Tintinnabuli’s Materiality (or, Listening to Pärt like a Piano Technician)

Jeffers Engelhardt

Music, distilled down to vibrating material, is silent. It offers no narrative or figurative message. It is energy and medium, haptic and resonant perception. In Pärt’s work, this kind of silence compels us to listen to acoustic phenomena per se—to the resonant frequencies of spaces, the timbral shimmer of voices, or the inharmonicity of a piano not for what they mean or index, but for what they are as phenomenal objects (the way a piano technician might listen to an instrument). Silence is one of the master tropes in conversations about Pärt. This is animated by Pärt’s own words about spiritual and metaphorical silence, by contrasting those silences to the sounding of his music, and by the metaphor of silence used to describe Pärt’s period of public inactivity in the late 1960s and 1970s. In human terms, though, all silence is metaphorical, anthropocentric, and a product of human limitations—silence as that which is below or beyond thresholds of hearing and perception; silence as the absence of a medium, including a body, for vibration; or silence as the absence of humans, either in the tree falling in a forest thought experiment or in the awesomeness of death and threats to our survival as a species in the Anthropocene. The silence I engage in this paper works at listening to tintinnabuli’s materiality like a piano technician in a reduced, concentrated way. This is listening grounded in the resonant relationship of vibrating material and embodied perception, prior to rendering music as something figurative or the object of interpretation. This turn to materiality in thinking about tintinnabuli brings us closer to its sonorous intensity and sensuousness. Attending to Pärt’s silence in this way can reorient discourses on tintinnabuli’s algorithms and forms, Pärt’s musical engagement with word and language, and the cultural dynamics of his work around the materiality of sound.

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