The New Yorker / HS :: The Composer’s Dream

The New Yorker, 19.4.2012

Helsingin Sanomat, 18.4.2012


XIV Moscow, Russia – Budapest, Hungary, 1990

Rita sits behind the kitchen table; Viktoria is making us blinis with sour cream and caviar from a can. Outside hums the Prospect Mira, a main road into central Moscow.

Zsuzsa shares a flat with me in Budapest. She speaks only Hungarian and my Hungarian is sufficient only for a very simple dialogue, but we talk about everything using our dictionaries and hands.

Viktoria is a classic Moscovite girl, modest, hardworking and very self-conscious. I have known her since her childhood; their summer place was next to ours on the west coast of Estonia. Rita has just arrived – ironically – from Vladivistok. Her clothing screams for attention.

In the evenings I sit alone with Zsuzsa in the kitchen. She is very beautiful, both inside and out. She has a boyfriend in a tiny town, but has accepted an offer from an elderly and rich Hungarian man who lives in Vienna to be a companion to him and his friends and also to do some housework, perhaps.

Rita has come to Moscow to find a husband. She ran away from Vladivostok and bought a ticket to Moscow at the airport leaving her parents and a boyfriend. She is staying at Viktoria’s. In the mornings she watches a special TV show for women who have come to Moscow to find a husband. In the hours-long program tips are given for hitting on a man, on the right make up, and which bars are the coolest at the moment. The TV credits roll to the images of tanks and Rita heads for the streets. The streets are full of women walking in ethereal dresses.

Zsuzsa weeps to me about missing her boyfriend and what she plans to do with her money later. She shows me photos of both men; she does not like the old Hungarian man in Vienna; then, covering her boyfriend’s photo, leaving only the eyes visible, she gasps, so that I understand what she wants to burst out: ”Szemét!” – ”His eyes!”

I try to talk sense to her, but she cannot understand it. Her head is full of her love, she almost trembles, like a new leaf, at how much good she can do for her love.

When I leave for Moscow Airport, Rita gives me a powerful hug and does not want to let me to leave. I sense a deep sorrow from within her body.

I have never spoken about either of these women to Sofi, but when I read Purge for the first time, I was amazed at how clearly I saw both these girls in Zara.

A couple of months later I receive a postcard from Zsuzsa. It was stamped in Graz. She asks me if I could rescue her, but her handwriting was very bad and it didn’t say where she was. 

XIII Jerusalem, Germany 2011

For ten years, Käbi and I talked about whether the right attitude towards the oppressed nations that committed crimes among themselves in support of the occupying force should be as cold-hearted and critical or compassionate. Compassion as understanding is the opposite of pity.


After the first act, surprisingly, I can’t start the second. I am polishing one of Aliide’s three main scenes. Its music tries to render some beauty, but its text expresses the whole tragedy of her nation.

            I am working in a manor house of a farm situated in a village named Jerusalem about eighty miles from Hamburg and Hannover. There’s a piano and no one is home except for the heavy images of the household’s forefathers and the Labrador who sleeps at the top of the stairs. She does not move at all during the day, just drifts from one spot in the sun to the next. The piano room is separated by curtains. I try to wizard out heavy chains of seconds and thirds, in between them the Labrador and my terrier growl at each other. Every now and then all this grows to Wagnerian proportions.

            The children have left; their rooms remain the same. When my ears become dull to harmonies, I walk from one room to another; high, dark doors, behind them alcoves scented with the furnishings. The rooms are filled with toy cars, fans, posters of stars: the whole history of West Germany, in a couple of dozen years since the downfall to wealth.

             In the evening the heat grows. I take a bike and cycle around the Lüneburg Heathland. Everything is blossoming, the wind turbines whisk the clouds, the earth has turned mourning purple.


The most central theme in ”Purge” is that to purge is to understand.

            When one has left the trauma behind, as happened in the countries of Warsaw pact, there are two options going forward: either to recognise the past and comprehend it, and through that overcome it; or leave it untouched – in which case time takes care of the purge by discontinuing future generations.

            I think the question of compassion and judgement is not a question of state or culture—it is a private question in an obligatory way towards reconciliation.

            The fractured cultures of the former Soviet countries have answered the question in many different ways – Germany and Poland in one way, Ukraine in another, the Baltic countries in a third way and Byelorussia has its own backward ways. But there’s a clear logic in this: both the Nazis and the Soviets were the most bestial in Byelorussia.


I have the whole second act still ahead of me.


XII Berlin, Germany, 2009

Since the publication of Sofi’s ‘Purge’, it has continued to surprise me how critics from many different countries have presumed that the ideas and dialogues in the novel only really concern people from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

            In today’s society we see challenges, which if left unchecked have the potential to create resentments in communities both at home and in the workplace. The choices of Aliide are the moral choices we all may have to make one day.

            In extreme circumstances would we choose any differently ourselves?

XI Tallinn, Estonia 1987

In 1980s Tallinn the KGB offered me felt pens for blowing the whistle on one of my teachers.

