Saturday, 3 October 2020

Not toeing the line: Kristjan Järvi on deliberately creating his own sound-world on 'Nordic Escapes', his first disc of entirely his own music

Kristjan Järvi (Phot Harald Hoffmann)
Kristjan Järvi (Phot Harald Hoffmann)

Nordic Escapes is Kristjan Järvi's latest disc out, and his first one devoted entirely to his own music. Best known, perhaps, as a conductor, Nordic Escapes is very much a statement of intent as a composer. Recorded with groups that he has long associations, Nordic Pulse (the house band of his production company Sunbeam Productions) and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic (of which he is music director) plus the London Symphony Orchestra, the disc is anything but a classical disc and takes us into Järvi's own sound-world. I have interviewed Kristjan before [in 2016 see my interview] as well as being familiar with his conducting work [see my review of his 2019 disc of Philip Glass and Igor Stravinsky violin concertos]. We met up again (digitally) to chat about this latest album.

Kristjan Järvi (Phot Harald Hoffmann)
Kristjan Järvi
(Photo Harald Hoffmann)
There is something almost shamanistic about Kristjan's attitude to music making; any attempt to engage him in discussion about the music itself is likely to lead to talk of spiritual or environmental issues, our unity with the world and the need for wholeness. Writing it down can make it seem glib, but in person he is a passionate talker who clearly makes music from deep within himself.

He describes Nordic Escapes as more than an album, it is a philosophy; you need to find escape within yourself rather than going outwards. When I ask about the inspiration about Nordic Escapes he talks about the disc as a round-about way of coming back to Estonia, his escape to a place he loves. And he refers to the pieces as postcards and love letters both to and about Estonia. Kristjan has a complex relationship with the country, he left when he was eight when his father, the conductor Neeme Järvi left the Soviet regime behind. And Kristjan lived in the USA until a few years ago when he returned to Estonia. Whilst his memories of the country of his birth are only good ones, he admits that he did not really understand leaving until he was much older. And whilst Estonia has changed, it still seems to him that it has retained that element of being a weird, anomalous place. And now that he lives there again, sitting in Tallinn brings a whole different meaning to the north, the light is different, the sea is different. Even the topography is different, and where else in the world do you see flocks of migrating swans.

And of course, in recent years the world has changed which has caused something of a re-think in Kristjan. He describes his career as a conductor as, initially, 'following in Dad's footsteps', doing what others expected of him. But he has always wanted to do something a bit more free, and he finds himself freer in Estonia. He describes Estonia as a shamanistic place, based on a belief in the power of nature and a different way of thinking. He describes it as a place that holds a certain kind of light, even in dark winter, somehow benevolent, attractive and unifying.

Regarding the aesthetic of this new album, he wanted to create his sound world. Previously, he has played music using someone else's tools, but he has now created his own tool-set. The music that he is now creating is, he says, what he has been talking about all along. You can get there in spirit with classical music, but he feels that the new disc is his sound world. And in describing this sound world, Kristjan returns to the spiritual, saying that his aesthetic goes alongside a type of equilibrium between the seen and the unseen, that there is a different reality in his world.

This sense of equilibrium and harmony is important to Kristjan, between man and nature, and between man and man. In society, he feels, we are separated by man-made things like language. We speak different languages and the way languages are constructed causes separation. So there are divisions between different societies, and within them; it is easy to divide and conquer in this world. And it is that he wants the recording to be seen as being against. After all, going to a concert feels good because there is nothing to divide us there.

In rehearsal: Kristjan Järvi (Photo  Peter Adamik)
In rehearsal: Kristjan Järvi (Photo  Peter Adamik)

But the escape in the title, Nordic Escapes, is an escape to an idea and of course that can only be personal and subjective, different in each of us. Escape is something we do all the time, trying to escape from a reality that we are all taught to bow down to, but what Kristjan wants us all to do is to get real by looking at things as they really are. For him, the recording is trying to create a sanctuary, a feeling of purity and honest, something in earnest but at the same time acceptable. 

What he does not want it to do is to 'toe the line', and he feels that nowadays there is too much of a feeling that if you don't toe the line, you are not good enough. He feels that too many people in current society are on the hamster-wheel realising something is wrong, but don't know why, and he would like to bring more enlightenment.

