Arvo Pärt: The new strict style of tintinnabuli

Elena Tokun

In 1976, Pärt invented his unique style and technique – tintinnabuli (Latin for ‘little bells’). Using Pärt’s own apt expression, the “tintinnabuli genes” have been clearly recognisable in his musical thinking ever since. Carried by these ‘genes’ are his compositions written in tintinnabuli technique, but also those not directly related to it; they are always manifested in the pure and strictly organised sound of his works, and also in something that the composer himself calls the “spirit of music”. Even the name tintinnabuli is something more than just a metaphor for sound. It is Pärt’s unique creative philosophy which, he has said, can be compared to “spiritual fasting”, an “escape into voluntary poverty” filled with humility and prayerful concentration.

Pärtʼs music is carefully structured and aphoristic, yet these qualities emerge from a source that is completely different from that of Webernʼs music, for instance. Tintinnabuli is a composition system that seeks to reduce all possible parameters of musical means to a certain basic level, to the primordial elements of the language of sound.

The sound of tintinnabuli music is simple and transparent. At the same time tintinnabuli, with its strictly organised structure, works in a similar way to the dodecaphonic serial technique. The main component of texture here is structure based on the numerical logic of shaping and combining voices. Although the rules of the tintinnabuli technique only cover the pitch structure of the work, the rhythm also often follows such strict rules.

At the same time, sound parameters in the tintinnabuli technique are not subordinated to the principle of serialisation: the essence of tintinnabuli consists in the musical form as algorithms on the basis of formulaic thinking. Such a creative method is qualitatively different from serialism.

The formulaic quality of tintinnabuli has its ‘prototype’ in post-serial music. Unlike the formulaic composition technique of Stockhausen, which remains essentially related to the serial technique, the forms in Pärt’s tintinnabuli music are built on fundamentally different numerical bases – diatonic or polymodal systems. Therefore, they embody a new understanding of simplicity and postulate a new style paradigm of audible simplicity and structural complexity.

Tintinnabuli music brings together seemingly incompatible things: the all-encompassing rationality of the modern avant-garde and the breath of early polyphonic melos, altering these qualities with a new method of composition based on formulas.

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