Interview taken sometime in 2011 spring (?)
Art world is full of invisible people. Some of them stand behind audience during plays and maintain sound, some sit with a manuscript and pile of vocabularies, other spend their nights trying to perfectly fit subtitles to the movie. Usually they are seen only by their colleagues or when the work is flawed — the best evaluation is when their job is done so perfectly that an audience can not even imagine, what complex and tricky structure was created for just bringing the product in. It is similar while talking about music industry. Many people know Lou Reed. But who — without help from Google — can name the person who played drums in Velvet Underground? If the concert sound is poor, everyone blames organizers, if it sounds great, then all applause go to musicians.
Being an organizer demands much time and effort, unseen by concert audience. Only trully commited people choose underground and experimental music scene. Elijah Värttö is an organizer and curator of Servataguse Muusika organization in Estonia. He is mainly focused on Baltic region, Russia and Finland. During two years Servataguse Muusika organized about 30 events, related to experimental music and performance art. Well, lets move on to interview with this extraordinary personality.
>>How did you become interested in experimental music scene?
I came to be interested in the curation of this theme as I regularly attended music events that went away from the standard forms and sub pop cultures. The Make It Up Club in Melbourne, Australia was a place that I regularly attended and did my first performance. This was a weekly improvised avant garde music night, that brought a range of Australian and international performances. What I liked especially about this theme is that it was centrally focused on providing a platform for the development of experimentation in music. They didn’t care about crowds and being cool, they just wanted the performers to branch out and try different methodologies.
When I was broke and had time on my hands in Estonia after a stint of long term travel, I thought it would be good to organise something in a similar vein. There were many interesting performers in the immediate region that I had witnessed, yet no traversal across borders seemed to occur so often. It seemed a worthwhile project to initiate, and so I did.. but I came to realise I really did care about unusual performers reaching a broader audience.
While I have initiated the series, I have had some direct and indirect assistance along the way. Rain and Irina has been a great help with design, I have also had help from Keiti with running of some shows. Having said that, I’m hoping to hand over the theme, to a greater group of people, to run it beyond this years festival.
>>What do you mean by broader audience? Do you think experimental music should be more popular?
Broader audience. By this i mean that even the most unknowledged and naive have loved the performances. I don’t believe experimental music, or music that forgets about intentions of popularity, should be a secret club. No passwords, no uniforms. People have stumbled in and been captivated and or transfixed. At times people have not liked it but found the experience of being there was interesting to them. It also feels a better event if it reaches a threshold of notice.
>>Do you see yourself more as an organizer/promoter or as a musician? What qualities, in your opinion, are essential for being one?
In a sense the more you organise, the less you have time to perform. At some point I must stop in order to get back to my own projects. So It is important that I try to get some other people to take over the theme.
There is no profession in curating and organising this theme. There is only the potent for witnessing and bringing about unique and memorable moments. Some pocket money is the best economic result, on the down side it is possible to be worse off economically, spend a lot of time, and have an event where the general public pays criminally little attention in attendance and opt for some disco party with mediocre DJs. I have a thicker skin now, but I remember being quite upset if a really great performance was under — attended.
>>You mentioned that sometimes concerts are attended rather poorly and people prefer dance music instead of experimental. How do you see experimental/weird music scene in Estonia? Do you think that such scene exists, or would you call it just a bunch of enthusiasts?
Well… There have been a lot of events… some 30 in 2 years. Some have been greatly attended, others not so. Wax and wane. I felt that the festival last year deserved more than 60 people, there should have been the whole city there. And this time I reckon there will be, fingers crossed. The marketing machine is tuned and revving up, and it’s getting an early start and more assistance this time. Promotion is really important, an evil along with economics that I’ve reluctantly had to acknowledge.
As for ‘scenes’ in Estonia, it is something that never really happens here. You get a sense that the fetishised lines of threads and musically linked fashion, or fashion aligned with beliefs; it doesn’t happen to the same uniformity as I’ve noticed in other countries. Some have said it is because of a relatively smaller population, this might be it. I feel like the Servataguse Muusika theme, for Estonian performances, has attracted a diverse mixture of highly individualistic performers whom would do what their doing regardless of a stage offered to them. There are no two alike.
