An Interview with Arvo Pärt

Martin Elste

Fanfare, March-April, 1988

“How can one fill the time with notes worthy of the preceding silence?” This is the main concern of Arvo Pärt. It defines his aesthetic position. He is a composer whose strength is hidden in the simplicity of his resources. There are rhythmically uncomplicated motifs, the melodic line of which often is nothing else but triads split up into their individual notes or scales. His music is an alloy of scales and triads. It is the aural counterpart to the moving pictures by Andrey Tarkovsky.

The success of Pärt’s music among program makers and audiences is not always shared by critics, some of whom regard it as naive and repetitive. It is neither. What is true is that Pärt has created a unique language which has the strength to both arrest and enchant the listener.

Arvo Pärt was born in Paide, a small town in Estonia, in 1935. He studied composition with the then old Estonian composer Heino Eller at the conservatory of Tallinn until 1963 and worked at the same time as a sound engineer at the radio station of Tallinn. In 1968, Pärt left his job at the radio station; he had by then become well known in Russia and could earn his living by composing. Within a relatively short time period after emigrating to the West, his compositions received numerous performances throughout Europe.

The first disc with works by Pärt was issued around 1970 in Russia and has long been out of print (Melodiya D 018049-26079, Symphony No. 1, Perpetuum Mobile, Collage on B-A-C-H, Syllabic Music, and Pro et Contra). In 1984, ECM Records released Tabula Rasa (817 764-2), which has proved a best seller, followed last year by Arbos (831 959-2). Last December I had the opportunity to have a long and interesting conversation with the composer in his West Berlin apartment, accompanied by a pot of hot Russian tea and caviar sandwiches.

In 1980 you arrived in Vienna. You left your Russian homeland for good?
There was no other possibility. To give up your Soviet citizenship is the condition sine qua non for leaving. There is no other way. So I became an Austrian citizen. Austria takes care of musicians. Thus I’m now Austrian—very funny, indeed.

I suppose Berlin is very different from your hometown. Do you feel comfortable here?
Berlin is not so far away from my home. Just remember for almost 500 years the Baltic countries had been very Germanic. Our first cultural steps were made under German influence.

Do you feel yourself an international composer?
Who of the Austrian composers is not international? Well, I’m known here as a Russian composer, though I’m not Russian at all. I am an Estonian who has Austrian documents and lives in West Berlin—I am sufficiently enough international! I don’t mind that . . . it’s of no importance to me.

What made you come to Berlin?
Fate—It was good fate to receive a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service. Thus we are here, my wife and our two kids.

Just pure coincidence?
Yes, if there is something like that. Perhaps it wasn’t coincidence.

Back in 1968, your piece Credo excited quite a severe criticism by the Russian cultural officials. Why?
In the course of my life there have been several upsets. It started as far back as 1961, when I composed Nekrolog, which was my first large orchestral piece. I was a student at the conservatory of music in Tallinn, and I had written a piece in 12-tone-technique which was at that time and place extraordinary. As a result there was strong criticism from the highest circles. Nothing was considered more hostile than so-called influences from the West, to which 12-tonc-music belonged.

Did you go into a sort of inner emigration following the Credo stir?
No, I wouldn’t say so. It was my style to think and to communicate. And I was always open about it. My music was my specific way to think and to manifest myself. I didn’t have political aims. Yet I was asked exactly this question about my political aims in this Credo.

Can you tell in a few sentences why you compose? And for whom?
That’s a good question. For me it’s like breathing in and out. It’s my life. What does a child do when he plays on his own? He sings. Why does he sing? Well, he is happy about something pretty, he is inspired by something. That is something healthy, quite natural. For adults this state is considerably more complex, for this harmony is smashed into pieces, it’s lost. But can I exist without composing, my soul and my spirit? Music is already my language. My music can be my inner secret, even my confession. But what is my confession? I don’t confess in the concert hall, in front of an audience. It is directed toward higher instances. The necessity for composing has many layers. They are like bridges, put on top of each other. And you never know which one you are just passing. Some are dangerous and you fall. Most important for me: that I cannot say in a thousand sentences what I can say in a few notes.

How long have you been composing?
As a little boy I sang around the house. We had a huge concert grand, but it was in such poor condition that we almost disposed of it. When I was seven or eight, I started taking piano lessons. It wasn’t very satisfying as the middle register of the grand was broken. So I played the notes of the low and high registers only. I combined reality with phantasy this way. When I grew up, I exchanged the hammers in order to tackle the middle register, but the action didn’t work as evenly as it should have because the hammers didn’t fit properly at every point. At that time I composed a lot for the piano.

