Toomas Siitan. Review to Peter C. Bouteneff’s book “Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence”

TOOMAS SIITAN | Review to Peter C. Bouteneff’s book Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence. Yonkers (N.Y.): St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2015, 231 pages.
Published in the yearbook of the Estonian Musicological Society and the Musicological Department of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre Res Musica 8/2016, pp. 143-145
Translated by Triin Vallaste


Arvo Pärt’s music has received tremendous attention from the general public, which is not balanced out by its scholarly reception. It is still possible to agree with this statement, now ten years old, by Dohr Publishers marketing a Pärt compilation edited by Hermann Conen: “Although Arvo Pärt’s music has been circulating the globe for decades now, he remains the least researched among distinguished contemporary composers. While Pärt’s music is widely accessible, the contexts of his poetics remain mysterious.”[1] Music theorists have made valuable efforts to establish theoretical foundations for analyzing Pärt’s music. Interpretation of Pärt’s poetics, however, often stop at generic discussions of spirituality, since writers from a Western cultural background usually lack a deep understanding of the Orthodox tradition and texts that led Arvo Pärt to his tintinnabuli style.

In 2015, Peter Bouteneff published his book “Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence”, which helps to fill the gap. Bouteneff is Professor of Systematic Theology and the Director of the Arvo Pärt Project at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, NY. After music studies at the New England Conservatory of Music (B.Mus. 1983), Bouteneff received his doctorate at Oxford University in 1997. Bouteneff’s academic work deals with early and contemporary Orthodox theology as well as connections between theology, public culture, and sacred art. It is, therefore, hard to imagine anyone more suitable for the job.

Pärt’s affiliation with the Orthodox Church is widely known, although when speaking strictly of his music, this connection is somewhat controversial: In Pärt’s music, there is no preference for any Christian denomination and only very occasional references to Russian Orthodox music. Additionally, Pärt’s works use only a limited number of Orthodox liturgical texts, which have seldom been set to art music throughout music history in general, especially when compared with widely used Western Church texts. Bouteneff emphasizes in the Introduction that, while it is difficult to fully understand Pärt’s music without the context of the Orthodox Christian tradition and practice, establishing actual causality between the two should be avoided (16–17). Furthermore, Bouteneff even suggests that Pärt’s music might speak “more clearly to those outside his faith tradition” (33, emphasis in original).

Bouteneff does not apply typical music research methods. In fact, he engages with the tintinnabuli compositional technique only in the last section of the book (page 178 onwards). While Bouteneff adds little to current music-theoretical analyses of tintinnabuli, he certainly offers a novel point of view: Pärt’s compositional technique as the outcome of an intense spiritual quest. This is how Bouteneff sets out to describe and contextualize Pärt’s religious journey.

Throughout his book, Bouteneff focuses on the religious and psychological aspects of Pärt’s compositions and their reception. In the introductory chapter (“Points of Entry”), Bouteneff boldly separates the terminology of religion and spirituality (28–29) and analyzes listeners’ reactions to Pärt’s music as well as the vocabulary listeners with diverse backgrounds use to describe those reactions (including in social media; 34–35). One of the most engaging features of the book is how Bouteneff prefers to use a “non-musician” way of describing Pärt’s music. In other words, he adopts the vocabulary of a regular Pärt listener with whom he might share similar listening experiences and habits. Bouteneff is able to listen to the music itself without trying to contextualize it within historical-stylistic frameworks, something that a majority of Pärt scholars attempt to do but fail, ignoring his music altogether. As Bouteneff remarks, Pärt’s music, in general, manages to reconcile high and popular cultures as well as religious and non-religious listenerships. Similarly, Bouteneff adopts a tone in his book that helps to connect with both academic and non-academic readers – it is an accessible but nonetheless authoritative tone when discussing music, philosophy, and theology.

Bouteneff avoids chronological narrative, even if it might seem inevitable when speaking of Pärt. In terms of the composer’s biography, Bouteneff only focuses on the eight-year-long “silent period” – a time period that has been rarely explored before. Bouteneff, however, finds these years revealing as a period of intense soul-searching and creative transformation. In the book’s central chapter, “Out of Silence”, Bouteneff describes the years 1968–1976 as a period of deep introspection, a spiritual odyssey, and opts for the term “years of transition”. Instead of focusing on a negative aspect of silence or a “waiting period”[2] – the absence of music, the absence of any creative work – Bouteneff focuses on its positive aspect – silence as creative potentiality. He starts the chapter with a quotation (85) from an interview that Pärt gave to Tom Huizenga in which the composer speaks of his deep respect for silence and describes it as “fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed.”[3] Bouteneff first analyzes the reasons behind the creative crisis (“Music Lost to Silence”), then looks at the process through which a crisis-imposed silence grew into a conscious silence accompanied by a devoted spiritual discipline (“Music Found in Silence”). After that, Bouteneff offers readers one of his valuable subchapters: “Excursus: Silence in the Tradition” (103–137), in which he discusses silence from an ontological perspective as a multivalent entity (“Does silence exist?”, 104–107) to arrive at the religious foundations of Pärt’s worldview.

