How is Arvo Pärt’s music seen in the world of popular music? Siim Nestor’s interview with the composer on his 75th birthday on 11 September.
I have come to the beach at Laulasmaa. The morning rays of sunshine can be felt through the fuzz of clouds and there is white light all around under the pines, which smell of relaxation, home and happiness.
I am on the steps of Arvo Pärt’s house. I have with me a dozen or so discs, some of which I only compiled and burnt last night, with music of the sort that the grand old composer rarely comes across. Rock, house, drum’n’bass, drone-metal, post-rock, ambient-music and techno, and a few soundtracks. These musical examples are all by artists who have credited the world-famous Estonian composer and declared that Arvo Pärt is their great favourite or a key inspiration.
It has long been well known that the very special music from this very special person has spread far beyond the world of classical music. Everyone is at least able to name Pärt’s famous popstar fans, like Michael Stipe, Björk and Nick Cave, and just recently Rufus Wainwright paid tribute to him. But all these fans of Pärt’s creative work come from very different parts of the musical universe. The Norwegian black metal band Enslaved and the London-based rave’n’bass musician Zomby don’t have much in common except for their same favourite modern-day composer, never mind that their music seems to come from and to be from completely different worlds, and even to be in complete opposition musically to what their idol Arvo Pärt creates. At least the connection is clearer if it is a question of a few former punks who have felt the urge to scribble a bit of something like classical music or an atmospheric film score.
Perhaps Mr Pärt would like to listen to some of them a bit I thought, as I have brought with me a few samples from those same musicians from around the world. At any rate, I have something new to offer to Arvo and his wife Nora, who pours out some green tea to go with the danish pastries.
I start with Estonia. “First, the Estonian artist Pastacas. His style has been called folktronic and he creates all the sounds himself, including the guitar and flute. Pastacas has also tried to sample the percussion from your work Sarah Was Ninety Years Old and said, ‘I have listened to this piece a lot, it is one of my real favourites by Pärt, I can even say that I can feel the world stand still when I listen to this piece.'”
“Feel the world stand still”, repeats Arvo, quietly. “It means that although musically we are from quite different worlds, the feeling is the same. The desire is the same. It’s as if we’re in different trains but going to the same destination.
When the Los Angeles symphony was played for the first time in London recently, the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen told in a radio interview how he was in a taxi in Helsinki and the taxi driver was talking about modern music and mentioned that he knows my music and he recognises himself in it.”
“Pastacas also said that nine years ago when his daughter was born he had just bought a disc of Alina. He had the disc with him in the maternity hospital and he was playing it on a tiny CD player in the labour ward, and when his daughter was born he couldn’t manage to switch it off, so his daughter was born to the accompaniment of Für Alina. And so they named the girl Pihla Alina Teder.
“You know, that is really moving”, says Arvo, “though I should say that have been other similar cases, many others. We even have pictures of the little Alinas, and some of those children, the little Alinas, have been to listen to our concerts and so I have seen them a few times. They are from different countries. Our son Michael was also born to the sound of Alina.”
“Yes, and the same thing has been said by the British band Mogwai. They are a post-rock band, using rock instruments in a rock band line-up to play something like classical music, and the leader Stuart Braithwaite named Für Alina as one of his all time favourite pieces of music. He also said that his friend David Pajo, the multi-instrumentalist who plays in many different styles, named his daughter after the piece.”
“How wonderful they all are! We should count up how many little Alinas there are running round the world.”
“The next is the British rock band Radiohead, who have said they are big fans of yours. For example one of them, Jonny Greenwood, used elements from your music for the soundtrack of the film There Will be Blood.”
“Ah, wasn’t that film in a festival somewhere, a couple of years ago? I read something about it, but I don’t know any more than that, I haven’t seen the film.”
“And the Radiohead singer Thom Yorke has said, ‘really good music, like for example Arvo Pärt’s music, is like knocking on a wall and a hole appears in the wall where you can see a new world which you were completely unaware of the existence of.'”
“In any case, before my music was even first born, my new music, I had the feeling that I had to smash through some wall or mountain, that the music would be on the other side of the wall. And not being able to see it, having to tunnel through to it, having to learn this.
This is how life finds its own route. Look, even a little flower can push through the tarmac. Where does it get the strength from? And what is it all about? But it has this shoot inside it, and during that time, the searching for the music, I am inside that shoot.
You mustn’t misunderstand this, this isn’t some sort of trying to make a name for myself in the world or a career breakthrough, no, I’m talking here about quality. Music with the substance that I am looking for. And what is alive in this idea, so much that it could fall down a hole and still climb back out. In the same way that things happen in life.”
“Then PJ Harvey from England. Her earlier work was more rocky, harsher, but her latest album White Chalk is much more reserved and soulful, and she named you as a key influence. Equally she has said that listening to Tabula Rasa is such a consuming experience that she can only do it once a year.”
“That shows she is relating to the work not just on a musical level, it isn’t just a musical pleasure, but some other spiritual effect is taking her.
