Radiating from silence. The works of Arvo Pärt seen through a musicians eyes

Andreas Peer Kähler

Booklet of the festival “Person of the Borderland – Arvo Pärt”, 28.10.–11.11.2003, Poland, Sejny

In his famous book The Little Prince, the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes: I have always loved the desert. You can sit on a dune. You see nothing. You hear nothing. Yet something is still radiating in the silence.1

The desert — or possibly in a metaphoric sense: tabula rasa — is presented here as a beautiful although unpeopled image, generating a certain energy — “radiating in silence”. The desert’s beauty — said The Little Prince — lies in a well buried somewhere there.

Arvo Pärt’s longing for the purity of sound and his craving to draw closer to it through tintinnabulation is a lot like searching for a well in the desert. Similarly the conviction that “radiation in silence” may be attained exclusively by reduction of means and personal spiritual denial is shared by both artists. Saint-Exupéry’s drawing at the end of the book is moving — two straight lines at the bottom symbolising the desert and a small, awkward starlet at the top; the words Pärt uses to describe the glockenspiel style are similarly significant: “Tintinnabulation is an amazing moment — escape into a self-imposed asceticism: holy men have left behind all their wealth and are heading for the desert”. Similarly, the composer wishes to leave behind the entire arsenal of modern means of expression and appeal to pure tonality carrying only that which is crucial — the triad.

We shall dwell a little on Pärt’s “self-imposed asceticism”. Let us not imagine that although it results from free will, it is easy or painless for the composer! Looking from the outside at his historic decision to adopt the tintinnabulum style, we are aware of the price that he paid: Pärt divested himself of inconceivable resources, such as the many recognised structural novelties of contemporary music. For instance, the style principally does not allow the systematic use of technical and sound capacities of instruments as well as differentiation or opulence in instrumentation. In the strict world of tintinnabulum choir-orchestral casting prevails, where the timbre, although not denied, is not the most important attributes of music. For that reason it is relatively easy to transcribe works for other instruments or bands: just as was the case with pre-classical music, melody or counterpoint are more vital than the choice of instrument.2

After twenty five years of acquaintance with the mature fruits of this stylistic reduction we take Pärt’s music almost for granted; but we should not forget the vale of tears through which he had to walk before he resolved to apply the principles of tintinnabulation.

This is how Pärt words his new creed: I have discovered that it is enough to beautifully play this one and only tone. It is not a mere declaration but a strong expression of radicalism and determination. Interpreters of his music find this radical simplicity everything but facilitating. Here, to play “beautifully” means to play perfectly — disarmingly simple notation becomes a source of irritation rather than help (remember the image of the desert). Hence the natural reaction of musicians who, on seeing a score like this, often expect they will be able to play the composition straight from the notes. The usual result of such an approach is a painful awakening (my own attempts to use the piece Für Alina for beginners’ piano classes were a complete failure…)

The extreme simplicity of musical means in Arvo Pärt’s works reveals the technical deficiencies of some musicians. An average opera singer may, if needed, resort to identifying himself with the role; a violinist who does not boast great legato or appropriate intonation will resort to virtuosity; and a conductor with no clear concept for interpretation of a work will be grateful for the possibility to cue another group of instruments. Does this apply to Pärt’s music? Let us take the eighteen-minute Silentium from the second part of the concerto Tabula rasa: in an infinitely luminous, velvet entanglement of long and very long, quiet and very quiet tones there is not even a single point to lean on if one cannot cope — technically or mentally — with the interpretive requirements; such a musician, completely powerless, is prey to that which he cannot master. Simply speaking the famous second part of Tabula rasa is something of a music lie-detector — indeed, I have met musicians who could not count to three at the end…

On the other hand there are select musicians who, thanks to knowing Pärt’s works, do not abstain from practising long sounds. And even if they have performed them all in their lives — most of them from scores — they are discovering now that it is all about beautifully playing the one and only tone.
As far as the relationship between the simplest of scores and the enormous dormant potential of perils, it is hard not to notice that the simplicity of notes is an unconscious protection of delicate music tissue from incompetent, in a sense remorseless interpreters —just as Russia did not meet Napoleon’s army at the border but drew it deep into the country in order to ultimately dispose of it… An encounter with the score, which seems quite simple, and in reality turns out to be so infinitely difficult, brings to mind Saint Christopher, who certainly faced greater challenges in his life than carrying a baby across a river —yet the weight of this task almost crushed him…

I believe that for musicians the decisive point in experiencing Pärt’s music is whether in interpreting a work they succeed in shifting their own perception from the subjective plane to quasi objective. In the event of Pärt’s music it is not about thoughts or emotions feeding its own performance which determine the interpretation but the raw “IT” of music’s coordinates. Such issues as balance between triads (T) and melody line (M), control over vibrato, level dynamics without accidental crescendi and diminuendi and others have to be attributed to careful own observation and self-control. In contrast “expression” has little meaning to the interpreters of Pärt’s music; it cannot be directly planned but, in favourable conditions, namely when “IT” is attained — it is created, as a result, by itself. In the words of Saint-Exupéry: You see nothing. You hear nothing. Yet something is still radiating in the distance.

