“Sounds of silence”, “most beautiful music after silence”, “journey into silence” – comparing the music of Arvo Pärt with silence has virtually become a cliché. Indeed, his music seems to have a lot in common with the most valuable treasure in our world today – the rarest conservation, namely the audible silence – which, by the way, needs far more protection.
Rarely are we aware of the fact that the absolute majority of people have to endure the most severe noise contamination. Pärt’s music has even more in common with the silence within us, the silence that is so essential to hear ourselves.
However paradoxical it might be, silence seems to be the essential purpose of Pärt’s music: he does not consider the notes or musical sounds as the essence of music. For him, the sounds only point towards the essential, in the same way as words always only serve as a hint towards something more. The essential will always remain hidden between the sounds. Often, Pärt’s creative method is compared with fasting, with voluntary asceticism: for him, reduction is far more important than enlargement. He has always been frugal with his means of expression, even parsimonious – and yet his music is benevolent.
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Arvo Pärt was born 1935 in Estonia and is part of the generation who came of age after World War II and after the Stalinist period of repression. Whether it was illusory or not, at the end of the 1950s some people believed for some time that they could modernize Soviet society. The courageous – perhaps at times overly courageous – modern style of the young composers of that time symbolized the radical desire for renewal, but this was soon defeated by a new period of stagnation.
From the beginning of the 1960s, Arvo Pärt was known as an avant-gardist in both Estonian and Soviet music. From the very beginning he searched for the systematic in his composition techniques: he was one of the first in the Soviet Union to deal with twelve-tone music and the serial technique. At the same time, Pärt also attempted to solve a contradictory and fundamental problem of composition: the ability of his music to communicate has always mattered to him, and in the serial works from that time he not only relied on the inner logic, but also on the clarity and beauty of the structure. His creative work at that time also touched a much less known field, where music communicated in an entirely different way: atypical for a modern composer, he created songs for children in the early 1960s, piano pieces, a cantata for children – and all of these are still popular in Estonia today. In addition, he composed plenty of film music during this time, especially music for cartoons, puppet movies and children’s theatre.
However, these two fundamental goals in some way stood in complete contradiction to each other, and thus, in the search for his own musical language, Pärt faced a crisis in the mid-1960s. Over a number of years the composer tried to combine his modern collage-technique with quotations from classical music. The quoted music, however, did not complete his strongly expressive style, but was rather in contrast to it with its nostalgic indication towards a forgotten beauty. We can put it like this: the quest for a form of expression in Pärt’s music did not find its contemporary means at that time. The last composition of the modern period in Pärt’s work – his Credo (1968) – is the most powerful expression of this contradiction. It was to become the turning point: The dualism regarding the content and style of earlier compositions reached an agonizing simplicity with no way forward. The tersely exclaimed confession of faith “Credo in Jesum Christum” on the harmonic background of the first C major prelude of Das Wohltemperierte Klavier by Bach is nothing less than a final reckoning with the composition methods before and until then, and perhaps with composing in general. It is said that with such a clear and unambiguous confession of faith, Pärt parted deliberately from State recognition in the then Soviet Union.
In Pärt’s own words he had to learn to walk anew as a composer during the period of silence that followed. In 1976, he returned to the public stage with a profoundly personal composition technique, the Tintinnabuli-style. For years he had been searching for a more concentrated composition system, a system that would evolve through a radical reduction to the essentials. In this principle of composition the musical elements are even more strongly determined than in twelve tone music and the serial technique, even though this style – at least at its start – is nothing else but a reduction to the diatonic scales and simple triads. This unique method is highly formalized and very communicative, contemporary and timeless. It is ascetic, but its creative potential has proven unlimited until now.
The ingenious essence of the Tintinnabuli-technique lies in its merged two-layered character: the main principle of this technique is the combination, ruled by a strict principle, of a scalar melodic line with the ‘tintinnabuli’ line that usually consists of the notes of one unchanging triad. This has nothing in common with the familiar process in Western music where the melody is accompanied by a harmony. In the Tintinnabuli-style the two different and yet closely related main elements form an inseparable whole – Pärt himself compares it to the paradoxical formula 1 + 1 = 1. This method not only reveals a music-theoretical idea, but also, rather a worldview, a philosophy.
The composer himself describes it as the search for the Absolute, the search for the One: “Tintinnabuli style is an area where I sometimes wander, when I search for a solution for my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the distinct feeling that everything surrounding the One, has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for the One. What is it, this One, and how can I find my way to it? There are many appearances of perfection – and everything that is insignificant falls away.”
All musicians have the same paradoxical experiences with Pärt’s music: at first the music appears entirely straightforward, even naive or primitive and accessible to the beginner. But soon disillusionment follows: preparing a performance of this music demands a surprising amount of time and effort. Perhaps it isn’t so much the work with the musical notes, but rather the work with oneself. It is to reach a special and almost absolute degree of concentration, without which this music remains mute.
