He started his musical activity in the second half of the seventies as a leader of a progressive rock band, influenced by the music of King Crimson, Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Genesis, as well as Mike Oldfield and Frank Zappa. In the second half of the eighties he entered Estonian musical life as a professional composer.
As a composer, Tüür wishes for his music to raise existential questions.
“What is our mission? It is the main question asked by thinkers and philosophers from different cultures. One of my goals is to reach the creative energy of the listener. Music as an abstract form of art is able to create different visions for each of us, for each and every individual being, as we are all unique.”
Tüür uses in his work a broad spectrum of compositional techniques. He has been interested in Gregorian chant and minimalism, linear polyphony and microtonality, twelve-tone music and sound-field technique. To describe his attempt to contrast and combine musical opposites – tonality versus atonality, regular repetitive rhythms versus irregular complex rhythms, tranquil meditativeness versus explosive theatricality – the composer has used the term “meta-language”. The works Zeitraum (1992), Architectonics VI (1992), Crystallisatio (1995) and Symphony No. 3 (1997) are the most representative examples of this method.
Tüür: “My work as a composer is entirely concerned with the relationship between emotional and intellectual energy and the ways in which they can be channelled, accumulated, dissipated and re-accumulated. My pieces are abstract dramas in sound, with characters and an extremely dynamic chain of events; they unfold in a space that is constantly shifting, expanding and contracting.”
The transitional works from the earlier poly-stylistic meta-language style to the new compositional technique are Symphony No. 4 (Magma) and Ardor. Since Oxymoron Tüür has used the term “vectorial method” to describe his music:
“The most important difference from the earlier approach is the fact that on a grass roots level, the entire composition is encapsulated in a source code – a gene, which, as it mutates and grows, connects the dots in the fabric of the whole work. Why vectorial? An important role in voice leading is played by the position on the “blueprint” of the various directions and “curves”. I perceive them as vectors, which are defined by intervals (which are in turn indicated by a sequence of numbers). In any case, what one hears (especially in the harmonies) is very different from the “meta-linguistic” work of the previous decade. The system is fairly flexible; still, the central organizing principle is important. The first pure example is Oxymoron. Everything since (Aqua, Meditatio, Symphony No. 5, Noesis, Piano Concerto, Strata(Symphony No. 6), Prophecy, Pietas (Symphony No. 7), Symphony No. 8) has been written using a vectorial approach.”
His breakthrough work was 1989’s Insula deserta, which, after its Finnish premiere by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra conducted by Juha Kangas, was followed by many commissions from Finland and other countries. A vivid example is the Architectonics series: the first two works were commissioned by Estonians (I by the Jaan Tamm Wind Quintet in 1984 and II by the Estonia Theatre Trio in 1986), Architectonics III. Postmetaminimal Dream (1990) by the Los Angeles based ensemble, California E.A.R.Unit, Architectonics IV. Per cadenza ad metasimplicity (1990) by the Canadian group Sound Pressure, Architectonics V (1991) by the New York City guitar virtuoso John Tamburello, Architectonics VI (1992) by the Helsinki Festival and Architectonics VII (1992) by the Festival Musica (Strasbourg, France).
From 1991 to 2011, Erkki-Sven Tüür was one of the artistic directors of the International New Music Festival NYYD, he also holds an honorary doctorate from the Estonian Academy of Music. He has received the annual Estonian Music Prize (1987, 1988), the Estonian Culture Prize (1997), the Great Bear Prize (1996, 1997), the Baltic Assembly Culture Prize (1998), the Order of the White Star – 2nd Class (2000), the Annual Prize of the Estonian Music Council (2003) and the Annual Prize of the Endowment for Music of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia thrice: in 2003 for the CD “Exodus”; in 2005 for the artistic direction of the NYYD international contemporary music festivals and in 2007 for an outstandingly creative year. In 2009, Erkki-Sven Tüür received the title of Citizen of the Year. In 2014, Tüür was awarded the Culture Prize of the Republic of Estonia for his Clarinet Concerto Peregrinus ecstaticus and the orchestral work De Profundis.
In 1995, Tüür’s Requiem (in memory of Peeter Lilje) was one of the recommended works at UNESCO’s Rostrum of Composers in Paris. In 2010, a film documentary about Erkki-Sven Tüür entitled 7 Etudes in Pictures (directed by Marianne Kõrver) was created in cooperation with Exitfilm and Estonian Television.