Text: Maris Hellrand

Veljo Tormis 90: how the sound archaeologist’s legacy turned virtual

Composer Veljo Tormis has been called a sound archaeologist – he excavated the ancient melodies and wrapped them in an artistic form with his own compositions, thus making the melodies accessible and giving contemporary singers and audiences a chance to dive into the roots of this music and identity. It’s impossible to overestimate the role of Tormis in preserving folk music. In fact, he has considered it the most important part of Estonian culture: “I feel the duty to transmit the folk music itself, its core, spirit, meaning and form. I think that runic song is the most notable and original phenomenon of all time in Estonian culture. I consider it so important for our culture that I want to do everything to make it widely accessible and known.”

Folk music with a strong message

No doubt, Tormis succeeded in his mission. It all began with his visit to the small island of Kihnu where he witnessed a traditional Kihnu wedding. This experience led to the writing of the cycle for mixed choir “Kihnu Wedding Songs” in 1959. A pivotal piece in his handling of runic song became the series “Estonian Calendar Songs” (19661967), which consisted of five cycles: “Mardilaulud” (Mardimas Songs), “Kadrilaulud” (St. Catherine’s Day Songs), “Vastlalaulud” (Shrovetide Songs), “Kiigelalulud” (Swing Songs) and “Jaanilaulud” (St. John’s Days Songs). This choral piece helped to develop Tormis’ unique style. He himself has said “I do not use the folk tune; the folk tune uses me”. This means that folk music was not a means of expression for him, on the contrary – he felt the duty to transmit folk music, its spirit, ideas and form.

Between 1970 and 1989, Tormis composed the six-part series “Forgotten Peoples” for mixed choir based on the perpetual melodies of six Finno-Ugric peoples (Livonians, Votic, Izhorians, Ingrians, Vepsians and Karelians) who, at the time, were all but forgotten by the wider world. By the time he finished the series, all of the folk singers whose songs formed the core of the compositions, were dead. Many of the ancient Finno-Ugric languages have very few speakers left. By preserving the languages and stories within his compositions, Tormis has made them immortal. The double CD of “Forgotten Peoples” was released under the ECM label in 1992 by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, who has spent his lifetime ensuring that the music of Tormis is heard in the world.

Tõnu Kaljuste, who has performed and also recorded most of Tormis’ works for mixed choir with the EPCC, claims (with a touch of humour) that Tormis composed one of his best-known choral pieces “Curse Upon Iron” in 1972 while he was often forced to hear heavy metal music that his son listened to at home.

The piece is based on the Finnish epic Kalevala and it has been performed by countless choirs worldwide as well as the legendary Estonian ethno-heavy band “Metsatöll”. Tormis has said that he carried the piece in him for seven years and he was physically shaking when he finally wrote it down. An emotion that performers and listeners alike have shared for decades. Yet, at that time the official Soviet music bureaucracy didn’t value the piece much, offering a fee of 30 roubles for the composer’s effort (worth a pair of shoes at the time). In 2011, Tormis said: “’Curse Upon Iron’ and ‘God, Protect Us from War’ draw attention to the actions of big powers that harm people. This was a purposeful activity that I started in the 1970s. I wanted to resist. Today it’s hard to grasp what the meaning of a few lines in a song can be.”

The founder of Viljandi Town in southern Estonia (pop.17,000). Folk festival Ando Kiviberg’s first encounter with the music of Tormis was as a singer in a boys’ choir: “Tormis reached to the deepest roots of Estonia. He used choir music to promote runic song, something he considered to be a musical mother tongue.” Kiviberg is convinced that, without Tormis, runic song would be a peripheral niche phenomenon: “He used the choir and song festival movement as a tool to create a joint runic song experience – the best and most effective way available in Estonia. Therefore, so many people in the music world feel comfortable with runic songs and carry the tradition.”

From ancient to virtual

Tormis saw folk song as his life’s work and he also began teaching it. He performed as the lead singer at many events and managed to make people feel the almost shamanistic magic of runic tunes. Tormis was well-acquainted with the presentational mannerisms of runic tunes and he also demanded this typical singing style from the performers of his compositions.

He has said: “Having developed throughout centuries, runic song is the most ancient, unique and complete creation of our people; the expression of our creative genius. The original rhymes, parallelisms and poetic images of our ancient runic song hide a magnitude of melodious chimes and shine, the beauty of word and thought, and a suggestive power which is born from the monotonous repetition of a runic tune.” Tormis considered the words which have been used to describe one’s mother tongue to also apply to the music: “The song of my people is the best, the most beautiful and the most valuable to me.”

His body of work, now also widely accessible via the virtual centre veljotormis.com, includes hundreds of compositions for choirs but also instrumental, film and stage music.

Why a virtual centre?

According to the composer’s son Tõnu Tormis, who is a professional choir singer and has been organising the conservation of his father’s legacy, Veljo Tormis was very interested in a website that would bring together information about his creations and simplify finding sheet music, recordings and discography for many interested people. “The first attempts were the webpage created by Alan Teder in Toronto and my own ‘Veljo Tormis databank’. But it soon became clear that the daily search for Veljo’s concerts and coverage and the regular updating of this information is too much work to be done as a hobby. At about the same time over a decade ago, the music journalist Immo Mihkelson approached me with the idea of creating a modern website based on a database.”

Iti Teder, project manager of the virtual centre, says that Veljo did not want a statue or a monument. A ‘real’ centre was never a topic with him. Also the folk music which Tormis as a composer used, has been preserved throughout centuries in the form of an idea. The most important building related to Veljo Tormis is his birthplace in Kõrveaia, which is located in the Aru village of Kuusalu county. Some interested people can visit there on the basis of a former agreement with the Veljo Tormis Cultural Association and the present hosts.

The virtual centre was opened on the 90 th anniversary of Veljo Tormis, on August 7th , 2020. The catalogues of discography and performances make it very clear that Tormis is a household name for choirs around the world, not just in Estonia. So, the virtual nature of the centre is a practical way to make the material accessible to millions of choir singers around the world. “Tormis is quite possibly bigger in the world than he is in Estonia. Therefore, the centre aims to collect and consolidate all available information about publications and performances. There are more than 700 records worldwide and counting. The recordings stretch to all continents and go beyond choir and classics,” says Iti Teder.

With the help of this centre, choirs in the whole world can find music by Tormis easily. It also offers teaching materials to music schools and other institutions. The new centre hopes to involve and engage Tormis’ fans from all over the world with a storytelling campaign where people can share their memories and experiences of Tormis’ music. “The virtual centre should become a home for an international community interested in Tormis’ music and promote even more performances. Now that the virtual centre is open, it will keep growing and will never be completed, as there will be new performances and recordings of music by Veljo Tormis,” says Teder.

The article was published first in Life in Estonia.

Edited for web by eesti.life.