In approaching this sensitive topic, the analysis of texts and their sources in Pärt’s work[4] as well as the statements from Pärt’s music journals, which  Pärt himself has used in recent years[5] to explain underlying ideas in his life, can be helpful. Bouteneff approaches inner silence from the perspective of tradition: He includes a selection of foundational Christian texts and religious persons such as St Silouan of Mt. Athos (1866–1938) and his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony (1896–1993), who have influenced Pärt significantly through their writings and personally. The level of Bouteneff’s expertise is extraordinary, particularly in pointing out aspects which are so difficult to discuss. Bouteneff’s book is simultaneously an introduction to the theology and life philosophy of the Eastern Church – pages 150–151 offer a wonderful concise summary.

It takes determination to choose the keyword “silence” as the book’s central theme. In commenting on Pärt’s compositional style, Bouteneff focuses on acoustic silence as its most characteristic feature – the structural meaning of a pause and compositional reductivity. Without overwhelming the text with examples from previous Pärt scholarship and canonical Pärt quotations, Bouteneff offers an accessible and concise insight into Pärt’s creative ethics, even to newer readers of Pärt scholarship. In many discussions of silence, Bouteneff is able to avoid cliché and distances his analysis from John Cage’s texts.

Bouteneff positions himself quite clearly in terms of earlier research on Pärt. A more experienced reader learns quickly whose texts Bouteneff trusts and values, and toward the end of the book (177) he explicitly names two scholars who are especially significant in explicating Pärt’s style: Paul Hillier and Leopold Brauneiss. While Bouteneff avoids criticizing and refuting other authors, he very clearly and adroitly distances his analysis from the context of musical minimalism (100–101) – a significant, novel step, especially for an American reader.

Bouteneff does not engage in detailed music-theoretical analysis of Pärt’s works – he is more interested in what they are made of, not how they are made. Pärt’s music is still present thanks to many references to his works, and two of them – “Credo” (1968) and “Adam’s Lament” (2010) – are discussed on multiple occasions. In the last chapter of the book, “Bright Sadness” (139–195), in which Bouteneff discusses the overcoming of duality, “Adam’s Lament” is central. Bouteneff explains in great detail the symbolic meaning of Adam (esp. 147–148). The text of St Silouan’s used in “Adam’s Lament” has been very meaningful for Pärt for many decades, and he had planned on setting it to music for a long time. In 2010, Pärt finished this substantial work, although it only makes use of the first fifth of St. Silouan’s text. It is commendable that the text has been added to the appendix in full (210–219).

Writers on music have long shifted their attention from compositional details toward the contexts of musical works. This, however, does not necessarily create a new kind of perspective, since the musical work still stands in the spotlight and is simply viewed through a transformed depth of focus. Bouteneff uses reverse perspective: he starts with context and gradually moves his focus toward music in order to discover novel meaning. This kind of reverse perspective makes the book’s surprising conclusions rather logical: ignoring scholarly conventions, Bouteneff includes a full analysis of Pärt’s “Passio” (1982) in the final section (“Conclusio”, 193–195). By doing so, Bouteneff allows Pärt’s music to summarize what he reflects on throughout the book, since music communicates this in the most authentic way.

[1] Arvo Pärt: Die Musik des Tintinnabuli-Stils, ed. by Hermann Conen, Köln: Dohr 2006. (26.09.16).

[2] Enzo Restagno, “Arvo Pärt e il tempo dell’attesa” – Arvo Pärt allo specchio: Conversazioni, saggi e testimonianze, Milano: il Saggiatore 2004, p. 117–134.

[3] Tom Huizenga, The Silence and Awe of Arvo Pärt. National Public Radio, Washington, D.C., 2.06.2014, (18.08.2016).

[4] See also In principio: The Word in Arvo Pärt’s Music, ed. by Hedi Rosma, Kristina Kõrver, Kai Kutman, Laulasmaa: Arvo Pärt Centre, 2014.

[5] Arvo Pärt has referred to his statements in his music journals in some speeches. For instance, in a speech on May 31, 2014 at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (the speech has been included at full length in Bouteneff’s book Addendum, pp. 222–224). Also, in speeches at Tartu University during the seminar “The word and music” (2013–2014): December 11, 2013 ((, starting at 1:06:00) and March 12, 2014 (, starting at 49:30).