Estonia's Schilling Festival (2012): A Gathering of Cabbages and Kings

The Schilling Festival (7 July 2012 in Kilingi-Nõmme, Estonia)

One of the major obstacles traditionally faced by European summer festivals is the weather; Mother Nature cannot be relied upon, especially in northern lands. If we take the UK, for example, a range of events this year - both big and small - have either been cancelled or joined forces in the name of reduced expenses. Several planned (and advertised) functions likewise had to close because the ground was already sodden and therefore unable to handle any influx of weighty, mobile bodies. 

The need for these events to take place has, however, grown of late, whatever the challenges of a local climate. With sales of hard media dangerously low - and piracy still putting relentless pressure on digital publications - live work and stagecraft are simply essential for many artists. But what can possibly be done if festivals are merged, cancelled, or directly avoided - due to high entry costs?

Schilling, one of the nicest music festivals in Estonia

The collective line-ups of many summer events are - to this day - a priceless way for little-known acts to show themselves publicly, even briefly, to a new audience. The dangers of showcasing new names, however (especially during a recession), leads to increasing conservatism in festival billing. An event threatened by bad weather or worse ticket sales desperately needs to be profitable - and will therefore book established stars, rather than risk low levels of interest in younger outfits.

A recent article in The Guardian highlighted this same issue with particular drama. One possible solution to the problems listed here, experienced all across Europe, has been niche programming. If, in other words, a festival that's looking for broad, primetime appeal must - willy-nilly - play things safe and book household names, then perhaps smaller events can dedicate themselves to narrower and enthusiastic audiences. Small, though vigorous fan bases lie beyond the edge of primetime performance.

Jaan Pehk (Jarva County) at Schilling 2012

Hoping to find its own "peripheral," yet zealous advocates is the Schilling Festival in Estonia that happened this weekend. Billing itself as a "festival of beautiful music," Schilling takes place in Kilingi-Nõmme, a tiny town described by Wikipedia with almost comic brevity. The festival staff play upon that same theme of smallness - and its charm. Were a list to be compiled of Estonian towns and cities, according to size, Kilingi-Nõmme would occupy the thirty-sixth position. 

That healthy distance from smoke and concrete also allows Schilling to promote itself as "one of the nicest music festivals in Estonia." If the development of niche markets is so important today, then "niceness" is apparently handled inadequately by other outdoor events. Those people in search of simplicity and relaxation should, according to the same logic, head for Kilingi-Nõmme, since other Baltic extravaganzas could well be louder and ruder. Here the smell of asphalt and hot rubber will be replaced by the aroma of "organic fertilizers and sawdust."

The smell of organic fertilizers and sawdust

The one-day line-up this year consisted of twelve bands, not only from Estonia, but also from the United States, Canada, Germany, Turkey, and Russia. Those Russian guests, it's worth mentioning, were Moscow's Retuses, often championed on this site - and fine representatives of the general atmosphere. Officially, Schilling this year was dedicated to a broad spectrum of styles: "There was material all the way from indie-pop or lo-fi psychedelia to instrumental rock and ambient guitar stuff."

A lone trumpet set the tone... amid cabbages on stakes.

Mirabilia (Tallinn

"Our audience members at Schilling include the hip and stylish, but they always keep friendly company with other folks so [hopelessly] out of vogue they may seem hipper still... The festival's overall ambience is so pleasant, straightforward, and genial that one of last year's acts insisted Schilling must be some kind of parallel reality." The escapist agenda emobodied by the Retuses wistful anti-folk was certainly embraced and amplified by US guests like Prince Rama, whose roots lie in a Florida Hare Krishna commune. A flight from fancy was most appealing, no matter one's homeland.

That rush from reality even extended to the cuisine. This year Schilling, looking once more to develop a fitting and family-friendly niche service, concentrated upon traditional Estonian recipes. The resident chefs and caterers promised a "parallel universe - both in our kitchens and outlook, too."

So what of the Estonian artists on stage, and the philosophical or aesthetic options they offer beyond the mainstream or other major festivals? All of the Estonian performers who played at Schilling 2012 have been discussed and championed here on FFM before - with one exception. 

Bedroom acts with an unconditional love for technology

More specifically, the new name here is Mr. Jaan Pehk, who is something of a renaissance figure in Estonian culture. Trained - classically - as a singer, he is equally busy in the related fields of poetry and drama. Arguably his best-known project is Orelipoiss, referred to in some quarters as "a bedroom act with an unconditional love for technology." That lo-fi ensemble's wantonly miniature scale of operation - whatever its enthusiasm for hardware - has certainly left its mark on Pehk's earlier or solo material, in that a debut Orelipoiss album, "99," was made of tracks no longer than 1.5 minutes. Pehk's hard-drive could hold no more data...

Considerable fantasy and creative energy were both channeled through tiny tools, thus guaranteeing a defense against marketable pathos. Once again, the cabbages helped.

Candy Empire (Tartu) live this week

In the same way, laptop microphones have been used to create minimalist yet endearing demos for Jaan Pehk's subsequent publications. Such is the widespread admiration for these downscaled, kindly sounds that Pehk's career has led him both to national music competitions and even the Eurovision Song Contest. One of the tracks used at that lofty level was entitled "Valss." Asked by the Estonian press a while ago to reconsider and explain the atmosphere of that composition, Pehk said: "It was really just a simple folk song. It still reminds me of an Estonian folk festival in summer - and somewhere by the sea. The kind of place where there's a big swing, a campfire, and lots of happy people." 

