News

The year Arvo Pärt turned 70 and was captured for radio

19.12.2020

In September 2005, a 14-part radio programme about Arvo Pärt premiered on Klassikaraadio. Making it took a full year, and contributing to its completion was the composer himself, along with dozens and dozens of people appearing in the broadcast.

That was about 15 years ago. Arvo Pärt had a nice milestone coming up – he was about to turn 70 – and since by that time his link with Estonia had become increasingly apparent, both in concert halls and elsewhere, the occasion was to be celebrated in a bigger way than ever before. This was partly due to the media, which presented him as one of the best known Estonians internationally next to Lennart Meri, while the tabloids tended to frame it as a rags-to-riches type of success story that could well have been featured in the celebrity columns.

Hindering this was the fact that the composer himself was inaccessible and removed and looked a bit wild. His music remained distant and complicated for the average person, which is why it was mainly his name and rumours of his fame that reached the Estonian masses.

Klassikaraadio wanted a programme

The idea to release a series for the composer’s birthday came from the chief editor of Klassikaraadio. Tiia Teder thought there could be more than one show. I had read numerous foreign articles, conducted a long newspaper interview with Arvo Pärt a few years prior, collected sound snippets from musicians I had met for interviews, and had two memorable conversations with Manfred Eicher, the founder-producer of ECM, a record label I found most intriguing. ECM was the true home of Arvo Pärt’s music, as it was through this label that the most authentic recordings had reached audiences since 1984, and the composer himself did not refrain from praising Eicher in his (few) interviews.

In short, it seemed to me that I could try making 3–4 episodes, five episodes at the very most. It was an interesting challenge.

From time to time, I had done broadcasts on Klassikaraadio about composers working in the field of contemporary music and sometimes also about the margins of the music world. It was a time when the world’s largest record companies had already established positions for management professionals, and it was popular opinion that these were better acquainted with Excel spreadsheets than they were with music. This had introduced the idea of more extensive marketing to the realm of serious music, and with it various cross-pollination attempts and leaps across well-established genre barriers. Some of these ventures were interesting and creatively fruitful, and it was namely these I tried to focus on in my broadcasts.

Arvo Pärt as a musical phenomenon remained a true curiosity in this atmosphere of change, since his very serious and undiluted music was also inexplicably successful. At the same time, he was removed from both the mainstream of modern music and the glamorous world of classical music. He was solitary, solemn and mysterious.

In my daily work as a newspaper music editor, my scope ranged from mainstream pop and punk to avant-garde music exploring new horizons, along with everything in between. Arvo Pärt as a theme towered in the centre of this scale.

How should I portray the composer?

I threw myself into the idea of making a radio programme. I started collecting material that was already available and a question mark formed in my mind – what else can be obtained? It was not until some time later that a bold idea began to take root. What if I tried asking the composer himself if he was willing to provide some comments or speak a little into the microphone?

In 1998, just before starting work at Postimees, I had made a long, two-page interview with him for the newspaper. This was only possible thanks to conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, who wanted to promote the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir’s upcoming concerts and their records, which were released under the ECM label. It was only thanks to his keen mediation that this rare meeting could happen.
I say rare because it was the first time that Pärt had spoken to any Estonian-language media at such length. Everyone knew he didn’t give interviews and stayed away. But he spoke. And how!
Back then, Kaljuste gave me the phone number and said when to call to make an appointment.
I remember my voice trembling and my knees going weak when a voice familiar from Dorian Supin’s movies answered the phone. We met next day in the Gate Tower on Lühike jalg, which was at that time the home of the chamber choir. The room we were talking in was terribly cold and I had with me a MiniDisc and a microphone from the radio as a recording device. In fact, the recording more or less failed because the microphone was numb, the sound level was too low and there was a lot of noise.
For this reason, the recording of this remarkable interview could not be included in the radio broadcast, since only a few excerpts could be used at best. The experience did, however, instill in me the courage to find the phone number once more and dial it with another question in mind.

It must have been blind chance and good luck that the right person answered the Tallinn phone number on the first try. Back then, the Pärts mainly resided in Berlin and rarely visited Estonia.

Arvo calmly heard me out – including my stuttering question about whether he was willing to say a few words for the broadcast himself – and in my memory he said nothing encouraging. Nor did he say anything discouraging. To my great surprise, he did however offer me the opportunity to meet and further discuss things.

