Estonian born bassoonist Martin Kuuskmann is considered one of the true virtuosos of his instrument, plying both its traditional cannon and the avant-garde trends he his helping to forge. His recent visit to Tallinn electrified the Estonian Concert Hall. His playing has been lauded on stages around the world and in 2007 he received a Grammy nomination for his recording of David Chesky’s bassoon concerto. Tallinn Arts caught up with Martin for a conversation on how his musical career took off in Estonia and where it’s headed.
TA: So, why the bassoon? What drew you to the instrument?
MK: What drew me? Nothing, quite frankly, the bassoon had never even crossed my mind -- I was coaxed, kind of tricked into playing it. As for most young musicians bassoon is this instrument they have heard of, but rarely does it get considered as an actual option, unless someone suggests or "sells" it very well. In my case it was the solo tuba player of the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, a professor of tuba at the Estonian Academy of Music (back in 1986, Tallinn Conservatory of Music), Riho Mägi -- a legendary figure in Estonian brass. I was a pretty good clarinet player, or I appeared so, and was auditioning for the Tallinn Music High School as fresh graduate of the Nõmme Music School's clarinet studio of Villu Musting. Just before the audition Riho Mägi approached me and my mother (our mutual families had had a longstanding friendship) and pretty much tore apart everything I had worked for the last couple of years, by suggesting for me to study the bassoon, saying that I was tall enough, a talented clarinetist, and that Estonia needed bassoonists! He pointed at this short, very shy looking man literally dweedling his thumbs in the corridor, just a few steps away, and told me it was Ilmar Aasmets, a former solo bassoonist of ERSO and a teacher at the music high school. I remember thinking he seemed so lonely, and that I couldn't hurt this nice, shy man's feelings by not studying the bassoon. Of course, the fact that "Estonia needed bassoonists" wasn't a bad sell either. After the school had started up again in the fall I played both the clarinet and the bassoon as a double major for 3 months, which after bassoon had clearly won me over. The rest is history.
TA: To what extent did your musical education in Estonia shape the musician you became? What was musical education like in Soviet Estonia?
MK: Well, to the extent that after graduating from the Tallinn Music High School I was able to pass out of all of the required music theory and solfege (solfege is a method of teaching musical pitch-TA) courses at San Jose State University (California) all the way to Manhattan and Yale Schools of Music. Also, I was able to sing from age 9 to 19 (with a voice change break in between, of course) at the Philharmonic Boy's Choir under Venno Laul. I traveled quite extensively with them all through the Soviet Union, sang a season in the Estonian Opera Company’s production of "Carmen" in the children’s chorus and travelled to the US and Canada where I ultimately met my beautiful wife. So, it was exciting and very rewarding. Ultimately, there are very few countries that have such music schools. I was in a regular secondary school and attended the Nõmme Music School several times a week in the afternoon. On top of all that there was choir twice a week and either track training or tennis. The graduates of the Nõmme Music School often go on to the Music High School and onto a professional career. Some of Nõmme's graduates are (conductor) Anu and (music director) Kadri Tali, composer Tõnu Kõrvits and pianist Siim Poll (my mother's student), to name just a few. It's impossible to compare music studies from age 7 at the Nõmme Music School followed by the Music High School, to four or seven years at the university anywhere else in the world. Most countries simply lack this kind of government supported educational system. I admit I was merely an average student in music theory -- I got by with what I needed to do. But, I pretty much coasted through theory and harmony in all of the schools all the way to the Manhattan School of Music. That is not to say that what they teach there is by any means inferior -- one simply can't compare something that has been taught since age 7 to something that is in a way crammed into one from age 18 onwards--all this theory and harmony, and solfege My studies in Estonia were slowly but surely being aged in my brain like good wine. So in America, apart from studying a lot of English I was able to spend much more time practicing the bassoon...and playing basketball, swimming in the outdoor pool and just hanging out and getting to know the American ways. Back then I was in San Jose, California -- not a bad place to start the American experience for a young fellow from Estonia.
