Sources of Invention

Geoff Smith

Interview with Arvo and Nora Pärt

The Musical Times, Autumn 1999

At a time when publicists worldwide are clamouring to apply the mediadriven rules of popular culture to sell ‘high’ art, the music of Arvo Pärt seems particularly vulnerable. The ‘minimalist’, ‘mystical’, ‘contemplative’ tags and their tired associative meanings abound, as does the continuing image of Pärt the pious pontiff.

In the musical world, too, his work is carelessly dismissed as a fashionable, neo-medieval short cut to quasienlightenment and has attracted relatively litte serious musicological study. Pärt himself tends to talk of the compositional process in biblical terms and, listening to his music, there is a sense of adjusting one’s eyes to a light one was least expecting. There is certainly no trace of the quietism or piritual limpness so often assumed; rather, it is music born of extremes (of dynamic, register, silence), shaped by an uncompromising concern with the numinous, and framed with terse master-craftsmanship. There is both the absolute detachment and absolute beauty one finds in the work of S. John of the Cross and, far from an escape, it seems an heroic attempt to reestablish lines with our collective unconscious. One needs the receptivity of the Princess and the Pea and all the aural acuity one can muster if Pärt’s ‘invisible bridges’ to the hidden worlds within the triad are to be rossed. This interview, conducted in German and translated by Elke Hockings, took place at Universal Edition’s London office in 1998. Pärt was accompanied by his wife Nora, who, in a partnership resembling that of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, helped him steer a coursethrough difficult terrain.

Geoff Smith (GS): Your fellow Estonian Erkki-Sven Tüür recently told me that the most important experience he had as a young composer was hearing Tabula rasa. He felt it was the first piece he had heard that wasn’t concerned with language, style, the past or the future, but that was about ‘soul’. How did you manage to rise above what you called the ‘children’s games’?

Arvo Pärt (AP): Ah… well…, I did once speak of a ‘sand pit game’ referring to a kind of composition commonly associated with the Darmstadt-School. I wouldn’t even know if I myself have risen above Athose ‘children’s games’ yet. It is difficult to tell. But at the time it was an attempt at – and a conscious decision for – a correction.

GS: Are those ‘children’s games’ inherent in art for art’s sake?

AP: The artistic reflection of ideas, style, history etc. is indeed a form of game. Art, however, cannot be separated from it. Yet, I did not want to create art. I wanted to free and distance myself from making artificial art. Rather I wanted to combine two different issues; namely, art and life, art and being. This approach comes from a completely different perspective and has a different starting point. It doesn’t need to start from art.

GS: Is your art a result rather than a starting point?

AP: If there were no continual effort to start from the beginning there would be no art. I cannot help it but start from scratch. I am tempted only when I experience something unknown, something new and meaningful for me. It seems, however, that this unknown territory is sooner reached by way of reduction than by growing complexity. Reduction certainly doesn’t mean simplification, but it is the way – at least in an ideal scenario – to the most intense concentration on the essence of things. In the compositional process I always have to find this nucleus first from which the work will eventually emerge. First of all, I will have to get to this nucleus. Everything depends on which nucleus, or which part of the nucleus, I choose (or am able to choose at a given time) and on the profundity of consequences. Imagine, for example, you look at a substance or an object through an electron microscope. A thousand-fold enlargement will obviously look different from a million-fold enlargement. Moving through the different stages of enlargement you can see incredible landscapes. Somewhere, though, there is a limit (let’s say at the thirty million-fold enlargement). The landscapes then will have disappeared. What you can see now is a cool geometry: very particular and very clear. Most importantly, however, this geometry will be similar for most substances or objects. At first glance, this geometry has very little to do with the variety of those fantastic landscapes. Landscapes and geometry are, nevertheless, inseparable. The geometry is the point where everything tarts. Geometry and landscapes are not independent from each other but relate as starting point and process. This geometry is an abstraction not unlike a mathematical formula.

GS: Once you’ve found this nucleus, what is the first musical incarnation of the formula?

AP: It can be many different things, yet each one of them would relate to the nucleus only partially. Just as there are many different languages, this ‘artistic incarnation’ can take on many different forms. It does not necessarily have to be a sound. It could be a movement [Arvo Pärt moves his hand]. It’s got something to do with life, and, with this movement, as it were. Conducting, for example, is a relationship between music and motion. Surely this is not coincidental. I think there is a shared synaesthetic consciousness among painters, musicians and choreographers. I am confident that one thing stands for all. One is all.

