Out of the Shadows

Friday, 15 April 2016

Introducing the varioola - Estonia's first electronic instrument

Kirstjan Randalu and the varioola
Kirstjan Randalu and the varioola
Mart Siimer, Margo Kölar, Malie Maltis, Marianna Liik; Kirke Karja, Kristjan Randalu, Mart Siimer; Estonian Music Days at the Estonian National Library
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 13 2016
Estonia's first electronic instrument given new life with four new pieces

Kirke Karja, Kirstjan Randalu and the varioola
Kirke Karja, Kirstjan Randalu and the varioola
You have probably never heard of the varioola, and I suspect that few people in Estonia have heard of it either but the varioola is the first electronic musical instrument to be made in Estonia. As part of this year's Estonian Music Days (Eesti Muusika Paevad), the instrument has been revived and restored and at the National Library of Estonia we heard the instrument played by Kirke Karja, Kristjan Randalu and Mart Siimer in music by Mart Siimer (born 1967), Margo Kölar (born 1961), Malle Maltis (born 1977) and Marianna Liik (born 1997). All four works in the programme were world premieres.

The National Library of Estonia is something of an historical icon itself, built in 1985 towards he Soviet era by an Estonia architect, Raine Karp, it is a monolithic stone building which references traditional Estonian design. The building includes a lecture theatre where the lecture recital took place. The varioola was an impressive looking instrument with fine cabinet work, which included two keyboards, numerous switches and pedal controls. Afterwards a chance to look at the instrument more closely revealed that the interior was a mass of circuitry and valves.

The idea for constructing the varioola arose in 1955 after hearing a German electronic instrument on the radio. Heino Pedusaar and Anatol Sügis did it as the result of a bet, Pedusaar being a musician and Sügis a technician. Sügis was present at the concert and explained that with electronic circuitry extremely difficult to get hold of in Soviet Estonia the instrument had been constructed out of parts left over and unwanted in factories. Once built it was used in popular music, theatre, films and plays but more recently it was in a museum and then in storage until the idea to restore it arose. Sügis has spent the last six months restoring the instrument, though it remains capricious so that the composers and performers not only had to learn new techniques, but had to cope with the instrument's uncertainty and the fact that Sügis had to be on hand to remedy any problems.

Anatol Sügis in conversation with Margo Kolar
Anatol Sügis in conversation with Margo Kolar
The evening opened with Kristjan Randalu playing Malle Maltis's Flickering Bog Light (Virvatulen). The title comes from the mysterious flickering light seen in bogs, which has no fixed location and moves around, giving the impressions that it moves away as you approach. In folk lore the lights are the souls of the dead. The work started with a pulsing electronic beat coming and going, using different timbres and tones, all quite low key and concentrated. Gradually pitch became more important than timbre, and more layers overlayed the pulsing. The whole was evocative with something eerily science-fiction about it.

Next we heard an historic recording of the instrument made before it was restored, full of drones, deep tones and rumbling with unevenly placed high notes, building to something restless and rather disturbing.

The lecture part of the recital was given (in Estonia) by the composer Margo Kölar and the next piece was his Varioola variations for varioola and electronics, which used the electronics to incorporate what the composer described as 'memories about the unsettled nature of the re-revived varioola'. The work was played by Kirke Karja. It started with a basic short rhythmic motif (all timbre and tone and no pitch) over a slow moving low bass which developed quite a traditional feel with some hints of jazz bt with added atmospherics from the varioola which built into striking textures, with some references to 1980's rock music.

Mart Siimer
Mart Siimer
The composer Mart Siimer played his own composition, Variolation for varioola which again used electronics, having the restored organ interacting with its unrestored self. The piece was based on quite subtle echoing phrases, the instrument and the electronic version echoing each other. Though the material developed and grew more complex, the original material with its sense of echoing interaction remained and the variations were often of tonal quality and timbre rather than pitch, showing the effects that the instrument could achieve.

The final work in the programme ReCycling by Marianna Liik brought both Kristjan Randalu and Kirke Karja back to the platform as the piece was written for two players, again with live electronics. The work was based around the overtone scale of the note D, and in it Liik explored ways applying an overtone scale to the varioola. Having two players meant a rich and complex multi-layered texture with more musical material and fewer atmospherics than some of the pieces, but always the musical figures were surrounded by a halo of extras. The piece varied between a somewhat static texture and a more dynamic, almost polyphonic one, returning finally to a static texture with increasing intensity. The closing pages took us into the realm of science fiction again, with what seemed to be the sound of a space ship taking off.

Whilst the varioola will never become a regular instrument in modern composers' amoury, this was a fascinating interaction between modern composers and an old, obsolete instrumental technology. It was perhaps significant that only one work seemed to use the instrument without any added electronics, but all the composers seemed to be fascinated by the complex historical layers with a sense of the instrument's unrestored self.

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