Ēriks Ešenvalds. Image: Knox College, Illinois

9 November 2017

The Latvian composer talks about his craft, his native choral heritage - and what music he hums while raking the leaves.

Described by Gramophone as "tonal, at times harking to the Anglican tradition...at others to a more ethereal form of post-minimalism", the music of Ēriks Ešenvalds is increasingly popular with choirs around the world. NYCGB approached the Latvian composer to create a new piece in 2016, and 'Salutation' was the result. Following its premiere performance earlier this year, we spoke to Ešenvalds to find out more about the piece, how he composes, and more.

What did you think when you received the commission?

Having heard the National Youth Choir of Great Britain before, I was happy when I was asked to write a new song for them. And when I discovered that maestro Stephen Layton was to conduct the first performance, that further inspired me to use a rich range of dynamics and harmony, and other parameters too.

Does music come quickly to you?

The first thing I do is brainstorm – though it can take up to one month long – to find the theme and lyrics. Then I start to compose at my piano, using manuscript paper and pencil. When the sketches are done – which will be approximately two thirds of the whole piece – I click the music into the scoring programme on my computer, which is next to the piano, and keep polishing the composition as I do so... so the answer is no, music doesn't come quickly to me!

What is your favourite music to sing?

When I was raking the fallen leaves outside earlier today, I hummed and whistled some Latvian pop songs. Every night I sing a Latvian lullaby to my youngest son. When I clean my house, I hum something else. At my church I love to sing praise and worship songs which have their beauty in melody, harmony and lyrics. There are other songs, cheaper ones, which don't move my heart. I never hum my own songs though, ha ha! Probably because many of them are complex songs where every single line depends on all the others.

How strong is the choral tradition in Latvia?

There is an American conductor who lives and works in Latvia, Christopher Walsh Sinka, who has said it really well: "To be Latvian is to have grown up in a rich heritage of folk music and oral legends, passed down through centuries as a means of preserving a fascinating culture in the midst of oppressive foreign occupation." Our first Song Festival was in 1873 – can you imagine?! – although Latvia would not emerge as an independent country until 1918. Latvians have always sung at all occasions and events – whether joyful or mournful. Our folk song heritage is incredibly rich – there is a huge quantity of songs for a start, and their themes are hugely varied too.

You watched the premiere of 'Salutation' via Facebook - what was that like?

I enjoyed it very much, and watching every single singer I could tell that the performance had true intellectual and emotional background. That was very moving!