Recording of August 1992: VeljoTormis: Forgotten Peoples

Veljo Tormis: Forgotten Peoples
Tõnu Kaljuste, Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir
ECM New Series 1459/60 (434 275-2, 2 CDs only). Paul Hillier, prod.; Peter Laenger, eng. DDD. TT: 2:06:01

With the introduction of the written word, traditional oral cultures find themselves waking from the cycling steady-state of dreamtime into history's linearity and a new myth: progress. The songs, myths, and creation tales that before literacy had been seamlessly embedded in daily life, passed down orally and by cultural osmosis, now become art, aesthetic artifacts framed by time. A spiritual tradition formerly embodied in people's daily lives is now written down, allowing it, for the first time, to be objectified, distanced, and forgotten; after all, something written down can always be re-read and re-learned. What had once been a sacred way of life now becomes a sacred text.

So begins the transformation and reduction of an all-encompassing spirituality to mere religion, art, and science. What we in the West understand as the beginning of Western civilization and art—the Greek city-states of the fifth to seventh centuries B.C.—was also the end of the Greeks' residence in a unified, living, spiritual surround. What had been a seamless technology of the sacred was now broken down into its component parts of drama, poetry, dance, sculpture, mathematics, astronomy, geometry, chemistry, and music. Each of these newly discrete disciplines could now be explored and perfected in ways unthinkable before, but at the very great price of the connections linking them. The birth of the Siamese triplets of art, science, and religion almost always kills their spiritual mother.

Making the best of this seemingly inevitable bad bargain, composer Veljo Tormis has embalmed and preserved the entering of history of six indigenous peoples of the Baltic area surrounding his own native Estonia. The 51 songs of Forgotten Peoples, collected on many trips into the remote North and set by Tormis over the past 20 years, comprise six song cycles based on the folk musics of—working north from Latvia to Northern Finland—the Livonians, Votians, Izhorians, Ingermanland Finns, Vepses, and Karelians. These peoples and their languages are quickly dying out. All of the traditional singers Tormis learned these songs from are now dead. As he says in the accompanying notes, "I still get a Christmas card every year in Livonian, but for how much longer?"

Forgotten Peoples is thus literally haunting. Listening, I felt surrounded, spoken and sung to by the ghosts of half a dozen dying peoples of whose existence I had been entirely unaware. The "material" (so song becomes object) is astonishingly rich: Tormis has skimmed the cream of six entire cultures for these cycles of runic and folk songs, and has wisely written for unaccompanied voices throughout, keeping to that extent true to his sources. There are wedding songs, war songs, creation chants, field hollers, songs of drinking and courtship, of birth, death, parting, and mating, songs of celebration and lament, of the earth, water, fire, and air—in short, sung primers for ways of life fast disappearing, of lives lived close to the land, of direct shamanic address to the powers of the earth, a rite of song for every essential life passage. As Tormis says, "Through modern art forms, I try to expose the originality and meaning of runic song. Eternal is the great circle of life, eternal are the life events repeating in their own way with each passing age."

The first and earliest-composed cycle, Livonian Heritage, is the most musically derivative, Tormis's harmonies reminiscent of far too many British and American church anthems of the last 60 years. But Tormis quickly finds—or stops trying to find—his own voice, and the rest of the collection is effortlessly, simply, purely, quietly magnificent. The songs themselves are modal, while the choral accompaniment ranges with harmonic freedom. There are solos and occasional spoken passages ("Incantation of Snakes" sounds lifted directly from a shamanic ritual), but the chorus is at once the music's center and circumference, the voice of people, earth, and gods alike, elements and elementals. In this spirit, Tormis says, "I do not use folk song, it is folk song that uses me."

The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir sings in the six original languages, and flawlessly under conductor Kaljuste's direction. There is no stridency, either musical or sonic; this is one of those very few recordings which I want to go on all day. (When I finished listening to Forgotten Peoples' two hours, I replaced disc 2 with disc 1 and started over.) There is far too much here to describe in what is already an overlong review, but the final song, a lullaby to a dead child and also the most "composed" of the 51 settings, bears special mention: A verse about a fox mourning its own dead cub, killed by fur trappers, parallels the verse of the human child's burial. I found the song's naked simplicity deeply moving; all the more so in its context of what tribal peoples around the world understand as the essential democracy of all species, humans included, and the importance of acknowledging and honoring our agreements with those species—something we in the "developed" nations have forgotten, to our imminent peril.

Engineer Peter Laenger and producer Paul Hillier, himself a world-class vocalist and vocal director of the Hilliard Ensemble and the Theatre of Voices, have captured the Choir convincingly in the reverberant Tapiola Church. ECM's usual "wet" sound is here evidently entirely natural, captured, as far as Hillier remembered when I asked him about it, with but two pairs of stereo mikes: one for the chorus, one for the hall. The dynamic range is breathtaking, the sound effortless to listen to, like the best of analog or digital, and there is a seemingly infinite amount of "hall sound" before and after the singing.

ECM's US marketing team dreaded this set's release—a full-price double CD of an unknown choir performing unknown music by an unknown composer—until they heard it. Forgotten Peoples, a recording without a marketing niche, may well create one of its very own, or find a home in many already established markets. It deserves to do both. It is as important as it is beautiful.—Richard Lehnert