Christopher J. May. Review to “The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt”

CHRISTOPHER J. MAY | Music & Letters 2013, Oxford Journals
Review: The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt. Ed. by Andrew Shenton
Cambridge University Press, 2012


The purpose of this volume, so Andrew Shenton states in the introduction, is ‘to elucidate the essential and phenomenal traits of this remarkable composer and his music’ (p. 1).

To that end, the nine essays on Arvo Pärt that follow describe a rough but familiar trajectory that proceeds from the biographical to the hermeneutic, by way of the analytical. Despite being a fundamentally scholarly publication – indeed, Shenton deliberately notes the comparative lack of explicitly musicological attention given to Pärt over the last twenty years – The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt is avowedly aimed at the non-specialist. That much seems only fair, given that Shenton also chooses to emphasize Pärt’s unusual degree of success both within and beyond the classical music establishment. A nod to the singularity of Pärt’s tintinnabuli idiolect completes the argument that the time for this book is ripe.

Immo Mihkelson offers both biographical riches and reflections on scholarly method in his opening piece, which concentrates on Pärt’s life and work in Soviet Estonia during the 1960s and 1970s. Of particular interest are passages dealing with the ebb and flow of the ideological pressure facing Estonian composers in these years: Mihkelson discusses Pärt’s work at Estonian Radio, his relationship with the Composers’ Union, his uncertain channels of access to proscribed Western music, and the difficulties caused by his use of serialist and religious elements in Nekrolog (1960) and Credo(1968) respectively. Mihkelson rightly reminds us that conditions across the Soviet Union varied greatly, and warns against overly general comparisons between Pärt and other leading avant-gardists such as Schnittke or Gubaidulina. At the same time, his unapologetic insistence on approaching Pärt through a set of unique biographical conditions may be problematic in its own way. As Pärt’s wife, Nora, has observed, such information cannot necessarily be linked directly to musical detailçon which Mihkelson is, disappointingly, rather light.

Jeffers Engelhardt’s contribution, ‘Perspectives on Arvo Pärt after 1980′, opens with an extended account of Pärt’s ubiquity within ‘the soundscapes of twenty-first century musical life’ (p. 29). Engelhardt describes the regular use of his music by filmmakers, his presence on social media platforms, and the many ‘digital repurposings’ (p. 31) and other samplings and metamorphoses of his works. These he associates with the ‘transitions and transformations effected by [Pärt’s] emigration’ (p. 34) to Austria in 1980, leading him to consider the circumstances prompting that event (including Pärt’s compositional crisis of the 1970s), and the opportunities and collaborations of which he availed himself thereafter. Engelhardt cautions astutely against lapsing into ready-made emigre narratives placing in opposition the encrusted associations of free West and communist East, observing that ‘amid the ruptures and traumas’ (p. 34) of Pärt’s displacement there were also crucial continuities, including his personal and professional relationships, his Orthodox faith, and the tintinnabuli style. (Curiously, there is no acknowledgement that tintinnabuli itself preserved numerous technical habits from the serial and collage phases that preceded Pärt’s own stylistic rupture.) Especially valuable within Engelhardt’s article is the passage on Kanon Pokajanen (1997), Orthodoxy, and the icon as sacred prototype, and it is heartening to see critical attention given to works postdating Paul Hillier’s somewhat canon-defining book on Pärt.

Leopold Brauneiss’s survey of tintinnabuli mechanics invokes musical archetype as a central metaphor for the style’s ‘basic elements’ (p. 49). This may well chime with Pärt’s own aesthetic preferences, aspects of which Brauneiss cites, but here it fails overall to convince, instead perhaps underlining the perils of reliance on composers’ remarks about their own music. A paragraph on the universality of scales as a’globally prevalent, pre-existing and supra-individual musical resource’ (p. 54), for instance, is broadly linked to the idea of limitlessness. When Brauneiss comes to discuss the range of particular scalar dispositions employed in tintinnabuli, however, he does not find it easy to engage his own web of associations. Despite suffering slightly from lack of discipline – the result of his attempt to telescope syntactical and aesthetic introductions into a single brief offering – Brauneiss’s piece nonetheless contains much to value, being rich in musical examples, and cataloguing some techniques that are not otherwise recorded in English-language Pärt scholarship.

