The Sound of Spirit

Arthur Lubow

The New York Times Magazine, 15 October 2010

Emigrating from the Soviet Union to the West in January 1980 with his wife, Nora, and their two small sons, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was stopped by border police at the Brest railroad station for a luggage search.

“We had only seven suitcases, full of my scores, records and tapes,” he recalled recently. “They said, ‘Let’s listen.’ It was a big station. No one else was there. We took my record player and played ‘Cantus.’ It was like liturgy. Then they played another record, ‘Missa Syllabica.’ They were so friendly to us. I think it is the first time in the history of the Soviet Union that the police are friendly.” He was joking, but not entirely. Later, when I asked Nora about that strange scene at the border, she said, “I saw the power of music to transform people.”

Most contemporary composers aim to ravish the ear or to tickle (or boggle) the mind. Pärt is playing for higher stakes. He wants to touch something that he would call the soul, and to a remarkable extent, he is succeeding. When I would mention to friends or acquaintances that I was writing about Pärt, I was surprised at how many responded, “Oh, I love Arvo Pärt!” It’s not something you often hear when you mention a contemporary composer. The enthusiasm for Pärt’s music extends beyond the circles of classical music (where he is sometimes derided as backward-looking and boring) to include admirers in the pop-music world, like Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Björk. Many of Pärt’s pieces are settings of religious texts, and even the instrumental works bear a whiff of church incense. Yet the compositions resonate profoundly for the unconverted as well as the faithful. “It’s a cleansing of all the noise that surrounds us,” says the violinist Gidon Kremer. It is music that reveals itself gradually, with a harmonic stillness that conjures up an alternative to hectic everyday existence. “I was attracted to the unbelievable calm and brilliance of his music, and a seeming simplicity,” Stipe told me. “As a musician and an artist, you realize that within its simplicity, it’s incredibly complex. It brings one to a total meditative state. It’s amazing, amazing music.”

Pärt (pronounced PAIRT) writes in a style that is unmistakably his own. “You put on a piece and you can tell at once it is Pärt — even the early pieces,” says the Estonian-born conductor Neeme Jarvi, who has known Pärt since 1960. “You can tell that with Shostakovich or Khatchaturian, but we don’t have many composers these days who have that ability to show, ‘This is me.’ ” Although Pärt’s music is often compared to the Gregorian chant in a monastery or the early polyphonic music of the Renaissance, you could just as easily liken it to the abstract paintings of Mondrian. It is governed by very strict rules in a framework so simple and clear that any deviation — a single dissonant note or an unexpected pause — can be as galvanizing as a small, yellow rectangle in a painted grid.

Last month, Pärt marked his 75th birthday, and the event was celebrated with a festival of his music throughout Estonia, where, says the younger Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur, he is “a living legend.” There were performances of recent as well as familiar pieces, a reminder that Pärt, an energetic man with a reedy voice, loping gait and erect posture, shows few signs of slowing down. ECM New Series, which was inaugurated 26 years ago with his breakthrough work “Tabula Rasa,” likewise balanced the old and new, releasing a first recording of Pärt’s Fourth Symphony (which was premiered in 2009 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and preparing to issue a deluxe commemorative edition of “Tabula Rasa” in December*. This year, Pärt’s major new work is “Adam’s Lament,” a 25-minute piece for string orchestra and chorus, based on an old Russian text. (“Adam’s Lament” will have its first North American performance next month in New York, as part of the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center.) (* In Europe, the CD was released in September, for the birthday of Arvo Pärt)

In one birthday-festival concert that I attended, in an old church in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, a long-stemmed red rose was handed to each of the players and then to the composer, who bounded up to the stage, playfully bopping the heads of the musicians with his floral baton. Belying his mythologized public reputation as solemn and monklike, Pärt disarmingly blends the antic with the earnest. Before we met, I could comprehend the impulse to cast him in a religious mold (although for me, with his aquiline nose, furrowed brow and gray-flecked black beard, a different holy prototype comes to mind — one of the apostles as painted by Tintoretto). Appearance notwithstanding, he is neither an ascetic nor a recluse. “He’s a man of the world,” says Manfred Eicher, the ECM founder and record producer, who is his close friend. “He is very centered. He knows exactly what he wants and doesn’t want.”

