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Young Composer and Professor Teaches Listening to the World

Internationally respected Estonian composer Helena Tulve accepted the position of Professor of Arts at the University of Tartu (UT) for 2008 and will give five lectures this spring. The position was established in 1993 to develop the intellectual spirit and creativity of UT members. Professors to date have represented the fields of art, architecture, literature, and theatre. Professor Tulve’s first lecture provided a framework for talking about music, and challenged listeners with metaphors and parallels between music and cultural typology, as well as sounds from Japan, Georgia, Sweden, India, Estonia - cultures and music so different, yet at times so close.

What the lectures are about

Professor Tulve herself claims: „It will definitely not be a course on contemporary music. We will touch upon different eras and cultures. And I will certainly speak about traditional musical cultures which interest me a lot. I am going to talk about things I personally like. What binds it all together is the idea of listening. I have always thought that there are as many different ways of listening as there are people. Every day we are surrounded by so many sounds, including musical sounds, which we do not notice.”

Professor Helena Tulve uses fresh, vivid metaphors to describe the music of different cultures and traditions: straight versus curvy melody; sliding elements and intonation; multi-layered, tree-like structure; rhythm like a skyscraper, with many elevators hurrying up and down and jumping from one floor to another; rhythm like a woven cloth; and horizontal and narrative musical structure.


Some notes from the first lecture

  • Music is a fleeting art form: it is attached to the moment and has no direct meaning.
  • The main aim of music is to bring one into union with oneself, one’s fellow beings and the environment.
  • Oral tradition passes on what is important. Writing forces one to do things in a certain way.
  • Music expresses the environment in which musicians live and music functions.
  • Permanent settlements are well organized and so is the rhythm of their music. Nomadic people sing or play alone to themselves, so no strict rules or norms are needed.
Merilyn Merisalu (MM), editor of the weekly Estonian newspaper Universitas Tartuensis had the opportunity to ask the composer a few questions.

Becoming a Professor of Arts
MM: In your opinion, why were you offered this position?
HT: I think that there haven’t been many musicians in this position. As I understand it, the aim is to cover different fields of art. Maybe this year it was the musicians’ turn and I just somehow came into the picture. Maybe it was just that nobody else wanted to accept (laughs).

MM: Then why did you agree?
HT: I took it as a sort of challenge. At first, I was rather surprised by the proposal. It seemed very intriguing: to do something you haven’t done before – although I have given lectures earlier, both at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, and to the film students at Tallinn University. Lecturing also helps to make many things clear for myself by showing them from a different angle. I think that lecturing really helps you develop personally. Furthermore, this task appealed to me because I don’t know Tartu, although I was born here. It is interesting to meet Tartu students. So there is also curiosity on my part.

MM: How did you prepare for the course?
HT: Composer Veljo Tormis, one of my predecessors as UT Professor of Liberal Arts, spoke a lot about his life and experiences. I cannot use the same approach because I am not as experienced as he. But I will still attempt to present the material through a personal prism, so that it is easier to follow and understand. And it will definitely be more interesting.

Lectures for open-minded people
MM: And how do you make your students listen?
HT: Since they have taken the trouble to come to the lecture, I expect them to be prepared to listen. I will offer students a chance to listen. Having once done this, it will be easier to notice things in everyday life.
MM: Who do you expect to come to your lectures?
HT: I wouldn’t bar anyone from attending. I welcome all open-minded people.
MM: What will students gain from your lectures?
HT: Personal enrichment. This will be a chance to have a look at a composer’s way of seeing things. It is not spoken about very often. Maybe it will give them a better idea of what a composer’s work is about. And of course, I imagine that it could cultivate their ability to observe. There is so much information in the world that just remains unnoticed.
MM: Does the fact that you are an internationally recognized composer somehow help you lecture in a better way?
HT: Recognized or not, I don’t see it making any difference. I think that all UT Professors of Liberal Arts have had their own point of view on things. If I were a student, I would definitely be interested in what kind of person the lecturer is, how he/she thinks, and how he/she sees and expresses things. Personally, I don’t see how being known internationally would help me in lecturing.

About Helena Tulve
Helena Tulve (b. 1972) studied composition at Tallinn High School of Music (Alo Põldmäe) and from 1989 to 1992 at the Estonian Academy of Music under Erkki-Sven Tüür. She continued her education in the composition class of Jacques Charpentier at the National Regional Conservatoire in Paris, from which she graduated in 1994 with Premier Prix. From 1993-1996, she studied Gregorian chant at the Paris Conservatoire (Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse de Paris - CNSMDP).

Tulve’s compositions contain influences from French spectral music, Gregorian chant, IRCAM experiments, as well as oriental music. What makes her music special and powerfully suggestive is the happy marriage of analytical exactness and an intuitive use of timbre. More than traditional means of musical expression - melody, rhythm, harmony - Helena Tulve is interested in the “raw“ sound, its origin, transformation and decay. Her compositions have won acclaim and distinguished awards both at home and abroad.

UT Professors of Arts

1993 writer Hando Runnel
1994 playwright Madis Kõiv
1995 literary scientist and translator Jaak Rähesoo
1996 artist Jüri Arrak
1997 composer Veljo Tormis
1998 writer Jaan Kross
1999 art director of Tallinn City Theatre, Elmo Nüganen
2000 writer and translator Jaan Kaplinski
2001 artist and architect Leonhard Lapin
2002 writer and translator Ain Kaalep
2003 writer Tõnu Õnnepalu
2004 painter Tiit Pääsuke
2005 writer, producer and essayist Mati Unt
2006 architect and artist Vilen Künnapu
2007 writer, translator and cultural scientist Andres Ehin
2008 composer Helena Tulve


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