by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, December 2, 2002.
A few years ago, a man who faced a terminal diagnosis of cancer asked a friend to give him some compact disks so that he could have a little music to help him get through the night. Among the recordings that the friend sent was "Tabula Rasa," on the ECM label, which contained three works by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. A day or two later, the man called to thank his friend for the disks, and, especially, for the Pärt. In the last weeks of his life, he listened to practically nothing else.
Several people have told me essentially this same story about the still, sad music of Pärt—how it became, for them or for others, a vehicle of solace. One or two such anecdotes seem sentimental; a series of them begins to suggest a slightly uncanny phenomenon. Patrick Giles, in an article for Salon, reported that when he worked as a volunteer for an AIDS organization, in the nineteen-eighties, he played "Tabula Rasa" for those facing the final onslaught of the disease, and they developed a peculiar, almost desperate attachment to it. Once, when Giles was away, the mother of one of the dying men called with an anxious query. "He keeps asking for 'angel music,' " she said. "What the hell is that?" The music in question was the second movement of "Tabula Rasa," in which a rustling arpeggio on a prepared piano leads into glacial chords of D minor.
According to the unsentimental evidence of record sales, Pärt's music reaches far beyond the conspiracy of connoisseurs who support most new classical music. He is a composer who speaks in hauntingly clear, familiar tones, yet he does not duplicate the music of the past. He has put his finger on something that is almost impossible to put into words—something to do with the power of music to obliterate the rigidities of space and time. One after the other, his chords silence the noise of the self, binding the mind to an eternal present. For this reason, anecdotes of listeners' experiences, whether extreme or mundane, may give a better account of the music than any analysis of its inner workings. For me, "Tabula Rasa" will always be a snowy New England afternoon in 1989, during which there was nothing in the world but this music and that snow.
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Earlier this month, a festival called Music Around presented twenty-two of Pärt's works in various Scandinavian cities. The composer travelled from his home in Berlin to observe the event, settling into a hotel in Copenhagen. I talked to him there, in a smattering of English and German, at the hotel's restaurant.
Pärt is a gaunt man with a pale, gentle face and mournfully powerful eyes. His bald pate is balanced by a tightly curled beard of a few inches' length. He has been described as "monkish" so often that a German musicologist has undertaken a deconstruction of the term, but the word still springs to mind unbidden: he could pose for an icon of St. John Chrysostom, or another of the literary saints. Yet, when his large eyes fix on you, he becomes more worldly and formidable; his stare seems to ask, "Are you serious?" At times, he is unexpectedly impish, even antic. He needs few words to make himself understood, using a repertory of quasi-operatic gestures and clownish faces.
"My life is a river, and I am a boat being borne along the current," he told me. "I cannot relate to my life as a story, as a sequence of events, because I cannot get off the boat in order to see where I am. I do not see myself as moving forward or going backward." I asked him whether he believed in musical progress, in the idea of an avant-garde. He vigorously shook his head. "I do not know what this word 'progress' means, at least in the area of art. Progress in science can certainly be measured and described. But to talk about a particular style or a particular work as progressive or regressive is arbitrary, totally misleading. It reminds me a little of Brueghel's painting of the blind leading the blind. One man is tumbling down, his staff held out like a spear or sword in front of him, and the others are following behind him. They are all making progress, and they are all falling down. The story is found in the Bible. How many painters this word 'progress' has made blind! How many composers this word has made deaf! And they carried behind them generations!" He looked stricken for a moment, as if he had just seen a horror out of Bosch.
Pärt was born in 1935, in a small town in the Estonian countryside. According to Paul Hillier's study of the composer, he grew up playing an ancient grand piano that lacked a middle register, so that he made music only at extremes of high and low. He studied composition in the national conservatory, in Tallinn. He moved steadily through all the styles that were available to him, from neoclassicism to socialism and on to Western avant-garde techniques of serialism and chance. He even dipped into John Cage-ish happenings, once participating in a concert at which a violin somehow caught on fire.
Finally, in 1976, he turned inward, discovering a new, radically simplified language. "Tabula Rasa" was one of the first products of this style, which came to be called "tintinnabuli," after the Latin word for bell. In its basic form, it involves the interweaving of two voices, one of which moves by melodic steps while the other rotates through the pitches of a major or a minor chord. The method has something in common with the early minimalist pieces of Steve Reich, but the resemblance is better explained by the fact that both composers drew on the same ancient sources: polyphonic composers of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods.
The tintinnabuli works were also informed by an intense religiosity, flowing from Pärt's embrace of Russian Orthodoxy. This meditative strain contributed to his subsequent popularity in the nineteen-nineties, when records of Gregorian chant mysteriously showed up on the pop charts. But there was nothing fashionable about Pärt's choice of style back in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. The composer had already established himself as something of a maverick; his 1968 work "Credo," in which a prayerful choral arrangement of Bach's Prelude in C Major sounds defiantly in the middle of musical chaos, drew official censure. By the late seventies, as Pärt began to acquire international fame, he found that he was not permitted to travel freely abroad, and that his works were being taken off the market. In 1979, at a meeting of the Estonian Composers' Union, Pärt denounced official policy while wearing a longhaired wig. The following year, he was able to obtain an exit visa to Israel—his wife, Nora, is Jewish. Alfred Schnittke, who had played the prepared piano in the first Western performances of "Tabula Rasa," arranged for the Pärts to stay in Vienna, and they ended up settling in Berlin.