How do you compose?
Mainly in my head, with an inner hearing. I can’t perform my finished pieces on the piano, that’s impossible. What I hear, when I play, is not identical with what my family members hear. It’s like smoking. To touch the cigarette with your fingers is as important as the actual smoking.

Am I right that for you composing is a sensual-intellectual experience?
To be honest, I have many books, many of which I never take into my hands. Such it is with the concept of intellectuality. I don’t think in these categories. To me, a word like intellectuality is a foreign word. I prefer to come to the point. It would be ideal when one would say “Yes” or “No,” just as it is done in the Sermon on the Mount. Then there would be no roundabouts.

It’s like breathing, isn’t it? When everything works well, you don’t think about it.
But you ought to, why it doesn’t work when it doesn’t work.

Your breathing in regard to composing seems to work smoothly. You are quite creative, aren’t you?
What’s the meaning of creativity? There are millions of composers who are so creative one is afraid of it. You can drown in the sewage water of our time’s creativity. The capability to select is important, and the urge for it. The reduction to a minimum, the ability to reduce fractions— that was the strength of all great composers.

You have composed for modern as well as for historical instruments. Can you tell us about that?
After breaking away from serialism I made a very thorough study of medieval music. That dated from 1969. Around 1976, at the moment my own tintinnabular style was about to be born, my life was tightly bound up with the Estonian Ensemble for Old Music Hortus Musicus and its leader Andres Mustonen. At that time the world of ancient music opened up before us and we all were full of enthusiasm. This atmosphere had the effect of a midwife for my new music. And many of my compositions were performed by Hortus Musicus and dedicated to the group; Arbos, for instance. I miss these people here in West Berlin!

These broken triads, so characteristic of your music, are particularly well suited for historical wind instruments, aren’t they?
That’s right. For me, the highest value of music is outside its color. Special instrumental timbre is part of the music, yet it’s not a primary quality. That would be my capitulation to the secret of music. Music has to exist by itself . . . two, three notes. The secret must be there, independent of any instrument. Music must derive from inside, and I have deliberately tried to write such music that can be played on a variety of instruments. It does make a difference to me from which instrument to which I change, though. I do see qualitative levels there. The Renaissance instruments have a special quality of their own; in addition, they have been made under conditions quite different from today. Their making is totally different from today’s making.—Do you know how they cook soup in a monastery? Each time the cooking is complemented by a prayer and they add holy water to the soup. That makes a totally different soup. You don’t believe that if you haven’t tried it. The difference has nothing to do with taste. These plastic instruments of our time, made by machinery, are somewhat misanthropical.

I guess you have not used the synthesizer yet?
In fact, right now I am thinking if I should buy a computer. However I would use the computer only for composing. I want the human voice to remain as well as, for example, a Stradivari.

Apropos Stradivari: Some time ago you worked at a violin concerto, didn’t you? Have you finished it?

It would have surprised me.

I suppose a violin concerto contradicts your aesthetic maxim of restriction.
Yes and no. Virtuosity can have a deeper meaning, you know. There are many classical examples of that. Also Tabula Rasa is a concerto. The idea for a violin concerto came from Paul Sacher. I had to be convinced to be able to write something like that. It happens occasionally that, when you talk too early about something, it does not come to fruition. Who knows, perhaps it’s better that one or another composition not be finished.

You once said that it suffices to play a single note beautifully.
That’s right. It refers to the situation immediately before the first performance of Tabula Rasa. But this idea had been a great discovery for me. There is a Russian saying: A drowning man will catch at a straw. I imagine that Tatjana Grindenko and Gidon Kremer were in this situation when they were confronted with the score of Tabula Rasa. Something impossible had to be born. And right then what I had been asking for happened: It suffices to play every single note beautifully. And I believe both were successful in passing this truth on to the listeners.

In your compositions you make reference to different musical traditions; to name but two: Bach and Gregorian Chant. What have you learned from Gregorian Chant?
Gregorian Chant has taught me what a cosmic secret is hidden in the art of combining two, three notes. That’s something 12-tone-composers have not known at all. The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every lively feeling. Twenty, 30 years ago it was almost impossible for a composer trained in serialist techniques to create something free of those specified rules, without arithmetic.

