The Loft presents Maarja Nuut: A Contemporary Classic

Maarja Nuut is an Estonian artist who blends traditional styles with modern embellishments. (Photo courtesy of Art Power @ UCSD)

As I entered the Loft, the sounds of light clapping and prominent clacks of dress shoes signified I was out of my usual group of peers. The lights were dimmed. Everyone was quiet and chatting with their neighbors. At this moment, I looked up from my itinerary to see her: Maarja Nuut. The face of a stone cold, fiddling goddess panned over the audience and stepped to the microphone. Slowly she began to exhale into the mic repeatedly in time through her nose.

At this point I thought to myself, “Where the hell is the fiddle?”

Maarja Nuut hails from the Estonia, a country that many Americans probably fail to recognize. However, that doesn’t stop her from trying to perfect her craft and share it with the unsuspecting world. Her styles contain frameworks of traditional Estonian folk songs, but are decorated with modern looping and electronic embellishments to make her music more accessible to a wider audience. Each song performed is structured around a story that Maarja refused to reveal the origin of when asked. She stated that some are inspired by folk tales, some by personal anecdotes, and others by sources who shall remain a mystery.

I am not well versed in Estonian so I cannot tell you what her song lyrics meant, nor am I an expert on the sounds and styles of classical/traditional folk music, but Maarja was kind enough to give a background on each song before or after she sang them.

One of the first songs she played was “Siidisulis Linnukene”. Before playing, Maarja explained that this song was about a silk feathered bird who was the youngest of three birds. The silken bird was the best, the middle bird was “just okay like all middle children”, and the oldest was the worst. The story goes that the silken feathered bird was trying to find a home to build a nest. He couldn’t find a tree to stay in and was rejected by every tree until he found a silk leaf tree, with which he was were able to create the rest of the world. The tone of this song is light, and most probably takes influence from traditional Estonian tunes. Maarja plays the fiddle ever so somberly while layering her voice to create a chorus consisting only of herself.

Another notable piece Maarja performed was “Sammud.” The melody wasn’t what caught my attention, but rather the instrument she used to play it: an archaic-looking violin. It was the product of a spat she had with her lover some time ago, as he was a fan of woodworking. He made the violin for her as a gift of apology. The song itself was quite beautiful because Maarja utilized every aspect of her body and dress to convey the message. It is a waltz that starts with Maarja bowing the fiddle and looping various phrases together. What made the performance interesting was a platform that Maarja stepped onto and began dancing on. It took me a moment, but I soon realized that she wasn’t just dancing on the platform; she was using her looping machine to create a beat that matched the song she was strumming on her fiddle.

Maarja enthralled the audience with “Hobusemäng”, which is “The Horse Game” when translated to English. This was the song of the night. Inspired by an Estonian ritual of old, “Hobusemäng” tells of finding a horse in the woods and then snapping its neck to fulfill an unknown pagan purpose. The song was fast, entrancing, and awe-inspiring. Maarja fiercely bellows the lyrics of the tune into the microphone, layering them on top of one another on various counts to recreate the horse’s emotions.

Finally, “Endel’s Waltz” sent us home. Just like “Sammud,” the song itself was not what was noteworthy, but its historic origins were: Maarja had been in the annals of the Stockholm Music Library listening to traditional music of a particular Swedish subculture, whose population had diminished due to political aggressions in the area. She was enthralled with the piece and decided to learn it there on the spot. Coincidentally, three old men walked in and one of them listened to her play the piece, only to tell her after that his father was part of the Swedish tribe and helped to make the song. The song itself was very short, lasting maybe one minute, but it was charming to both Maarja and the audience.

Maarja Nuut is not what the average student would find themselves listening to. Firstly, because Estonian isn’t a common language and secondly because we don’t actively seek out contemporary Estonian traditional/conceptual fusion music. The musical stylings of Maarja make the listener feel out of place and estranged at a glance, but a deeper listening of her music and understanding of the background to each song brings excitement and bewilderment.

More of Maarja Nuut’s work can be found here.
Saunil Dobariya is a contributing writer for Arts and Entertainment for The Triton.