 

Seventy years after Orpheus 53, the presence of electronics in the opera house remains a verboten notion in some circles. But Liik is emphatic about her place in the timeline of classical music, her position in the magnetic line, or perhaps it’s an electromagnetic line, that runs through the tradition of Western composition. 

“This is concert music,” she says definitively. “It’s contemporary classical music. On the other hand, when I am composing, I do not find myself in any genre or any style. It feels like I am trying to release from everything in order to really compose something. For me, it’s really important that I’m reaching to this place where the music is going to live.’ 

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic. 

Find out more about Marianna Liik:

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