>>Are there any more interesting projects/bands from Estonia, that should be known to our readers? Is it possible to define which genre of experimentation is more common in Estonia?
For instance, Roomet Jakapi, he has his band Kreatiivmootor. They started out as a thankfully really amateur and primitive art band, they have refined themselves but still that grittiness remains. Lots of members at times 7 instruments. He also has a solo project, where it is just his voice and a face that contorts and twists with so much expression, none of the sounds resemble a word, but it tells so much. You read something that just can’t be grasped.
Other notables are SAVIDIVAS, one brother Toomas Savi, from this duo, toils away with building some truly unique electronic instruments. I’ve met a few analogue instrument builders and he is one of the best. Their musical works are somewhat like early primitive electronic music, driven by sequencers and rhythm machines alongside noise generators and self oscillating units. Many builders neglect their performative abilities, this is a rare occasion where the instrument builder also has great musicianship.
One performance, put on recently was an oddity, 4 years in the dark between gigs, and still working away, ‘Morgues Last Choice’, a really interesting Black Metal project. Now this brand of metal goes away from the high school favourites, it is truly fitting for the most avant garde horror movie. Stage wise they used no guitar no drums, and it was purely electronic and vocal. They were wearing what looked like rags and were celebrating Happy Digestion Day.. an international day to support a good digestive system.
What I think you can see form these three examples is that there is no direct link between each of the more unusual Estonian performance. So in this respect there is no scene under the banner of experimental music.
>>What do you like about this music? Any particular style you prefer? What kind of musicians are more than welcome in your organized events?
This kind of music isn’t anything in particular. It has ranged from noise to concrete, to field recordings to classical/new music, to a rock band that has something about them that is so eccentric, to some analogue electronics builders… to pure performative or expressive art using only the human voice. I make sure that the performances are skewed to that which would never find a platform elsewhere.
>>What are the most popular venues in Estonia where one could find some unconventional music?
Unfortunately Estonia has taken a hit in terms of venues. If you want to put on a small medium show there aren’t a lot of options. If you want to put on a large scale festival, then there are so many options. It is a problem, which really needs addressing. The presence of souvenir shops and tourist traps drives up rental prices and what suitable places remain in the old town have potential for problems with residential neighbours. It is a common story all over the world. A solution would be to create another district whereby arts and music can proliferate, and area which has cheaper rent and less problems with residents. This means getting people out of Old Town, a difficult thing to do when there are the ‘prison’ walls still in place.
East Gallery, was a venue that i put on numerous uncommon music events. I ran this place for close to a year before having to give up, due to every problem: economics, renovations, council, neighbours and more that takes too long to explain. Otherwise i’d say now new spaces like Ptarmigan put on a show here and there, Kodu is a new venue that taps into some elements of more grass roots music and the uncommon. Otherwise there is the yearly Stalker Festival and Heliosphere, they are each tapping into more unsual music forms. I have heard that Heliosphere had financial problems, so we’ll see how and if they do it again. And of course the Servataguse Muusika series, which if i do say so myself, is far more regular and regionally supportive of experimental and unusual music.
>>Let’s talk about your events. Starting from music nights to festival and all under the same name Servataguse Muusika. What, when, where? And, most importantly, why? Did you start to organize it because of lack of experimental music events in Estonia?
These events are all in Tallinn, Estonia. It has been in many different venues and places. Yes it is true, if this theme weren’t here these performances wouldn’t happen. Right this moment I’ve had to scale back from the regularity of the theme, economics and time does not allow. There is also an August event aligned with a performance art event by Global Art Container in Polymer Kultuuritehas (culture factory) as part of a week long festival Polymer Days (Polymer Päevad), I’m gunning for Streets of Sex (Lat), Black Sky Chant (Rus), Arabian Horses (Rus) and SHWNST (Lat) (ie Chauvanist), the perfromance names hint at much, I can add that this show is going to be a combination of calm, disturbing, raw, excitement, bleak and pure fun. Each show I put on is different, and this one will certainly have strong impact.
