Theme For Great Cities: Tallinn is a modern musical composition created to honor the city of Tallinn, utilizing modern technology and incorporating the sounds of the city in the music. I was immediately interested when I first heard about it, because it contained so many fascinating elements mixed with one of the most important ingredients for any artistic endeavor: passion. I hope you enjoy reading about Alex Maiolo’s musical journey as much as I did, and if you haven’t seen the performance yet, you can check that out at the bottom of the blog.

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Delannoy

Let’s start with the concept. Can you please share how Themes For Great Cities: Tallinn came about?

Modular is an exciting world but also a bit samey at times. Daily I’m both floored by the incredible things people are doing, but also shocked that god gave us lightning and a lot of people are using it to power a toaster oven. 

I’m interested in Musique Concrète, but was thinking about ways to make it more musical. What’s also been on my mind, lately, is how some cities get all the glory, while others are kind of the more understated sibling, that if you took the time to meet, you’d realize were more beautiful and exciting than the one sucking all of the air out of the room. I travel a lot and have been genuinely moved by trips to Sarajevo, Köln, Lisbon, Ghent, for example.

Copenhagen is my favorite city on earth, along with its “Brooklyn,” Malmö. A very close second is Tallinn. Tallinn Music Week, a kind of a mini SXSW, is one of the most forward thinking festivals I’ve ever been to. I’ve attended as a journalist, and floated this idea to their skipper, Helen Sildna, about doing a musical love letter to honor that lovely city. It would incorporate daily city sounds not just as music and patterns, but also as behind the scenes instructions for the modular kit. TMW never shies away from trying new things, they loved the concept, and gave us free rein. Shout out to TMW partner Telia for their unfailing support of artists, too. 

In the group with you was Erki Pärnoja, Jonas Bjerre, and Jonas Kaarnamets. How did you all come together to do this project?

Once it was approved I thought “OK, who would I want to work with, ideally?” 

Jonas Kaarnamets, who had worked with Sander Mölder and Timo Steiner on Concerto for an Intersection and an Electric Guitar was a real inspiration, so I started there. He sometimes plays with Erki Pärnoja, who is not only one of my favorite guitarists in the history of the instrument, he also does amazing ambient-ish music, and has done a chorale piece for Arvo Pärt. Jonas and Erki are Estonian. Jonas Bjerre is in a Danish band called Mew. Their album …And The Glass Handed Kites is an all-time Top 10 for me. I asked all three, thinking one or two might say yes. What an honor, all three were way into it. The only problem this presented is I’m committed to not working on dude-only projects. As if things weren’t already going perfectly enough, Alyona Movko-Mägi was available for visuals, and we enthusiastically gave her carte blanche to run with her ideas. 


How did you record the city sounds?

Most of it was done with an iPhone! Some of the original ideas involved harvesting sounds that are both common and unique. Many cities have tram systems, but if you live there you know that little squeal a train makes as it rounds the corner into Teleskivi, or whatever, so we wanted to get some of those things. Erki took us to cafeteria at Estonian National TV service. Tallinn is one of the most modern cities in Europe, with all of the Nordic trimmings, but that cafeteria has a little Soviet-era vibe. We went to outdoor markets, recorded cables hitting flagpoles in a windstorm, at the harbor, various beeps and signals, and the sound of high heels clicking in a pedestrian tunnel, as a busker played flute. We also wanted to record things like light, only as voltage. I explained this to my good friend Mike Walters, and he built us something he called the Mõistatus Vooluringid, which means “mystery circuits” in Estonian. We took readings from the light coming off of the harbor, and the sun filtering through the trees. Some of the sounds were cut up into recognizable and not-so-recognizable clips, but we also converted both the sounds, and light readings, into voltage and gates. In modular, voltage is used for pitch, animation, modulation, and many other things. So a lot of what was happening you wouldn’t hear, as such, it would be doing things along with us. We describe it as “the city is our fifth band member.” 

Did you already have an idea in mind regarding how the city sounds would fit into the piece, or did you just record a lot of sounds to improvise with?

