Toomas Siitan. Review to “The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt”
TOOMAS SIITAN | Res Musica (5/2013), the yearbook of the Estonian Musicological Society
Review: The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt. Ed. by Andrew Shenton
Cambridge University Press, 2012
To date, there are countless publications on Arvo Pärt worldwide — reviews of his works and recordings, essays, interviews, etc; however, the scientific reception of his music is still rather limited. Therefore, the publication of a volume dedicated to Pärt in a series as influential as the “Cambridge Companion to Music” naturally raised our expectations. The articles are based on several conferences held at Boston University (March 2010), in London (Southbank Centre, September 2010) and Canterbury (May 2011), and, considering the high repute of the publishing house, this could well be a substantial step along the path toward establishing a musicological approach to Pärt’s oeuvre. However, editor Andrew Shenton has not defined the audience as academic, but rather anyone who enjoys Pärt’s music, and has only little or no musical training (p. 5). It is difficult to decide whether this is a modest withdrawal or an honest acknowledgment of the highly uneven level of the articles and poor editorial work.
Immo Mihkelson (“A narrow path to the truth: Arvo Pärt and the 1960s and 1970s in Soviet Estonia”, pp. 10–28) has been faced with the challenge of summing up Pärt’s formative years during the Soviet era on about 20 pages. Being one of the best specialists on the subject, but not equally experienced with the pen, he was unable to repeat the in-depth presentation of the subject that marked the monumental radio series he compiled and dedicated to the composer’s 70th birthday. The specific context of the compendium does not exactly permit an in-depth handling of the subject: foreign readers for the most part have to have the main problems of Soviet cultural life explained (which would have required greater clarity and accuracy at times), the story of the composer’s life introduced and some additional material provided. Fortunately, Mihkelson has not limited himself to a simple objective presentation of the material, but has added countless personal aspects from Pärt’s early life, gathered during numerous formal and private conversations with the composer, which ends up being the most valuable part of the text.
Jeffers Engelhardt’s article “Perspectives on Arvo Pärt after 1980″ (pp. 29–48) is also biographical in nature, but ingeniously based on the figurative comparison and contrasting of various soundscapes. To begin with, Engelhardt presents perhaps too many examples of Pärt’s role in shaping the musical perception of the younger generation of the 21st century and the role of social media channels (YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud, etc), and wonders how Pärt has found his way onto such channels. The text treats the Pärt phenomenon in relation to different cultural spaces, none of which he really belongs to, yet into which he still had to adapt: Soviet Estonia, West Berlin in the 1980s, and newly independent Estonia.
Engelhardt justly treats the Pärt phenomenon separately from the here and now, at the same time showing the importance of kindred spirits (Mustonen and Hortus Musicus, Hillier and the Hilliard Ensemble, Eicher and ECM, Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) during the different creative periods in Pärt’s life. He does better than an Estonian would in analysing and boldly stating Pärt’s strained relationship with Estonia and being Estonian: one of the main axes of the article is the leaving and returning, while not just discussing Pärt’s homeland, but rather the musical and mental environment that very dynamically changed during the decades under observation. The strongest side of Engelhardt’s text is noticing and bringing forth the composer, and the strains and dynamics of his creative environment.
Leopold Brauneiss is one of the most experienced analysts of Pärt’stintinnabuli-compositions, but reading his very detailed analyses has been very difficult — often, as is the case with his texts in the compendium Arvo Pärt peeglis (Arvo Pärt in the Mirror) – it only makes sense with the score in hand.* The article by Brauneiss “Musical archetypes: the basic elements of the tintinnabuli style” (pp. 49–75), on the other hand, really only deals with the fundamental elements of style, while some (brief) case studies are presented very clearly. The article indicates the positive characteristic feature of Brauneiss’ analyses — his excellent ability to connect the technical and contextual aspects of a composition through shrewd poetic devices. Brauneiss’ ‘musical archetype’ –– which he connects directly with Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of psychoanalysis, where an archetype is a universal mental image remaining in the collective subconscious –– is a bold, yet credible device. Brauneiss sees, for example, scales and triads — the main components of the tintinnabuli-technique –– as well as a number of methods for processing musical material as archetypes or universals, which in themselves have no musical content.
The second analytical article of the collection, Thomas Robinson’s “Analyzing Pärt” (pp. 76–110), unfortunately considers theoretical analysis and the hermeneutic approach incompatible (p. 81), even though Brauneiss has just wonderfully demonstrated the possibility of such a connection. The author of the most extensive and ambitious article in the compendium admits that the radicalism of Pärt’s tintinnabuli-technique demands radical methods of analysis (p. 77), while he himself stubbornly attempts to apply familiar methods in a rather non-radical style. Consequently, in the first part of his article he attempts to place Pärt’s music in the extremely formalist framework of Jan LaRue’s method of style analysis, and (rather clumsily) tests the hermeneutic analysis, neither of which yields any particular results. And as if this were not enough, he then chooses the Schenkerian method, which he himself admits to be primarily effective with music ranging from Bach to Brahms, and also tries out both the sound class method derived from musical set theory, as well as the idea of triadic transformations from neo-Riemannian theory, even though both of these methods are appropriate for post-tonal music. This is a sad robinsonade, attempting to open a tin can while there is nothing but sewing equipment in the toolbox.