The earliest piece on the disc, Nebula was written in 2016. At 12 minutes it is the longest on the disc, and when he wrote it he did not intend it as part of an album. He has the idea that he has been writing the same piece, repeatedly, for the last five years, each iteration in a different transformed form, getting closer to the truth. Nebula is a piece about coming to terms with his personal situation. Aurora, which was written right afterwards, is a more hopeful work.

The names of the pieces are important to him too. A Nebula is a cosmic cloud, it looks beautiful from a distance but the closer you get, it disappears, whilst Aurora can represent a new beginning, but also the idea of dawn, the Northern light, yet Aurora is also a character in Sleeping Beauty which he describes as one of his favourite fairy-tales.

The idea of fairy-tales brings Kristjan back to the problems of current society, and he comments that we are all living in a fairy-tale and that we take ourselves far too seriously. In a sense we are not struggling with other people, the evil forces are in ourselves but it is easier to be bad than good. The same evil resides in all of us.  When I interviewed Kristjan in 2016, a lot of our talk was of contemporary politics, this time politics was never mentioned explicitly, but it was clear that much of Kristjan's discourse on the problems in our society was directly related to his feelings about recent political events.

In the past, people have said that what he was doing was cool but have not in fact understood. With a complete album, he hopes people can see more of what his true emotions are. This extends to the physical product; the album is designed to be all paper except for the plastic in the CD, thus chiming in with Kristjan's environmental concerns, wasting old-fashioned resources to create old-fashioned junk. In fact, he would rather put out just a booklet that people can buy, as usually people don't need the actual CDs but would love to have a well-designed booklet.

Kristjan Järvi - Nordic Escapes

The cover features a Kristjan with a mask-like skull. He describes skulls as part of the Nordic way of life as you find deer skulls in the forest and these have often been made into masks. In life, people unknowingly wear frightening masks that we feel protected by. In effect, we never let our soul out of our cage.

Amongst his inspirations he lists Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich, composers who tell their story in their own way. But he also harks back to the music of Beethoven, commenting that if you listen to a work like the Moonlight Sonata it is so contemporary, so simple and so relevant. He finds Beethoven's music more relevant than ever, commenting that no other composer had a more significant understanding of unity. Music such as the opening motto of his Symphony No. 5 or the main theme of the 'Ode to Joy' in the Symphony No. 9 are known to virtually everyone, yet this is music which seeks to attain a higher goal and rise above our present level. And he comments that, in reality, things have not changed much since Beethoven's day in terms of our understanding of what life is about.

He remains a serious conductor, but now no longer feels the need to prove himself by being in anyone's camp, and he decries that aspect of society whereby the people you know carries weight, and you are judged by how much money you earn. He sees conducting as a vehicle to attain a bigger goal, and he would love to be able to do projects which included his own music. But there is also plenty of other great music that he would like to perform. 

In rehearsal: Kristjan Järvi & Baltic Sea Philharmonic at the Elbphilharmonic (Photo  BMEF / Peter Adamik)
In rehearsal: Kristjan Järvi & Baltic Sea Philharmonic at the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg
(Photo  BMEF / Peter Adamik)

In November, he has a new album out on Sony with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, a dramatic symphony which he has created from Tchaikovsky's ballet Sleeping Beauty. This is something that he has already done with Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, re-shaping the ballet into symphonic narrative. This is something he enjoys doing, putting his own stamp on a piece. And the result is a shorter, more compact work which is more practical to get programmed, distilling three hours of music down to 75 minutes.

This is the third in a Tchaikovsky series on Sony, with previous albums being devoted to The Snow Maiden and his dramatic symphony based on Swan Lake. He does the albums because he adores the music of Tchaikovsky. He admits that when he was growing up, Tchaikovsky seemed a lame, boring composer, but he eventually realised it wasn't the music, it was the performances. Now he has the possibility of standing up in front of an orchestra, and doing it differently

Ultimately, he would like to bring a unity to his conducting, his own music and his approach to others' music.

The music from Nordic Escapes is all notated, so if anyone is interested in the work all you have to do is call Kristjan's publisher, he would be very happy! 

Kristjan Järvi: Nordic Escapes - Kristjan Järvi (conductor/piano/electronics), David Nebel (violin), Liiso Koikson (vocals), Mari Meentalo (Kannel, vocals, torupill), Robot Koch (electronic re-mix), Nordic Pulse Ensemble, Baltic Sea Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra - available on-line.

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  • 'A strange profession' - looking forward to John Bridcut's film, Bernard Haitink, the Enigmatic Maestro - feature 
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