GS: Do you need to search for this nucleus every time you make something new?

AP: Somehow, yes. But at the same time not quite… The way to get there is not so simple since the truth is hidden deeply in the human heart.

Nora Pärt (NP): It would indeed be very difficult to answer this question in one sentence. It is a dialectical process. Since Arvo has faced this question for a long time he has naturally gathered a great deal of experience. But his attempt to embark each time from zero, to really start from scratch, this is a very important aspect.

GS: How do you view your earlier works? Paul Hillier draws an evolutionary line from the very earliest works. Do you accept that? Or are those pieces a lifetime away?

AP: It’s self-evident that there is no argument for me to hide behind. The Pärt of the past and of the present are one and the same person, only my ideals have changed since. In practical terms, none the less, I find it rather difficult to listen to pieces from different times in one concert. I have also noticed the audience having the same problem with such programmes. I mean attentive listeners. There are many reasons for that. Only look at my use of dynamics, and see how it has hanged from the early works to today. You might then appreciate why it is inappropriate to present those works together. Just as the pupils of the eye only gradually accommodate to the change from light to dark, the ears too need time to adjust to strong differences. Unfortunately, a lot of people are not conscious of the time it takes. We don’t realise it because the ears are held in such good training in our everyday life. But our minds and our hearts, nevertheless, register the differences and the need for gradual transition.

GS: How does your theory of the nucleus apply to some of the early works? Were those pieces a result of magnifying, say, just ten thousand times instead of a million?

AP: Instinctively, I have followed that concept all the time. But in my earlier works it was a question of relationships and proportions. It was more a theoretical concept. These days I want to make something ‘palatable’. This has nothing to do with accommodating every taste within an audience. There has to be, however, a balance between the human perceptive faculty and the musical presentation. All important things in life are simple. Just look, for example, at the partial tones of the overtone scale: the initial, lower overtones are perceptible and easily distinguishable, whereas the upper ones are more clearly defined in theory than audible.

GS: Some commentators have regarded Tabula rasa as some sort of career metaphor or Sarah was ninety years old as a reflection of your own stylistic evolution. How do you respond to these notions?

AP: The titles are not coincidentally or thoughtlessly chosen. There are certainly very strong and direct relationships. But they are not necessarily the most obvious ones. At the same time, my composing might be inspired by the title. While I tend to find a title for a particular work during the process of composing, there will eventually be a point in this process where the title dictates to me how the work shall proceed. The relationship between title, biography and music is a bit like a wound: it does not just heal from the outside but also from the inside.

NP: I would like to add a comment here. I feel we are moving on to dangerous ground. We’ve been in the West for twenty years now. Since then there has been a growing number of texts on Arvo’s music but very little of it is musicologically founded. In effect, almost nothing. This deficit in musicological methodology is always smoothed over by biographical or personal information which cannot necessarily be linked to Arvo’s music directly. Naturally, you can always connect ideas – biographical or not – with Arvo’s music. Yet the meaning of the music is purely musical. Arvo is predominantly concerned with musical forms and structure.

AP: The information coming from me is encoded in ‘mathematical rules’…

NP: … which do not require a translation back into a verbal language.

GS: I know your views on the cult of personality but I was asking in the light of a comment by Philip Glass who said that ultimately it is the artist we are drawn to, whether that’s John Cage, Tolstoy, Picasso…

AP: You cannot say such things unequivocally! Of course Philip Glass is right in what he said but only partially so. Moments of recognition between composer and listener happen somehow like sitting in two passing trains. You only make out the person in the other train during a fleeting glance through the window. We composers have our path to follow, and the listeners theirs. The artist is also just a traveller, like the listener too. And still, we meet … through music, let’s say.

NP: There are as many answers to this question as there are different listeners and personalities. It is very difficult to separate what is genuinely inseparable, namely the artist and his creation. When it comes to the relation between composer and listener, there is another aspect to consider for Arvo. There is a link between Arvo’s attempt to find the nucleus of a musical expression and the profusion of aspects possible in the final work. It is thus that many people can find something in his music which is surprising to Arvo. Music grown from a root can develop in multifarious ways unpredictable at the start of the compositional process. The flower developing from this root has innumerable facets. Each one of them attracts a articular person reacting to a particular aspect. The listener obviously longs for this root, too. This is probably also the reason why the people who appreciate Arvo’s music are so diverse. Yet all this has not necessarily anything to do with the person of Arvo Pärt directly.

