These Memories May Be True

I.  Old Folk Song
II. The Legend of the Last Ship (and Other Collective Memories)
III. Estonian Grandmother Superhero
IV. Variations on a Somewhat Old Folk Song

string quartet

duration: 18 Minutes

These Memories May Be True was commissioned by the Del Sol String Quartet in honor of their 20th anniversary and premiered  at Z Space in San Francisco, CA on December 6, 2012 as part of the Del Sol Days celebration.

Studio recording by the Aizuri Quartet:

Movement 1: Old Folk Song – Animation by Lembit Beecher and recording by the Aizuri Quartet:

Movement 3: Estonian Grandmother Superhero – Animation by Lembit Beecher and recording by the Aizuri Quartet:

Program Notes:

My grandmother, Taimi Lepasaar, died right as I was beginning work on this piece. She had had an amazing life: Taimi grew up in Estonia before World War II, survived both the Soviet and Nazi occupations of her country, escaped as the Red Army invaded Estonia for a second time, and immigrated to the United States, raising two daughters by herself (her husband was lost in the final chaos of the war) while working as a public school music teacher and church organist. Taimi was also a beautiful storyteller and I have written a number of pieces drawing inspiration from her life and her storytelling.

I felt like I had said what I wanted to say musically about my grandmother and I was reluctant to write another piece about her. But the more I worked on this string quartet, the more she entered my mind, and the more I thought about the way her life had defined my sense of identity. Though I grew up in California, I felt as much Estonian as Californian. But because travel to Soviet-controlled Estonia was so limited, my sense of the country was based on a relatively small amount of information, most powerfully the stories my mother and grandmother told me.

As I worked on this piece, I thought about the way stories and memories define us, whether or not they are complete or even true and I thought about the way in which my own musical style had been influenced deeply by Estonian folk music, even though my understanding of this music felt superficial. I also thought about nostalgia and the sense of exile that my grandmother must have felt after she left Estonia. This piece is a little like the image of Estonia that I had while growing up: a few songs, some pictures and a lot of stories, all filtered through many layers of retelling, and all touched by a sense of nostalgia, a sense of something beautiful that has been lost in the wash of time.

I. Old Folk Song
This movement has its origins in an entrancing Estonian song I heard on an old field recording. It is music that can’t possibly be notated in the confines of Western notation and it is music that I don’t totally understand, but there must be some meaning in it for me since I keep returning to these recordings. Like most Estonian folk songs, this movement consists of repetitions of a short melody, though near the middle of the movement the melody gets a little lost.

II. The Legend of the Last Ship (and Other Collective Memories).
A centerpiece of my grandmother’s stories was her dramatic account of escaping on the last ship out of Estonia before the Soviets closed the borders in 1944. It is a story that made a strong impact on me as I was growing up, but in recent years it has seemed like every older Estonian that I talk to also escaped on the last ship (sometimes a different last ship than my grandmother)! Though this bothered me for a little while, I soon realized that the important part of these stories, the emotion, was true regardless of the nitty gritty of naval departure times. The movement, built on a call-and-response technique, is a reflection of the storytelling I hear in older groups of Estonian-Americans: a mix of passion, restraint, agreement, and one-upmanship that occurs both in the emotional discussions of war-torn pasts as well as more mundane conversations about the current aches and pains of old age.

III. Estonian Grandmother Superhero
My grandmother often took great pride in discussing the hardships she had overcome in life. And though she faced more struggles than I can possibly imagine, I couldn’t help feeling sometimes that her stories were a little exaggerated. But I loved the image of her that I got from these stories: she conquered Soviet officials, American army bases, and the Providence public schools like a comic book character, an Estonian Grandmother Superhero. Of course, even superheroes are not immune to contemplation and melancholy.

IV. Variations on a Somewhat Old Folk Song
The final movement is a set of variations (impressions maybe a more accurate term) on a 19th century Estonian folksong, “Meil aiaäärne tänavas,” a popular and much loved song in which the singer longs for the simple peace of childhood. The song gradually becomes more distinct through the movement, and then it disappears. Of all the movements, this one contains the deepest sense of nostalgia and through it I feel a connection to the country farms and summer nights of my grandmother’s childhood.