Multiple Voices from a Singular Tradition: Mari Kalkun and Possimiste

Yesterday a brief text appeared in the Moscow magazine OpenSpace, showcasing with enthusiasm the talents of a young Estonian singer from Tallinn, who performs as Possimiste. As the article pointed out, the artiste's diminutive promo-texts currently make the claim that she communes regularly with the little people of the Estonian countryside. And by "little" we mean gnomes. As if that were not sufficiently fantastic, we're also informed that "Possimiste is a young, 'uber-experimentalist hippie-bat' from Wonderland." The main credo of these rural spirits, far from asphalt or concrete, is that "the existence of music can be found in everything."

OpenSpace draws direct and flattering parallels between the work of Possimiste and Icelandic collectives such as Mum or Kira Kira. And yet a few doubts have persisted in Moscow - not only as to the marketability of these fairytales (during real-world recessions), but also with regard to the waning star, perhaps, of Mum, Sigur Ros, and their ilk. Possimiste, dismissing any such worries, proudly extends those lists of northern influences with an overt passion for Bjork, Mogwai, the Cocteau Twins, Boards of Canada, and other dreampop/ambient heroes of the past or present.

...the existence of music can be found in everything

As one might expect, this rejection of forward-looking pragmatism works to the advantage of fantasy. Hippie-bats have little time for business plans or double-entry bookkeeping. They keep dropping their pencils.

These Baltic gnomes are unlikely to appear and challenge any doubts from the Russian public, since our Tallinn artiste blames their inherent shyness for very rare appearances. On their behalf, however, she dedicates her energy to various "transformations," both real and artistic - or, on other occasions, imagined and folkloric. In other words, Possimiste deliberately blurs the line between craftwork and reverie: "It's such a magical feeling to transform one object into another. That object remains the same [in terms of raw material]... and yet it somehow becomes more 'real' for the world, too."

According to this logic, reality increases relative to fantasy. The greater the metamorphosis effected upon an object or event, the higher its reality. Transformation is truth.

Our heroine maintains that this possibility for fantastic change - and heightened actuality - lies within all of us. It resides within the inherently "dialogic" aspects of any artistic endeavor - involving a gesture and its audience. One needs first of all, we're told, to shed the kind of performance anxiety that haunts Estonian gnomes... This fey fantasy may sound like escapist nonsense, but what makes Possimiste's texts and travails so intriguing is that they're constantly aiming for a related, communal experience. This is no bedroom solipsism. Her thoughts on artistic transformation often run parallel to social imagery. 

She speaks with passion and patriotism, even, of ways that music can both subvert and revolutionize social drudgery, in order to effect an altered, often superior option.

Within collaborative music-making lies the possibility for various civic harmonies, so to speak. Here's one recent example: "Yesterday I was on my way home... I had a little drum with me... I was with a couple of friends, riding on a trolleybus. All of a sudden, an old man was walking along beside us, playing a dark-red accordion... really beautifully, too. I've never heard anything like it before. Behind him was a small boy with a cup in his dirty hands, hoping to get some money. We'd nothing to give him except our music - so we took out our instruments and started to play along. Everybody smiled at us. It was like a tiny concert. Two minutes of magic." 

We'd nothing to give except our music... Two minutes of magic

These miniature, civil units (in various senses) only grow with time and effort. Possimiste writes with pride on her blog of the massed, choral festivals in Estonia that have acquired a special resonance since the famous Singing Revolution of the early 1980s. Tens of thousands of people still convene in ways that once used songs of the past in order to challenge the dictates of a Soviet present. Within a half-forgotten, silent heritage lay the possibility of an improved society. It needed, however, to be voiced. Put differently, Possimiste's supposedly "indie" aesthetic is actually knee-deep in various civic networks, many of which are very old indeed: folklore, the timeless sounds of a landscape, domestic choral traditions, and modern-day patriotism. 

Those same networks allow us to speak of this young figure both as an "innovative" performer and somebody tied to the continuation or powerful conservatism of a local legacy. Consider, as a useful parallel, Mari Kalkun, a folk singer whose reputation is growing rapidly at home thanks to a much more traditional aesthetic. What connects these women, however, is not a sound, but an outlook.

Kalkun's mother was born on a tiny island in the Baltic Sea, where traditional dress, for example, has a more lasting influence - and application - than on the mainland. Her father is from the south of Estonia, specifically from the forested district shown above.  The speech of those southern locals is likewise colored by an antique, regional dialect; Kalkun feels that these sights and sounds are increasingly important for a sense of belonging. The present is somehow made, or at least ameliorated, by the (audible) past.

As we heard from our "gnomic" artiste in Tallinn, certain sounds - especially in rare, even repressed communal contexts - remain capable of turning everyday experience into a kinder, perhaps older sphere. They can both accompany and effect cordiality, sidestepping harsh modernity in the process. 

In a recent interview with her Tallinn publishers, Õunaviks, Mari Kalkun explained some of these impressionistic theories or assumptions regarding the creation of what have been called tangible "soundscapes." Here the conversation turns to ways in which Kalkun has drawn upon a paternal dialect for her own songs - and in particular for those texts relating to the experience of her parents' generation. 

