Station Narva Festival, Estonia
5th-7th August 2021
The fourth edition of Station Narva proved that international festivals can run in the good old onsite format despite the pandemic.
As the Russian proverb says, the eyes are scared, but the hands are doing the job. Surely, the second part of this saying refers to the approach of Shiftworks, the company in charge of the two biggest international music events in Estonia. Following the successful experience of managing Tallinn Music Week and Station Narva amidst the pandemic in 2020, the team have been relentlessly working to make sure both festivals take place again this year. With health regulations introduced, e.g. compulsory rapid tests and the digital Covid-pass system, the organisers attempt to minimise risks for the festival’s guests. It works out well.
Located a few hundred meters away from the Russian border, Narva is the most eastern outpost of the EU bloc. The central square of the city, Peetri Plats, faces the checkpoint – the iron gate which remains locked these days as the movement between the two countries is restricted due to the pandemic. Regardless of the current circumstances, that image inevitably brings to mind associations with events of Soviet history from not long ago. “Economically this region has always depended on tourism and particularly Russian visitors,” says Ilya, a local journalist and photographer. “Station Narva helps the city to open up for the international community and to display the hidden gems of Narva”.
Ironically, the presence of Russia has never vanished. The majority of the population admits Russian as their mother tongue. The fishermen on the Estonian side observe their fellows on the opposite shore, while the two historical constructions – the fortress of Ivangorod and the Narva castle – are in constant silent dialogue.
Founded in the 13th century by the ruling Danes, the Narva castle remained a primary fortification for centuries. Now the building belongs to the Narva Museum and hosts various events. Thereby, the area surrounding the castle functions as a platform for public initiatives. Designed by a local artist Veera Gontšugova, the Street Library project offers visitors the opportunity to share books. “It feels important to emphasise that this book stand is not simply a library but an artwork,” adds Veera. Two years ago, the designer crafted a light installation for the festival’s informal programme at Kreenholm, the magnificent building of the former textile manufacture of Narva.
Being a centre of gravity for locals, the castle was chosen as the key venue of Station Narva. The unique geographical location and historical role of the city are reflected in the music programme of the festival. In keeping with the Narva riverside, providing a view on the Russian shore, the line-up brings together foreign acts and artists celebrating the cultural heritage, identity and unrestrained spirit of the region. Avoiding the limitations of time and space, the festival team sums up the music landscape of the country with a patchwork of references.
The first act in the programme is emblematic of such openness. One of the pioneers of electronic music in the Baltic states, Sven Grünberg, performed material from his pivotal record Hingus (“Breath”). Along with Estonia, celebrating the jubilee of independence later in August, the album marks its 40th anniversary this year. Trained as a classical musician, Grünberg has created multipart pieces with a structure alluding to a symphony. His connection to Buddhism (Grünberg holds the role of the Chairman of the Board of the Estonian Institute of Buddhism) prompted the musician to explore harmonies hinting at traditional Tibetan music. Ethereal and multilayered, the compositions are the results of Grünberg’s prolific experiments with EMS Synthi 100, a tremendous hybrid of analogue and digital synthesisers, created by the founder of Electronic Music Studious Peter Zinoviev.
Bringing such an enormous machine as EMS Synthi 100 to Narva would be a complicated task. To achieve the immersive effect, Grünberg joined forces with the members of the Ensemble of the Estonian Electronic Music Society. A startling amount of cables and equipment on the stage brings to mind a display in a contemporary art museum, e.g. Kiasma in Helsinki. Once the set begins, the music takes over the space. It evokes images, breathes and undulates. Grünberg’s experience as a film composer cannot be underestimated. One of the pieces performed during the set is a track from Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel, a Soviet noir film about aliens unsuccessfully trying to befriend residents of the Earth. Although lacking visuals, the set equally evokes industrial landscapes of Narva, extraterrestrial forms of life and the vastness of Estonian nature.
Similarly to Grünberg, a neoclassical composer Kristjan Randalu seemingly marries Western impressionism and Estonian folk. Yet, having a background in jazz and being acknowledged as a “dazzling” player by Herbie Hancock, Randalu the pianist is apparently fluent in the language of improvisation. He easily switches from carefully structured parts to fragments with prevailing sonic spontaneity. For those familiar with Reinhold Glière and Mikhail Tariverdiev, this music particularly rings a bell. Yet, Randalu’s approach to the instrument is more adventurous. Plucking the strings of the grand piano, Randalu extracts ringing sounds that remind one of a kannel, an Estonian version of a zither.
Although playing on a different field, the Tallinn-based trio Modulstein also endow a mathematically precise electronic texture with jazzy vibes and folk motifs. Combining samples with live instrumentation, e.g. clarinet and guitar, the band crafts compositions with a twist of uplifting melancholy akin to Gogo Penguin and smooth dancefloor vibes of Bonobo. The local music ingredients are inherent – the band finish their set with an Estonian folk song about an oak tree.
With the status of an international event, Station Narva undoubtedly eliminates boundaries and broadens horizons by showcasing the local talent. The music scene of Narva has got a few collectives who gained an impressive following among the residents. One of the favourites is УЕ, a five-piece young collective whose name stands for “унылое ебало”, meaning “dull fucking mouth”. Their songs are catchy and thought-provoking. Sung in Russian, the lyrics are interspersed with blots of obscene phrases. Fortunately, the language is not an impediment. Last year УЕ won the Noortebänd national contest, and also attracted the attention of IONOFF MUSIC records, the St. Petersburg-based label run by Alexander Ionoff, who signed the band and released their debut album.
Few artists arrive from the other side of the border, but some of those who do are particularly impressive. Discours Synthétique play a set that turns out to be one of the festival’s highlights. With his stage name alluding to linguistics and synth-wave, Victor Kudryashov creates music that can hardly be put in any box. Working as a media artist, the St. Petersburg native seems to have learned a thing or two about channeling creative ideas through visual means, even if those are restricted to look and stance. Accompanied by unmercifully intense strobe lights, the set by DS delivers captivating energy. While the artist mentions French synth wave and noir film scores as the main reference, the thumping beat evokes a playful electronic score by Mark Mothersbaugh for Wes Anderson’s Life Aquatic. Combined, these ingredients create the formula of the urban space with its overwhelming nature.
Prepared to deal with potential changes, The Station Narva team held their nerve and found solutions quickly. When two headliners Vök and GusGus cancelled their shows a day before the festival due to Covid-related reasons, necessary replacements were made within hours. Announced, at last, the British acts Nathan Fake and A Guy Called Gerald provide the balm for the souls of dance music fans. The final show on the main stage of the festival performed by 1997 Mercury Prize winner Roni Size dots the i’s and crosses the t’s. An inescapable blast of sound.
Alongside the music programme, there are various events such as tours, a business conference, art installations and the opening of the street library. Certainly, Station Narva is more than strictly a music event. It offers the first-hand experience of local life and culture. What other occasion would allow one to see a datcha, a Soviet analogue of a cottage house, and be warmly treated by its owner? In fact, a special datcha tour was organised for the festival visitors. Although such things might not fully eliminate cultural prejudices and misunderstandings, they help to build bridges. Building bridges over troubled water, whether metaphorically or literally, is the main mission of such events as Station Narva.
All words by Irina Shtreis. More writing by Irina can be found in her author’s archive.