In the second part of the article, the author attempts a more radical approach, but his outstanding ability to analyse various compositional structures fails him here as well, because he does not seem to capture the essence of the tintinnabuli-technique — the organic togetherness and inseparability of the M and T voice. To me, however, the phrase “The process of composing tintinnabuli voices (T-voices) to an existing melodic voice (M-voice)…” (p. 94) clearly indicates a failure to understand Pärt’s compositional process. Finally, Robinson moves yet further from the goal by comparing the tintinnabuli-technique with figured bass procedures of Baroque era (pp. 107–108). He also treats Pärt’s music with amazing obviousness in the key of minimal music, quoting Steve Reich by way of argumentation on several occasions. It appears the author has taken the wrong train.
Editor Andrew Shenton’s article “Arvo Pärt in his own words” (pp. 111–127), seems rather journalistic compared to the previous texts, but is a well readable introduction to the main principles of Pärt’s aesthetics and compositional technique. For decades, Pärt has been formulating highly relevant comments both on his individual compositions as well as the compositional technique as such, and their massive use should in itself guarantee a rich context. However, Shenton has picked out single sentences and longer quotations from highly disparate contexts, and without a strong and clear author position it is impossible to produce a coherent text in this manner. In a compilation such as this one, subheadings such as “Theology” or “The creative process” suggests to the reader much more than Shenton has to offer, and instead of a summary the author has even copied a longer introduction from the home page of the Arvo Pärt Centre. Without deeper pretentions, however, Shenton’s article is still a rather nice and tactful portrayal of the composer, the reader of which might as well correspond with the audience defined in the book’s introduction.
Marguerite Bostonia in her rather short article “Bells as inspiration for tintinnabulation” (pp. 128–139) seeks connections between Pärt’s composition technique and various bell playing traditions. Although she quotes (p 130) both Arvo and Nora Pärt’s caution not to search for a direct connection between the tintinnabuli-technique and the bell sound, she dedicates her speculations to exactly this connection. Bostonia gives a brief overview of both England’s and the Netherland’s bell playing traditions, at the same time admitting that these could not have served as Pärt’s inspiration, and then attempting to guess, in a historically rather incompetent discussion, which Russian orthodox bells Pärt may have heard. Because Pärt is usually associated with the Russian Orthodox tradition, the author naturally forgets that the church bell also plays its part in the Lutheran soundscape. Jumping from subject to subject, Bostonia identifies the overtone scales of both tuned and untuned bells; however, she does not associate this most interesting part of her article with Pärt’s music, although this would have yielded plenty of interesting material for discussion. The positive aspects of Bostonia’s text are some enlightening contemplations on the intellectual context of Pärt’s music and on the use of the bell image in art music in the introduction to the article (pp. 128–131).
In view of the above, the title of Robert Sholl’s article “Arvo Pärt and spirituality” (pp. 140–158) is even foreboding in pretentiously laconic terms, but after the reader has digested the bothersome schematic presentation of the categories “modern” and “spiritual” in the opening of the article, they find numerous exciting discussions about what allows us to experience music as sacred or religious. Sholl has chosen to analyse compositions without sounding text, such as Fratres, Trisagion or Symphony No. 4, so that the religious associations would not be caused by non-musical elements. Sholl’s way of thinking strikes me as highly original, and unlike the majority of the texts in this compendium, he does not prey on Pärt’s (endlessly repeated) quotes in his argumentation. In addition, this text is based on extensive reading of both 20th century sociology classics (Max Weber, Theodor Adorno) and contemporary psychology of religion. The modernisation of the bourgeois society, characterised by Nietzsche and Weber as Entzauberung, disenchantment, is counterbalanced by Sholl with re-enchantment according to the standards of modern psychology of religion, and the Pärt phenomenon is discussed against this background.
