Experimental Estonia: interview with Elijah Värttö

Elijah on the left

Art world is full of invis­ible people. Some of them stand behind audi­ence dur­ing plays and main­tain sound, some sit with a manu­script and pile of vocab­u­lar­ies, other spend their nights try­ing to per­fectly fit sub­titles to the movie. Usually they are seen only by their col­leagues or when the work is flawed — the best eval­u­ation is when their job is done so per­fectly that an audi­ence can not even ima­gine, what com­plex and tricky struc­ture was cre­ated for just bring­ing the product in.

It is sim­ilar while talk­ing about music industry. Many people know Lou Reed. But who — without help from Google — can name the per­son who plays drum in Velvet Underground? If the con­cert sound is poor, every­one blames organ­izers, if it sounds great, then all applause go to musicians.

Being an organ­izer demands much time and effort, unseen by con­cert audi­ence. Only trully com­mited people choose under­ground and exper­i­mental music scene. Elijah Värttö is an organ­izer and cur­ator of Servataguse Muusika organ­iz­a­tion in Estonia. He is mainly focused on Baltic region, Russia and Finland. During two years Servataguse Muusika organ­ized about 30 events, related to exper­i­mental music and per­form­ance art. Well, lets move on to inter­view with this extraordin­ary personality.

Love Cult from Carelia
Elijah in Lithuania

How did you become inter­ested in exper­i­mental music scene?

I came to be inter­ested in the cur­a­tion of this theme as I reg­u­larly atten­ded music events that went away from the stand­ard forms and sub pop cul­tures. The Make It Up Club in Melbourne, Australia was a place that I reg­u­larly atten­ded and did my first per­form­ance. This was a weekly impro­vised avant garde music night, that brought a range of Australian and inter­na­tional per­form­ances. What I liked espe­cially about this theme is that it was cent­rally focussed on provid­ing a plat­form for the devel­op­ment of exper­i­ment­a­tion in music. They didn’t care about crowds and being cool, they just wanted the per­formers to branch out and try dif­fer­ent methodologies.

When I was broke and had time on my hands in Estonia after a stint of long term travel, I thought it would be good to organ­ise some­thing in a sim­ilar vein. There were many inter­est­ing per­formers in the imme­di­ate region that I had wit­nessed, yet no tra­versal across bor­ders seemed to occur so often. It seemed a worth­while pro­ject to ini­ti­ate, and so I did.. but I came to real­ise I really did care about unusual per­formers reach­ing a broader audience.

While I have ini­ti­ated the series, I have had some dir­ect and indir­ect assist­ance along the way. Rain and Irina has been a great help with design, I have also had help from Keiti with run­ning of some shows. Having said that, i’m hop­ing to hand over the theme, to a greater group of people, to run it bey­ond this years festival.

DIY posters

What do you mean by broader audi­ence? Do you think exper­i­mental music should be more pop­u­lar?

Broader audi­ence. By this i mean that even the most unknow­ledged and naive have loved the per­form­ances. I don’t believe exper­i­mental music, or music that for­gets about inten­tions of pop­ular­ity, should be a secret club. No pass­words, no uni­forms. People have stumbled in and been cap­tiv­ated and or trans­fixed. At times people have not liked it but found the exper­i­ence of being there was inter­est­ing to them. It also feels a bet­ter event if it reaches a threshold of notice.

Do you see your­self more as an organizer/​promoter or as a musi­cian? What qual­it­ies, in your opin­ion, are essen­tial for being one?

In a sense the more you organ­ise, the less you have time to per­form. At some point I must stop in order to get back to my own pro­jects. So It is import­ant that I try to get some other people to take over the theme.

There is no pro­fes­sion in cur­at­ing and organ­ising this theme. There is only the potent for wit­ness­ing and bring­ing about unique and mem­or­able moments. Some pocket money is the best eco­nomic res­ult, on the down side it is pos­sible to be worse off eco­nom­ic­ally, spend a lot of time, and have an event where the gen­eral pub­lic pays crim­in­ally little atten­tion in attend­ance and opt for some disco party with mediocre DJs. I have a thicker skin now, but I remem­ber being quite upset if a really great per­form­ance was under — attended.