GS: He can’t be responsible for their interpretation…

NP: No, nor for what record companies do to him, or the media. This is a rather sad story Arvo tries very consciously to stay in the shadow of his music. This is obviously in stark contrast to the current trends where the artist features heavily.

GS: Do these issues make it more and more difficult to get to that nucleus every time?

AP: You do not have to believe everything they write.

NP: Let’s not forget that the comments on Arvo’s music – even if confused at times – fit in well with the general trend of twentieth-century music writings. Contemporary music would not have survived without the written explanations which were absolutely essential. But in the case of Arvo’s music, I believe we are dealing with a kind of music that can speak for itself. This is why this whirlpool of words should not be dramatised. It might damage a little the image of the composer. But it will not harm the music itself. At least this is what I hope.

GS: Is ‘tintinnabuli’ a style or a system with its own integrity? Could you imagine it being used by other people?

AP: Not exactly as I do. I’m actually not that much interested in theoretical reasoning because I can deal with it in practical terms. Still, I would formulate and sum up the theory one day should the opportunity arise. This theory has the same clarity as the structure of breathing. It is so simple and tangible. I have internalised this formula. And with it there are innumerable creative realisations possible. With the availability of the written theory, it will soon be possible to set the whole text of the Passion or Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his brothers effortlessly to music by a simple press of a computer button. My claim to let words write their own music makes some people laugh, particularly music journalists. They do not take it seriously. Their patronising smile mirrors the sarcasm of those first men who were told the Earth is round. As we all know, they liked to endorse their smile with burning on the stake. This isn’t mere fantasy!

GS: Are you suggesting that the tintinnabuli style is the future of music?

AP: I wouldn’t know. To choose a musical language or a particular compositional technique is rather a personal decision fed by an inner conviction. Style is a mathematical abstraction- an all-embracing, unifying figure. Each style has its own driving paradigm and its own weapons. At music conservatories and academies, we all have to learn how to write a fugue or any other polyphonic form in the style of Palestrina. A student finishing his course ‘with distinction’ is probably reluctant to continue writing in a Palestrina style – even though he has learned it and is probably in good command of it – simply because it is alien to him. Palestrina’s greatness certainly exceeds rules of style. The student must remain true to himself. At the end of the day, everybody has to rescue himself by whatever means he can. Tintinnabuli was my attempt to tackle the problem of polyphony.

NP: The technical resources of the tintinnabuli style are comparable to the mechanics of the piano, standing as it were between the expressive aspiration of a pianist on the one side and the emerging sound on the other. Pianists study many years until they no longer need to be aware of the mechanics necessary for a particular sound effect. The reflexes of playing have somehow become automatic. The bridge between an experienced pianist and a sound is mostly direct. When we hear a good pianist in a concert then we are hardly interested in the mechanics of playing. Arvo and the tintinnabuli style relate to each ohter in a similar way. He is in control of the mechanics. But it is only the mechanics, after all. The prevalent reason for his decision in favour of a compositional rule is always based on his desire for a particular expression. There is, however, also a reciprocal process where the ‘mechanics’ influences his compositional choices again. He recognises the beauty of the ‘mechanics’ and plats with it. But there is a second aspect to your question: namely, as regards the future of music. I would like to contribute some of my own thoughts to this question. The importance and the value of the tintinnabuli style actually lies not in the technical aspect so often emphasised (even though it appears to be so formalised). The concept of tintinnabuli was born from a deeply rooted desire for an extremely reduced sound world which could not be measured, as it were, in kilometres, or even metres, but only in millimetres. According to my experience, the listener becomes increasingly sensitised in the process once he is drawn into this dimension. By the end the listening attention is utterly focused. At the point after the music has faded away it is particularly remarkable to hear your breath, your heartbeat, the lighting or the air conditioning system, for example. The composer draws us into this unknown dimension with seemingly ‘familiar’ and harmless musical material. This deception which is often realised too late by many excellent musicians has unfortunately led to several performance disasters. We have made similar experiences with musicologists. They question the scores for their ‘secret’. Arvo would then point out things in the score, or I do sometimes, but with the disappointing result that they wonder: ‘And this was it, was it?’. The minute steps which are vital to him leave musicologists doubtful as to their potential effect. And yet, these small steps cause everything! For twenty years we have supplied these explanations. This only proves that the time has not come yet for people to be able to perceive and to appreciate a ‘full-stop’ or a ‘comma’.