Eller, pine resin and the smell of sound

At the agreed time in early October, Tiia Teder and I drove west of Tallinn towards Lohusalu, to the area where the meeting was to take place. We had the time of the meeting, but only vague instructions on how to get there. You can only imagine our surprise when we realised that the man with a baseball cap standing next to the crossroads where the road from Laulasmaa turns towards Lohusalu was the person we had come to visit. After a quick exchange of greetings and words of surprise, our host lead the way and we followed him in our car, passing a little roundabout and stopping in front of a cabin nestled under the trees of the pine forest.

Everything happened very quickly somehow. Including a brief tour of the surroundings with Arvo and Nora. Our guide raced in front, his bright yellow rubber boots flashing on the green moss before our eyes (for some reason, this detail was heavily etched into my mind), and suddenly we were standing in front of another cabin planted beneath the pine trees, one that looked rather worn by time.

It was composer Heino Eller’s summer house, the place that connected this nature-loving colossus with Laulasmaa. As I peaked in through the windows, the interior looked just as it had in the old photos from the 1960s. There was a special feeling that emerged, revolving inside me all the while the yellow rubber boots led us out to the shore, to the high sand ridge with a view over the bay. Here stood the famous Eller pine, on the bend of which the composer liked to sit as an old man, leaning against his walking stick and gazing at the horizon. At least that is the impression I get from the photos.

And now Arvo Pärt, another old man, was breathing in the resiny scent of the same twisted shore pines, walking on the sand that once felt Eller’s footsteps and studying the splash of the waves sweeping over the sand.

We hadn’t exchanged a word about the radio programme. Yet this lengthy description of scenery is important, because in retrospect, Eller’s spirit and the feeling springing from it seem to permeate everything that followed.

Some time later, we were sitting in the living room of the Pärt family cabin, with tea and watermelon slices on the table and a rather free and unrestrained atmosphere. There I tried to describe what I had planned. This was accompanied by the same cautious question: is the composer himself willing to talk and elaborate, even a little? About anything at all. What happened next rather made me ask if I could set up a microphone between the teacups to catch the conversation on tape.

The point from which to view an image

Quite a bit of this first meeting was later included in the broadcast. The beginning of that recording – Arvo Pärt’s first thoughts – were also placed in the opening part of the programme, since they offered guidance to both performers and audiences on how to relate to material regarding the composer. He talked about viewing an image, sharing a lesson he once learned from an artist. That you shouldn’t sit on the bench directly facing the work, but try viewing it from a tilt to the side or the corner of your eye, as if just passing it by. Because the eye of a bystander can see more and perceive some details that the full first impression would otherwise obscure.

That was that. After leaving Laulasmaa, the plan for the programme had changed completely, as I had with me Arvo Pärt’s promise to talk some more. The composer’s wife Nora also proved to be helpful in providing many details. They suggested several more people to talk to.

On the very next day, the number of scheduled episodes rose to ten. I quickly sketched a thematic plan that covered decades as well as topics such as performers, tintinnabuli and film music. The more episodes and topics were added, the more material was needed. And the more information I gathered, the more new branches emerged. But I didn’t see this as a problem, at least not at first, and eagerly threw myself into the work.

And so it went

The first person I went to talk to was Ivalo Randalu, a friend of Pärt from his studies at the Tallinn Conservatory. The next one might have been musicologist Avo Hirvesoo, his peer, and so it went. Each interview provided clues for the next people to talk to or recordings to dig for in the radio archives. I was surprised and captivated by the excitement with which people talked about Pärt and the time they had spent near him.

I had a tiny Sony MiniDisc and a pen-sized directional microphone from Audio-Technica that I had ordered from abroad a few years earlier. It was a good set, taking up so little space and looking so discreet when set up that the interlocutors tended to forget that they were being recorded. Anyone who has made interviews and radio broadcasts knows the value of speech that seems spontaneous and a voice that has an authentic ring to it.

Although to begin with, the shape and form of the programme was still quite abstract in my mind, resting only on the scant skills acquired in my previous radio experience, it soon became clear that I did not have much technical support from Klassikaraadio to achieve the goal I had envisioned. It was completely unrealistic to have such a large amount of digital editing and studio time.

But I was presented with an opportunity and wanted to make the most of it. There was no hesitation in my mind. I pulled out all the stops. I upgraded my workstation, bought software and tools so I could do everything myself. I tried to quickly master it all and learned some more during the work process. I cut and edited the interviews with a program called Sound Forge and used Adobe Audition to mix it all together.