You men­tioned that some­times con­certs are atten­ded rather poorly and people prefer dance music instead of exper­i­mental. How do you see experimental/​weird music scene in Estonia? Do you think that such scene exists, or would you call it just a bunch of enthusiasts?

Well… There have been a lot of events… some 30 in 2 years. Some have been greatly atten­ded, oth­ers not so. Wax and wane. I felt that the fest­ival last year deserved more than 60 people, there should have been the whole city there. And this time I reckon there will be, fin­gers crossed. The mar­ket­ing machine is tuned and rev­ving up, and it’s get­ting an early start and more assist­ance this time. Promotion is really import­ant, an evil along with eco­nom­ics that I’ve reluct­antly had to acknowledge.

As for ‘scenes’ in Estonia, it is some­thing that never really hap­pens here. You get a sense that the fet­ish­ised lines of threads and music­ally linked fash­ion, or fash­ion aligned with beliefs; it doesn’t hap­pen to the same uni­form­ity as I’ve noticed in other coun­tries. Some have said it is because of a rel­at­ively smal­ler pop­u­la­tion, this might be it. I feel like the Servataguse Muusika theme, for Estonian per­form­ances, has attrac­ted a diverse mix­ture of highly indi­vidu­al­istic per­formers whom would do what their doing regard­less of a stage offered to them. There are no two alike.

DIY posters

Are there any more inter­est­ing projects/​bands from Estonia, that should be known to our read­ers? Is it pos­sible to define which genre of exper­i­ment­a­tion is more com­mon in Estonia?

For instance, Roomet Jakapi, he has his band Kreatiivmootor. They star­ted out as a thank­fully really ama­teur and prim­it­ive art band, they have refined them­selves but still that grit­ti­ness remains. Lots of mem­bers at times 7 instru­ments. He also has a solo pro­ject, where it is just his voice and a face that con­torts and twists with so much expres­sion, none of the sounds resemble a word, but it tells so much. You read some­thing that just can’t be grasped.

Other not­ables are SAVIDIVAS, one brother Toomas Savi, from this duo, toils away with build­ing some truly unique elec­tronic instru­ments. I’ve met a few ana­logue instru­ment build­ers and he is one of the best. Their musical works are some­what like early prim­it­ive elec­tronic music, driven by sequen­cers and rhythm machines along­side noise gen­er­at­ors and self oscil­lat­ing units. Many build­ers neg­lect their per­form­at­ive abil­it­ies, this is a rare occa­sion where the instru­ment builder also has great musicianship.

One per­form­ance, put on recently was an oddity, 4 years in the dark between gigs, and still work­ing away, ‘Morgues Last Choice’, a really inter­est­ing Black Metal pro­ject. Now this brand of metal goes away from the high school favour­ites, it is truly fit­ting for the most avant garde hor­ror movie. Stage wise they used no gui­tar no drums, and it was purely elec­tronic and vocal. They were wear­ing what looked like rags and were cel­eb­rat­ing Happy Digestion Day.. an inter­na­tional day to sup­port a good digest­ive system.

What i think you can see form these three examples is that there is no dir­ect link between each of the more unusual Estonian per­form­ance. So in this respect there is no scene under the ban­ner of exper­i­mental music.


What do you like about this music? Any par­tic­u­lar style you prefer? What kind of musi­cians are more than wel­come in your organ­ized events?

This kind of music isn’t any­thing in par­tic­u­lar. It has ranged from noise to con­crete, to field record­ings to classical/​new music, to a rock band that has some­thing about them that is so eccent­ric, to some ana­logue elec­tron­ics build­ers… to pure per­form­at­ive or express­ive art using only the human voice. I make sure that the per­form­ances are skewed to that which would never find a plat­form elsewhere.

What are the most pop­u­lar ven­ues in Estonia where one could find some uncon­ven­tional music?