With Tabula Rasa this happens precisely with musicians, as it is hard to practise it, you just have to play it, and playing it requires such concentration that you can only get yourself up to it once you are on stage in the evening.
We’ve had problems with final rehearsals. Two hours before the concert, the final rehearsal was a catastrophe. They learned it, they interpreted it, they searched for it, nobody knew what to do about it. We came to the concert, ready for the worst, and the music somehow started to blossom because of the pressure and the seriousness which can’t be created in rehearsal.”
“That is such a strong and powerful experience…” I add.
“And it is also like that magic experience when you speak to someone in a language they don’t speak and they understand everything you say. Things like that can happen in the world, communication happens on another level and that means that at some level, somewhere, we are all one. This music, the choir is incidentally there in between. It’s like a curtain sometimes”, says Arvo, and asks me PJ Harvey’s nationality and age.
I continue, “And then there is the band Sunn O))). They have said that they are very interested in you. They make music that is called drone metal or doom metal.”
“Why is it always called something metal?” asks Arvo with a smile.
“Because it is so strong”, says Nora.
“Yes, and on stage they dress as monks, with cowls. Their music is really slow and resonant. Listening to their records it feels as if hot steam is flowing around the floor of the room. Sunn O)))’s last album was particularly compared to Pärt, one critic even noting that they have used tintinnabuli-style techniques.”
“I would certainly have to listen to that, at least to a little of it.”
“We can listen, but you may not recognise it”, says Nora.
“So what? Even better if I don’t recognise it”, smiles Arvo and we go to the music centre. I suggest the song Big Church from SunnO)))’s last album, Arvo presses play. It starts with a female choir, which seems to be trying to take off and fly. Arvo nods. After 23 seconds there is a grumble rumble of guitars, and Arvo looks around and smiles again. We listen to about three minutes of the song, then we sit down again.
“There is something there”, he says.
“That slow grumbling is Sunn O)))’s main feature.”
“I understand, it makes time stop, time in big blocks.”
Now I tell them about Canadian micro-house artist Akufen, who makes music from really short samples. “He was asked whether he would like to remix Arvo Pärt’s music, and he declared that for him remixing Pärt is really not appropriate or necessary.”
“Yes, interesting that he came to that conclusion… and they did too…” indicating the Sunn O))) disc. “Maybe some bits are more successful, purer, clearer, but if they try to do something like me themselves, it all goes wrong, because I have my own rules, my own statics, like in architecture. Some house can be all crooked, but it stands like that firmly, and if you just try to build a house by following your feelings, then it collapses.
Of course they can do that, but then it has nothing to do with me, it is a wholly different thing.”
“And here is Raffertie, a young upcoming English artist”, I say, putting on the electronic dance music. “He has studied music, and has written an essay, among other things, about your recent work, studying the harmonies, the compositional elements, the tintinnabuli style. But his own music is noisy and fast, it doesn’t stand still, it jerks and wriggles. He says that your music is something that has to be experienced personally, intensively, and when he listens to your music it opens something inexplicable for him.”
“In himself”, says Pärt. “In himself, the very same theme that runs through all of these quotes, everyone recognises themselves, something is opened inside them, something which is already there. And then there is a small lamp goes on, which for a moment illuminates that little corner.
I too write music by discovering myself, looking for myself. I don’t write for others, but it reverberates with them.
I suppose secretly we love one another. Anonymously. It is very beautiful.”
“Another Englishman, Bill Drummond. In the 80s he was one of The KLF, the pop culture guerillas who were early pioneers of sampling. They also organised strange situationist events alongside their music, burning one million pounds as an artistic statement, using money they had earned from their music.”
“Did they go to prison for that? They would have done in Russia.”
“Drummond wrote in his book 17 that one year when he happened to be listening to artists beginning with P, he came across Arvo Pärt’s work and fell completely in love with his music, especially the choir music, and it gave him the courage to write his own choir music, at least in his own imagination.”
“What, this same guerilla?” asks Arvo with a half-smile. “It’s like on that disc that we listened to, the first bit, there was something there, something was detonated there – perhaps it was the choir.”
“The Berlin band Einstürzende Neubauten are among the pioneers of industrial music, and they also have an album called Tabula Rasa, because of which they discovered your music. One of the band members, Blixa Bargeld, has said that their song The Garden from the Ende Neu album is basically a tribute to your music. Blixa also said that he drank a bottle of absinthe with a friend, listened to Tabula Rasa and felt complete clarity and lucidity.”
Again this amuses Arvo. “Innocent children, they are innocent children.”
Blixa Bargeld also played guitar for the Australian band Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. They play sinister, gloomy, even menacing bar music, and Nick Cave was organiser of the 1999 Meltdown festival in London, and put your music into the programme. Soundtracks by Cave and Warren Ellis are often compared to Arvo Pärt’s music, for instance recently in the cinema there was the film The Road, whose main theme was similar to Alina.”
“Yes, those ‘similar’ soundtracks appear quite often, like a little boy who is ashamed and sulky, saying ‘I did something bad, I did something bad!’ Nick Cave, yes, I’ve heard that name.”
