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The main characteristic feature of Tüür’s music is an intense energetic transformative dimension. The intuitive and rational approach is synthesized into a complete organic system. Instrumental music makes up the main body of Tüür’s work. He is the author of nine symphonies, a number of works for symphony and string orchestra, ten instrumental concertos, a wide variety of chamber music and an opera.
As a composer, Tüür wishes for his music to raise existential questions. ”What is our mission? It is the main question asked by thinkers and philosophers from different cultures. One of my goals is to reach the creative energy of the listener. Music as an abstract form of art is able to create different visions for each of us, for each and every individual being, as we are all unique.”
Erkki-Sven Tüür started his musical activity in the second half of the seventies as a leader of a progressive rock band, influenced by the music of King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Genesis, as well as Mike Oldfield and Frank Zappa. In the second half of the eighties he entered Estonian musical life as a professional composer.
Tüür uses in his work a broad spectrum of compositional techniques. He has been interested in Gregorian chant and minimalism, linear polyphony and microtonality, twelve-tone music and sound-field technique. To describe his attempt to contrast and combine musical opposites – tonality versus atonality, regular repetitive rhythms versus irregular complex rhythms, tranquil meditativeness versus explosive theatricality – the composer has used the term ”meta-language”. The works Zeitraum (1992), Architectonics VI (1992), Crystallisatio (1995) and Symphony No. 3 (1997) are the most representative examples of this method. Tüür: ”My work as a composer is entirely concerned with the relationship between emotional and intellectual energy and the ways in which they can be channelled, accumulated, dissipated and re-accumulated. My pieces are abstract dramas in sound, with characters and an extremely dynamic chain of events; they unfold in a space that is constantly shifting, expanding and contracting.”
The transitional works from the earlier poly-stylistic meta-language style to the new compositional technique are Symphony No. 4 (Magma) and Ardor. Since Oxymoron Tüür has used the term ”vectorial method” to describe his music: ”The most important difference from the earlier approach is the fact that on a grass roots level, the entire composition is encapsulated in a source code – a gene, which, as it mutates and grows, connects the dots in the fabric of the whole work. Why vectorial? An important role in voice leading is played by the position on the ”blueprint” of the various directions and ”curves”. I perceive them as vectors, which are defined by intervals (which are in turn indicated by a sequence of numbers). In any case, what one hears (especially in the harmonies) is very different from the ”meta-linguistic” work of the previous decade. The system is fairly flexible; still, the central organizing principle is important. The first pure example is Oxymoron (2003). Everything since has been written using a vectorial approach.”
Erkki-Sven Tüür studied percussion and flute at the Tallinn Georg Ots Music High School (1976–1980) and composition with Prof. Jaan Rääts at the Tallinn Conservatoire (1980–1984). He also took private lessons from Prof. Lepo Sumera in Tallinn and developed his skills in the field of electronic music in Karlsruhe. In 1979, Tüür founded the progressive rock ensemble In Spe, where he was engaged as composer, flautist, keyboardist and vocalist until 1983. Tüür worked as an adviser at the Estonian Composers’ Union (1983–1985) and musical director of the Vanalinnastuudio Theatre (1987–1990). From 1989–1992, he taught composition at the Estonian Academy of Music (Helena Tulve being the only student to date).
Since 1992, Tüür is a freelance composer, his works are primarily commissioned by world-renowned performers and are frequently premiered abroad before reaching the audience in home. His music is being played regularly by symphony orchestras worldwide in prestigious concert halls. Tüür also closely collaborates with Estonian musicians, including the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra, the YXUS Ensemble (formerly known as the NYYD Ensemble), the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, and many others.
His breakthrough work was 1989’s Insula deserta, which, after its Finnish premiere by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Juha Kangas, was followed by many commissions from Finland and other countries. A vivid example is the Architectonics series: the first two works were commissioned by Estonians (I by the Jaan Tamm Wind Quintet in 1984 and II by the Estonia Theatre Trio in 1986), Architectonics III. Postmetaminimal Dream (1990) by the Los Angeles based ensemble, California E.A.R.Unit, Architectonics IV. Per cadenza ad metasimplicity (1990) by the Canadian group Sound Pressure, Architectonics V (1991) by the New York City guitar virtuoso John Tamburello, Architectonics VI (1992) by the Helsinki Festival and Architectonics VII (1992) by the Festival Musica (Strasbourg, France).