He is also forthright on worldly matters that he deems important. He dedicated the Fourth Symphony last year to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was an oil oligarch before he ran afoul of Vladimir Putin, the former president and current premier of Russia; since 2003, Khodorkovsky has been imprisoned for fraud and tax evasion. And after the murder, in October 2006, of the outspoken investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose articles embarrassed both Putin and the pro-Moscow government in Chechnya, Pärt declared that all concerts of his music that season would be performed in her memory. He volunteered to me that he knew that in making such gestures he was venturing outside his recognized bailiwick. “I am not a politician; I’m a dilettante,” he said. “But this is the normal thinking of people who came through this Soviet hell.”

In 1992, once Estonian independence had been proclaimed upon the ashes of the Soviet Union, Pärt and his wife came back to see their native land. They had spent 12 years in exile, mainly in Berlin. I asked him if he found Estonia very different on his return.
“It was nearly the same as when we left,” he said. “Same functionaries have changed their color. Some people say that after being occupied by another state, you need for healing the same amount of time as you were occupied. So we need 50 years and East Germany 48 years.”
He chuckled. “There was some kind of enthusiasm,” he added.

“Like teenager,” Nora chimed in. We were in a car, with Arvo driving us from the village in the country where they spend most of their time back to Tallinn, in which they keep a spacious apartment in the Old Town.

“‘Now we are free,’” Pärt mimicked, with a tone that was both wistful and amused. “Naïve a little bit. But the real life is something different. Then comes the difficulties.”
At this point, a different strain of his personality sounded. “There is a good rule in spiritual life, which we all forget continually,” he said, “that you must see more of your own sins than other people’s.” He remarked that the sum of human sin has been growing since Adam’s time, and we all share some of the blame. “So I think everyone must say to himself, ‘We must change our thinking.’ We cannot see what is in the heart of another person. Maybe he is a holy man, and I can see only that he is wearing a wrong jacket.”

Some weeks later, I thought back on this conversation and reflected that in its two parallel lines — one worldly and critical, the other forgiving and tolerant — Pärt was recapitulating the two musical voices of the “tintinnabuli” style of composition, which he discovered after years of painful searching in the 1970s, and which has guided his music ever since.

The Arvo Pärt Center is located near the Pärts’ country home, in a newly built nouveau riche residence that conveniently became available in a foreclosure sale when the recession hit. The house now shelters the center’s administrative offices, and the former garage has been renovated into a climate-controlled archive.
The Pärts’ younger son, Michael, who was working abroad as a film-music editor, returned to Estonia two years ago to establish the center. Michael, who is 32, showed me the manuscripts that are the jewel of the archive, with a special place for his father’s spiral notebooks of the ’70s, which had been reinforced in those impoverished times with whatever was available, like scraps of leather or denim from old jeans. The acid in the Soviet recycled paper is leaching away the brightly colored felt-tipped-pen ink that the composer used to try out different harmonic accompaniments to his melodies; the center’s most pressing priority, occupying the attention of three staff members, is to scan these pages into digital images.

A little later, Pärt joined us and brought photostats of a 1976 notebook to show me. Along with musical notations, there were comments — in Estonian, Russian, Latin, German and English — that recorded his thoughts as well as quotes from texts. He read a few aloud, translating them into English for me. “ ‘The collection of energy must be the ground of form,’ ” he recited, and laughed. “What it means I do not know.” Such words are embellishments to the bulk of the journals, which are filled with musical notes. “I wrote thousands and thousands of pages,” he recalled, “to think in musical language, ‘What happened here?’ Why one melody makes this impression and traces the spirit, and another not? Every day, 10 or 20 pages or more. This was my work, every day. No way out.”

Before this long ordeal, music had come easily to him. The son of a heavy-machinery operator who left when Arvo was 2, Pärt moved into a more cultured milieu once his mother remarried a few years later. His stepfather was a commercial sign painter; in the family house were a concert piano and a stash of scores. The piano was lacking many keys in the middle register — “like a 5-year-old child with teeth missing,” Pärt told me. But even with this dilapidated instrument, he demonstrated his talent. His musical ability propelled him to a position as a drummer when he was drafted into the Soviet Army, and later to a place at the musical academy in Tallinn. There he became known as someone to watch — which, in the Soviet Union, was a mixed blessing.

As a young man, Pärt composed music that was exuberantly and aggressively modern. In 1962, his first orchestral piece, “Nekrolog,” was also the first Estonian 12-tone music to be performed; as Pärt’s biographer Paul Hillier recounts, it stirred great controversy, earning a specific denunciation in Moscow as “avant-garde bourgeois music” by the formidable musical arbiter Tikhon Khrennikov, secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers. Serial music was just one of the styles that Pärt was exploring. In numerous works of musical collage, a compositional approach that was popular with Shostakovich and other Soviet composers, he incorporated passages of shrill dissonance. Some pieces were nonsensically Dadaesque: in his Second Symphony, the musicians at certain points are instructed to crinkle pieces of brown wrapping paper or to squeak children’s toys.