The priority of “IT” often requires unimaginable sacrifices of the performer. For instance a cellist — we are back to the second part of Tabula rasa — who is not able to play the legato melody in the framework of a given octave, in the best sounding register of his instrument, in order not to destroy the delicate balance of T and M entanglement has to constantly contradict himself, so to speak, where the sound is concerned. Similarly — from the instrumental point of view — this is the case with an extreme one-sidedness of some solo lines: for instance throughout the ten minutes of Spiegel im Spiegel only long tones are required of the violinist and in the version Fratres for string quartet the entire voice of the second violin consists of empty string g and h, which have to sustain piano for ten minutes…: “beautiful tone” as an of epitome of eternity, against which time crashes (in movement of other voices).

Due to the extreme character of the composition, to an interpreter of Pärt’s music it is of principal importance not to be misled by the simplicity of the notes but to leave oneself time to get close to the sound, at the same time showing concentration and possibly great inner balance. And just as the power of Pärt’s music originates in the beauty of individual tones, an interpreter’s way outside, towards artistic articulation, always commences inside, with concentrated attention to oneself and contemplation. Therefore interpretation of Pärt’s music without preparation is problematic not so much for the score but for the difficulty of creating in oneself this inner peace, which his works demand. (As the fox in The Little Prince said cleverly: Your rose is so important to you, because you have given so much of your time to it.)

However, careful listening to your inner self leaves space for some freedom. It can be experienced as a blessing when for once you question certain practical interpretational mechanisms, e.g. the one that violinist’ espressivo immediately produces the standard vibrato of the left hand; or that central sounds or lengths in iambic rhythms should, as a matter of rule, be played vibrato, etc. (Sadly, as for the question of vibrato, few musicians perceive, or control the moment and intensity of their vibrato, even if the majority is convinced they actually do.) Alternating rapid vibrato and non-vibrato, as in e.g Orient & Occident, poses a great challenge of technical nature to many musicians.

What, then, takes the place of the typical espressivo? Ultimately it would be unwise to question a beautiful sound or vibrato as such — Tabula rasa or Fratres are good examples of how in a composition all possible shades of sound and specifically vibrato should be presented. Is there something like specific “Pärt’s tone”? Skepticism is advisable here; I am more inclined to state that no postulates of that sort have any rational justification: an encounter with Pärt’s music is rather an opportunity for an interpreter to seek the right solution or proportions anew as a result of being momentarily lost in rapt listening. Also a violinist performing Spiegel im Spiegel will not be able to choose any conventional solution when asking the question what on earth he is to do with that many long tones — nor, in reference to vibrato, will he be able to discover that less in fact means more3. For those who will engage themselves in it and will be able to go about it, this intuitive moment may definitely be considered a welcome phenomenon since it increases perception, sense of one’s responsibility and sobriety. For that very reason Pärt himself is exceptionally sparing about directions concerning performance, or often simply presents musicians with the score alone…

The free creative space thus produced also includes the tempo. Just as it is the case with timbre, according to Pärt tempo is not a crucial music parameter. The choice of “the right” tempo — without any damage to comments concerning tempo in the score — has a lot to do with intuitive understanding of the interpreter and there is a great number of wonderful examples of how the very same work can develop in different directions depending on the selected tempo, without losing its identity: in meditations of Alexander Malters Für Alina or in Wenn Bach Bienen gezüichtet hätte…, where the bee-like counterpoint character represents a masterly commotion and intensive labour. The most extreme form of this creative freedom I experienced with the Summa: the difference of tempo between “romantic” legato variant and fresh articulation of non-legato variant may even amount to one hundred percent!