With an essay entitled ‘Analyzing Pärt’, Thomas Robinson makes the standout contribution to the volume. Robinson, who begins by interrogating ‘the paucity of music-theoretical scholarship’ (p. 76) on tintinnabuli music, calls for disciplined and radical approaches to Pärt, implying the desirability of an antidote to the many writings on tintinnabuli that skip analysis entirely, assuming that its apparent simplicity obviates any need for the exercise. Against this background, Robinson considers the analytical promise of five different approaches to Pärt-style analysis, hermeneutics, Schenkerian analysis, set-theoretical analysis, and triadic transformation. These are unlikely to strike every reader as equally meritorious; however, as Robinson reminds us, tintinnabuli is an ‘elegant rendering of tonality that stands only to benefit from judicious application of a modified tonal theory’ (p. 110). He also impresses throughout with his observational acuity, writing, for example, of the symbiotic relationship between hermeneutics and syntax, and the connection in Pärt’s music between drama and ‘the playing out of a fait accompli’ (p. 83). He later discusses with equal deftness the importance of automatic musical process to the tintinnabuli style – a contested critical issue, by virtue of the suspicions regarding renunciation of compositional agency that such processes can beget.

Although the recent publication in English of Arvo Pärt in Conversation has perhaps overshadowed this line of inquiry, Andrew Shenton’s central essay, ‘Arvo Pärt: In his Own Words’, does a fine job of weaving together Pärt’s notoriously indirect and elusive comments about his music into a lucid overview. Ranging over topics such as theology, time, liturgy, creativity, the significance of the visual, reduction and essence, technical development, metaphysics, minimalism, text-setting, and transformation, Shenton skilfully points to possible approaches to Pärt’s music. Consistent with the composer’s own reluctance to claim any interpretative authority, Shenton also avoids prescriptiveness. His piece draws on widely peddled and less familiar statements by Pärt, and on a sprinkling of dependably insightful and refreshingly straightforward comments from Nora Pärt. Shenton concludes by describing the recent establishment of the International Arvo Pärt Centre, which will surely be of critical importance to future Pärt scholarship.

Marguerite Bostonia’s nicely focused contribution explores the relationship between tintinnabuli music and bells. Bostonia postulates various symbolic connections to do with unity, simplicity, and even national identity, suggesting that the naming of the style (tintinnabuli means ‘little bells’ in Latin) discharges a metonymic function, acting as ‘a figure of speech in which the name of an entity is borrowed to define another, where both share innate characteristics, musical and spiritual’ (p. 130). Bostonia then investigates the extent to which Pärt could have fallen under the influence of European bell-ringing traditions during his Estonian years. Her disclosures are striking: among only five zvoni (Russian bell sets) to survive the religious oppression unleashed after 1917, one was housed in Tallinn, and was, moreover, operational even under Soviet rule. Bostonia, who observes that bells are the only instruments used for Orthodox worship, detects a link between Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique and the harmonic series of the untuned bells used in zvoni. Her extravagance-free study goes well beyond the rather casual associations with English change-ringing suggested in Hillier’s work on Pärt.