“Then there is Jah Wobble. He started off in post-punk, then moved mainly into dub and world music, but he has also dabbled in classical music. He says that your music gives him the chills and a cold trembling.”
This again pleases Arvo, and he says, “They are living people, with living thoughts and feelings, and so they search and they find. The creative emotion lasts, it is switched on all the time. Maybe there is not so much life among professional classical musicians.
One singer was playing a concert here in Estonia, a boy with a very beautiful voice. He invited me to the concert, but I wasn’t here at the time.”
“Yes, that’s him. We looked him up on the internet, he left a good impression on me.”
“There are endless numbers of those who have named you as their big favourite, I can’t list them all. There’s Franz Ferdinand from Britain, Arcade Fire from Canada, who Michael has worked with, the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, who play a steady, flowing music, then from Iceland of course there is Björk…”
“She wanted to study with me when she was already a famous artist. I didn’t know anything about her when she came to me. This was in the 1990s, I had gone to a concert in Iceland, I went to my hotel and the telephone was ringing when I went into my room. There was a voice that sounded like a boy’s, ‘I want to meet you to show you something’. This happens all the time to me.
I asked, ‘is it something recorded, a tape?’ ‘Yes, it is.’ I said I had a rehearsal in a couple of hours, so go there and you can give it to me.
And so she did. At the rehearsal there was suddenly this very colourful person in front of me. I hadn’t heard the name Björk or anything, and I asked, ‘is what you write pop music?’ and she said, ‘well yes, that’s what they say.’ She was very shy. I said thank you, put the disc in my pocket and said that if she wanted to listen to the rehearsal she should sit over there.
I was walking around the hall, the rehearsal was going on, and all the time the people in the orchestra were looking at the auditorium. Playing, and looking at the auditorium. I didn’t understand what was going on – they were looking at their national hero Björk, thinking what was she doing there?
When I got back to my hotel room there was a long long fax for me. Björk had written it by hand, just like to a friend, about what she had heard at the rehearsal, what she felt and what she thought generally about the music. And how much she wanted to come and study with me, and she wrote that she was flying off the next morning. I also had to leave the next morning, so I started looking for her at the airport. The airport was relatively quiet because it was early in the morning, and I didn’t even know which plane she was on, where she was going, but I tried to find her, all in vain.
Some years later she interviewed me for Channel 4, and afterwards she said that she would like me to do some arrangements for her. I saw who she really was and I listened to her music, the album where she is wearing a kimono. I’ve even seen her film, it is a real work of art. Such an interesting person, such brilliance. In every intonation, every syllable.”
“Björk was supposed to appear in Niguliste church and perform one of your pieces.”
“Yes, I had done a piece to order for an international choir gathering in Iceland, and the tour that followed was through holy places, pilgrims through Europe, from Bergen to Compostela via Tallinn. I called this work ‘… Which was the Son of…’. I took a text about Christ’s family tree from the Bible, and I chose it because I had been to Iceland and seen how Icelanders respect their family tree and similar values, and Björk was supposed to do the solo. But at that time she was working on the film, where she was writing the music and acting, and things changed in her life and at the last minute she dropped out, and so she didn’t make it to us in Tallinn.”
“Taka from the Japanese post-rock band Mono has said that playing in Estonia is very special for him – they have been here twice – precisely because Estonia is where Arvo Pärt is from.”
“That is very moving! I knew nothing about all this world, and you’ve given something to think about. Thank you.”
Friends of Arvo Pärt:
– Eccentric bass artist Zomby from London, whose rave music has been compared to classical music, told music magazine The Fader that he would like to do a project together with Arvo Pärt. Elements of Pärt’s work have been sampled by Mexican minimalist electronica artist Murcof. Other electronica artists who have named the Estonian composer as an inspiration include the Germans Pantha du Prince, a minimal techno producer, and Marsen Jules, a leftfield electronic musician; the British drum’n’bass tandem SpringHeel Jack; and William Orbit, who years ago wanted to record an album of Pärt’s work.
– Metal bands influenced by Pärt include Norwegian black metal band Enslaved and Canadian folk/doom group Agalloch, while the Californian doom group Neurosis have spoken of their dream of making music with Pärt.
– Peter Gabriel said that one influence for his recent album of covers was Arvo Pärt. The latest album by indie band A Sunny Day In Glasgow opens with a ten-second homage to Pärt. Icelandic band Sigur Rós have played Für Alina before concerts. Steve Wilson, leader of English prog-rock band Porcupine Tree, has said that Pärt’s early works are unsurpassed. Pärt has also been cited as an influence by Matt Johnson of The The, Kleerup, M83, Benoit Pioulard, Nancy Elizabeth, Ed Harcourt and others.
– Experimental musicians who have paid tribute to Pärt include the Texas duo Stars of the Lid, English industrial experimenters Coil, English artist Nurse With Wound, and Norwegian future-pop-band Apoptygma Berzerk.
– Estonians: Erko Niit, Tuuli Taul, Beggars Farm, Opium Flirt, Andres Lõo, Peedu Kass and many more.