Experimental Estonia: interview with Elijah Värttö

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.

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