Meet Maarja Nuut & Ruum, the Estonian folktronica duo blending old and new

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Maarja Nuut & Ruum present a dichotomy of sound that operates in an ethereal musical zone. It is a sound rooted in a cultural worldview of days past, present and future.

The Estonian folktronica duo has arrived in Australia to play three gigs in Melbourne, Sydney and at WOMADelaide, where they will perform two live shows and host a workshop.

“Sharing our music with new audiences is always exciting because the audience has this beautiful ability to influence the direction the performance goes based on their energy and how our music affects them individually,” Nuut says.

What began as a chance encounter and one-time collaboration two years ago quickly flourished into a more permanent partnership between the two Estonian artists.

Now holding a master’s degree from the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm, Rakvere local Maarja Nuut began her music career from a young age, attending an Estonian music high school and academy, forging roots in classical music and violin.

However, at the age of 21 classical was no longer Nuut’s cup of tea. She wanted to discover world music and learn more about how different cultures experiment with sound from a bygone era, a time immune to outside influence.

Nuut’s new passion sent her into a deep research-based discovery of folk music, including a push to cross borders, both physically and musically. During a seven month stint in India, Nuut studied Hindustani music under the tutelage of Dutch-born, Delhi-based cellist Saskia Rao de Haas.

“In India they explore one scale or one note for months until they truly understand the depth within that single chord,” Nuut says. “They explore different rhythms and scales with such depth and dedication, unlike anything I had seen in classical music.”

Back in Estonia, Nuut came across the archival recordings of pre-Soviet (1920’s-1940’s) Estonian village music — music filled with mercurial, intensely rhythmic passages and microtones.

“This was a musical language of our [Estonian] people that I had never heard before. Their lyrics were rooted in traditional folk-law and fairy tales; they were weird, kooky and crazy lyrics. And I could resonate with that,” she says with a laugh.

Nuut fell completely under the spell of this older, more idiosyncratic sound of rural Estonia, which had almost died out in the 1950s.

“The thing about music is that when you go on stage and express something, whether that comes from a political, personal or purely artistic place, that is often a subconscious view on something and [it] is always open for an individual listener’s own interpretation.”

“These were some of the last audio recordings of that music style, because when the Soviet Union took over there was a complete lifestyle and cultural shift.”

For centuries, Estonia was a landscape of conflict as competing powers fought over this prime location, a gateway between east and west. Only in 1918 did Estonia find its independence from both Balkan, German and Russian dominance, and it was over these three decades, from independence to Soviet invasion in the 1940’s, that the people of Estonia found a sense of country and self.

Nuut says that she was drawn to these archival recordings because of the raw, inimitable and meaningful emotions that lay hidden beneath metaphors within the lyrics.

Using violin, looper, vox and keyboard, Nuut harnesses the modal sound of the pre-Soviet, Estonian “village-style” lyrics, and layers them to create a contemporary composition that has roots in the songs of her people, from a time of liberation.

Unlike Nuut, Ruum (a stage name used by Hendrik Kaljujärv) has no academic musical training, instead teaching himself from the age of 15 how to work with a range of electronic mediums. Born in Tartu, Ruum is drawn to analogue instruments (including old Soviet synths), but he also utilises digital synths and often experiments with environmental and found recordings to formulate his own unique rhythms.

Ruum provides a complementary, often abstract, framework to Nuut’s compositions, forging a sound that encompasses the unique skills of two individuals with divergent backgrounds, but a shared musical aesthetic.

Nuut praises Ruum for the way he manipulates, and complements, her violin and atavistic melodies.

“Ruum was a sound engineer for Tallinn’s avant-garde theatre NO99,” she says, “and when I heard one of his compositions, I just thought it had lots of texture and feeling. He has a way of making something so simple mean so much.”

Maarja Nuut and Ruum’s debut album Muunduja (Shifter) was released in October last year, via Fat Cat Records, and was well received.

Muunduja enabled both musicians to explore new sonic landscapes, rhythms and musical techniques outside of their comfort zones, forcing two unlikely individuals to find common ground through experimentation.

Nuut explains the album’s nuances and deeper context are open to interpretation from the listener, who may experience the phenomena presented in the music differently to the next listener.

Ultimately, Maarja Nuut and Ruum’s sound is at once a reflection of time — socio-political, cultural and economic shifts of the past, present and future — while also forging a mythical style that belongs to no time at all.

“The thing about music is that when you go on stage and express something, whether that comes from a political, personal or purely artistic place, that is often a subconscious view on something and [it] is always open for an individual listener’s own interpretation,” says Nuut.

“While the lyrics are technically riddled with hidden metaphors within traditional Estonian folk-lore, a listener in Australia, for example, may interpret those metaphors and the sonic graphs explored, differently to someone of a different socio-economic status in Finland”.

Maarja Nuut and Ruum are appearing tonight at Howler in Melbourne, tomorrow at Sydney’s Venue 505 and at WOMAdelaide this weekend.

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