Peter G. Goral - Social Media Strategist - ArtEnvy Inc.

In conversation with Virgo Sillamaa, Estonian Artistic Director, Estonian Music Week

I recently sat down with Virgo Sillamaa, the Estonian Artistic Director for The Estonian Music Week, which is bringing together what promises to be one the most exciting musical festivals of it's kind. The festival, which will take place in key Toronto entertainment venues throughout the entire week of May 24th to 29th is in celebration of Estonia's 100th Anniversary of Independence. Musicians and Singers from Estonia will be joining a roster of Canadian artists to bring together a magnificent collaboration of music and culture.

Peter: Virgo, thank you so much first of all for taking the time to speak with us. I know how busy you've been with all the festivities in Tallinn. I was wondering what this 100 year anniversary of the independence of Estonia means to you on a personal level?

Virgo: Well, it's a tricky question to give a clearly articulated answer to. I was 12 in 1991, so I remember the end of the Soviet Union pretty well. A surreal dreamlike set of memories by now, I remember instinctively sensing the tremendous significance of the events that led to Estonia regaining its independence. As probably many Estonians of my age I consider myself cosmopolitan and feel very connected to the world and Estonia is a very open, young and vibrant society. At the same time I cherish our language and the unique cultural identity that springs from it (as from any language). So perhaps it's best to say it thus: I am very proud in the way that a tiny culture in a complicated geo-political position and difficult past dares to be open to the world, not close into itself in the fear of disappearing. I think we're brave in that way and I also believe that's the only way forward. We can only grow and develop if we're in an open mutual contact with the rest of the world. Our first President Lennart Meri has said something like "in the ever changing world, those who go with the world and perhaps a bit faster than the world, are on the winning side. Those who get ahead, can anticipate the problems and solutions that life will sets on their path", I believe that. So for me the 100 year anniversary is an affirmation of a culture and society that remembers its past, cherishes its identity, embraces the changing wider world and perhaps even runs a bit ahead of it.

Peter: Thank you Virgo for that terrific insight, it's truly great to hear from you first-hand on how everything played out for you. There are celebrations going on all over the world this year as this is a very significant milestone to make note of for Estonians globally. How did the music week come about here in Toronto?

Virgo: I probably don't know the very beginnings of what became EMW, but I was approached by Piret Noorhani through our mutual friend Derek Andrews with an idea of bringing Estonian contemporary musical culture to Toronto. I instantly liked the idea as through my work at Music Estonia I see so much diverse potential that ripens ever more for an international presence. Of course Estonia is well known for our composers, most notably Arvo Pärt, also the Järvi family of conductors and the pervasive choir culture that culminates with jewels like Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and Vox Clamantis. But I see a gradual rise to the international forum of more and more artists from other scenes, the Estonian traditional music scene having probably been the fastest to international stages. Maarja Nuut, Trad.Attack!, Mari Kalkun, Svjata Vatra and now recently aslo Curly Strings have toured the world. The richness of Estonian contemporary music in the broadest sense needs to be accessible also to Estonians living abroad, so Estonian Music Week in Toronto was a no-brainer at least in concept. And then we got to work. We managed to secure a grant from EV100 fund that has helped to bring Estonian culture to many places in the world and this really served as the kick-start to the whole process.

VOX CLAMANTIS - Tallinn, Estonia Gregorian, Early & Contemporary

Peter: It's clear from your answer that Estonia is indeed rich in talent. I personally feel music is a great platform to bring together all cultures from all walks of life and I'm thinking that maybe somewhere in the grand scheme of things that this must have played a great part in the development of the EMW. Perhaps you'd share your own thoughts on that and how you see it being received by the city of Toronto?

Virgo: It was quite clear to me from early on and I believe it was shared with Piret and Derek, that it made a lot of sense to try and facilitate as many contacts between Estonian and Canadian artists and through that, engage larger and mixed audiences. I'd like to see EMW to be not only a great event filled with wonderful music, but also perhaps a platform for the many Estonian artists involved to build further connections in Canada, find new audiences and perhaps come back in the future as well.

MARTIN KUUSKMANN - Tallinn, Estonia Experimental, Free Improvisation, Classical

Peter: I would imagine the fact that you are bringing artists from Estonia as well as securing acts and venues here in Toronto for this spectacular event that there was a great deal of work involved in organizing such and event. What kinds of things can you share with us so that we can get a feel of what goes into assembling such an event?

