Illuminated Coexistence of Religions

Max Nyffeler

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 23 April 2013

Memorable meeting of two cultures in historically charged setting: the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has paid a productive visit to Istanbul.

The question as to the precise definition of “New Music” has been the subject of discussion among experts ever since the term was first introduced. That was almost a century ago. Avoiding the keynote, compulsory dissonance, forbidden octaves, an elevated noise factor – these are all criteria that invigorate specialist debate, but have only accelerated the advancement of art towards its self-imposed isolation. The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has always refused to accept these unwritten rules, which is why he has never been admitted into the inner circle of New Music composers. But in any case, his music was still new because no one had composed in that way before him. And the ostracism has not done him any harm either.

Pärt is similar to his elder contemporary Carl Orff in this respect: both have gained a faithful following around the world, undeniably also due to the accessibility of their music which cares little about restraints on consonance. But those who try to dismiss Pärt, saying that he fulfils the need for “easy listening”, fail to recognise the more profound reasons for his success. In his ostensibly simple music, which unfolds in line with organic principles and presents familiar material in new constellations, Pärt is skilled at addressing emotional situations and levels of consciousness that have been wantonly neglected by the majority of his contemporaries in their fixation with complexity and material. The term “spirituality” fits best here and in recent times has developed into a catchword in the field of contemporary music. But Pärt is the original, and not the hanger-on: he has been making spiritual music in his calm and consistent way for decades.

In the eyes of his critics, he has thus become the quintessential apolitical artist who has withdrawn into himself and has said goodbye to the world. But this is a fallacy, as shown in the Adam’s Lament, for instance. This work has now been included with other vocal/instrumental pieces in a recording that took place in 2011 at a church in Tallinn. With its combination of clarity, simple expression and a recording technique that focuses on the aura of sound, it shows the purity of the music in the most beautiful light.

The performers are the Latvian Radio Choir, the ensemble Vox Clamantis and the Sinfonietta Riga conducted by Pärt expert Tõnu Kaljuste. The work was premiered in 2010 in Istanbul by Estonian and Turkish musicians. The singers and conductor came from Tallinn; the instrumentalists in the string orchestra were from the Turkish Borusan Philharmonic Orchestra. Istanbul and Tallinn were both capital cities of culture at the time. Their joint Pärt project was not without its problems: it involved a deeply religious composer who belongs to the Eastern Orthodox Church, with a sacred work in a city where Christianity and Islam once collided.

This memorable meeting of two cultures in such a historically charged setting was made the subject of a documentary by Estonian television, which states that the premiere should originally have been in Hagia Sophia, the former Christian cathedral that is surrounded by minarets, but owing to Turkish concerns it was moved to Hagia Irene, which now functions as a concert hall and has a low religious profile. The Estonian-Turkish co-production was not only the motivation for an inspiring work of art, but it also became a heavily symbolic event. Both heads of state attended the concert, and for a short while the religious utopia of peaceful coexistence was almost tangible. This was also thanks to Pärt’s ingenious move to set a text to music in which both sides can immediately recognise themselves.

Adam’s Lament deals with humanity’s original sinners, the sorrow in all religions at Adam’s fall from God’s grace as committed to writing by Saint Silouan. In this historically saturated work, the words of the Russian Orthodox mystic blend completely with Pärt’s musical language which does not deny that its roots are to be found in Gregorian chant and the liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. While the older pieces on this recording still display some of the Puritan strictness perceived in Pärt’s earlier works, the new composition appears freer in its gestures, requiring more space for its expression. With restrained dramatic elements, the music absorbs the expressive substance of the textual source, but hardly ever loses its fundamental characteristics: the transparency and weightlessness of the sound. This lends the impression of translucency, similar to illuminated church windows. And it can certainly be understood metaphorically as well: music as a reflection of ideas that illuminate our human existence from a slightly different perspective.

“Our communication is political, economic or cultural. That is our visible world, and we feel almost entirely unable to accept anything that is different,” explained Arvo Pärt in Estonian television with reference to Adam’s Lament. But, he added, we must say and also feel that “My child is also your child. We are all related to one another, and the world is one.” The patriarch of a humanity that has split in two as a figure projecting a political utopia: this dialectical pointe expressed by the apolitical Pärt is unparalleled.