I first encountered Helena Tulve’s work by accident, while searching through my local library’s depressingly small collection of female classical composers. A copy of her 2008 album “Lijnen” was all that this search yielded, although it justified the effort with its starkly beautiful, free-form works: part audio poetry or storytelling, part sound-scapes, each piece feeling like a journey through some compelling yet dangerous wilderness.
Her second collection is similar insofar as it builds on this style, yet an overall richer experience in texture and composition than its predecessor, as becomes quickly apparent from the first track, “Reyah hadas ‘ala” with both complex instrumentals and several vocalists (“Lijnen”, by contrast, had only one voiced track, with a haunting solo by Ariana Savall. “Arboles …” has vocals on most of its tracks, and several vocalists besides Savall). While this makes for a less tense experience than the eerie simplicities of “Lijnen”, the mood is no less haunting, yet in a more introspective way. If “Lijnen” often felt like a dangerous journey through frozen, treacherous landscapes, “Arboles …” feels like the dangerous journey into the multifaceted, treacherous psyche.
The piece opens with mournful strings, instantly reminiscent of Tulve’s earlier work, then staccato bursts of flute enter the scene like bird cries (The translated title of the piece, “The perfume of the myrtle rises”, already seems to set the scene in some mystic garden). The piece is dominated by a recurring Gregorian chant motif, with male vocalists in solemn harmony, seeming to offer the hope of serenity yet ghostly and unsettling. Flutes strike dissonant notes, and harmony between instruments and vocals is only ever achieved in uneasy, fleeting moments (The motif of complex yet competing, or somehow irreconcilable harmonies occurs throughout this album). A female vocalist then offers a new chant, heralding a change of mood: a new calmness in the instrumentals (though still with ominous undertones), with lighter melodies and trills suggestive of birdsong and dance. One could almost imagine competing tutelary spirits of this strange “psychic garden” vying for control. Ultimately, the chants loosely harmonise, and peace descends on this otherworldly space as the piece closes, although inconclusively, its troubled notes unresolved. There are no easy solutions in Tulve’s work.
The second piece, “Silences / larmes” (silences / tears), makes liberal use of silences as a device (as you might expect) and begins on a protracted one, before giving way to strings and a single oboe. These instruments are presently joined by a female vocalist (the aforementioned and inimitable Ariana Savall) whose ethereal chants interweave with the oboe melody yet do not strictly harmonise. The effect becomes of a swirling dance between the two, an elusive search for unity, reinforced by some suggestive lyrics (imagery of moths, leaves, and the strange solace of a single chime highlighting the themes of transience and mutability throughout these works). Intermittent silences break in upon the piece, while percussion effects could almost suggest waves breaking upon the shoreline, as the piece draws to a melancholy close. The effect is of exquisite vulnerability, the performers again seeming like spirits or personifications of nature, yet themselves prey to the greater forces of chaos and entropy, threatening to silence them at any given moment, perhaps eternally.
The third piece, “L’Équinoxe de l’âme” (The equinox of the soul) continues and deepens the strong metaphysical themes, taking as its basis a Sufi poem that characterises the soul as a phoenix-like entity. Its opening, in contrast to the serenity of the earlier works, is shrill and energetic, and this sense of tumult builds, with many instrumental voices seemingly vying for dominance. One could imagine it to be the psyche at is most turbulent, raw and unfocused. The faint hint of a female vocal (Savall again) enters, then builds in significance, exerting a calming and harmonising influence, strings forming around its melody. Perhaps this signifies the “dawning” spirituality bringing peace and enlightenment, or an alchemical transformation of formless elements, but (as is characteristic in Tulve’s work) the epiphany is transient, chaos and randomness returning before the piece draws to its close (although the vocal nevertheless continues to soar, phoenix-like, suggesting its influence may yet return).
Track four is the title track, “Arboles lloran por lluvia” (Trees cry for rain), and is another reflective, serene, yet melancholy piece. A silent opening tentatively gives way to strings and vocals, male and female voices echoing each other’s plaintive lyrics yet (as ever) unable to synchronise easily, overlapping yet constantly separated. The tone becomes more desperate, the lovers’ longed-for union only more elusive for its fleeting moments of harmony. It feels like a ghostly, two-way chase that will never find a lasting resolution. A simple, wistful, repeated string motif closes the work, seeming to signal a sad acceptance of the inevitable.
As an appropriate climax, the final piece, “Extinction des choses vues” (The extinction of the things seen) utilises the full orchestra and its sense of scale to dramatic effect. From a subtle opening, energy and volume soon increase as several instrumental voices build simultaneously in a long-drawn crescendo (curiously reminiscent of the orchestral bridge in the Beatles’ 1967 track “A Day in the Life”, and not dissimilar to it in terms of the effect achieved). Incompatible yet not formless, the various voices reach a peak of unbearable intensity, then tail off with high-pitched strings into near-silence. Shrill, formless notes linger in the void, until the piece finally closes on a two-note string motif (not unlike the “Jaws” hook, though eerie rather than urgent), reduced to starkest simplicity in its final moments. It is, like so much of Tulve’s work, a piece open to any number of interpretations, although the title offers provocative hints. Ultimately, it leaves the feeling either of a musical “Road to Damascus” moment – some blinding revelation that eclipses all that came before – or a musical mental breakdown, the psyche overwhelmed and laid low by its inability to find peace and reconciliation (or possibly both).
Overall, then, “Arboles …” emerges as both a logical development from Helena Tulve’s earlier work, and a hugely rewarding collection in its own right. It is far from ‘easy listening’ – its loose, constantly-evolving structures absolutely demand attention – but for those who allow themselves to be lost in its liminal, Gothic spaces, it is a beautiful if often unsettling experience.