Showcasing the sights and sounds of Estonia’s eclectic electronic scene, we pay a visit to Tallinn Music Week 

“Culture is politics. Slow but effective. The world will start turning again. At first slowly, then faster. But it’s up to us to make it so that this silence, this slowing down, would give rise to as much good as possible. A greener planet. A more considerate society. A more supportive community. A free society for as many as possible on this Earth.”

Inside the lofty boiler house interior of the former Tallinn Power Plant – a historic early 20th century building now known as Kultuurikatel (“Culture Cauldron”) – Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid is delivering a stirring speech to mark the opening night of Tallinn Music Week, a festival dedicated to “tomorrow’s music, arts and ideas”. Her words are a welcome tonic for a pandemic-weary industry and particularly poignant for UK attendees, given the sheer unlikelihood of Boris Johnson getting up on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury to extol the virtues of rave culture any time soon.

That same evening, against a backdrop of bricks and boilers and exposed pipes, Elena Natale – co-founder of HALL, Tallinn’s biggest techno club – is presented with the Inspiration Award from the international music industry movement, Keychange, which champions gender equality in festival line-ups. Natale is being recognised for her contributions to Estonian music and club culture, and for unceasingly championing the night-time economy over the past 30 years. 

As visionary scenes go, this year’s Tallinn Music Week inauguration feels almost utopian in its ambition. This small northern European nation of just 1.3 million inhabitants, some 1,000 miles away from UK shores, has its sights firmly fixed on what could be.

There’s something special about Tallinn in the autumn. The Old Town – the best preserved medieval city in northern Europe – is dappled with golden foliage, the days filled with low sun and the evenings crisp and clear. Against its Gothic backdrop, the festival unfolds in a dynamic celebration of music and arts. Encapsulating that aspiration is the mesmerising premiere of ‘Themes For Great Cities: Tallinn’ – a performance with modular synthesisers and a variety of other electronic instruments by Estonians Jonas Kaarnamets and Erki Pärnoja, Danish post-rock group Mew’s Jonas Bjerre, and American musicologist Alex Maiolo, built around ambient and industrial sounds harvested from the city.

It’s a stunning collaboration that represents Tallinn’s international cultural reach, but there’s also a substantial focus on the many innovative and out-there artists from across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania who capture the bubbling energy of the Baltic music scene. Later that evening at the contemporary photography museum, Fotografiska, the Lithuanian electronic composer Monikaze’s set-up may be comparatively small, but it brims with vitality as she crafts a jubilant mood from avant-electropop with chunky basslines, chopped-up vocals and synthesiser sounds.

Meanwhile, the cavernous HALL club’s Berghain-style industrial decor and salacious after-hours vibe create the backdrop for a series of talks delving into the foundations of club culture. ‘Dirty Years Of Dancing’ brings together panellists from the Baltic states and Russia to share insights into the post-Soviet underground club scene and the impact of 30 years of freedom from communist rule. While there’s some debate over how long the party will last, right now it appears to be in rude health. Impassioned dialogue during ‘Night & Nurture’, a panel exploring the post-pandemic role of night-time economies and club culture, results in agreement that the way forward for the scene centres around support rather than stringent restrictions. 

The talking continues with the Italian electronic musician, composer and researcher Johann Merrich sharing the journey of writing her book, ‘A Short History Of Electronic Music And Its Women Protagonists’, with panellists including musician Charlotte Bendiks and producer Maarja Nuut. There’s also a screening of the recently released documentary ‘Sisters With Transistors’, which maps a new history of electronic music through visionary women.

Yet it’s certainly not all talk. While TMW’s diverse programme has a something-for-everyone scope, it offers particularly rich pickings for lovers of electronica. International big-hitters drawing healthy crowds include Minneapolis-based DVS1, who electrifies a packed HALL with a thunderous hour of Midwestern rave-inspired techno. Running Back label boss Gerd Janson similarly gets the party into full swing at D3, a railcar-depot-turned-club. Those who arrive early and can tear themselves away from the vintage velvet sofas and indoor smoking area are treated to a short but perfectly curated opening set of gently grooving tunes from Madis Nestor, founder of hot Estonian label Porridge Bullet and owner of the city’s hidden gem of a record shop, Biit Me. 

Tucked behind the train station, the eclectic Uus Laine (New Wave) is hosting an effervescent label showcase of local avant-garde electronics by Estonian imprint Heaven’s Trumpet. From Roland Karlson’s brief opening set of experimental, algorithmic glitch noise to Vera Vice’s woozy, hypnotic marriage of audiovisuals and electronic pop, and the retro splendour of the six-piece Estonian Electronic Music Society Ensemble, it’s a remarkable snapshot of local talent.