The often-quoted advice of the composer himself is thereby especially misleading when he suggests that in his opinion it is enough “if a single note is played beautifully”. Of course, “beautiful” here is equivalent to nothing less than “perfect”. In the same way that Pärt himself left the technical arsenal of composition behind him, he does not permit his musicians to hide behind the glamour of their virtuosity. He confronts them without a protective shield with a simple monophonic line, with the elementary triad, the schematic rhythmic and with the bare tone.
In an interview with Simon Russell Beale for BBC Four, Pärt explained about the time in the early 1970s when he was at the point of developing his new style: „It was as if I had to crawl through a narrow tube, where one should get rid of all redundant matters, just to get through it alive and save one’s life naked.” The performer has to endure a similar course if he wants to perform this „naked” music in its perfection. All these individual and “beautifully played” sounds in their entirety then start to resemble the crowds of naked people in the photographs of Spencer Tunick: vulnerable, defenceless, but similar to each other, separated from their social roles, without danger and shame. This creates a new realm of communication, honest through and through, without room for beautification.
Thus, this music symbolizes something that society has not yet achieved. And it conveys courage to live in our present world, a world in which we find ourselves more and more often naked and vulnerable, a world in which WikiLeaks prevent even international politics from having secrets. The traditional belief that secrecy will provide us with more security is no longer true because there is no difference between the truth and a lie in secrecy.
From this perspective, the music of Pärt with its meditative and personal character has a strong social dimension. I dare not say that this music fights for or against something, but it strives unyieldingly towards inward peace (is that not a paradox in itself?!) and it deals with something that should not be separable from the human existence – the characteristic dualism of this world. We cannot deny this dualism and Pärt definitely does not deny it, but he strives for something higher – for a state in which the Two merge into the One, the state before the Fall of Man, without the knowledge of Good and Evil.
This pursuit of truth can be an active social position, and even a political one: one of the latest works by Pärt serves as an example –Adam’s Lament, composed for choir and orchestra on the occasion of the conferment of the Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Music Festival in Istanbul, which at the same time is a work commissioned by the two cultural capitals Istanbul (2010) and Tallinn (2011). Pärt created this work on the basis of the poetically powerful texts by St. Siluan of Athos (1866–1938), in which the monk laments over the pain of Adam, over the loss of paradise.
In this work the commissioning, the texts selected by the composer, the performance venue and the performing artists merged into an unparalleled artistic oneness: Adam’s Lament was performed for the first time last June (2010) in Istanbul, in the place “where orient and occident meet each other”, in the old byzantine church of Hagia Eirene (in Greek the “Church of Heavenly Peace”). The performance featured a Turkish orchestra with singers and a conductor from Estonia. At the centre of the Russian text, there stands Adam – the forefather of all people according to the Bible and the Koran, the common link between the two largest world religions. In this tragic text Adam accepts all blame for the cataclysms of humankind. In an interview with the Estonian Classical Radio, Arvo Pärt said the following on the day of the premiere: “Adam is the father of us all. Regardless from which viewpoint we look at it – the farther we move away the clearer we can see that we are all in the same boat. […] Look, there are many countries in our world, and with the passing of time they become more and more different. But they do not become more different in a good sense, but in a bad sense. How do countries actually exist side by side? Their means of communication can be political, economic or cultural; that is the world we see, our life, which is well accepted by our intellect. And it appears that the intellect is unable to deal with anything beyond that. But that is not really much help to us. It would help us if we could say – and not only say it but also feel it – that your child is also my child, and my child is also your child. That should at least mean that you are my brother and my sister, but in this case we would all be related. Perhaps we are? But the roots we can only find in the distant past. The world is a unified organism: if one tooth aches, the whole body is in pain, if one person suffers, the whole world suffers, although we do not always recognize it right away.”
According to one of the most prominent Turkish newspapers – the Hürriyet – the performance of Pärt’s Adam’s Lament was the most important event during Istanbul’s tenure as European Capital of Culture in 2010.
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In conclusion I would like to share with you a few personal thoughts about human communication. One of the most persistent myths about Arvo Pärt is the belief that he is difficult to relate to as a person: he does not like to appear in public, seldom grants interviews, and appears even unfriendly towards the media. Fortunately, I am one of the many people who have personally experienced the exact opposite – an almost child-like open and playfully humorous Arvo Pärt. Yes, he is not talkative – in his music or in his life – but this is so because in his statements there is no room for the irrelevant. And furthermore: he can establish inter-human contact within complete silence, when nothing is being said – an essential contact one will not forget. His music has the same effect and the listeners are grateful for it – for the moment of complete oneness with the Essence, with the Absolute, the One.