            She and I often met and talked about all kinds of things; she wanted to educate me to be a self-confident Estonian. When talking about how all-encompassingly the nations occupied by the Soviets helped their oppressors, she used the word  “self-contaminating”.


It was no different than Kertész’ Auschwitz or all those people in the lands of Warsaw pact: the same way that the prisoners in concentration camps bartered with bits of bread for a better place in their own hierarchy, the Soviet citizens ferreted each other and traded for almost anything, usually something ridiculously small – or for something illusive, like freedom from danger. The Kremlin didn’t have to do anything other than kill – all the rest: the paralysis and the sustaining of fear were summoned in the oppressed by their own labour.

We had felt tip pens at my school. It was an elite school but like most of the Soviet Union it was infected by a process likening to bestiality. Teachers, who understood the society and treated their pupils with love had become an anomaly – they now had their own needs; their children demanded pens, jeans, chewing gum, stickers, things they could trade for more humane treatment. Children without felt pens were treated by adults like dirt.

            With the onset of the Singing revolution, we saw Western countries in ecstasy via Finnish TV. Our school was infected first by a riptide of religion, then by suicides. Some students went more or less secretly into mental hospitals.


Years later I met a student from that school. She could not remember any physical or mental violence at all. She was as shocked as I was by her amnesia.

            Everything that had meant something was invisible. It was considered not worth understanding. Everything that was a facade was visible. After the news about of another suicide, most of us carried on as a means of defence. Only at a bus station near the school could one see a few pupils secretly crying.


I tended to think for years that one of the tasks of any state would be to create an environment of purging the past. Germany is an example of that; and Germany, for the time being, is inwardly doing relatively well.

             It was only later when I realised that it is not about states understanding themselves, it is about its citizens understanding themselves. No country can summon what its citizens cannot comprehend.

             But what choice could the individuals make about bread, a felt tip pen, whether their children can survive, or whether they can remain there?


And after the collapse – the stillness. Only the silent droning of busses on a nearby road. When all that had happened had been so big, and so all-encompassing – it had become unfathomable.

            But all the people continued living, like Aliide – the whistleblowers and the ones who drowned in the Gulag, left with their questions completely alone. 

X Iet, Ticino, Switzerland 2011

We are high above the earth – all around are massive snowy mountains.

            Iet is still. About twenty cottages, rarely occupied, all empty. Above our head fly eagles – and mornings and nights an animal rustles in the woods, carefully, staunchly. The neighbouring village is also deserted, wrapped around a leaning chapel – which is still standing thanks to prayers – and there’s a cowbell in the bell tower. The village is huddled together, it reminds me of a theatre set.

            To get to Iet one has to drive around a dead-ended valley – on the way up there is a dam with deep, calm, luring waters – and through a couple of villages full of blooming trees and an absence of people. Higher, at home, one realises – the whole valley is ours.

            Iet is perched opposite a wooded mountain, Muncrech, painting a panorama with another village, also lifeless – its houses loiter in the setting sun, the village has got eyes, lips and whiskers. Up to the left surge solitary summits, the three-thousanders of the San Bernardino; and down to the right, in the next, main valley, glitters the tiny town of Biasca, as from a grave. Its nightly lights are the only sign that people inhabit this planet.


It’s Easter. During the day I orchestrate act one outside, in the evening I set the computers and loudspeakers towards the mountains and listen at full volume to music: Richard Strauss, Bach, Ligeti. The ice patches opposite reflect the music, the snows has only started to melt. The plucks of the lute fall to the valley like waterdrops, the sun wheels slowly over the mountains, the brasses race through the cavities of Muncrech and return full speed. Higher hang the streams of waterfalls.


I am working the whole time, managing to go down to the valley only once, to look for something for the computer. The IT-specialist behind his hundreds of monitors speaks no English, only a very little bit of German.


At night there is no electricity – candle light, the smell of straw, the computer plays quietly in the corner. Easter food. Early mornings, before the sleep of people fades, the mountains wake like an orchestra, in one monumental endlessly held chord.

            I throw most of the written material away and return anew to the harmony queues.

IX Giggleswick, Yorkshire 2011


Most of the second act is created in an empty school straight out of Hogwarts. 

            It consists of theatres and rehearsal rooms, on the hilltop governs a big church. All abandoned for summer holidays. I am have a big concert piano here, its wide sound tries to force its way into the opera’s last hour. When the windows are open, sheep baa on the hills.


            The scenes have become like living organisms. They move contrarily, uttering their own will, they constantly change their plans. Every morning I plan the work of the day, and every evening I am somewhere else than where I am supposed to be. Writing the last scene of Aliide, each day I think this will be my final day. In the evening I discover that the finish line has been moved a couple of miles forward. One day turns to five, ten, twenty. I wish I were a marathon runner, who’s suffering is put to an end in a couple of hours.

            Members from the school staff visit. I am introduced to a group of parents who are seeing the school. Through a glass door I hear the words “composer,” “Berlin,” and “opera.”


I decide to leave the end unpolished, from the last orchestral bit I write down only its chord progressions. The rows appear to work themselves out, everything falls into place without me influencing it at all. I draw the final two lines.

            I am driven home. There my memories end.