Heather Stebbins “PASSAGIO: SPACE, SOUND, AND PERSISTENCE”

Like most concerts involving flautist Tarmo Johannes, Thursday evening’s Passagio included much more than a performer on a stage. Johannes took full advantage of the layout and acoustic possibilities of the venue, the Salme Cultural Center. The audience not only moved through different levels of the space, but also through Johannes’s various artistic endeavors and ensembles.

Concert attendees were met with a small sound installation upon entering the venue. Three Raspberry-Pi micro-computers tracked the movements of audience members as they walked by. This would trigger playback of modified sounds of Johannes’s two main ensembles, Ensemble U: and Resonabilis. The micro-computers also sent these signals into the main lobby, where they were modified and projected through various speakers around the room. The installation provided an interesting backdrop as audience members mingled before the start of the concert program.

The first performance on the program involved a bit of creative staging. A small platform was elevated about two meters above the lobby floor. From this perch Johannes performed Salvatore Sciarrino’s Immagine Fenicia for solo amplified flute. Sciarrino is one of the true sound magicians of contemporary music, exploring the limits of instrumental techniques and audibility. Through the amplification, Immagine Fenicia takes the listener inside some of the most quiet sounds made by the flute. Johannes’s performance was simultaneously delicate and strong, a feat made even more extraordinary by the height and small dimension of the stage.

Following Johannes’s descent from the platform (facilitated by U: cellist Levi-Danel Mägila and a helpful ladder), the audience moved into a large and more traditional concert hall. Here we witnessed three works involving Ensemble U:. The first was Fragment nr 3 from Crisis by composer Kristjan Kõrver. This frenetic and dense work was truly a fragment. Throughout the work’s short duration, the sextet performed rhythmic, harsh, and sometimes autonomous gestures. The second work and first premiere of the concert was also composed by Kõrver. The work, Ludus triplex V, reduced the ensemble to a trio of piccolo, cello, and celesta (made possible by pianist Taavi Kerikmäe’s sampler). The piece was quite different stylistically from Kõrver’s other composition. The musical language was much more delicate, largely due to the timbres of the instrumentation. Throughout much of the piece, the celesta acted as a leader, performing arpeggios of colorful harmonies while the piccolo and cello created a cloud of sustained, high register colors. At certain moments the music deviated from this texture, giving each instrument a unique and more melodic line.

The third and final piece in the large hall was quite a technological feat involving U:, the international internet-based Csound ensemble, and Johannes’ interest and skill in computer programming. U: left their traditional instruments behind, instead wearing various types of sensors. Three of the members wore brain activity sensors, while two others wore sensors that tracked changes in electric conduction of the skin. These measurements were sent presumably to Johannes’ computer, where he and the Csound ensemble used the impulses to modify electronically created instruments in real-time. Johannes projected the interface and messages of the Csound ensemble so that the audience could witness the technology during the performance. Although the idea is fascinating and praiseworthy, the musical result was not quite as interesting. The Csound instruments were a bit disjointed and underdeveloped, and I had trouble following how the U: member’s neural activity affected the instruments. That said, I do hope Johannes continues to pursue this idea, as the real-time and international collaborative effort is compelling.

The walk from the large hall to the third floor and final room was itself a performance. Members of both U: and Resonabilis strategically positioned themselves on various parts of the lobby and staircase to perform Christian Wolff’s highly improvisatory and free Looking North. The instrumentalists reacted to the reverb of the space, filling the hall with different clicks, clangs, flutters, and murmurs.

The final room of the performance was barely large enough to fit the entirety of the audience. After filling all the available space, Resonabilis opened with a premiere by Arash Yazdani. His work, Qazaliât, was a highlight of the entire evening. Yazdani worked with different lines of Persian poetry and the unique combination of voice, flute, Estonian kannel, and cello to create a meditative and at times sonically overwhelming piece of music. The work opened with delicate flute tones and soprano Iris Oja creating evocative overtones through plastic tubing. The piece grew from these opening sounds into several wedges of intensity. Yazdani weaved through tight, mictrotonal figures into large-scale glissandi of overtone chords. Each section of material flowed seamlessly into the next, exploring different sonic textures before finally ending back where the piece began. Resonabilis’s performance of Yazdani’s work was masterful.

The next piece of the program was not a piece of traditional ‘music’ but rather a visual performance by Krista Mölder and Neeme Külm involving moveable walls and lighting. According to the program notes, the piece was “inspired by a state of being.” While the idea was interesting, it seemed as if the audience was more confused than captivated by the experience. Immediately following, Johannes performed Ricordanza for solo flute by composer Jüri Reinvere. Ricordanza was very much in the vein of contemporary solo flute music, exploring different playing techniques and engaging many of the flute’s more virtuosic capabilities.

The final piece on the program was Tatiana Kozlova-Johannes’s How to Draw a Door for voice and flute, kannel and cello ad libitum. The work mostly featured vocalist Iris Oja, who is one of the most impressive singers I have witnessed in recent years. Kozlova-Johannes worked with a text by Inga Gaile to create a haunting piece of music. Oja’s vocal line was delicately embellished with carefully-placed and subtle sounds of flute and kannel. The energy flow of the piece took audience members on an evocative and ephemeral journey.

Although Passagio featured Tarmo Johannes, the imaginative and complicated program would not have been possible without his strong team of support. The members of U: and Resonabilis, sound designer Tammo Sumera, and visual designers Krista Mölder and Neeme Külm created an experience much more than your average concert, which is something I’ve come to happily expect from the creative scene in Tallinn.