Of greater import still, there will be a super event in November 4, 5,& 6. The yearly festival, involving some 16 performances from Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Russia, Sweden and Lithuania. So far 10 are confirmed. Of particular excitement to me is that I have cajoled and wined and dined with Non Grata and they will make a performance. Non Grata are not a musical group. They aren’t even an experimental music group. They are a performance art collective originating from Estonia, also recruiting all manner of individuals as they require them. There will be some silence or sound in what they do, so that is good enough for me. What they attempt, and regularly achieve, is to snap the audience out of themselves. As if they are passing through something. Sensory disorientation is sometimes a result, other times wonder, other times worry and concern, you just never know. Chainsaws, axes, broken eggs, rubble. Those are the words i think of form one performance. On another occasion, facepaint, silence, candles and stammering words.
In other senses of diverse territory, there is also Juha Valkepää, a performance artist from finland whom utilises just voice and facial expression. Sebastian Wesman, an Argentinian composer, whom goes back to older methodologies with a purely focussed emotion on violin and voice. There is also the more contemporary forms with Sand Circles from Sweden, recently signed to Not Not Fun Records in USA. This is pure hipster art school stuff. I love it, it is pop music that the pop world doesn’t accept. There is also SAVIDIVAS from Estonia, I mentioned them above. Also Kemialliset Ysttävät/Tomuttontu from Finland. This is the most successful and developed of the performances, to me it is music taken to the field of dynamic visual art. There are still more to mention and some more to confirm as of this moment.
>>Is visual part as important in performances as music? Would you say that an interesting project can not exist without a concept and storytelling?
I think perhaps sense of theatre or story telling is maybe misleading. We’ve never exactly put on a play, but at times the performers stage presence has been more important than the sounds. For instance Roomet Jakapi, mentioned earlier. In a similar sense Juha Valkeapää, a Finnish performance artist, fits this category, he again uses his voice without processing and in his own distinct way seemed to tell an unspoken story with murmurings, breath and facial expression. Flagra Y Machinamentvm, a Latvian duo, performed on stage with black and white gowns and white masks. They are a husband wife pairing, the woman with a flower head dress, while the husband had horns. Their daughter also jingled a small bell. This imagery was as important as the sounds.
In a different way the same can be said of 1234567890, whose singer wore a skin tight body suit with a maple leaf design on his crotch. And he sang without discernable words, with a lot of audio processing. These are examples of a kind of stage presence that pierced as much and maybe more than the music itself, if it could even be classed music.From these examples I think it can be said that while there may be a concept, it might not be discernable to the viewer, and at other times this sense of theatre is pure sensoria.
>>I noticed that Servataguse Muusika mostly organizes events related to music and performance art. Are you interested in any other ways of expression? What are your plans for future?
I have thought that it would be good to make a label and releases. It is all possible. I recently made a cassette and CDR release with spray painted and hand-made design with the help of Rain Saavel. But I think to do this properly you need to have all the contacts with boutique record stores in order to make it worthwhile. I do not have the contacts though if I asked around it might be possible. These things take a lot of time and emails and maybe even field trips and travel just to find the right people.
A couple of years ago there was one French musician who conducted a Repetitive Music workshop in Kultuuritehas Polymer. It was improvised within limitations, everyone had a different instrument and had to stick to a specified rhythm or tone for an extended period. It was a surprisingly great workshop with some great textures and results. Minimalism was really shown to work. Workshops are a definite possibility. I have conducted one such workshop guiding 12 people through the building and construction of a self oscillation analogue electronics device.. taken from a kit I took through people how to solder and wire it up with the appropriate parts on a printed circuit board. This could be done. Also on another sense maybe Iäd like Phil, of Massive Ejaculation, to teach people how he makes these absurd and glorious monster masks he makes. All is possible. And actually I have been talking with Ptarmigan about hosting such a workshop.
As for the future, for me there is only the Festival in November. I’m in a tunnel, the light is the festival. And once i go through it, anything is possible. for this reason I would like to hand over the concept to be run by others, hopefully a collective. As this is how things get done best without one person feeling too drained of energy. It is a lot of hard work for an individual. There is always the need for support so that things are done at their best and done timely.