Obviously there are limits to this freedom. Since Pärt’s instrumental music is principally oriented according to the ideal of vocal music, “melodiousness” of respective voices creates a natural — upper and lower — border for the choice of tempo. Carefulness is advised while using agoge, (unless Pärt himself encourages it by giving such directions as “calmly; nobly; rapt listening to yourself” in Für Alina). Stability of metre is one of the most significant pillars of the quasi objective impact of Pärt’s music. The Giusto character is also clearly present in such works as Mein Weg, or in the first part of Tabula rasa; in others, for instance in Fratres or in the second part of Tabula rasa, it is hardly noticeable, but equally present and important. And that is precisely where danger lurks, waiting to surprise interpreters: for example, in the second part of Tabula rasa maintaining really steady metre for eighteen minutes without any music “events” is a hardship known only to St Christopher.

Intonation is another element important for a musician, particularly with triad tones T. Louder sounding of a chord alone is a music phenomenon in itself, providing it has been immaculately played, i.e. when spectra of top tones perfectly overlap their own individual tones, producing a mutually strengthened effect. Great conductors, e.g. Sergiu Celibidache, exploited this phenomenon on numerous occasions, achieving a maximum orchestral forte not through a maximum effort but merely by means of precise intonation — thanks to which the sound receives the required force while not seeming forced but natural. It is similar in case of Pärt’s works, but regardless of the dynamic force. Every tone T makes sense only as a part of the entire triad and only a precise intonation, in a delicate balance between T and M, can influence the fusion of the two melody lines into one sound.

Also because of this — a repeated instruction becomes almost superfluous — conventional vibrato of violinists is more of a hindrance. No doubt, greater transitions without or with a slight vibrato are to some extent hazardous, as far as intonation is concerned, still, experienced musicians should approach this calmly instead of following the line of least resistance, i.e. choosing the intonational dubious sphere of vibrating tone. There is too much significance for Pärt’s music in acoustic stability of triads, which constitute a system of reference to everything that is going on in the melody stratum.

Summing up, it is possible to say that in Pärt’s compositions written in tintinnabulum style a process of desubjectivisation of music takes place. The sacrifice that interpreters of Pärt’s music have to make from the technical-instrumental point of view or from the point of view of “expression”, emotion, is a levy for this exceptional kind of music. The reward will be an increase of “intersubjectivity”: Pärt’s drive towards purity of sound and relentless demand for balance and uniformity inexorably conducts the musician’s (and listener’s) consciousness to wholeness and inviolability — a bewildering phenomenon in the context of 20th century! It may be observed also in group dynamics: few orchestra musicians have any illusion left about the role of the orchestra as a social institution, yet the unifying effect of Pärt’s music is obvious and when performance is successful, it produces surprising results in the form of orchestral solidarity and common positive emotions.

Although the observation is not significant from a scholarly point of view, I would like to point out that there are few vain interpreters of Pärt’s music — or at least that the vanity is barely present during the performances of his compositions. Music of such expression of purity and credibility really seems to have a good effect on musicians (and listeners).

For professional musicians the encounter with Pärt’s music may have cleansing effects. Pärt’s almost ritual-like use of scales and triads as well as the obviousness with which they are presented in their innocent nakedness, mean a concealed appeal to hear differently, anew, what appears to be already known: thanks to that a scale, which has been worked with thousands of times, may suddenly become a conscious experiencing of rising and falling, where the ascetic triad, worn out and long-buried by history, becomes (again) a dome of sound, where three individual tones in a way close to ideal are freed from their individuality in order to create a higher entity.

To a medieval or renaissance musician such utter surprise at those phenomena could be an obvious thing. In this day and age — described by Sachs in the following words: We have long forgotten what it means to listen — it is as if a re-discovery of music axiom. I can easily imagine that for many musicians knowing the compositions of Pärt may lead to a more aware and warm treatment of music altogether. Can anything more beautiful be said about a modern composer?

The desert’s beauty — said The Little Prince — lies in a well buried somewhere out there.


1 Because no English version is available, excerpts quoted by the author are translated from the Polish [translator’s comment].

2 Pärt’s opinion on that issue is as follows: In my opinion the value is not the sound of timbre. Although idiosyncratic timbre of instruments is part of music but it is not a crucial one. That would be my capitulation to the mystery of music. Music must exist in itself…, two, three tones. There has to be a mystery in there, regardless the instrument.

3 By the way, I agree with Paul Hillier as to a positive effect resulting from Pärt’s interest in the old music.

4 A very good example can be found in the piano piece Für Alina: the sound and the expression of the top line M are predominantly dependent on the way the line M is based on tones and top tones of the bottom line T.

5 This is what Pärt says on this subject: It is like breathing in and out. One cannot only breathe in the air, it has to be breathed out too.

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