We came into it with completely open minds, once we realized the tech part would work…probably. The only rules were try to make it musical, not get so hung up on an idea we couldn’t abandon it, and also be OK with not exploring some ideas. We had to commit fast, when something was jelling, because we had two weeks to fly in, record the sounds, assemble, write, and then play it to 1000 people, including the President of the country, on national television. No pressure, right?

We didn’t use MIDI, and the laptop really only functioned as a playback device – a “tape machine” – along with things like the Make Noise Morphagene, and Music Thing Radio Music. It sounds like a contradiction in terms, but we expected happy accidents and gave ourselves over to that. The flagpole cables were assembled into a shuffled jazz rhythm, we multed audio off of that, into an envelope follower, extracted a gate from it, which advanced a 508-Loop-Detected Bounce Sequencer. It sounds like an upright bass, but it’s made with those things controlling a System 80 VCO and VCF, also getting pinged by the extracted gate. Other extracted voltages turned rattling cup sounds, fed into a low pass gate, into techno rhythms. Some of the “organ” sounds are light readings, from the park, quantized and fed into an XAOC oscillator. We experimented as a unit and then, when it was time to play it live, Jonas B and I handled most of the modular stuff, while Erki and Jonas K played guitar and keys.

You mentioned that you used Magneto a lot in the performance. Can you share how you used it?

Your tutorials are really good, which is how I learned about quantizing the delay. I’m an effects nut. I use them liberally in the modular duo I’m part of, TRIPLE X SNAXXX, and the psych rock band I’m in, Lacy Jags, including the El Capistan, and blueSky. I’ve contributed to books like Pedal Crush, and write about them for Tape Op, which is how I learned about Strymon. But never in a million years had I thought about quantizing delay, which is a game changer. During the performance Jonas K sometimes fed me audio, which I would manipulate in various ways, but I’d also lock some things, and use the Magneto to “play” the delay in a pentatonic minor scale or something. An example is Jonas B used Paul’s Stretch to turn a few seconds of audio from the Russian Orthodox Choir into three minutes. He’s a really creative force, and big thinker, and the result was haunting and amazing. I would subtly add in 5ths, minor 3rds, octaves, but also some self-oscillation. Same with the “bells” we made with some clattering harbor sounds. Erki and Jonas K had El Capistans, blueSkys, DECOs, in the mix, and both went straight to the desk via Iridiums. This wasn’t planned, we just all showed up with Strymon stuff because we love it. Next time around we want to work with the StarLab. I really hope you continue to do modular stuff because you are truly great at it. 

You mentioned that Erki is one of your favorite guitarists. For those here not familiar with him, can you tell us about him and where is the best place to hear more from Erki?

Well, you can’t fail. I saw him at TMW years ago. He’d been in an adored pop band for years, and when he decided to do some solo stuff, what came out was this sort of Baltic take on Spaghetti Western, which can sound like Dungen at times too. Those albums, Efterglow, and Himmelbjerget, were my first exposures, and I listened to them constantly. I should add that one of Erki’s best artistic decisions was getting Jonas K in the mix, because everything he does is perfect. Saju Lugu and Leva aren’t as much “guitar albums” but I adore them. I love living in today’s world and one of the reasons is I can get exposed to music from other parts of the world, and then share it with friends, all within minutes. The U.S. and U.K. music bottleneck has been cracked open and we’re better for it.  

Can you please share what you have coming up next?

The response to Themes was better than we could have hoped for. We’ve been approached about taking it to other cities, which was an original intention, but with the pandemic we’re not sure what that will look like just now. When we do, it will be a similar thing: involve local artists, harvest sounds, write the accompanying melodies, all against a ticking clock, and then perform it. 

The TMW sound crew recorded the premier performance like the pros they are, and our friends Kaarel Tamra, and Adam McDaniel [Angel Olsen, Animal Collective], have tweaked those up and mixed them so we can release it. There’s talk of pressing it to vinyl. For now it’s on YouTube:

Check out more about Themes at TMW

Learn more about Alyona Movko

Learn more about Mew

Learn more about Erki Pärnoja

Learn more about TRIPLE X SNAXXX

Learn more about jonas.f.k.

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