Art and Environment: Connections, Community, and Being

Too often we live only by a temporal, horizontal axis in which we over-analyze, live within our heads, and lose connection with the earth and with our bodies. Being in touch with silence reinforces access to our inner selves and serves to reinvigorate connections with the earth and our identities.

Written By

Heather Stebbins

I have attended several lectures by various Estonian artists and thinkers during my first two months in the country. One common thread between their talks is the importance of a connection to nature and the land in not only their work, but also their identity as Estonians. One artist, Peeter Laurits, summarized this notion simply: “Estonians are people of the forest.” This is a seemingly obvious conclusion for any observer of Estonian culture: more than half of the country is covered by forests, and city-dwellers can easily access several of the many national parks by bus or car in under an hour. Yet the foundation of this connection runs much deeper than simply visiting and being in nature. Although I am only beginning to grasp the ways this relationship to the land resonates throughout the culture, my initial observations have helped me to better understand many aspects of the music and philosophy of the composer Helena Tulve, with whom I have been studying here.

The majority of my exploration into the Estonian connection with nature has happened through a series of workshops and lectures organized by Tulve under the auspices of the CoPeCo master’s program. CoPeCo (Contemporary Performance and Composition) is a brand new program for people of the composer/performer/improviser hybrid ilk who travel to four different European music institutions over the course of two years: Tallinn, Stockholm, Lyon, and Hamburg. I am remarkably lucky to be in Tallinn for the group’s first semester of study and am taking advantage of every opportunity to work with the eight participating musicians who hail from all over Europe and North America. Tulve’s influence on their Tallinn education is through private lessons and running a course titled “Art and the Environment.” Rather than hold weekly classes, Tulve organizes trips to the Estonian countryside and lectures with an assortment of artists and professionals.

Veljo Runnel holding recording equipment in a field

Veljo Runnel

The first trip brought our group to Estonia’s western coast with nature recordist and biologist Veljo Runnel. We traveled to Matsalu National Park, an important wetland and staging location for many migratory birds. Runnel explained his many different recording techniques and showed us his assortment of largely DIY equipment. We had the opportunity to experiment with different microphone placements and listen to the sounds of faraway birds using Runnel’s parabolic reflector. We also experienced the seldom heard and magical sonic environment of a marshland using stereo hydrophones. Runnel’s knowledge of biology and his vast experience as a field recordist helped us to differentiate the creaking, rhythmic, and subtle sounds created by reeds rubbing together and those of the fish and insects living in the marsh.

A single person walking on a pathway in an open field.

Following this highly active and informative morning, we headed to one of Estonia’s many bogs. We walked along several kilometers of narrow planks through the water, peat, shrubs, and occasional trees of the mire. Peat accumulates at a rate of approximately one millimeter per year; the peat in this particular bog measured around eight meters. Coming from the Northeast United States, I had never experienced a landscape quite like this one and felt humbled by the age, slowness, and stillness of this place. At one moment, Tulve asked us to remain in silence until we felt ready to move again. The experience was striking and enriching, and I am not sure if we remained still for five or thirty minutes. This silence continued throughout much of our 90-minute walk back to the rental bus.

Estonian rural landscape with trees and a variety of other plants

I have since spoken with Tulve about the importance of silence, not necessarily as an attribute of her music, but as related to a state of being. For Tulve, silence is an attribute of our internal selves that allows us to access what she calls a vertical axis of being. Too often we live only by a temporal, horizontal axis along which we over-analyze, live within our heads, and lose connection with the earth and with our bodies. Being in touch with silence reinforces access to our inner selves and serves to reinvigorate connections with the earth and our identities. For Tulve, being in the forest, in nature, allows one to access and face silence, but she is careful to note that this state is also possible to attain, with practice, even in the noisiest of cities. Losing a connection to nature causes one to lose a connection with his or her identity; returning to nature, where one is confronted with silence, provides a space to re-establish a link to body, self, and environment. The connection to body and nature is of vital importance to her compositional process. Tulve forgoes standard pre-compositional planning practices in favor of beginning with a small sound or idea and a desire for discovery; she does not want to compose what she already knows. Tulve emphasizes that the act of composing is about trust of oneself, and this trust is made possible by being perceptive of both the horizontal and vertical axes of being.

Attendees of theCoPeCo workshop standing in a circle surrounded by chairs

The second CoPeCo workshop took us deeper into the Estonian countryside. We traveled to the southeastern region of Põlva where we met with a traditional choir of Seto people, a small culture with distinct customs and a unique dialect. The Seto singing, or Leelo, is a heterophonic and text-driven tradition primarily practiced by women and originally meant to accompany daily life. (It is now listed in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.) The distinctive vocal timbre and dense harmonies are striking and mesmerizing; you can listen to some samples here and here. The Leelo choir sang for our group, introduced us to their customs, and invited the women in our group to participate in a Seto song with dance. Tulve organized this part of the trip because for her, nature cannot be separated from community. She not only wanted to expose our group to a unique music, but also to another way of living, of connecting with the environment.

A group of people sitting on the floor around a very large nhandwritten manuscript

Our next destination was MoKS, an artist project space in the small parish town of Mooste. MoKS is run by American-born sound artist John Grzinich and Estonian visual artist Evelyn Müürsepp. Rural Mooste provides the artists who take up residency at MoKS a focused and unique environment for creation. Grzinich and Müürsepp led our group through several exercises that forced us to consider different ways of listening. We spent one hour listening to a curated selection of Grzinich’s field recordings and reacting to the sounds in the form of drawing, painting, and writing. We discussed acoustic ecology and our connections to the sonic landscape. Our day finished by heading to the nearby forest, where we walked amongst the pine, spruce, and birch trees, armed with some particularly sonorous sticks, to experience the special resonance only possible in a forest of this kind.

A maze of trees in winter

Tulve’s “Art and the Environment” course allows students to engage with Estonian nature and reflect on how we as individuals connect with our environments. These workshops and experiences made me realize that her music, like the Estonian identity, is much more than a reaction to the visual, immediate aspects of nature. The relationship runs much deeper, and is founded on being with rather than being in nature.

(Note: The views presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.)