Unfortunately Estonia has taken a hit in terms of ven­ues. If you want to put on a small medium show there aren’t a lot of options. If you want to put on a large scale fest­ival, then there are so many options. It is a prob­lem, which really needs address­ing. The pres­ence of souvenir shops and tour­ist traps drives up rental prices and what suit­able places remain in the old town have poten­tial for prob­lems with res­id­en­tial neigh­bours. It is a com­mon story all over the world. A solu­tion would be to cre­ate another dis­trict whereby arts and music can pro­lif­er­ate, and area which has cheaper rent and less prob­lems with res­id­ents. This means get­ting people out of Old Town, a dif­fi­cult thing to do when there are the ‘prison’ walls still in place.

East Gallery, was a venue that i put on numer­ous uncom­mon music events. I ran this place for close to a year before hav­ing to give up, due to every prob­lem: eco­nom­ics, renov­a­tions, coun­cil, neigh­bours and more that takes too long to explain. Otherwise i’d say now new spaces like Ptarmigan put on a show here and there, Kodu is a new venue that taps into some ele­ments of more grass roots music and the uncom­mon. Otherwise there is the yearly Stalker Festival and Heliosphere, they are each tap­ping into more unsual music forms. I have heard that Heliosphere had fin­an­cial prob­lems, so we’ll see how and if they do it again. And of course the Servataguse Muusika series, which if i do say so myself, is far more reg­u­lar and region­ally sup­port­ive of exper­i­mental and unusual music.

East Gallery

Lets talk about your events. Starting from music nights to fest­ival and all under the same name Servataguse Muusika. What, when, where? And, most import­antly, why? Did you start to organ­ize it because of lack of exper­i­mental music events in Estonia?

These events are all in Tallinn, Estonia. It has been in many dif­fer­ent ven­ues and places. Yes it is true, if this theme weren’t here these per­form­ances wouldn’t hap­pen. Right this moment I’ve had to scale back from the reg­u­lar­ity of the theme, eco­nom­ics and time does not allow. There is also an August event aligned with a per­form­ance art event by Global Art Container in Polymer Kultuuritehas (cul­ture fact­ory) as part of a week long fest­ival Polymer Days (Polymer Päevad), I’m gun­ning for Streets of Sex (Lat), Black Sky Chant (Rus), Arabian Horses (Rus) and SHWNST (Lat) (ie Chauvanist), the per­fro­mance names hint at much, I can add that this show is going to be a com­bin­a­tion of calm, dis­turb­ing, raw, excite­ment, bleak and pure fun. Each show I put on is dif­fer­ent, and this one will cer­tainly have strong impact.

Of greater import still, there will be a super event in November 4, 5,& 6. The yearly fest­ival, involving some 16 per­form­ances from Estonia, Latvia, Finland, Russia, Sweden and Lithuania. So far 10 are con­firmed. Of par­tic­u­lar excite­ment to me is that I have cajoled and wined and dined with Non Grata and they will make a per­form­ance. Non Grata are not a musical group. They aren’t even an exper­i­mental music group. They are a per­form­ance art col­lect­ive ori­gin­at­ing from Estonia, also recruit­ing all man­ner of indi­vidu­als as they require them. There will be some silence or sound in what they do, so that is good enough for me. What they attempt, and reg­u­larly achieve, is to snap the audi­ence out of them­selves. As if they are passing through some­thing. Sensory dis­or­i­ent­a­tion is some­times a res­ult, other times won­der, other times worry and con­cern, you just never know. Chainsaws, axes, broken eggs, rubble. Those are the words i think of form one per­form­ance. On another occa­sion, face­paint, silence, candles and stam­mer­ing words.

In other senses of diverse ter­rit­ory, there is also Juha Valkepää, a per­form­ance artist from fin­land whom util­ises just voice and facial expres­sion. Sebastian Wesman, an Argentinian com­poser, whom goes back to older meth­od­o­lo­gies with a purely focussed emo­tion on violin and voice. There is also the more con­tem­por­ary forms with Sand Circles from Sweden, recently signed to Not Not Fun Records in USA. This is pure hip­ster art school stuff. I love it, it is pop music that the pop world doesn’t accept. There is also SAVIDIVAS from Estonia, I men­tioned them above. Also Kemialliset Ysttävät/​Tomuttontu from Finland. This is the most suc­cess­ful and developed of the per­form­ances, to me it is music taken to the field of dynamic visual art. There are still more to men­tion and some more to con­firm as of this moment.