In his text, Sholl also convincingly explains how Pärt’s composition manner differs from the techniques and aesthetics of minimalism (pp. 143–144): this is extremely important in view of the numerous texts that negligently classify Pärt’s music as minimalist, or use the rather pejorative modification of this concept, holy minimalism, to define his style. Ironically, this is followed in the collection by Benjamin Skipp’s article “The minimalism of Arvo Pärt: an ‘antidote’ to modernism and multiplicity?” (pp. 159–176). Together with Thomas Robinson’s text, this graphically illustrates how dangerous it is to base writing on music upon superficial labels: both authors associate the tintinnabuli-technique with minimalism as a given, which does not require argumentation or discussion. The missing position of the editor in this matter is astounding: it may be tempting to present contradictory opinions, but this aspect should have been treated at least in the introduction, where Andrew Shenton cited the main positions of the authors. Whether Shenton omits this due to a lack of opinion or out of negligence remains unclear. Thus, between the covers bearing the mark of a highly esteemed publishing house, we have both clear argumentation against labelling Pärt’s music as minimalist (Sholl, Brauneiss) along side the positive assertion of this label, adding to the confusion in regard to this question.
Skipp’s desultory and contradictory text adds nothing else of importance to Pärt’s reception. On more than one occasion, the author reveals his impatience with anything associated with religion, and it seems that this attitude prejudices him against the composer. The excessive quoting and citing that characterises several texts in the compendium is further proof of the weak position of the author.
Laura Dolp concludes the main part of the collection with the article “Arvo Pärt in the marketplace” (pp. 177–192), analysing the environment where the music ends up, regardless of the composer. This brief analysis focuses on the United States, and some connections presented by the author seem odd from a European, and moreover, from an Estonian point of view; but multiple backgrounds are inevitable when discussing the “homeless” music of Pärt. Dolp discusses several paradoxes in the reception of Pärt’s music: although the composer has limited rather than favoured the recording and promoting of his compositions, their vast popularity has created numerous and various contexts for the music, often having nothing much in common with the author’s intentions. For instance, it is interesting to follow the fate of Pärt’s music in (documentary) film, where a few of his pieces (notably Spiegel im Spiegel) are selected with astounding consistency to provide background music for images of disasters.
Dolp does not attempt to define the style of Pärt’s music; however, her text offers some insight into why Pärt and two other European composers, Henryk Górecki and John Tavener (often and for no good reason discussed together) have been wedged within the minimalistic framework: more specifically, she shows that such definitions are not content-related, but intended to create a commercial context, and it is merely for the American market that drawing parallels between these three Europeans along with Reich and Glass works best. Dolp’s observations on Pärt’s critique, which ranges from one extreme to the other, are also noteworthy.
As a creator of Pärt’s image, it is reasonable that Dolp highlights his record company ECM and analyses their idiomatic marketing strategy and visual aesthetics. The first collaboration between Pärt and ECM — the CD Tabula rasa (1984) — brought worldwide fame to the composer, while Wolfgang Sandner’s texts accompanying it set the vocabulary and standards for presenting his music. Quoting Sandner’s masterful essay became almost a must when discussing Pärt’s music; unfortunately endless repetition of his rich imagery often also results in superficial clichés.
The uneven quality of the compendium is somewhat rescued by adding five shorter texts to the addendum: Andreas Peer Kähler’s beautiful essay “Radiating from silence: the works of Arvo Pärt seen through a musician’s eyes”, familiar to the Estonian reader thanks to Saale Kareda’s wonderful translation**, as well as Arvo Pärt’s dedications to Alfred Schnittke and Heino Eller and acceptance speeches at award ceremonies in Görlitz (2007) and Copenhagen (2008). The list of Pärt’s compositions provided in the Appendix is rather a compulsory addition to this sort of book, copying a few internet catalogues, and of larger independent value is the bibliography provided at the end.
In conclusion, “The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt” offers diverse and interesting reading, and contains several articles that treat subjects associated with Arvo Pärt’s music at the solid level of contemporary musicology. As a whole, however, the logo of Cambridge University Press deserves a more even selection of authors and articles, and certainly more careful and responsible editing. The editor could have considerably reduced the constant repetition of the composer’s quotes and the “canonic” Pärt citations; in addition, his introduction, “The essential and phenomenal Arvo Pärt” (pp. 1–9) might have attempted, rather than briefly summarise the articles in the collection, to indicate the connection between these texts and earlier writings about Pärt and current ideas in musicology.
*Leopold Brauneiss. Sissejuhatus tintinnabuli-stiilisse; „Miserere”. –Arvo Pärt peeglis: vestlused, esseed ja artiklid. (Articles “An introduction to the tintinnabuli style” and “Miserere” – Arvo Pärt in the Mirror: conversations, essays and articles”). Compiled by Enzo Restagno, [Tallinn]: Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus 2005, pp. 157–221 and 241–261 accordingly.
** Andreas Peer Kähler. Vaikuse kiirgus: Arvo Pärdi muusika (instrumentaal)muusiku pilgu läbi (“The Radiance of Light: the Music of Arvo Pärt through the Eyes of a musician (instrumentalist)”). – Teater. Muusika. Kino 2004, vol 5, pp. 66–71.