Popular awareness in Estonian music

The following names are internationally known and respected — Rudolf Tobias, Arvo Pärt, Veljo Tormis, Lepo Sumera, Erki-Sven Tüür… We have different schools of music with their particular internal dynamics and ways of development. We have examples of Estonian music not only growing into the internationally recognised framework of classical music but also broadening that framework. But in addition to that, we have the local pop culture which seems to be destined, by its very nature, to be marginal and secondary. It suffers from the favourite complaint of cultural life in Estonia — there are too few of us. And since the local pop culture has almost no outlet whatsoever beyond Estonia, it might even be regarded as a curiosity.

Unlike other forms of art, in music the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms is generally considered natural. The cultural situation in Estonia seems to favour a strict separation of these two traditions and a belief that only the great names of classical music can provide a true representation of our musical art.

However, the fact that no-one can avoid being exposed to the values of pop culture every day seems to somehow freeze our frames of mind — we tend to evaluate all music against the values of pop culture regardless of the nature of its tradition or its position in the social hierarchy. Maybe Estonian high culture is not floating above the others after all; it may well be just one of the many subcultures and as such easily measurable on the popular scale.

Arvo Pärt’s work may also be considered to carry political connotations, if not directly, then certainly indirectly. For many, he has captured the essence of the Northern people in his music where tranquil, internal ecstasy reveals itself through quiet reverence and thus points to our cultural ideal — which is Scandinavia, not Eastern Europe. On the other hand, Pärt has also touched the trends of international pop culture, namely its meditative, the so-called ambient branch, the roots of which lie in the psychedelic rock music of the 1960s and which has gained popularity again, also in Estonia, together with the rise of techno-music during the first half of the 1990s.

It could even be suggested that the problems that classical and popular music deal with are not that dissimilar and that the solutions for both have something in common. In 2000, Viljandi Folk Music Festival was dedicated to Veljo Tormis despite the fact that this event includes more and more elements of international pop culture. There is no doubt that this choice is to a great extent based on the same ideas of authenticity and ‘popular’ self-expression opposing mass culture that fed rock music in the 1960s. And this is more than just a parallel. The initial idea for the Viljandi festival probably originated from those times and their prevailing cultural myths.

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