“Roheline heli?” – “Green sound?” – was the question posed by this year’s Estonian Music Days, which came to a close last weekend. The theme may have been green, but the festival itself is anything but. Founded in 1979, and as such the oldest music festival in Estonia, it takes place annually, occupying numerous performance spaces in and around the capital city of Tallinn. Although not explicit in its name, it is in fact a contemporary music festival; this ostensible lack of clarification is indicative of Estonia’s abundantly obvious open-mindedness to new music, without the need to bundle it into a separate, genre-bound compartment of its own. To the Estonians, contemporary music is simply music; from a British perspective, there’s something quietly radical in that obvious affirmation.

Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir © Peeter Langovits
Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir
© Peeter Langovits

In light of the country’s complex political history, moving painfully back and forth between periods of occupation and independence (liberation from the then-USSR came in 1991), it was telling to note that almost all of the Estonian music featured avoided overt violence, offering an assertive but thoughtful, even introspective take on their respective arguments. In its own way this can be seen as a continuation of the mindset that led to their independence, defiant but non-confrontational, often expressed through mass singing. This was especially evident in the evening concert given by Nordic Affect, an Icelandic chamber group which performs contemporary music on period instruments (string trio, traverso and harpsichord).

Estonia and Iceland evidently have something of a close bond; violinist and master of ceremonies for the evening Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir spoke of Iceland’s special fondness of the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, while the Estonians feel connected to Iceland in part through both being countries with small populations. The concert, titled “Warm Life at the Foot of the Iceberg”, featured music from both countries that, as intimated above, generally resisted being demonstrable. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Point of Departure took this too far, resulting in something that by turns resembled a halting hymn, portions of film music and medieval pastiche. Despite the care needed to execute its precise points of simultaneous movement, the results were extremely tedious. Mirjam Tally and Helena Tulve (the latter one of the festival’s artistic directors) made the harpsichord centre of attention. Tulve’s Every spark is numbered III: Rio Abajo Rio treated it as a source to be coalesced around and elaborated upon, while Tally’s work, from which the concert took its name, made it an epicentre of inspiration, hurling out ideas that were flung around the ensemble with considerable rhythmic energy, to exhilarating effect. María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir’s Clockworking instead used electronics to guide the strings; there was some harmonic interest arising from dissonances against its underlying modal character, but the titular intention to explore concentric rhythmic patterns was far from evident.

Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir and Georgia Browne © Peeter Langovits
Halla Steinunn Stefánsdóttir and Georgia Browne
© Peeter Langovits

The group was joined by Estonian singer Tui Hirv for Páll Ragnar Pálsson’s Atonement, to a text written by Hirv, poetically alluding to what might best be called a moment of clarity, “with an altered belief system […] not afraid of being serious anymore […] Coming to terms with a new world”. The allusive words were placed within an altogether more concrete sound environment, comprising assorted gestures clearly of the same ‘family’, alighting on similar pitches and modes of articulation (often trills and tremolandi). Structured in waves, each successive climax was less intense than the previous one, culminating in a thin, hollow even ascetic conclusion, one where perhaps all extraneous things had finally been expunged. By far the most involving work on the program though – literally as well as figuratively – was Þýð by Úlfur Hansson (better known to some as electronic musician Klive), a work for string trio in the midst of the entire audience collectively humming a three-note chord. Within this omnipresent drone, causing both the entire space and ourselves to buzz and resonate, the strings projected materials in varying quantities of sympathy to it, incorporating heavy, grindingly pressurised distortions and oblique harmonic shifts. Inspired by and titled after a favourable type of Icelandic weather, it proved in every sense to be very deeply immersive.

Nordic Affect’s approach, alternating accessible, entertaining introductions with intensely focussed, finely-wrought playing, deserves high commendation and would benefit many other new music groups and indeed festivals as the model for their own concerts. It was inviting without any hint of compromise.