Virgo: Well, to be honest, the lions share of the work is certainly done in Toronto by Piret, Tom and the rest of the team. My big chapters were compiling the early vision of the event into a strategic plan for the application and then later holding negotiations with most of the Estonian artists to get them involved. I've just finished booking all the flights with the help of a long time partner, an Estonian travel company GoTravel. Of course, there's all sorts of smaller things to do, but in general I'm now waiting to come to Toronto and seeing the event unfolding in real time, it's going to be very exciting!

KADRI VOORAND - Tallinn, Estonia Jazz

Peter: I've reviewed some of the artists from Estonia that are scheduled to appear here and I must say that I am extremely impressed with the quality of talent that will be showcased here in Toronto, in some cases for the first time. Can you highlight some of the music and cultural values that exist in Estonia and if you can, offer us some insight as to what to expect at some of these concerts?

Virgo: You're quite right - we're bringing over a fantastic selection of diverse Estonian artists, somewhat of a dream lineup.

I believe Estonia has suffered the same benefits as Iceland - being a small country means no musical scene can really develop into an unmixed vertical, pure ivory tower. Everything gets touched by and mixed with everything else, simply because many things are done by the same people. This is a recipe for a rich and vibrant music scene and Estonia is certainly having more and more of that by every year.

MAARJA NUUT & HH - Tallinn, Estonia Ambient, Contemporary, Electronic, Folk, World

Certainly one of the highlights of the whole week is the co-production with the festival 21C where two Estonian artists will be performing: Maarja Nuut & HH and one of Estonia's most internationally acclaimed choirs Vox Clamantis. Maarja Nuut has been a wonderful artist whose growth I have witnessed over the last four years from various angles. I've seen her perform in Estonia, in Slovenian metal and punk rock showcase festival MENT Ljubljana where she hardly left an eye dry and also in Canada, Mundial Montreal and Classical:NEXT in Rotterdam, Holland. She never fails to move the audience with her very pristine minimal and perfectly sculpted performance of singing, playing the violin and effortlessly creating intricate, even virtuosic loops upon loops in all this. Central to her has been the storytelling element - as her music has heavily drawn from Estonian older folk music tradition, telling a story is the basis of everything. In the EMW / 21C collaboration she will bring to the stage her new artistic partnership Maarja Nuut & HH - the latter being sound artist Hendrik Kaljujärv, who brings a darker electronic twist to Maarja's ethereal sounds. The result is a truly nuanced soundworld, rooted in something ancient, yet unmistakably contemporary.

SANDER MOLDER - Tallinn, Estonia Dance, Electronic

In the same concert Vox Clamantis will perform pieces of contemporary music, also by Arvo Pärt. They have a special relationship with the world renowned composer having worked with him extensively and premiered pieces by him. Estonia is well known as a choir country with an "Estonian choir sound". Vox Clamantis, led by Jaan-Eik Tulve has a unique sound within that framework, so sound within sound. Perhaps it comes from also being expert at performing Gregorian Chant that the so special fluency comes from, I don't know, but I'm always mesmerised when I hear them.

ESTONIAN VOICES - Tallinn, Estonia A Capella, Jazz, Folk, Pop

Kadri Voorand is an unstoppable powerhouse of improvised vocal expression that needs no introduction in Estonia. Her recent increasingly international touring schedule has not slowed her down on all musical fronts, whether it is working with her duo, quartet, Estonian Voices, occasionally with Avarus Ensemble, recently released Tormis Quartet or then simply composing a large scale choir composition for herself, Taavo Remmel on double bass and Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Her music is a well-synthesized mix of improvisation and composition that goes way further from simply inserting a few choruses of scat solo within a song framework. It is rather a truly free and dynamic expressiveness. Kadri's performances are often hot matter of artistic expression with dynamic interplay with her band. She sings and plays the piano as a single unit of creativity. It is not jazz, though certainly often jazzy, it is not folk music, though often evoking sensibilities of Estonian traditional music elements, it is a highly original mix of many things delivered with a hold-nothing-back attitude. Kadri is also involved in Estonian Voices, the vocal sextet that has become a somewhat of a sensation in Estonia with hugely popular remakes of local popular songs. Their repertoire is diverse and arrangements highly original, often intricate. Harmonies are often thicker and jazzier while always remaining very accessible.