Could one say, among the 12-tone-composers Berg is closer to you regarding the emotional sphere, yet Webern is closer to you regarding the aim to distill?
I don’t know. I only know, in the music of these two composers there is not such hate that distinguishes the music of the serialists of the post-war generation. When I left Russia, it came as a great surprise and disappointment to me to find here composers playing in a sandbox. This has now, I believe, come to an end. Anyhow, it can’t go on like that. This breaking off was earlier in the Soviet Union than in Germany. And England has never fallen a victim to the ultra-modern cult. As an island it has been less influenced by these tendencies. The English musical tradition is unbroken. Why do the English sing the Lamentations of Jeremiah so naturally? Tallis is in their living memory, uninterrupted.

My first dodecaphonic piece met strong opposition, particularly among the officials. Yet I wasn’t alone with my 12-tone music for long. One could hardly stop this process. One day, the composer-officials had adopted 12-tone technique, partially at least. And when about 90% of them were dodecaphonic, I created my tintinnabular style and was declared mad for the second time. I now wait for this to happen here in Germany. The musical life here is rather conservative. And I have discovered something else odd: In the Soviet Union, modern music was considered a part of capitalist culture—yet here, in the West, it has always been labelled left wing, against capitalism. That is to say, we have never understood each other!

What about your relation to your performers? Do you mind their freedom in tackling scores? Do you want them to interpret your compositions exactly as you think they should be done?
I believe all composers are in this respect a bit narrow-minded, aren’t they? Just think of Stravinsky.
I believe one’s own conception changes with the time. The first doesn’t have to be the right one. It has already happened at rehearsals that I had to change my ideas. For instance, I have learned very much from Gidon Kremer. There are special cases, too. When, for instance, you have written a new type of articulation, you should insist on your own notion. When you work together with musicians, there are mutual stimulations. I was fortunate enough to work together with Hortus Musicus and, more recently, with the Hilliard Ensemble, from both of whom I much profited.

There are, broadly speaking, two ways to perform your music: One is the strict, detached kind, with the notes placed one after the other. A different way is the more romantically influenced style, with agogic impetus. Which way do you prefer, if any?
Romantic or detached (if there is something like that)—that makes no difference to me. Something else is important: Interpretation must live, it must breathe and convince us. Only that has a value and importance. Anything else is to my mind mere theory. To listen to different performances of my works is like an open wound. It always aches when you touch it. On the other hand, let me give you an example. Neeme Järvi, who is an excellent conductor and who has done from early on all my works, has conducted my Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten quite a few times, each time differently. Tempo . . . articulation—everything. He can’t do a composition twice sounding identical. He lives and changes and so does his interpretation. And every time I think: “Oh, this is pretty, and this here is just gorgeous”. I have learned that each performance is a unique version in which every bit has its own place. Great artists work at one stroke. Picasso puts a stroke onto the paper and he won’t erase it. Another stroke is another painting.

At a recent concert, your Cantus was played right after Schoenberg’s Survivor from Warsaw as a sort of buffer between Schoenberg’s music and the applause which would otherwise be as cruel as the scene Schoenberg depicts. Is this functional placing of your music in accordance with your intentions?
Naturally, something like this is always problematic. I have been asked if I objected and I said no, I don’t mind. But one could not ask Schoenberg. I don’t want to say one should not experiment. But for me it’s impossible to answer in an objective manner in this case. Yes, it was a brave idea, and it worked.

Two ECM records of your music have been produced so far. Are there further plans?
It has been a new experience to me that records can cause more consequences than concerts, for example. About a tenth of my complete output has been recorded so far dating mainly from recent times. I don’t like to speak much about plans, actually… Next might come out my St. John Passion performed by the Hilliard Ensemble and the Capricorn Ensemble. They have already performed this work a number of times, and in 1988 they will go on tour with it through England, Italy, France, and Spain. The Hilliards have made themselves thoroughly acquainted with my works, and we have a mutual relationship of confidence. I am exceedingly happy about this. Later on, ECM might start recording earlier works by me.

How do you judge your contact with ECM?
My contact with ECM can be called neither good nor bad. It’s a natural supplement to my composing. Manfred Eicher’s record producing is an art in itself. Of which kind? I don’t know how to call it. He is a performer, and his instrument is sound, acoustics, the sounding space which can be heard only by him. One says the talent of a sculptor lies not in his hands but in his eyes. He looks at things in a special way. Similarly you can say, Manfred Eicher hears in a special way and his records are a result of this hearing.

What I call a piece of art made by Manfred, is actually a rich and sensitive complex of hearing, thinking, feeling, taste, and artistic skill: It is a whole philosophy. And that is something very lively and in continuous formation. Our work together making new records is always a feast.

Translation from German: Martin Elste
Copyright 1988 by Arvo Pärt and Martin Elste

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