The Silence And Awe Of Arvo Pärt

Thomas Huizenga

Interview with Arvo Pärt

NPR Classical, 2 June 2014

Time: Your music is often described as “timeless”. What does that mean? Your music also sounds old (plainchant, renaissance polyphony, etc.) and yet it sounds contemporary too. What does time mean for you?

Time for us, is like the time of our own lives. It is temporary.
What is timeless is the “time” of eternal life. That is eternal. It is the (life) time of God.
These are all high words, and so, like the sun, we cannot really look at them directly. But my intuition tells me that the human soul is closely connected to both of them — time and eternity.

How to live in time so that it would also have a connection with eternity? That is a challenge for all of us.

Silence in music: It seems like silence is important to you. What do we gain from it?

Silence for a composer is like a clean canvas for a painter or a clean white sheet of paper for a poet. Tabula rasa.
On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed. But on the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe.
And when we speak about silence, we must keep in mind that it has two different wings, so to speak ‒ silence can be both that which is outside of us and that which is inside a person. The silence of our soul, which isn’t even affected by external distractions, is actually more crucial but more difficult to achieve.

Later years: How has composing changed for you now that you are growing older?

With more or less good health, there has perhaps been no great change at all.

How music moves people: Your music seems to connect deeply, spiritually with many people. Why is that? What is there in the music that might make that effect?

How does my music move people? I actually have no answer to that! That is not my aim when I am composing.
I deal with my own problems; I write for myself. And all that happens with it afterwards, that already has its own dynamics.

Has music brought you closer to God?

Closer to God? Certainly, without a doubt!
For me, there is so much divine power and beauty in the substance of music that whoever has ears, let them hear…

You’ve been called a “mystic”. Does that mean anything to you?

A mystic?! Well, that is the last thing I want to be.
Naturally, this concept has its place and meaning in Christianity.
The tradition of Eastern Christianity teaches us to keep a certain sobriety. Here I would like to point out that there is a big difference between mysticism and mystification. Mystification often contains an amount of exaltation and fantasy. Therefore it is better to regard these topics with greater caution.

How has your Orthodox faith ‒ and the very specific sound of Orthodox liturgical music, as well as the importance that the Orthodox church places on appealing to all the senses (sound, sight, smell) ‒ played into your own aesthetic as a composer?

Indeed, as you mentioned in your question, the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church is rich and it feeds all the human senses, but my musical education has formed mostly on the basis of Roman Catholic music. The Orthodox faith came to me later, and not so much through the music of the Church but through the teachings and words of the Desert Fathers of Early Christianity and Byzantine holy men. And that spiritual heritage has influenced me greatly.

Do you ‒ especially when composing sacred music ‒ feel a direct connection to musicians of the past, even medieval monks copying chant?

There is no direct connection with the musical traditions of the past. Except for the years of learning before the birth of tintinnabuli.
My starting point in composing is the text. Every word of it. And that then determines all that follows on the manuscript paper.

Art and responsibility: Does art matter in the face of oppression, or in times of peace? Does the artist have a social responsibility?

The social responsibility of a person consists in being responsible before God and before your own soul. If both of these were in order, then responsibility before society would function automatically.
But if you begin with the social aspect, then you can never know where it may all lead and how the good intentions may end.
I believe that most people are not evildoers. But the world is full of evil anyway. If there is no divine dimension in social activity and it all stays merely at the human level, then we have to accept the world as it is now.

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