Other works were more politically provocative. In 1968, he caused an uproar when his choral piece “Credo” was premiered. This time, the Latin text — it proclaims, “I believe in Jesus Christ” — is what outraged the devoutly atheistic authorities. Neeme Jarvi, who conducted the sole Soviet performance, told me: “The law was that you first had to show the score to the composers’ union. I didn’t. I thought they wouldn’t let us. The Estonian Philharmonic organization said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Next morning it was a big scandal in the Politburo of Estonia. Then the pressure starts. Some people were sacked from the Philharmonic organization.” He says that he retained his position because no one was available to replace him, but that the scandal dried up Pärt’s official commissions, forcing him to rely on writing film scores to earn a living.
In retrospect, what is most important about “Credo” is that in it, Pärt described in musical terms the crisis that was afflicting him. The composition juxtaposes a lovely harmonic progression from Bach’s Prelude in C with violently discordant music. “I wanted to put together the two worlds of love and hate,” he explained. “I knew what kind of music I would write for hate, and I did it. But for love, I was not able to do it.” That was what drew him to the idea of borrowing Bach’s theme and incorporating it into a collage. Like a tone poem, “Credo” dramatizes a story, in this case a scene from the New Testament. As Pärt explained, “It was my deep conviction that the words of Christ — ‘You have heard an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, Do not resist evil, go with love to your enemies’ — this was a theological musical form. Love destroyed the hate. Not destroyed: the hate collapsed itself when it met the love. A convulsion.” So it is in “Credo.” Early on, the piece introduces the Bach quotation, the notes evolve into a sequence that is transformed following the rules of 12-tone music and then erupts into dissonance and clashing before subsiding once again into a gentle reprise of the Prelude.

After “Credo,” Pärt stopped composing. He no longer believed in the musical forms he had depended on. “I think if the human has conflict in his soul and with everything, then this system of 12-tone music is exactly good for this,” he told me. “But if you have no more conflict with people, with the world, with God, then it is not necessary. You have no need to have a Browning in your pocket, or a dagger.” One day, around that time, he thinks perhaps it was in a bookstore, he heard a snippet of Gregorian chant playing on a radio; it was like a window opening onto another world. “In one moment it was clear how much deeper and more pure is this world,” he continued. “Everyone has many antennae, and they catch what we cannot even register in our minds. But the feeling is clear.” In his obsessively thorough way, he began to study monody — the single line of Gregorian plainsong — and the birth of Western polyphony in medieval and early Renaissance music. He filled his notebooks with ancient melodies.

I asked if his attraction to religious music drew him into the church, but that was a distinction he didn’t recognize. “There is no border that divided,” he said. “Religion and life — it is all the same.” He was reading early Christian writings while he was immersing himself in musical study. “The old music, when it was written, the focus of this music was the Holy Scripture for composers for centuries,” he said. “It was the reality for every artist. Through one, you can understand the other. Otherwise, you are like some teachers in the Soviet Union who say, ‘Bach was a great composer but he had a defect; he was religious.’ It means this teacher cannot understand the music of Bach.”

At this time of spiritual searching, he met Nora, a musical conductor, who was embarked on a similar quest. Of Jewish origin, she was planning to immigrate to Israel with her parents, but after meeting Pärt, she chose to stay behind. In 1972, she entered the Russian Orthodox Church a few months before he did, and in that year, they married. “We had the same journey in the same direction; we had the feeling we must do it together,” he said. Ever since, they have formed a tight-knit unit, speaking in one voice to the outside world. During the first years of their marriage, Nora watched her husband struggle to find his way out of his musical impasse. Pärt told me he felt that the tools he had were inadequate: “I cannot eat soup with a fork or meat with a spoon.” He was searching for a new system, one that would provide the kind of logical framework that 12-tone music offers but would allow him to express his evolving state of “small steps of tolerance to the world.”

During this period of exploration, someone suggested that to escape his creative stalemate, he needed to disrupt his normal habits. To encourage that dislocation, the Pärts experimented with visual art; they would provide plain clay flowerpots to visiting friends, and they would all paint them. At the Arvo Pärt Center, there is one specimen of the composer’s handiwork, and it stands apart from the group. Other people daubed their pots with bright splotches. His is decorated with perfectly regular, muted color bands.