The traditional setting at Schilling is both imagined and brought to reality.

In the same humble manner, when Pehk was asked how he might operate without (or after) the limelight of Eurovision, his list of specific desires could not have been more modest. "I’ll live my life, make recordings, write, eat, drink, and perform."

I’ll live my life, make recordings, write, eat, drink, and perform

A related love of peace, calm, and retreat runs through most of the other festival musicians. From the small Estonian town of Paide come the band Ans. Andur, penning modern songs against the thirteenth-century backdrop of local streets. Founded in 2002, the group consists of a stable foursome: Madis Aesma, Mihkel Kirss (both vocals and guitar), Gert Pajuväli (bass), and Madis Kirss (drums). The musicians have worked both with the excellent Seksound label - often celebrated here - and once again contended for a spot at the Eurovision Song Contest.

Ans. Andur (Paide, Estonia)

When vying for that place on national television, Ans. Andur chose a song entitled  “Lapsed Ja Lennukid” (“Children and Airplanes”): "It was basically about waiting for your moment in time. It draws parallels with children as they watch white lines forming across the evening sky; they dream about being high in the air - and flying wherever they want... We wanted the composition to be taken as a joyous, summery pop song. We decided to submit the track because it was - by far! - the poppiest new number in our catalog."

Happiness and a distant yearning were held dearest of all.

Joyous, summery pop songs

Marten Kuningas is known for his primetime TV slots - as both talent-show contestant and presenter. In other words, he has experience as a chart show host on "Estonia's Top 7." Just before he took on the responsibility of TV staple, Kuningas gave an interview to the Estonian press in which he admitted to being frequently, if not constantly ironic. Both in the recording studio and on screen. The broad, suspiciously "inclusive" rhetoric of TV entertainment continues to be held at arm's length. Local experience of such pushy registers has not been happy in the past. This man's career suggests that a performance at Schilling would be philosophically fitting.

In the same conversation or interview, Kuningas also admitted that his favorite novels are Bulgakov's "Fatal Eggs" and Camus' "The Outsider" - both of which express a similar skepticism with regard to grand, centralized narratives of any sort, be they political or legal. What results is a certain wariness of grandeur that he extends to talk of "major" stardom, too. Kuningas is very uneasy with discussions of his own status. He recently - though respectfully - declined the label of local "superstar," suggesting instead that such dizzy heights have only ever been scaled by "Jesus, Elvis, and Coca Cola." 

Marten Kuningas (Tallinn)

Some recently uploaded lyrics by the drone and Krautrock ensemble Väljasõit Rohelisse, also at the Schilling festival, help to underscore this rejection of grandeur - specifically in terms of unwanted urban glitz and glamor. Urban experience is depicted across those lyrics in the most unappealing manner. This negativity survives translation from the Estonian very well: "It’s your city. Your filthy, dirty, laughing, dancing, screaming city... It’s your mirror. When you look in it, you see yourself... It doesn’t want your sympathy, just your money."

We might turn to talk of forest groves and mushrooms, but there's no guarantee that one's subconscious thoughts will be any jollier. "It’s all in our minds. Laying tall, head in the clouds. Holes in the flesh... and holes in the soul. No ambitions, no plans, just perfect dreams."

Head in the clouds...

As for Tartu's Candy Empire, they declare themselves to be exponents of "stylish, retro guitar-pop. There's a vintage feel to this ensemble, both in their look and their sound." A rush (backwards) to the past is more appealing than the present - not to mention the unattractive option of progression! Elsewhere in related PR materials we find claims that Candy Empire embody an "old-school '50s rock-and-roll aesthetic[!], together with elements of both '80s and '90s pop." Undermining a strict sense of chronology further still, the group have recently been performing Britney Spears' "Toxic" live. Hallucinogenic sounds and psychedelic parallels interweave with a gradual loss of any linear, progressive timeline.

Escape from the future becomes an avoidance of time's passage.

Väljasõit Rohelisse (Tallinn)

Last, but not least, is the wonderful Argo Vals. He is based in another small Baltic town: Viljandi, which traces its roots back to the thirteenth century. A graduate of the local arts academy, Vals now enjoys local support from Estonian music critics - not only as a solo artist, but also in his related projects of Animal Drama and the Viljandi Guitar Trio. His light and breezy instrumentals have many champions around the country, especially at local festivals such as the well-respected Eesti Pops

All excess noise is removed; there's just a quiet, internal realm (Soundcloud)

Here the absence of vocals arises not from ineffable anxiety or any grand romanticism that's stifled by provincial pettiness. Instead the scale of small-town existence becomes a mirror of happy, humble membership in other social experiences - such as the changing of the seasons. Quietness is the result of compromise - and therefore of community. For that reason, perhaps, Mr. Vals was recently invited to create music for Estonia's Independence Day celebrations.  Designed for a niche market in a tiny town, the Schilling Festival finds itself celebrating some very appealing ideas.

One of the "nicest music festivals in Estonia" becomes a template for one of the nicest countries.

Argo Vals (Viljandi)


Jaan Pehk – Labi Sugiseudu
Mirabilia – Monster of the Evening
Jaan Pehk – Musta Varju Saatel (w. Bonzo)
Argo Vals – Pulmavalss

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