AP: I am very happy that you can get your answers from Nora because she has observed me for the last twenty-seven years. She really knows every ‘full-stop’ and ‘comma’.

GS: What drew you to early music?

AP: In our century we have somehow forgotten that two times two make four. Old music was a bit like a breath of fresh air for me. At that stage, I was missing something natural like that. I began to realise through old music that there are hidden worlds behind two notes. Monophony has its own language in no need of mediation by harmony I also began to understand at that time that harmony relates to melody in a very direct way. The vertical and the horizontal aspects are inseparable. They are not abstract entities. There is a reason for relating both together.

GS: Are you suggesting that the theoretical separation of melody and harmony caused the downward spiral of Western music?

NP: I do not think that Arvo wanted to solve any problems of Western music when he rediscovered monophony as you seem to imply in your question. His strong interest in monophony must be seen as a personal attempt to overcome his own avant-garde phase.

AP: The future of music history is not one of my main concerns. I have enough to do with getting myself out of this hole in which we all find ourselves. Who will save whom in the end is unknown to us. It would be good if we all participated somehow, and if we tolerated each other. It is impossible to do without sacrifice of some sort. The question is if they are rendered voluntarily or not.

NP: You will need to explain what you mean with sacrifice, who makes it and in which form.

AP: As is so often the case: ‘The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner.’ (Matthew 21, v.42)

NP: I think what Arvo wanted to say was that you should apply a healthy amount of distrust to the many recommended remedies for the salvation of music, and that, ultimately, you have to find your own way. This process of finding yourself may be associated with sacrifices. Under no circumstances can this process be regulated by some superficial rules of conduct. This is right, isn’t it?

AP: Naturally, I understand under ‘sacrifice’ more than a fight for justice with a sword in your hand. There are enough examples in music history, where the best music was written secretively, where composers remained unknown or even suffered from persecution. This was often the best music. They did not fight for the fate of contemporary music. They were simply plying their trade.

NP: I would like to hark back to the question of harmony. Arvo has once publicly said that everything not concerned with the essence of music is to him superficially cosmetic. Such a strong statement needs some qualification: It is his own personal view that the connection between two Notes encapsulates the essence of music. We are talking here of the first living cell which is the starting point for new works. This cell must have an artistic merit in its own right. Only if this is the case does the composer allow himself to employ all other musical means. This is why he calls harmony, orchestration, timbre, rhythm (and much more) ‘cosmetics’ in relation to his compositional approach. While other composers habitually include all possible – and impossible – musical means into their composition from the very start and paint with ‘colours’, Arvo draws…

AP: …in black and white.

NP: And this is also the reason for the existence of so many different versions of Fratres. Right from the beginning, the concept of Fratres was not conceived with a particular colour in mind. I only want to point out that Arvo does not see the decline of Western music through harmony but that he pursues his own personal way which should by no means be projected on to the current music scene as a whole.

AP: One person prefers a flower in his vase, another one a thistle. You have to admit: This is beautiful, too.

GS: We talked about the difficulty of starting the journey towards the nucleus, and we talked about what that starting point might be. Could you tell me how that then grows into say, Litany?

AP: Litany was another kind of experiment. Litany is not a typical tintinnabuli-work such as, for example, Passio or Tabula rasa which are much more rigidly structured. I could say that the nucleus of Litany is like the pea under the mattress. I am not a princess, but I can understand how such an irrational thing could happen.

GS: Are you able to give me any idea of the process? Is it contemplation? A mixture of thinking and feeling? What is the state of mind that you cultivate?

AP: You only need to key your perception up to the right thing. No, that’s not right… [Arvo looks at Nora]

NP: I will not rescue you…

AP: OK, I can’t reveal all of my secrets here. You risk pouring the baby out with the bath water. Pärt of the answer is written into the music anyway.
For the listener, there is a chance of a very valuable experience in decoding this information.

NP: I have a question. How many more questions do you have?

GS: I have more now than when we started!

AP: Good! We met like the previously mentioned two passing trains moving in opposite directions.

The interview originally appeared in The Musical Times in autumn of 1999 and has been published with the magazine’s permission.

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