For several years, he studied old music, especially Gregorian plainsong. “Nothing changed in me, but I instinctively feel it has a life-giving power,” he said. “But where is this secret? Where is this secret?” He was following many different alleys, all of them blind. As Nora recalled, “We both don’t know in what direction to look — nature, forest, birds, bells. For Arvo, the seagull was important. He wanted the line of power of their flight. How do they have so much power? Maybe it is in these lines.” He drew patterns of notes that mimicked the motions of wings. That was not the answer.

“I hoped, of course, that I can find the way out, but also the hopeless was an everyday guest,” Pärt told me. “And I was full of energy. It was possible that I explode from all of this situation.” During that period, he wrote only one piece of music, the Third Symphony (1971), a transitional work. Mostly, he studied. “And maybe there was one point when I said, ‘Stop with this old music as a composer.’ Now in this place must be born something of mine — from everything that I have learned in old music, in religion, in life, and how much I was able to see my own sins and imperfections, and to repent it. To say, ‘Yes.’ And if you do, then it is like when you are on a computer, and you write a text and then you press something and it is empty. But it is a good thing. Begin from zero, from nothing. It’s like if there is a fresh snow and nobody has walked, and you take the first steps on this snow. And this is the beginning of new life.”

Pärt’s mature style was inaugurated in 1976 with a small piano piece, “Für Alina,” that remains one of his best-known works. It is governed by the compositional system that he called “tintinnabuli,” derived from the Latin word for “bells.” The tintinnabuli method pairs each note of the melody with a note that comes from a harmonizing chord, so they ring together with bell-like resonance. But the name of the method should not be taken too literally. “It’s a metaphor,” Pärt told me. His wife chimed in, “It’s poetical, and the sound of the word is musical.”

I wondered whom the piece was named for. “Alina is the daughter of our very good friend who visited us in Tallinn,” Pärt said. “And this day, as they visited us, the mother of Alina has a birthday. But Alina, the daughter, was not with her. She left the Soviet Union some years ago with her father and lived in London. And there was no connection, and it was hard for all. And then I decided to dedicate this small piano piece to Alina, like a small consolation.”

I replied that this suggested another metaphor, because the tintinnabuli style — especially in the simple form in which it exists in “Für Alina” — consists of two lines. The melody, which proceeds mainly in steps up and down the scale, might be compared to a child tentatively walking. The second line underpins each note of the melody with a note from a harmonizing triad (the fundamental chord of Western music) that is positioned as close as possible to the note of the melody, but always below. You could imagine this accompaniment to be a mother with her hands outstretched to ensure her toddler doesn’t fall.

Pärt grabbed my own hand with excitement. “This is the whole secret of tintinnabuli,” he exclaimed. “The two lines. One line is who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us. Sometimes I say — it is not a joke, but also it is as a joke taken — that the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line is forgiving the sins.” Metaphors aside, the tintinnabuli style proved to be an ingenious and fertile system for generating compositions. From the late ’70s onward, after his long drought, Pärt has been an extremely productive composer.

While Pärt’s music is often categorized (although not by him) as minimalist, it avoids the monotony of some of the pieces that go by that label and too often sound as though they were stitched together by a sewing machine. This is primarily because the rules that bind the triadic to the melodic line produce unexpected outcomes; consequently, the music seems to move, even if, remaining in the home key, it never really goes very far. But it is also important that Pärt, a fanatic for detail, painstakingly adjusts each score to achieve the result he is after.

In the first tintinnabuli pieces, Pärt was not thinking about performances, and (as with medieval music) his notation was sparse. He stepped out publicly in 1977 with “Tabula Rasa.” His friend, the conductor Eri Klas, was looking for a work to accompany a performance of Alfred Schnittke’s First Concerto Grosso, which was written for two violins, harpsichord, prepared piano and string orchestra. He asked Pärt if he could deliver a piece in three months with the same orchestration. The composer complied (eliminating the harpsichord). When the new piece arrived, the orchestra players and the violin soloists, Gidon Kremer and Tatjana Grindenko, were bewildered. “We were all a bit surprised by the empty picture of the score,” Kremer told me. “It was all tonal and so transparent. There were so few notes.”

The night of the concert, the auditorium in Tallinn was full. Having had only two days of rehearsal, the musicians were filled with apprehension. “They came to the concert expecting a catastrophe, even Gidon Kremer and Tatjana Grindenko, who put all their talent on every note, especially the second part, the slow part,” Pärt said. “And it was a magnet for the orchestra, and they took over this articulation. And it was wonderful. It was so still that the people could not breathe or cough, it would disrupt. It was with me the same feeling. My heartbeat was so noisy that I thought everyone could hear.” The composer Tuur, who was still a teenager, was in the audience that night. “I was carried beyond,” he told me. “I had the feeling that eternity was touching me through this music.” In the score, Pärt wrote an exceptionally long four measures of rest at the end of the piece, but the silence went on even longer. “Nobody wanted to start clapping,” Tuur said.