Some per­form­ances from fest­ival in 2010 here.

Art Container nuotrauka

Is visual part as import­ant in per­form­ances as music? Would you say that an inter­est­ing pro­ject can not exist without a concept and storytelling?

I think per­haps sense of theatre or story telling is maybe mis­lead­ing. We’ve never exactly put on a play, but at times the per­formers stage pres­ence has been more import­ant than the sounds. For instance Roomet Jakapi, men­tioned earlier. In a sim­ilar sense Juha Valkeapää, a Finnish per­form­ance artist, fits this cat­egory, he again uses his voice without pro­cessing and in his own dis­tinct way seemed to tell an unspoken story with mur­mur­ings, breath and facial expres­sion. Flagra Y Machinamentvm, a Latvian duo, per­formed on stage with black and white gowns and white masks. They are a hus­band wife pair­ing, the woman with a flower head dress, while the hus­band had horns. Their daugh­ter also jingled a small bell. This imagery was as import­ant as the sounds.

In a dif­fer­ent way the same can be said of 1234567890, whose singer wore a skin tight body suit with a maple leaf design on his crotch. And he sang without dis­cern­able words, with a lot of audio pro­cessing. These are examples of a kind of stage pres­ence that pierced as much and maybe more than the music itself, if it could even be classed music.

From these examples I think it can be said that while there may be a concept, it might not be dis­cern­able to the viewer, and at other times this sense of theatre is pure sensoria.

Flagra Y Machinamentvm

I noticed that Servataguse Muusika mostly organ­izes events related to music and per­form­ance art. Are you inter­ested in any other ways of expres­sion? What are your plans for future?

I have thought that it would be good to make a label and releases. It is all pos­sible. I recently made a cas­sette and CDR release with spray painted and hand-​made design with the help of Rain Saavel. But I think to do this prop­erly you need to have all the con­tacts with boutique record stores in order to make it worth­while. I do not have the con­tacts though if I asked around it might be pos­sible. These things take a lot of time and emails and maybe even field trips and travel just to find the right people.

A couple of years ago there was one French musi­cian who con­duc­ted a Repetitive Music work­shop in Kultuuritehas Polymer. It was impro­vised within lim­it­a­tions, every­one had a dif­fer­ent instru­ment and had to stick to a spe­cified rhythm or tone for an exten­ded period. It was a sur­pris­ingly great work­shop with some great tex­tures and res­ults. Minimalism was really shown to work.

Workshops are a def­in­ite pos­sib­il­ity. I have con­duc­ted one such work­shop guid­ing 12 people through the build­ing and con­struc­tion of a self oscil­la­tion ana­logue elec­tron­ics device.. taken from a kit I took through people how to solder and wire it up with the appro­pri­ate parts on a prin­ted cir­cuit board. This could be done. Also on another sense maybe Iäd like Phil, of Massive Ejaculation, to teach people how he makes these absurd and glor­i­ous mon­ster masks he makes. All is pos­sible. And actu­ally I have been talk­ing with Ptarmigan about host­ing such a workshop.

As for the future, for me there is only the Festival in November. I’m in a tun­nel, the light is the fest­ival. And once i go through it, any­thing is pos­sible. for this reason I would like to hand over the concept to be run by oth­ers, hope­fully a col­lect­ive. As this is how things get done best without one per­son feel­ing too drained of energy. It is a lot of hard work for an indi­vidual. There is always the need for sup­port so that things are done at their best and done timely.

One of mag­ni­fi­cient cos­tumes of Massive Ejaculation (from 3:06 min)
Ilona Klimaitytė
About author:
Ilona Klimaitytė
From the very beginning, Ilona had a passion for event management, writing and a cold glass of beer. These three forces fit perfectly together with interests in postindustrial music, anthropology and weird cinema. At the moment, she is finishing her cultural history and anthropology studies and is writing thesis on the subject of industrial elec... Read further >
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