Both Uus Laine and D3 are in Tallinn’s Telliskivi Creative City district, a former factory area situated outside the medieval stone walls that encircle the Old Town, and home to Estonia’s creative economy, packed with music and art-focused venues, cafes and bars. Such is Telliskivi’s success that for a while it seemed to have become the new cultural epicentre of the city, leaving the Old Town to the tourist brigades and stag-do revellers, although new music haunts are now creeping back into the historic centre. 

One is Winkel. Its unassuming, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it facade gives way to a warren of cave-like spaces playing host to a showcase co-curated by Üle Heli & Skanu Mežs, the Baltic’s most exciting music and arts festivals. Among an undoubtedly cracking line-up are two compelling performances, beginning with the beautifully chintzy synthpop and quirky new-age stylings of Latvian musician Sign Libra. Her charming sonic aura fills the softly lit upstairs room to the brim with celestial sounds – a fittingly otherworldly show from a producer whose excellent 2020 ‘Sea To Sea’ album pays tribute to the moon’s oceans.

Following her, the Estonian avant-pop auteur Mart Avi takes to the stage, tall and lithe-limbed like a Thin White Duke of the Baltics, with sparkling yet sombre-edged songs that Bowie himself might have dreamed up had he spent his Berlin years in Tallinn. Only recently recovered from a bout of illness, Avi delivers a triumphant closing set, dazzling his way through cuts from his latest record, ‘Vega Never Sets’, and new disco-tinged pop surrealism, slow-dancing with the microphone stand and working the intimate space like a bedroom cabaret as a montage of old film and TV footage plays out on the screen behind him. It’s truly a mystery why this man isn’t a bigger star.

Back outside, the Russian sound collage trio Oligarkh are exploring the Old Town streets ahead of their late-night billing on the Folktronica Stage at Fotografiska. Quickly making clear their sound isn’t the twee fare that can make the genre hard to love, the St Petersburg threesome later make good on their promise with a crashing juxtaposition of electronica, sampled Orthodox chants and stuttering rhythms, accompanied by a head-spinning audiovisual show. Estonian folktronica favourites OOPUS, who describe themselves as “folk on acid”, also incorporate light installations and visuals into their act, alongside analogue synthesisers and Estonian bagpipes.

By now, it should be obvious that no stone is left unturned when it comes to the breadth of weird and wonderful electronic sounds Tallinn has to offer, and it’s the Russian contingent who dish up some of the most joyful and anything-goes parties of the week. 

At the Kauplus Aasia nightclub, Zavvi Diski carries a rowdy and excitable crowd well into the early hours for the Import x Kruzhok night. It’s hosted by Tyoma Dobrota and Masha Pavlikhina, the married DJ couple and founders of the St Petersburg club Kruzhok, which is currently playing a pivotal role in the city’s LGBT+ movement and the local music industry’s development. Fellow St Petersburg native Diski takes an uplifting run through a mishmash of Italo disco, hip hop and karaoke pop that has the wood-panelled dancefloor groaning and sees him fulfil his ambition to perform his most eccentric DJ set this year.

On Saturday night at the hip hangout Sveta Bar, right on the fringe of Telliskivi, Katya Kóv blasts out what is hands down the festival’s most joyous and feelgood set, powering through an effervescently fun mix of 1980s and 90s dance music cuts and edits. Kóv is a member of the Berlin-based queer Russian party band SADO OPERA and when she’s not bouncing around elatedly on stage, she makes a crammed-to-the-rafters room of people utterly giddy by resurrecting old selections like Rozalla’s 90s eurodance hit ‘Everybody’s Free’.

And, of course, there’s HALL. Towering imposingly in the city’s Kalamaja district, the once off-limits Soviet border zone located between the coast and the Old Town, it may be a geographic outlier to the rest of the festival, but it’s become a mecca for electronic music in the region since it first opened four years ago. It’s here the sounds continue flowing until the sun comes up, as the club’s myriad rooms and hangout spaces fill with knife-edged techno wielded by DJs from Georgia and Estonia.

This is how to do Tallinn Music Week – soak up every single moment of its vast sonic programme and be inspired by the thriving state of the city’s music landscape. It can feel like there’s little room for anything else, but it’s worth skipping a bit of sleep to take in the talks and workshops, excursions to the city’s outer neighbourhoods, an art gallery here, a record fair and self-guided food tour there. 

So if this all sounds appealing, the good news is that next year’s festival will be rolling around sooner rather than later, in the warmer, drier month of May – encouraging us to look forwards in the true spirit of Tallinn Music Week. 

Tallinn Music Week 2022 runs from 4-8 May. For more, see 

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