Composer Profile: Helena Tulve

Helena Tulve
Helena Tulve


The core of the Estonian composer  Helena Tulve ‘s music is characterized by constant change and processes that are closely tied to the previous notion. It springs up from simple impulses and is  affected by natural and organic patterns and synchronization. No sound whatsoever is closed out  and may find its right time and place in Tulve´s composition.

The composer’s most noteworthy teachers have been Erkki-Sven Tüür and Jacques Charpentier. In addition to musical composition she has also studied Gregorian chant, which is one of the factors that keeps her perpetually interested in different vocal music traditions.

Helena Tulve has been commissioned by Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, NYYD Ensemble, Nieuw Ensemble, ensemble diferencias, the Netherlands Chamber Choir, Uppsala Symphony Orchestra etc. Helena Tulve has co-worked with video artists, written film music and released three albums:  Sula  (Estonian Radio, 2005), Lijnen (ECM, 2008) and Arboles lloran por lluvia (ECM, 2014). Her work is published by Edition Peters.

A German musicologist Wolfgang Sandner has described Tulve’s music:

“One of the fine qualities of her music is that much of it works as if it were not composed, as if it just happened, as if the instrument were playing itself rather then being played, as if the music were emanating from a set of wind chimes. In her music forms do not jostle their way into the foreground. Their structures are like rocks or trees: everything is self-evident; much is gnarled, much is beautiful; some things are mysterious, others plain as day. It begins, it develops, and at the end it possesses consistency – in memory. Hers is a music that could be installed in a landscape. Not only would it protrude, it would be subsumed.”




What is your earliest musical memory that, in looking back, has proved to be significant regarding your career as a composer?

The perception of music or sounds is for me related to other sensations as smell, awareness of space, temperature, sense of my skin, my own emotional state, or other. So, I think the earliest memories are exactly those complex recollections not directly and solely musical ones. The hum of insects mixed with the silence of birds; static heat combined with the dry smell of grass after midday – this kind of memory-spaces have been at least as defining for me as a composer as later musical experiences that are obviously complex too: Sitting in too big a chair in a dark concert hall at an early music concert together with my Grandmom. Colors and images included, of course.

Are there composers who have been influential or relevant regarding your own work? Has this changed over time?

I think I have learned a great deal from medieval music – Gregorian chant, but as well from the oral music traditions from all over. Of the 20th century music I have at different times been interested in many composers and the influences have come together by tiny bits, flashes of something, or vice versa – from a very general aspect or impression of their music. I cannot name any, it would be immediately a huge list of favorites, who somehow probably are influencing me as well. And observing the nature is at least as big an influence as the music and musicians.

Would you mind speaking a little concerning your working process, i.e., do you have a regular schedule for writing; do you use a computer for composing (either for creating pre-composition materials or notation), if so, do you find that it inhibits your process? What other technology, if any, do you use?

I think the first step is to find out in general what the piece is about, an introspective time. Earlier I called the result of this quest a kind of mental image, now I would enlarge and call it mental space – totally unknown and yet a place where I can be or that I can be in contact with. Little by little getting closer, finding more details, patterns, lines, going as much as I am able to the cellular level and become more conscious about it. In some ways this activity becomes something almost physical, very concrete, taking little decisions, making choices and modelling the material. And yet it still stays somehow totally in the zone of unknown. From that perspective the process needs a lot of trust in the moment of being, coming from somewhere and becoming something – hopefully. And once over, the process sinks into the oblivion – the piece is here as it is. I do not use any technology except for paper, pen and eraser, but I take a lot of occasional notes, which become like a diary of various ideas, materials, accidental thoughts – most of which I do not use …

helena_tulve3 Please describe one of your recent compositions and provide a link to an audio clip.

Südamaa / Heartland for piano and orchestra is one of my last compositions performed by Mihkel Poll (piano), Estonian National SO and Olari Elts (cond.)


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