Robert Sholl’s important contribution addresses that thanklessly value-laden term, spirituality. Of especial interest is Sholl’s situation of Pärt in relation to Adornian modernism and the collapse of Enlightenment progress myths: arguing that a ‘sense of mourning for a lost and an unreachable utopia is essential to the spiritual poetics of Pärt’s music’ (p. 152), he goes on to associate tintinnabuli with a ‘contingency of enchantment’ (p. 157) that facilitates a characteristically modern desire for the divine, rather than merely abetting countercultural escapism. Sholl, too, dwells on the potency of the ‘sounding icon’ metaphor in Pärt hermeneutics, before attending to the strain of criticism that has sought to devalue tintinnabuli music by associating its transparent spirituality with a lack of musical substance, and perhaps even with an abdication of artistic responsibility. His answers here, however, are unexpected, particularly his citation of the use of Pärt’s music in film ‘to excavate deep social, ethical, and emotional responses’ (p. 151) (which might easily be taken as confirmation that tintinnabuli, canvas-like, relies for its content on external projections). A more compelling response might have argued overtly, as Maria Cizmic has, that sceptics often stack the deck by approaching Pärt with evaluative criteria aligned with concepts such as teleology and autonomy, to which tintinnabuli is highly resistant. However, this scarcely detracts from Sholl’s impressive navigation through some hazardous terrain.

Benjamin Skipp tackles Pärt primarily in relation to minimalism, another vexed term. Skipp’s fluid piece is at its strongest when problematizing the easy taxonomies to which Pärt criticism not infrequently resorts, and he offers numerous insights into Pärt’s fusion of, and resistance to, various labels and pigeonholes. Noting that Pärt’s perceived allegiance to minimalism has contributed to his antipathy to modernism being taken for granted, Skipp moves on to situate the composer in relation to various strands of (post)modernity. Drawing on undeniably crucial features of tintinnabuli music, such as self-effacement and a disciplined earnestness suggesting common ground with Webern, Skipp’s observation that Pärt’s work is shaped both by confluences with serialism and by a paradigm of accessibility of material seems especially perceptive and fruitful. It is slightly regrettable that he declines to draw on specific works in making good his points, and instead, by implication, treats Pärt’s output as uniform and monadic.

Laura Dolp’s offering ‘Arvo Pärt in the Marketplace’ gives a fascinating account of Pärt’s partnership with Manfred Eicher and the ECM label, and the profound impact that marketplace branding has had on the public discourses surrounding the composer. She goes on to explore Pärt’s appropriation in film soundtracks, asking whether, like Barber’s Adagio, his music is becoming ‘an ubiquitous cultural commodity’ (p. 191), following a path ‘ultimately independent of its initial compositional intention or early reception’ (p. 191). Dolp’s thought-provoking lines of inquiry leave the reader wondering to what extent Pärt himself may have become committed to his own market (with the consequent challenge that that would imply to certain idealizations commonly attached to his music, encouraged by that same market), as well as to what extent we, his listeners, might approach this highly exposed composer with beliefs and expectations that, while they seem deeply personal, are in fact constructed and sanctioned by quite other forces. Of all the contributors, Dolp does most to realize Shenton’s hope that this book ‘will encourage active rather than passive listening’ (p. 9) to Arvo Pärt’s music.

The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt closes with a valuable though lamentably brief piece by Andreas Peer Kähler dealing with performance issues and intersubjectivity in Pärt. There are also English translations of some brief speeches given by the composer, and the collection boasts an up-to-date works list and an impressive bibliography, as well as making targeted suggestions for further reading. The main shortcoming is certainly a failure to give any sustained attention to Pärt’s pre-tintinnabuli music. Tempting as it may be to construct this oeuvre as tintinnabuli’s Other, the two sets of works in fact exhibit a remarkable degree of technical and stylistic congruence, and the later music cannot be adequately understood without tracing its provenance in the earlier. This realization problematizes several popular Pärt narratives, and the essays by Engelhardt, Brauneiss, Sholl, and Skipp would each have been enriched by absorbing it. Nevertheless, packed with valuable scholarshipas it is, the Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt undoubtedly has a leading role to play in the future, both in guiding Pärt studies, and in helping those studies emerge from the tremendous shadow cast by Hillier’s justly influential 1997 book. Pärt’s burgeoning popularity might easily have been taken as an excuse to rebadge old Pärt scholarship in anticipation of a wider audience, but that pitfall has happily been avoided. The diversity of contributor backgrounds and the plurality of critical perspectives on offer only increase the importance of this welcome new volume.

The review has been published with Christopher J. May’s permission.