When you listen to “Tabula Rasa,” the silence that is being broken is as palpable as the music being played; it is like the void that is shaped by a bowl. The two violins pierce with catlike delicacy and purpose. The piano (which is altered and amplified to produce the timbre of a bell or gong) streaks repeatedly like raindrops on a windshield and knells occasionally with a portentous clang. The chamber orchestra weaves a web of sustained notes that shimmer and glisten. If you were floating in space looking down on earth, this is what you would want in your headphones. Writing in The New Yorker eight years ago, Alex Ross reported that “Tabula Rasa” was often requested by terminally ill patients afflicted with AIDS or cancer.

It was “Tabula Rasa” that ECM’s Eicher heard, coming over the radio on a late-night drive he was making from Stuttgart to Zurich — and which so transfixed him that he pulled onto the side of the road to listen more closely. Eventually, he tracked down the name of the piece and the composer, and he contacted Pärt. Because his label up until then was devoted to jazz and improvised music, Eicher started the “New Series” to release composed works, with “Tabula Rasa” the first. Since that time, he has produced 11 more recordings devoted to Pärt’s music, always with the composer’s participation. It has been Pärt’s main avenue to international recognition.
Critics of Pärt’s work usually complain that it is ersatz and simple-minded. But unlike some so-called “holy minimalists” (like Henryk Gorecki and John Tavener) with whom he is unfairly grouped, Pärt composes by a process that is as rigorously systematic as anything propounded by Schoenberg. He is not an old-fashioned composer but a contemporary one. Without his having traveled through serial music, it is hard to imagine that he could have arrived at his method.

Much of what Pärt writes is choral music. Although his compositions are intended for concert performance and not religious service, in one regard he is medieval: his acute sensitivity to texts recalls the Gregorian chants he so admires. But here too, his mathematical brain is at work. He applies a set of principles to determine the phrasing of a piece: so that in “Passio,” a setting of the Passion according to St. John, which dates from 1982 and is one of his major accomplishments, he gives a different duration value to different syllables, depending on the syllables’ relationship to punctuation marks in the sentences. A similar operating system is used in instrumental works that are derived from texts, like the second movement of the Fourth Symphony; as the conductor Tonu Kaljuste observes, “Behind this string music is words — they pray between notes.”

Since he typically writes now in response to commissions, Pärt orchestrates his work with a detail that he didn’t apply in the early days, when his music was playing mainly in his own head — or, if it was performed, could be adapted to whatever musical forces were available. “It was music without colors,” Pärt explained to me. “Whatever instruments you had in Tallinn, you played at that time.” The more recent music also sounds freer than some of the older work. “Before, the algebra was most important,” Kaljuste says. “Now the algebra becomes more organic. The language he created has started to breathe.”

Over lunch with the Pärts, I asked if his music had become less confined by guidelines.
“The first period was very strict,” Nora said. “It was very important for Arvo to give himself a system, rules and discipline. And over time, Arvo had more and more freedom.”

“I believed in myself more and more,” he said. Then he added: “It can be good or bad. It is dangerous, this freedom.”

“Without discipline, freedom is very dangerous,” Nora said, with emphasis.

“In some way, we go back to the tintinnabuli,” Arvo resumed. “One line is like freedom, and the triad line is like discipline. It must work together.”

Back at the Pärt Center, shortly before this lunch, Pärt had described to me his attraction to early music and his exodus from the camp of contemporary 12-tone and atonal music.

“Actually, music is a very material thing,” he said. “When you play the dissonance between two strings — a very, very painful dissonance — then it is something very certain. And when you play a tune on the violin and the fifth is clean, then there is no other vibration. It’s like an oscilloscope when you see it goes flat.”

I said that when a medical oscilloscope went flat, the patient was dead.

He laughed. “This is a resurrection for purity from impurity.”

He walked to the piano in a corner of the room and crashed out some loud dissonant chords, a bedlam of black and white keys. Then he used two fingers to pick out two white keys and play an open fifth, an interval that is a fundamental musical consonance, a sound that soothes and resolves.

“We read it in our hearts and minds,” he said. “And you can choose. The composer can choose what he needs. This is very primitive explaining, but it is so. Who can say it is not so?”

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