Klassikaraadio applied for and received funding for me from the Cultural Endowment, allowing me to buy a laptop. This in turn allowed for more flexibility and mobility in my work. Perhaps it was a crucial factor that made completing the programme even possible.

Success and misfortune go hand in hand

When Roland released the first portable digital recorder into the market at the end of 2004, I purchased it right away, since all in all, the MiniDisc was still a very cumbersome device, requiring the audio to be transferred in real time. I remember first using the Roland when meeting with Arvo Pärt to speak about his school days, childhood and his time at the conservatory. I left prancing with joy, having heard his vivid and interesting recollections, but my mood dropped below zero when I tried to retrieve the file. Either I myself had erred or there was some other technical failure – I couldn’t recover the information on the memory card. The file was broken. Fortunately not irreparably broken, since after some research and trials, I finally managed to open the whole file the next day, after already having salvaged smaller fragments with the help of some programmes.

This was just one of the many mishaps I had to tackle from time to time. The first failure, which made me highly cautious about technology, had already happened before. This happened during the second interview I had with Arvo Pärt for the programme. A documentary about Tõnu Kaljuste had premiered in Laulasmaa and the Pärts were also present at the event. After the screening, we sat at the bar, in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, and the composer spoke. A sudden glance at the recorder made me suspect something was wrong. It was. The press of the button had probably been a miss, so the recorder was turned off and not doing its job. Turning it on now did not compensate for the loss. Arvo Pärt had just talked about Schubert, about how he had burned out in terms of quality after getting too close to the creative flame. It was beautifully spoken and also bore the speaker in mind. A story worded so exquisitely, it can only be told once in a lifetime.

I’m sure you can imagine my sense of loss. It was as if a beautiful image drawn on the sand had been permanently swept away by a wave, leaving behind only a memory tinted with regret.

After this incident, I tried to pay extra close attention to the recording equipment. But it was not always a success.

Second by second, fragment by fragment

Another problem was that radio broadcasting could only be an after-hours activity. My day job was at the cultural section of Postimees and at times it was quite stressful. I don’t remember having slackened the load in any way. I worked on the programme late at night or early in the morning. As the work schedule of a newspaper journalist is rather varied, I was always able to find a few moments for interviews or reading and writing. Also, my editor’s salary, which was decent for that time, made it possible to further finance the production of the radio programme.

Looking back at this period now, I no longer understand exactly how it was possible to manage all of this. Not that I remember all the details, but I still carry a memory of that excitement and fire.
I picked up material wherever I could, wrote inquiries, spent many hours in museums and archives, reading and listening. But what was most important was the person – his voice and story. It was this I was searching for, more than anything else.

At the Theatre and Music Museum, the director of the music department Alo Põldmäe took me to the basement, which stored materials not yet catalogued, and pulled out folders pertaining to my research with resources I could not have even hoped for. Olav Ehala, then the chairman of the Composers Union, offered me a chance to view Arvo Pärt’s Soviet-era file, which was hugely fascinating. And so on and so forth. I met so much kindness and sincere helpfulness at the mention of Arvo Pärt’s name.

I only got to mixing six months after the work had started. Before that, I was picking up bits and pieces and processing audio recordings. The process of putting it all together was unusual, at least I had never made a radio show this way before. I wrote down the text from the audio clip. As well as my own narrations. And I composed everything on paper – I edited it like an article or any other text.

Arvo Pärt spoke so slowly and with such long pauses that his three-minute answer was reduced by half after the necessary adjustments. If the recordings of other people contained any empty words or repetitions, I crossed these out in the text and tried to tailor the audio file accordingly. Finally, the prepared segments were placed into catalogues according to topic.

For example, the first fragments of Arvo Pärt’s “Pentagram Piece”, which caused quite a scandal in 1967, with the composer’s comments, were gathered at our first meeting in October 2004. Avo Hirvesoo’s remarks followed a few months later, and the music publicists Toomas Velmet and Valter Ojakäär only contributed their part the following spring, where the role of the latter in this story – with his interest mainly in jazz music – came as a surprise to me. It ended up being a ten-minute section in one of the episodes.

Since each episode in turn consisted of about 4–8 subtopics, I worked on each of these individually, each being a separate whole. This made it possible to somehow manage the proliferation of material.

Still it snowballed

After splitting all the interviews into sound clips, I sent the transcripts of the excerpts in the programme to Arvo and Nora to get their feedback on whether all of the facts added up. I was also hoping to get some more tips and further stimulate the composer’s memory.

