Five Musicians Building a New World in the Face of Estonia's Isolated Past
The fall of the Soviet Union and homecomputing changed the face of music in the eastern European country, which now is full of musicians looking to the past to build the future.
Photo courtesy of the artist.
In the age of social media omnipresence, it’s almost difficult to imagine not having access to the entire history of 20th century Western culture at your fingertips. But this was the day-to-day existence of Estonians up until the 90s, when the country became independent from the Soviet Union. Before that shift fully happened, it was too difficult to throw parties or play music; not because any of it was illegal, but as electronic musician Ruum aka Hendrik Kaljujärv remembers, because nobody had the time nor money to do so. Kaljujärv remembers his first introduction to Western music was witnessing The Prodigy as a teenager at Tallinn's Linnahall, a venue now closed due to a poisonous fungus infestation.
Another crucial social change in Estonia was the introduction of the computer: in the late 1990s, the Republic of Estonia began the initiative Tiigrihüpe (or Tiger's Leap), installing computer labs in school around the country—thus giving Estonian teenagers access to decades of Western media in one instant. This inspired artists like Kaljujärv to start producing their own music. This is commonly discussed among artists as being a major positive for the country. When I was there in early October—for Ruum’s album release show with Maarja Nuut and for the festival Body Machine Body—the majority of people that I spoke to were unwilling to be nostalgic about the country's past, envisioning instead a happier, freer future.
Now with more time and money on their hands, a new experimental community is thriving across Estonia, concentrated in its capital city Tallinn. Although most of its artists are reluctant to say there is a scene here, they all know each other by name and some have a long history of working together. Like in Berlin, Tallinn’s winters are dark and cold, meaning that musicians who live here tend to work alone, creating whole audio-visual worlds in their apartments and warehouse spaces. This has given them plenty of breathing space to experiment with their own directions.
“What's going on now [in Tallinn’s music scene] is totally weird…” says DJ and musician Raul Saaremets, who runs the label Porridge Bullet. “Two years ago, I would have said in a bad way, but now I'm really pleased as to what's going on.” Though I met Saaremets at Tallinn's Raadio 2, most people involved in the Estonian experimental scene now have their own shows on the IDA Raadio, station in the Telliskivi area,. Saaremets is well known in Tallinn for having run the infamous Mutant Disco, which played experimental dance music in warehouses across the city.
The experimental scene in Estonia has flourished since its first rise to international prominence in the 90s, the time when John Peel visited the country, as Saaremets recalls. Peel apparently hoped that the collapse of the Soviet government in Estonia combined with the newly open border between the country and Russia would mean that he would get to hear new Russian bands. He was first intrigued by the Estonian underground after hearing Saaremets's own band Röövel Ööbik, who formed in 1987 during Soviet times and by 1990 had already managed to secure a spot at a New York festival alongside Sonic Youth.
Relations with Russia have improved somewhat over the last couple of years, at least culturally. The Station Narva festival has recently sprung up on the Russian-Estonian border, this year hosting an eclectic range of international acts including Echo and the Bunnymen, Actress, and Tricky. Both Russians and Estonians work on this border between the two countries—kind of a nether zone—and according to Music Estonia's Karin Kahre, artists are now contemplating whether this might be a good, cheap place to set up shop outside of Tallinn. But the memories of Estonia's past Soviet rule linger in his memory too strongly for Saaremets to accept Narva's newfound trendiness.
“It was like fucking North Korea here,” he says.“My generation has some reservations about [the area]. My son maybe not that much, though he can't believe the stories that I've told him about it, when I tell him what happened 25 years ago.”