TA: For a small nation Estonia produces a great number of fine musicians, but alas many choose to live abroad. What do you feel the future holds for "high art" music in Estonia?
MK: Frankly, I get asked this question quite often. Indeed, it is quite remarkable that for a small nation like Estonia we do have a lot of very fine musicians, if not very famous musicians. I don't think it's much different in other countries, whether big or small -- musicians often travel away from their native country to live somewhere else. It is very evident Estonian orchestral musicians are grossly underpaid. They do get by, but it is not like the life of their well paid and supported colleagues across the bay in Finland or in Germany for example. We still have a ways to go in Estonia. However, most of the talent still stays in Estonia and we are not as "doomed" as it seems. "High art" music in Estonia or anywhere else in the world -- it will stay, and I'm sure of it. Nothing can replace the experience of going to hear a live concert -- whether it is classical or rock. It's a deeply personal experience. And those talents that have chosen to live outside of Estonia’s borders -- we'll always be Estonian musicians and will always proudly rally for our little country. I think we can do a lot of good for our country's music while not being physically in Estonia.
TA: What is jazz bassoon music like? Does the instrument lend itself to improvising a la the saxophone?
MK: Jazz bassoon -- not so common for sure, but it can sound great. Take a listen to Paul Hanson for example, he's fantastic! It is no saxophone, but the bassoon has its own special character that can definitely stand on its own in jazz. It'll always remain one of the non-mainstream jazz instruments, though, in my belief.
TA: What do you feel your musical emphasis will be going forward--jazz, electronica, classical?
MK: Without any doubt I'll always remain a classical artist, with emphasis on the classical or contemporary classical music. But, with contemporary classical in mind who tells me I can't mix in jazz and electronica or work with composers that are influenced by jazz, rock, electronica, you name it. I play music that I like, and I'm lucky to be working with some of the greatest composers whose music I admire. I often improvise live on stage, even in classical concertos such as the cadenzas of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto, at least in part. Some audiences and conductors are a bit keener to new things, and with them I can experiment more -- some are more traditional, and I keep it "in the classical style." That's the great thing about music -- it's very flexible. Erkki-Sven Tüür (the Estonian Composer) has been influenced by progressive rock, so his bassoon concerto is for amplified bassoon and full orchestra. It's an incredible, yet such a simple effect--and this concerto really rocks. Also, I have worked with new concertos from composers like Miguel Kertsman, a former member of the Hermeto Pascoal Quartet and a collaborator with Peter Gabriel among many other rock artists; Gene Pritsker, a New York based rapper and classically trained composer. He has worked closely with the likes of Joe Zawinul and is the resident composer of Absolute Ensemble. Last but not least, Daniel Schnyder, whose works I have played a lot -- his concerto will actually have improvised sections on changes for the bassoon. With all that being said it doesn't mean I won't be doing shows of bossa novas and other Brazilian or Latin-American influenced musical forms -- I did couple like that last year, I mean full two hour concerts with strings, jazz trio, guitar, percussion. It was what I expected it to be -- a huge rush for me, and a great show, all fully amplified. I just love playing the music I like to listen to. Not every work, tune or ballad can be actualized close to its original form, but there are ways to bring them to life by using some other means like arrangers, etc. If there is a will there is a way. I'm a musician -- I love to play music, all music. It doesn't matter what style or what influence. I just have to be able to relate to it.
TA: Lastly, what do you miss most about Estonia? What don't you miss (please don't say the weather!)
MK: I miss my family and friends, of course. Thankfully there is Skype! I miss a good sauna with a good Estonian beer. Every time I visit there seems to be few more choices of some fine Estonian brew. Last time I visited I was on antibiotics -- such a pity. I miss cross country skiing any time I wanted to do it!! America is still in the stone age with that great sport for the most part. What I don't miss...as lovely and beautiful as Estonia is, it is still a very small county where everyone knows everyone, pretty much. The latter has its charms but its curses I can live without.