By vivifying the poetry of a prior generation, Kalkun fells that a unique bond becomes possible in the present. Or, more importantly, it becomes audible. She has, by way of example, spoken of emotional opposites in her grandparents that she finds extended in herself, even now: both the gregarious nature of her grandfather (an active, genial teacher) and the quieter, more reserved aspect of her grandmother. 

The gap or discrepancy between them, however, was rarely discussed - out loud.

Her grandmother, she recalls, "would look longingly at her spouse, playing the piano at home." Between those two social impulses - both outgoing and introvert - she says there always endured "an unfulfilled [noiseless] longing..." Within the smallest of communal bonds, she sensed a yearning for even greater self-expression. This, she insists, "is where I began" - by voicing and therefore mending the unspoken disconnect between daily life and desire. A social art-form, requiring performance (and a minimum of two people!), thus becomes a unique if not "magical" kind of reconnection. It gives rise to Kalkun's own subjectivity, too, in between two people and two emotional states.

The sounds of an unfulfilled longing...

Verse and song utter the risky, yet promising sentiment which quotidian speech would rather avoid. This is an avoidance of discord and a nurturing of rapport that leads us in the direction of Ralph Waldo Emerson's oft-quoted line: "A man's growth is seen in the successive choirs of his friends." And, in using the imagery of those active, socially learned skills, we should also consider the matter of Mari Kalkun's education.

After her high-school years, Kalkun had initially planned to study jazz, but instead she turned to folkloric traditions and classes at the smaller Viljandi Culture Academy. Thanks to an early acquaintance and experiments with the accordion and harp, for example, she discovered "a sense of magic that came from mixing various cultural elements." On the basis of those merged sounds, which gave common voice to the tools of disparate ages, she began to speak of related social harmonies.

Again a parallel emerges with the younger, more experimental repertoire of Possimiste: the potentially ubiquitous "existence of music" becomes a wide-reaching double entendre of growing societal relevance. Vernal imagery fits the bill nicely.

What, then , can the study of music offer the Estonian people today? Kalkun says that contemporary Baltic culture should have (or, by the same logic, currently lacks!) "reason, creativity, and [a sense of] connection." These grand correspondences need to be built from the ground upwards - from within stubborn silence. She has hopes, therefore, for the future development of "cultural incubators" across Estonia. They'll foster both musical skills and the resulting communal qualities she is always glad to find, by way of passing example, in an ideal producer. A figure operating in both musical and interpersonal spheres needs "open-mindedness and good communication." In a word, concord.

These, allegedly, are traits evident in the country's sung heritage. They've simply been forgotten. 

Kalkun already perceives a laudable network of "positive community events" across regional music organizations that try to "involve different age groups." More important - and powerful - than any age difference, therefore, are compassionate, inclusive mores. The charitable traits so audible in folksong are not subject to the passage of time. Narratives born of shared experience in prior centuries have equal, if not increased validity today. It's for this reason that the rhetoric we hear from Estonian state radio when speaking of this musician makes equal sense in terms of both audiences and communities.

Notions of space, trust, and cooperation on the traditional dancefloor can easily transfer to other, more peopled domains. Kalkun tries to accelerate the process.

The imagery of audible appeal in a small audience, "reaching out to others," does double duty in a civic framework, promising connections far beyond the concert hall. Estonian national radio says: "The songs of Mari Kalkun are very personal in nature. They're full of intimate, warm hues. This is music that invites listeners to be more honest and open..."

Music that invites listeners to be more honest and open...

That sentimental, even maudlin tone may sound both vague and frustratingly abstract, but we should consider in closing the region of Estonia to which Kalkun's father is connected, Voru. The poets whose lyrics Kalkun have turned into song were, in many cases, lost to the violence of WWII. If these folk songs, poems, and other "magical" traditions hope to foster a social ideal, they need to start from scratch. And be heard once more. These are, in some cases, the love lyrics of men and women who never came home.

Prior to any talk of nationhood, therefore, are dramatically smaller communities - and the families or couples who make them. "Successive choirs of friends" are built in precisely that fashion - from friends and acquaintances. Microsocial bonds are prior to anything grand and imposing. Choirs begin from a single, muted chord, even.

Just as the Estonian public discovered during the Singing Revolution, the civic clout of a subversive, i.e., transformational song begins with a single moment of trust and/or anxiety, when a potential "performer" feels that somewhere, close by, sits a trusted, willing listener. The power of that now legendary choir would never have begun if one initial singer had not cultivated a sense of neighborly trust and faith in at least one compatriot. 

In Estonia, therefore, more than most places, the link between lyric and civic registers is both vivid and vital. There may appear to be little in common between the songs of Possimiste and Mari Kalkun, but both of these Estonian women see the promise of better social networks - be they real or imagined! The very act of breaking into song - with at least one sympathetic neighbor - can have dramatic consequences.

That holds true whether one hopes to join some neighborhood gnomes or shake the foundations of an entire empire. 

Audio

Possimiste – Behind the Seas
Possimiste – Filably
Mari Kalkun – Riinukese Valss

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