Tallinn: Interview with Mihkel Zilmer

Our newest collection, Tallinn, is something you’ve never heard in an orchestral software package. This faithful reproduction of the renowned Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, among other elements, offers a space and a character that are unique and unrivalled.

“It’s got the longest reverb tail ever!” says Estonian film composer Mihkel Zilmer. “It was recorded at Niguliste Church, which has a really wonderful acoustic.”

The collection is deeply rooted in Estonian music culture. Niguliste Church itself has regularly played host to the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir since its inception, and houses the two organs that were meticulously sampled as part of Tallinn. The string section of the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra was also captured for the collection, helping to give it its unique sound.

“Then the violins and choir perform with rather minimal vibrato, which makes it less romantic sounding—more subtle, almost motionless or still. It’s a very, very pure sort of sound.”

Hearing this distinct character in the collection made me wonder about the musical culture in Estonia – what’s different there, what’s special?

Mihkel Zilmer: Perhaps the most interesting thing that’s shaped Estonian language and culture throughout the centuries is an incredible tradition of singing. It was a very practical thing at first, because people used to pass on very basic information and life lessons in the form of songs. So there are folk songs which contain anything from recipes, to advice on how to lead a successful life, or how to find love—all kinds of things. They were usually passed on by women, who would sing these songs to their children, and the more famous of those singers were called song mothers. There’s one song mother in particular who apparently knew something like 20,000 verses of folk songs,

"“Almost every Estonian sings in a choir!”"

More recently of course, for the past 150 years, there’ve been these things called Song Festivals, which are essentially massive gatherings of choirs—almost every Estonian sings in a choir! To get to the festival they go through several rounds of auditions and the best of the best form a choir which is about 30,000 strong, which will then perform to an audience of like 100,000 people. The biggest Song Festival ever drew almost a quarter of the entire population at one point at one time, so you can see Estonian people are quite passionate about singing.

As an Estonian composer, how does it actually affect you while you’re working, to be rooted in this kind of tradition?

I don’t consider myself to be particularly Estonian in my writing, although I think I was six or seven years old when I started singing in a choir, so of course I followed that singing tradition that I described. I sang a lot of classical stuff, but the biggest part of that repertoire is folk music. So I’m certain that style has imprinted itself in my brain and definitely finds a place in my music.

I often find myself being drawn to specific folk instruments too. I’m mainly an orchestral composer, but I like to add other colors as much as possible. For example, using a fiddle or one of the Estonian folk instruments, like Hiiu kannel (Tagelharpa or Talharpa), which is a very primitive instrument with just three or four strings that you bow.

Do you ever feel obligated to those influences at all, or do you try to draw more from other places?

Being a film composer first and foremost, I have to say that influences don’t matter a hell of a lot, you kind of just have to do what the client wants. Of course, you have to have your own voice and sometimes a director will select you for that voice, but ultimately I think my main job is to pay attention to the brief, to really get a good sense of what kind of vision the director has for the music, and then to bring that to life.

All directors are different; some are very particular and musically very well educated, with strong ideas, who will literally come to you with a whole list of things that they would like to happen, and that makes me feel like they’ve done half of my job already!! Then there are others where it’s a guessing game most of the time—people who use the most wonderful and bizarre words to describe music, and you have to try and understand it and translate it into something that can be put on the page and in front of musicians to play.

Is there anything that you’ve learned over the years that makes understanding what the client wants any easier?

My main pieces of advice would be for people to try and forget what they’ve learned, and forget trying to emulate Hollywood composers and their typical sound. Unless you get specifically asked to do that of course! For people who are just starting out, it’s all about communication. I’ve spent endless hours on the phone or over video calls, and I find these discussions with the director, or the other filmmakers, are usually my main sources of inspiration.

If you watch an unscored film for the first time, you might think you know where you want to go with it, but one thing that composers can forget is that, yes, it may be your music—but it’s not your film. You’re there to fulfill somebody else’s vision. If you can bring a unique creative voice and make that vision more interesting, then you’re a good film composer.

Is that creatively restraining in any way?

Not at all. In fact, I find it stimulating to be involved in a collaborative production. I haven’t really had to write music just for myself, or without a specific brief, at all. The thing I really enjoy about film productions is that there’s a whole team working together, I don’t think that on my own I could ever reach that kind of creative complexity.

With so much digital innovation in recent years, has much changed in this collaborative process, or in your compositional workflow in general?

I think that samples have a very crucial place in the composer's workflow nowadays, because when you’re presenting your music to the director, it’s not really their job to try and imagine how good it will sound once it’s recorded with real musicians. You have to give them something that’s as close to the finished product as humanly possible. So in that way samples are fantastic, and they enable us to do our job a lot more efficiently, with fewer issues down the road.

Back in the day when you had to play something to a director using a poorly made synth demo, sometimes they would listen to it and think “yeah this is great”, and then once they actually get the material back from the recording session they end up not liking it at all. Thankfully the kind of mockups or demos that we’re able to do these days are very close to the finished product most of the time.

"“I usually record a reduced size orchestra and then add samples to it to make it sound bigger. With huge percussion instruments, it’s just not very economical to try and record those yourself”"

So, music software is providing composers with new ways of doing their jobs?

Absolutely. A lot of samples even end up in the final scores these days, especially in lower budget productions. Even in the big Hollywood movies though, you’ll often have a whole bunch of samples mixed in with live instruments, and the majority of my work is similar in a sense. I usually record a reduced size orchestra and then add samples to it to make it sound bigger. Or for example, with huge percussion instruments, it’s just not very economical to try and record those yourself. Especially if you’ve got access to samples which are some of the best players in the world playing in some of the best studios in the world, recorded by some of the best engineers in the world!

Of course, all sample collections are different—can you think of anything that people who might want to use Tallinn in their projects should know about the sounds?

You just have to get used to the enormously long reverb, and how that won’t work with certain things, but on the other hand it means that slower moving and more ambient material is going to sound absolutely fantastic because you’ve got a huge evolving soundscape around you. I write in 5.1 [surround sound], so I’ve got the surround microphones routed to the back channels, and the scope of the sound is just phenomenal.

Are you using the Tallinn library in your own work?

I’m fortunate to have been able to record Tallinn Chamber Orchestra for some of my film scores in the past, and I hope to find opportunities to record with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir in the future. For now, having samples of the same musicians whose sound I already know and love is a great improvement for my personal workflow. Hopefully many other composers will now discover and grow fond of their sound, too!

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