Tüür has also been commissioned to compose new works for following orchestras, ensembles, musicians etc. listed below: American Wind Symphony Orchestra (In Memory of Clear Water, 1990), Stockholm Saxophone Quartet (Lamentatio, 1995), Bachwoche Ansbach (Lighthouse, 1997), David Geringas (Cello Concerto, 1997, premiere with Lausanne Chamber Orchestra), Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (Violin Concerto, 1998, soloist at the premiere: Isabelle van Keulen, Piano Concerto, 2006, soloist Thomas Larcher), Cabaza Percussion Quartet (Motus II, 1998), Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Paavo Järvi (Exodus, 1999), Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz (Aditus, 2000), Dortmund Opera (Wallenberg, 2001), BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Ardor, Marimba Concerto, 2001, soloist Pedro Carneiro), Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra (Magma, 2002, dedicated to Evelyn Glennie), Westdeutscher Rundfunk (Meditatio, 2004), Eclat New Music Festival and Südwestrundfunk (Symphony No. 5, 2005, with Olari Elts conducting the SWR Big Band and Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra at the premiere), Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonia Orchestra (London) (Noesis, 2005), Nordic Symphony Orchestra (Symphony No. 6 Strata, 2007), Turku Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestre de Bretagne (Prophecy, 2007), Hilliard Ensemble and Munich Chamber Orchestra (Questions, 2007), Australian Chamber Orchestra (Whistles and Whispers from Uluru, 2007 and Flamma, 2011), Estonian National Symphony Orchestra/ NDR Radiophilharmonie/ South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/ Orchestre National de Lille (Viola Concerto Illuminatio, 2008, soloist Lars Anders Tomter), Hessischer Rundfunk and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (Symphony No. 7 Pietas, 2009), Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Symphony No. 8, 2010), the ARD International Music Competition (String Quartet No. 2 Lost Prayers, 2012), Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Clarinet Concerto Peregrinus ecstaticus, 2013, soloist Christoffer Sundqvist), Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, West Australian Symphony Orchestra (De Profundis, 2013), Deutscher Musikrat (Missa brevis, 2014), Orchestre National de Belgique (Le poids des vies non vécues, 2015), Orchestre de Paris & Wiener Symphoniker (Sow the Wind… 2015), Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra & St Louis Symphony Orchestra (Solastalgia, 2017).
Tüür’s compositions have also been performed at many festivals, including Border Crossings in Toronto (1990: Architectonics IV), Bang On A Can (New York) (1992: String Quartet), Vale of Glamorgan Festival in Wales (1996: Excitatio ad contemplandum, Transmission, Action. Passion. Illusion; 2002: Cello Concerto), Wien Modern (1997, 1998), the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (1998: Passion, Requiem; 2001: Transmission), Musica Nova in Helsinki (1998: Symphony No. 3, Architectonics VI, Crystallisatio, Lighthouse), Warsaw Autumn (2001: Symbiosis), Les Boréales in France (2002: Architectonics VI, Passion), MaerzMusik in Berlin (2003: Architectonics VI), Klangspuren in Schwaz (2003: Aditus, Oxymoron, Magma), Icebreaker II in Seattle (2004: Fata Morgana), Europamusicale in Germany (2004: Architectonics VI, Oxymoron), ”WDR Musikfest 2009” in Germany (2009: Spiel), International VSA Festival in Washington D.C (2010: Magma), Stanser Musiktage in Switzerland (2010: Triglosson Trishagion), Miskolc International Opera Festival (2010: Wallenberg), as well as festivals in Strasbourg, Salzburg, Gstaad, Cheltenham and Oxford.
In September 2007, Tüür was the composer-in-residence of Auftakt Festival organized by the Frankfurt Alte Oper in Germany, in which a symposium on Erkki-Sven Tüür’s music was held. The symposium lectures were published in 2008 when the German publisher Schott Music released the book Schwarze Milch und bunte Steine (edited by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich). Tüür was the featured composer of 1998 Musica Nova Helsinki, 2002 Vale of Glamorgan Festival (UK) and 2003 Klangspuren Schwaz (Austria). In July 2008, Tüür was the composer-in-residence of the Davos Festival in Switzerland, and in October 2015, Tüür was the composer-in-residence of the Brno International Music Festival Moravian Autumn. In August 2016 he was the composer-in-residence of Moritzburg Festival and in June 2017 of Spannungen Festival in Heimbach.
From 1991 to 2011, Erkki-Sven Tüür was one of the artistic directors of the International New Music Festival NYYD, he also holds an honorary doctorate from the Estonian Academy of Music. He has received the annual Estonian Music Prize (1987, 1988), the Estonian Culture Prize (1997), the Great Bear Prize (1996, 1997), the Baltic Assembly Culture Prize (1998), the Order of the White Star – 2nd Class (2000), the Annual Prize of the Estonian Music Council (2003) and the Annual Prize of the Endowment for Music of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia thrice: in 2003 for the CD ”Exodus”; in 2005 for the artistic direction of the NYYD international contemporary music festivals and in 2007 for an outstandingly creative year. In 2009, Erkki-Sven Tüür received the title of Citizen of the Year. In 2014, Tüür was awarded the Culture Prize of the Republic of Estonia for his Clarinet Concerto Peregrinus ecstaticus and the orchestral work De Profundis. Peregrinus Ecstaticus was also awarded prize ”The Young Musicians Favorite Choice” of the Foundation of Prince Pierre of Monaco in 2015. In the same year, Tüür was given the Christoph und Stephan Kaske Stiftung’s prize in Munich.
In 1995, Tüür’s Requiem (in memory of Peeter Lilje) was one of the recommended works at UNESCO’s Rostrum of Composers in Paris. In 2010, a film documentary about Erkki-Sven Tüür entitled 7 Etudes in Pictures (directed by Marianne Kõrver) was created in cooperation with Exitfilm and Estonian Television.
Erkki-Sven Tüür’s works are published by Edition Peters, also by Fennica Gehrman. Albums with music by Erkki-Sven Tüür have been released by ECM, Ondine, Warner, and EMI Virgin. The albums Magma (Virgin Classics) and Seventh Symphony & Piano Concerto (ECM) have been nominated for the Gramophone Award.