Saaremets says that there's still a large generational divide between the young and old in Estonia, because of this lack of shared history. According to him, there are two major festivals that have sprung up in Estonia, including one on its second biggest island Hiiumaa, which is where he’s from. Unfortunately there’s not much of a scene there yet, and he thinks the same goes for Narva. He also says that young people growing up in these parts of Estonia take the opportunity to move out to Tallinn or London as soon as it arises. This was also the case for one of the Estonian scene’s most famous exports, Inga Copeland, who now records as Lolina. Although she was born in Russia, she spent most of her childhood and adolescence in Tallinn, before moving to London where her musical career really began to thrive. But that’s no longer the only option available to musicians from the country. Her brother, also an artist , still lives and works in Tallinn, amid the thriving experimental music scene in this mesmerizing, curious city.
TMaarja Nuut’s classical background is a rarity in Tallinn. Her mother was a choir conductor, who taught her the piano. Nuut wrote her first composition “to her rabbit” when she was just four years old and she jokes that it took “20 years before she wrote another one,” When she was 12, she moved to Tallinn to “train as a professional musician” at a specialised boarding school. But during her teens, she started to play folk music, but says that it was more international than that suggests: “I went to international music camps, where children come together all around the world. You teach something from your own culture, and you put together a program together. I mean if you're 14 or 15, classically trained and stuck in a Russian system school and you're thrust into this sort of camp, it's a life changing experience.”
Maarja Nuut's new collaboration with experimental musician Ruum marks a distinct shift away from “organic” sounds of folk instruments to one that involves electronics, and so the visual dimension of their performance now mimics this, at their album launch playing against the backdrop of a projected “forest, but very close up, so you can't really figure out what it is.” But even though Nuut's music is influenced by ancient Estonian folk songs and psychedelic natural imagery, she's reluctant to call herself a neo-pagan musician. According to Nuut, Estonian paganism is becoming somewhat trendy to outsiders, and their beliefs as a country are a “secret” that they'd prefer to keep private. I ask her if it's a little like Japanese Shinto, and she seems to think that it might be.
“It's a really hard thing to comment on,” she says. “Obviously we can't say that we are like pagans now or really believe in nature, because if you look at society and the way that we're acting towards nature at the moment, it's difficult to really say that.” Nuut definitely has some concerns for the future of Estonia’s ecology: with climate change, winters are becoming increasingly more chaotic in temperature, and there is an ongoing battle to conserve the country's forested land. So really, she says, “it's not so black and white.”
Being an electronic musician and a Prodigy fan, Ruum aka Hendrik Kaljujärv's origin story is different to that of his current collaborator Maarja Nuut—leaning more towards industrial techno at times than the duo's combined electronic folk sound. With Nuut, he syncs his sound up to her playing using a piece of technology that allows them to be able to play spontaneously while in time together. At the showcase Body Machine Body—a festival running separately to Maarja Nuut & Ruum’s album launch—Kaljujärv creates industrial techno with Jakob Juhkam, who together turn Tallinn's many tiered, cavernous HALL venue as an answer to a seedy Berlin club. Ruum also plays with multimedia artist Karl Saks, with whom he's released three albums through the Estonian experimental label Serious Serious.
Even though Ratkiller aka Mihkel Kleis chooses to operate more on the peripheries of Tallinn's underground scene these days, he's an artist that everyone in the city seems to sing the praises of. Kleis lives in one of Tallinn's sprawling suburbs, and while the outside suggests a nondescript block of flats, the artist has constructed for himself a secret, psychedelic interior: cluttered with heavy metal paraphernalia, skulls, cloaks, his cassette collection and dramatic murals. Kleis is not a metal artist though. For him the genre is more like wallpaper—it's something he just always has on in the background. His own music at the moment is more inspired by Orange Milk Records, and being a graphic designer as well he's enthusiastic about the label's surreal cover designs in particular.