Pärt said of his early, "wild" years, "I was writing music in which there were many notes thrown down on the page like so." He made a scattering gesture with his hands. "Notes were being strewn about like coins or jewels. I was not guarding these notes as treasures. I was not holding them, one after another, in my hands. Every note is decisive, every note is telling." Yet, for all his love of spare, repetitive textures, he does not treasure the minimalist label that has been attached to him. "Two composers, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, changed the world at that time," he said. "I have great respect for them. Still, I am not a minimalist. I understand that music critics will always find categories for my works and put them away in suitable drawers, but to call me a 'holy minimalist' sounds a bit ridiculous." He cupped his ear and listened to the hollow air.
As Pärt and I talked, a pan-flute arrangement of the "Titanic" soundtrack was playing on the restaurant's loudspeakers. It played over and over, in an endless loop. Although Pärt asked the waitress to turn it down, it refused to go away. The juxtaposition was ironic, because this composer has sometimes been accused of writing background music—a higher Muzak for sensitive souls. His works have been used on movie soundtracks and in other suspect environments. The false association with New Age aesthetics has perhaps inadvertently been aided by the exquisite care that ECM takes in recording him. Since the mid-eighties, Manfred Eicher, ECM's longtime director and chief producer, has given Pärt's music a distinctive ambience, a sonic halo. Even the packaging of the disks, all crisp lines and monochromatic fields, is a beautiful exemplar of minimalist style.
Recordings tell only half the story, however. They remain two-dimensional experiences, whereas Pärt is intensely concerned with the positioning of music in space. It was actively stunning to hear his works in the airy, chilly churches of Copenhagen, where the music seemed to crystallize out of the air and become an organic, multivalent thing. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, under Tõnu Kaljuste, and the Latvian Radio Choir, under Kaspars Putnins, gave the music enormous immediacy: the voices buzzed against each other, then soared as one. Most commentators have overlooked the dramatic tension inherent in Pärt's work—the way an apparent state of equilibrium is undermined by one or two serpentine notes, or the way small harmonic shifts can turn into seismic shocks. When, in the choral work "Beatitudes," an intricately pivoting chain of modulations leads through twenty of the twenty-four major and minor chords, the effect is of a huge vista opening up from a narrow space. As happens so often, Pärt has found a precise musical image to explicate his chosen text: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven."
In recent years, Pärt has stretched his tintinnabulist idiom in order to accommodate a freer harmonic rhythm. He has set Latin, German, English, Spanish, and Old Slavonic texts, recalibrating his language to fit the demands of each. "Kanon Pokajanen," an eighty-minute-long setting of the Orthodox canon of repentance, mixes the rawness of folk ritual with the fastidiousness of theology. The English works, such as "Beatitudes" and "Litany," echo the soaring forms of Anglican hymns. "Como Cierva Sedienta," a Spanish-language setting of Psalms 42 and 43, has a strikingly vibrant, almost Fauvist orchestration and a richly ornamented vocal line; it is very nearly opulent. This recent work appears on ECM's latest Pärt disk, "Orient & Occident," which contains other intimations of new directions. The title piece, an elegy for strings, echoes the feverish intimacy of Benjamin Britten, whom Pärt reveres, while also forming unexpected links with Indian string writing and Arabic cantillation.
The composer acknowledged his latest tendencies with a guilty smile. "Yes," he said. "I got a little crazy, didn't I?" He mimed a gesture that suggested a flamenco dancer throwing tennis balls. The wild Pärt of the Estonian years, who mocked the authorities and played the holy fool, is still lurking below the surface. The austerity of his present style may really serve to hold the other self in check; one wonders how much turbulence lies deep within these chapels of sound, which come close to Bachian perfection. Often, in the spiritual sphere, faith hovers at the brink of disorder and sorrow.
At the end of our talk, I asked Pärt whether he felt lonely, both as a religious artist in a secular Western culture and as a classical composer in the kingdom of pop. He paused for a while, and the pan flutes filled the silence. "If loneliness brings bitterness and anger," he finally said, "then, I think, loneliness is a disease. We composers cannot brood, we cannot cultivate loneliness. Schubert, for example, never heard his symphonies in performance—they got no interest from publishers. But they are full of life. And his songs are nearer to Heaven than most music written for the church. He had the talent of love and the talent of compassion. Of course he was lonely, but his suffering gave out sweet nectar.
"We cannot know all the good people in the world," he went on. "Not many of the good people are composers. Twenty years ago, my friend Valentin Silvestrov, one of the greatest composers of our time, said that nowadays great music isn't made in concert palaces. Instead, it is created in lofts, basements, and garages. Here you are, with your feet in lukewarm water, and the pan flutes are making noise—"
He stopped, frustrated at the inability of either English or German to bring his image to life. He took a pen out of his pocket and put it in front of me, as if that would explain everything. "Schubert's pen," he said, "was fifty per cent ink, fifty per cent tears."
More on Arvo Pärt recordings.
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