It seems this really set something in motion, although I have a hard time explaining what and proving it in any way.

On the other hand, I was surprised (as very likely were the Pärts) by the excitement I met when asking people to talk about their contact with Arvo Pärt in front of a microphone. Everyone added another aspect to the general picture, and one could say there was an overall shroud of brightness enveloping their sentiment. Very few people refused to talk. And at some point, it was already starting to feel like I wasn’t shaping the material, but the feeling it aroused was guiding me. That was probably what happened. And in this state of dazzlement, it seemed like Arvo Pärt himself was feeling inspired as well.

He also asked me to leave one or two things out of the programme. The reasons were different but made sense. He either remembered something very differently or was met with something unexpected.

When starting to assemble the episodes on my computer in late spring, I soon faced a problem. One episode was supposed to run to 55 minutes, but my first arrangements were an hour and twenty, an hour and thirty minutes of fairly dense material. I reached for the pen and paper again. I crossed out paragraphs, sentences and even individual words. And then I cut the audio files accordingly.

When I handed over the first episode to Arvo and Nora for reviewing, they told me it seemed somehow crammed and too dense. But that was exactly the impression I was hoping for, since I imagined the account of the composer’s youth at the beginning of the programme as being more hectic, so that later, when both his music and worldview had distilled, the show could also become calmer.

The ending went askew

When the airdate arrived on 11 September – Arvo Pärt’s 70th birthday – about half of the episodes were done and the rest in various stages of completion. Some still required me to do more interviews.

Comments by conductor Tõnu Kaljuste, writer Viivi Luik and several other people had to be added. Time got tight. Too tight and too frenetic. There was no longer time to write transcripts.

The number of episodes had also jumped from ten to fourteen, since the bulk of the material kept pressing down on me. Nevertheless, entire finalised subtopics were left out.

When the morning of the airing of the last episode arrived (the air time was probably in the evening), I had only just started the mixing process. I was exhausted. For some reason, I had lost all hearing of middle frequencies in one ear. I was ready to drop, my head was spinning. Still, I had to keep going. It was only 30 minutes before air time that I arrived at the radio station, a disc with the episode on me.

And after the show had aired, it might have been at ten o’clock in the evening, the phone rang. Arvo Pärt spoke in a broken voice, sounding like a beaten man. The broadcast he had just heard was troubling him, and he said it would just not do. No living person can accept such praise, was his concern. And he must have been right.

I stayed up all night reworking the episode, and in the morning it aired as a different show altogether. Among the left out fragments was an emotional confession by Helga Aumere, a long-time music editor at Klassikaraadio, where the old lady declared, nearly bursting into tears, that she felt very special to be Estonian knowing that Arvo Pärt and Neeme Järvi were her fellow countrymen. Others had also added something based on their opinion, but the concentration of emotional outbursts was really very high.
So the ending went askew. It was due to looking too directly.

Music is what speaks the loudest

From time to time during the runtime of the programme, Arvo Pärt called and made some comments. Sometimes he even offered suggestions on what music to use. Once, he said there had been a power outage during the broadcast and he and Nora had rushed out of the house and into the car to finish the show on the car radio. It was the episode where performers talked about playing Arvo Pärt’s music. This must have been what the composer found most interesting of all.

I still remember having two endings for the programme. And it was impossible to decide which one of these should finish the series. Both would have been fitting, both made a unique vignette of Arvo Pärt as a phenomenon. What finally settled it, remains vague.

These reminiscences should be concluded with something meaningful, but words are reluctant here and fail to line up in a neat manner. It was a unique and extraordinary year. There was a special sense of concentration.

And while at first I was guided by the rather coherent and rational aim of making a documentary series about a composer, about his time and music, then from some point onwards, one I can’t put my finger on, I was guided more by the music in the programme, which eventually shaped the result much more than calculated intention.

Those who have heard the series may have noticed that only very few parts in the episodes are not accompanied by background music. Most of the time, you can hear Arvo Pärt’s music, and the sound is sometimes nearly imperceptibly guiding you in some direction.

Music is a mystery – good music always is. There is not much to explain here. In hindsight, it seems that more than anything else, it was music that guided me in making these shows, and all that has meaning is there in the music.

So whoever has ears, let them hear.

From December 23 to January 2 the Arvo Pärt Centre will be closed for Christmas holidays.

Shop