Kleis may appear quiet and unassuming, but his new Unapologetea/Forged Panoply tape released this September is anything but.It's an experimental project that manages to be a montage of humorous, disorientating, relaxing and stressful moments that absurdly intersect. It's a playground for Kleis' numerous ideas: dreamy guitar sweeps coexist alongside jazzy loops and car-crash atmospherics. Like with many Estonian artists I speak to he's building an alternate reality to inhabit, with this montage of sounds ending with a spoken-word piece from the artist himself, reciting a folk horror tale punctuated with screams. Despite this, it's a strangely easy listen, like listening to an eccentric uncle telling you a ghost story as a child— there's something whimsical about it, a playfulness offsetting the melancholy of Kleis’ husky voice.
Andres Lõo's involvement with music began through Estonia's late 90s, early 00s noise music scene. Estonian noise rock was a left-wing escapist response to the stresses of everyday life that Lõo and his friends were trying to detach themselves from—a time of major social and political change. His band Luarvik Luarvik (which also included Mihkel Kleis) were involved performing an impromptu situationist exhibition in Pärnu's Port Artur 2 shopping centre. In his book Phantom Platform, Lõo confesses that “in today's context it might be considered an act of terrorism against consumerism” and explains that he “transmitted this noise rock show to the audience from a stage with a triangular floor, which formed a second level above the main entrance to the shopping center.”
Since the, Lõo has experimented with dub, jazz, and folk, and he’s now turning his hand more to creating settings for his less harsh, more ambient music.His most recent project with artist Peter Laurits—a science fiction multi-media environment called Coming Soon: Utopian Prelude—is a catalyst to encourage visitors to conceive a utopian possible future. Via what they dub a “phantom platform”, Lõo and Laurits consider what our future relationship will look like with nature, but also the ways in which we will listen to music. At his exhibition at Tallinn's VAAL Gallery this month, you can hear Lõo's 1 hour long piece called “Ambient ForThe Pillows Dreamtime,” combining soft voices and binaural ambient drone with the sound of Estonian forest field recordings. The space that he creates here in this music is both calm and melancholy, like Harold Budd or David Sylvian's ambient pieces. Coupled with the gloom of the VAAL Gallery installations, the experience is akin to finding a small spot in a forest where you can sit for hours alone.
Even though everyone in Tallinn's experimental underground knows each other, they all work separately and so refuse to define themselves as a scene. There aren't any big producers in the country, and so most musicians self-produce in their own apartments. But I manage to catch musician and producer Mart Avi, before he heads out to master his immersive, sound art influenced alt pop album OtherWorld at one of Estonia's few recording studios—named simply Ö—which is based in Estonia's second largest city, Tartu. Mart Avi is enthusiastic about his country's burgeoning Soundcloud rap scene and “weird pop” obsession, telling me about his love for SOPHIE, Rihanna, D'Angelo, and the 12-year-old Estonian Soundcloud rap superstar Väike Pede, who was once scheduled to give an interview with the Estonian press but instead decided to feign his death in the middle of the road. In terms of his own music, though, Mart Avi is situated in a hard to characterize space between Gary Numan, SOPHIE and Arca.
In Estonian art, you can trace influences from science fiction (particularly Russian director Andrei Tarkovksy's Stalker, which was filmed in parts of Estonia), the country's lush, damp landscape and of course the country's difficult to pin down spirituality, a form of nature worship. Avi's 2013 album After Hours taps into the country's folklore and the very real, mysterious life of Count Paul von Sivers, the last estate owner of Vara—the village Avi was born in—with him vividly recalling when he visited the cemetery the count was buried in as a child. “It’s surrounded with a wall and has a broken iron cross,” he remembers. “Nettles grew there in summer. It’s just so existentially absurd.”
Avi's new inspiration for OtherWorld, he says, looks out towards contemporary American pop. But he is hoping that in the future, other Estonian musicians will start to use the dark local politics of villages outside of Tallinn as a point of inspiration.
Correction: Raul Saaremets was originally misidentified as Siim Nestor, a co-founder of Porridge Bullet. A previous version of this article also claimed that there wasn't a university in Tallinn that specialized in contemporary classical music, but that is not the case. Noisey regrets the error.
Lottie Brazier is a writer based in London. She's on Twitter.