ERKI PARNOJA - Tallinn, Estonia Alternative, Indie, Instrumental, Pop

Estonian music awards delivered a surprise this year when the Male Artist of the Year was awarded to Erki Pärnoja, a guitarist and a composer delivering instrumental cinematographic soundscapes with his group Efterglow. Erki, who just concluded a major project for the Anniversary that was premiered in Tallinn, Jazzkaar Festival, a large scale work with the photographer Kaupo Kikkas, director Jaak Prints "Saja Lugu" (The Story of One Hundred), has proved himself a versatile musician, songwriter, composer and producer. Erki Pärnoja Efterglow is certainly a treat for those who are looking visuality from music. The lack of vocals with lyrics seems to leave more space to create your own story for the music. The music could in general be assigned into a wide indie rock box, but there's a lot idiosyncratic to Erki's music, both in melodies and arrangements.

AVARUS ENSEMBLE - Tallinn, Estonia Classical, Jazz

A very special and unique moment no doubt will be the opening event with an electro-acoustic chamber group Avarus Ensemble will premier three works commissioned for this event. Two of them are by highly acclaimed electronic music composers and producers Sander Mölder (EE) and Kara-Lis Coverdale (CA) with composers participating in both cases on electronic sounds. Certainly a special treat will be in the guest soloist appearance by the world-renowned Denver-based Estonian bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann, performing a piece "Trees Talk" by Mingo Rajandi, the double bassist and artistic director of Avarus Ensemble. The groups sound is very colourful due to the special instrumentation and compositions often rather fast-paced and rhythmical. Especially Mingo's compositions can in some aspects be traced back to her admiration of impressionist composers such as Maurice Ravel, however these influences have filtered into a decidedly contemporary vehicle. If references are needed, than perhaps fans of either Pat Metheny Group or Maria Schneider's large ensemble works could enjoy this thoroughly, still Avarus Ensemble, lacking a drumset, is much more subtle and chamberlike. Kadri Voorand, the groups' vocalist will sing in Estonian, English and Spanish, texts by great poets in all of them.

KRISTJAN RANDALU TRIO - Tallinn, Estonia Jazz

Kristjan Randalu is the most accomplished Estonian jazz musician, having just released his first record with the famous ECM label. His background and interests intersect classical music with jazz improvisation, his music often striving for intricate compositional structures enriched with dazzling improvisational pianism. Cerebral, energetic, virtuosic, yet at times contemplating in a truly Nordic way.

PIA FRAUS - Tallinn, Estonia Shoegaze, Indiepop, Dreampop

And finally, in fact the latest addition to Estonian artists at EMW, is Pia Fraus, a shoegaze band that started 1998 and has since then built up a considerable international following. They're often on the road, from US to Japan. The band explains their collective sound as being a "sublime mixture of dream-pop, subtle shoegaze and beautiful electronica all topped off blissfully with shimmering layered vocalisations".

I almost missed one item that has just been finalized. I am pleased to announce that we will have visiting us during the week on her way back to Los Angeles from Estonia, KERLI another really talented multi-faceted artist from Estonia, and while she will not be performing this time, we view her as a significant addition to the festivities. She will sit on a Music Industry Panel along with some other music business leaders from Canada and Estonia, to discuss the development of strategic alliances between the two countries with the intent to bring some awareness and cross pollination of talent. After all, the world is so connected these days, and it's important that we support and nurture the industry with such events as The Estonian Music Week.

KERLI - Estonia, Los Angeles

Peter: Virgo, I can't even begin to thank you for that incredible insight to the Estonian artists. Your colour commentary really adds to the excitement many of us already feel about this event. So thank you for that. I'm positive that this event will be a great success as you have pulled together not only some great talent in the artists but you've also leveraged the skill set of a group of people like yourself that are experienced in management and music itself. What do you anticipate to be the result of your efforts and can you see perhaps facilitating something similar in the future?

Virgo: I truly hope that EMW is simply the beginning of more diverse and direct connections between the Estonian and Canadian music scenes. EMW is a pretty large event to pull off and I doubt it can be made into an annual event, at least in this scale. However, hopefully it launches a renewed presence of Estonian contemporary music culture in Toronto and perhaps through that, eventually, in Canada at large.

Peter: Virgo, I thank you so much for your very colourful and thorough responses to my questions, and I know when our readers take the time to read this interview they too, will feel truly motivated to come out to the concerts in the week of May 24 to 29 and really enjoy some of what you've clearly depicted here as a collection of really brilliant musicians. Thank you again for your time, and I'm looking forward to meeting you in a few weeks time.

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