‘Ensemble U’ preforms a new style of contemporary music

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Tarmo Johannes playing flute and Helena Tuuling playing clarinet during Ensemble U’s Performance. Photo by Grace Bugbee.

As the lights dimmed on the center stage, the audience waited with bated breath right before the music jarred to a halt. A single note from the flute, mixed with electronic sounds, replaced the eerie silence for a second before the audience was pulled in by the upbeat of the violin and cello.

This was the atmosphere of the Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night when Ensemble U took the stage, to play about the connection between Minnesota and Estonia.

SCSU students and faculty were invited to come see a performance by Ensemble U, an Estonian contemporary music group dedicated to using alternative music scores. Their music is supplemented by electronic sounds from video, text and graphical scores.

Ensemble U has played in multiple festivals around the world, and has been acknowledged by the Endowment of Estonia. After celebrating their tenth anniversary in 2014, the band presented a lecture series title ‘URR-10 Years of Resistance’ where themes of the modern music scene were introduced and performed.

The sextet ensemble performed the songs by including sounds from waterfalls and lapping ice flows. The players wanted to show how everything is connected. Flutist Tarmo Johannes talked to the audience about the connection between the electronic sounds and the instruments.

“It’s about connections; Minnesota and Estonia are not so different,” Johannes said.

Johannes continued to urge the audience to try to listen to the connection between the electricity and the notes, comparing the electricity to the connection between brains and bodies.

The music contained bites of sound from wind, crackling ice, and one song was even accompanied by a poem. The ensemble has been responsible for commissioning new music from a variety of Estonian and foreign composers. SCSU professor Scott Miller composed one of the songs performed over the weekend titled ‘Accretion.’

The song includes sound bites from recordings of the frozen High Falls on the Grand Portage Trail, and is used to emphasize the similarities between Estonia and Minnesota.

While spending five months in Estonia, Miller went snowshoeing and was inspired by the landscape and how familiar it felt.

“I wanted to have that strong connection with Minnesota and Estonia,” Miller said, “I used a computer to find the rhythms of the waterfalls.”

Using electronic sound is a common practice in Ensemble U. This distinct field dives into improvisations that require the rendering of unconventional notation. Composers like Miller enjoy the challenges that go with matching sounds and pitches to different musical selections. Miller says that he likes being able to make music out of something that is technically hard to describe.

“I wanted to give the listener a type of doorway in which the connection can get through, “ he said, “It’s a tough thing to do, but it’s very satisfying”.

Tuesday night was the debut of “Accretion”, and Miller is pretty happy with how Ensemble U did with his piece. “Accretion” was played alongside songs like “And Drift” by Heather Stebbins, and “The Minutes” by Juri Reinvere, all using electronic sound to emphasize different connections.

Ensemble U ended on a high note to applause from the audience, and stayed after the show to answer questions and talk about alternative music with students and faculty. Through the use of electronic sound and the combination of wind and string instruments, Ensemble U was able to provide listeners with a doorway into the culture of Estonia.