June 24, 2011

Evocations of Eternity in and through the World of Music (Part 2) – Arvo Pärt

Evocations of Eternity in and through the World of Music (Part 2) – Arvo Pärt
*Part of this article will be published in Music and Friends, a quarterly journal by the Hallelujah Oratorio Society
**Part 1 of this series was written by Benjamin Ho and published in the January edition of Music and Friends
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men..” – Ecclesiastes 3:11

Eternity, for most, is the idea of limitless existence and/or timelessness. This esoteric concept is not often thought about, and related quite closely to the topic of death. Rev Wilfred Leow of Grace Methodist Church mentioned recently in a sermon, “I think about this (death and eternity) more because as a pastor, I have attended more funerals than anyone here in the congregation has.” He also added that contemplating, meditating and preparing to preach at funerals has made the topic more real to him. Likewise, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt spent eight years in a self-imposed contemplative silence, emerging from it with a very radical transformation.

Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) started his musical education at age seven, attending the music school in Rakvere, Estonia, where his family lived. He showed tremendous musical promise, and was already writing his own compositions in his early teen years. Even though he studied composition at the Tallinn Conservatory from 1957 – 1963, he had little access to what was happening in contemporary Western music because of the regimes of the old Soviet Union. He was at the forefront of his profession, being the first Estonian to experiment with serialism techniques. Reactions to his works were extreme – some were praised, some were criticized, and some were even banned! Pärt then went into the first of a few periods of contemplative silence, choosing to research and study choral part music from the 14 – 16th centuries. Emerging from the silence with his joyous 3rd symphony in 1971, he felt that it was still not “the end of (his) despair and search.” He then entered into the abovementioned eight-year period of contemplative silence, delving into plainchant and medieval music, and finally finding his voice with an utterly new composition technique that he calls tintinnabuli . He has, without any exception, remained loyal to this new technique since 1976, when Für Alina, a piece for solo piano, quietly and thoughtfully announced the arrival of his “tintinnabuli style”.

Pärt, along with John Tavener and Henryk Gorecki, are part of a growing number of “holy minimalists”, whose philosophies and music are contrary to western classical music. Their music has been described as “music of the angels”, and many, after listening to Pärt’s Tabula Rasa or Spiegel im Spiegel, claimed to feel that they caught “a glimpse of heaven”. Unlike the usual classical music that normally strives to have direction, build-ups, climaxes and resolutions, Pärt’s music doesn’t go anywhere. It is gently repetitive, meditative, and I daresay, even hypnotic. Its main purpose is contemplation, bringing the listener into an altered state, almost the same feeling one gets when deep in prayer or perhaps meditating upon a certain verse or portion of scripture. The repetitions in the music are placid, and serene, giving the listener a sense of timelessness. “Time and timelessness are connected,” wrote Pärt. “This instant and eternity are struggling within us. And this is the cause of all our contradictions, our obstinacy, our narrow-mindedness, our faith and our grief.”

For Pärt, bell-like clarity is one of the most important qualities in composing music. The score for Für Alina is the epitome of minimalism, and also minimalism at its finest. At first glance, the score seems reminiscent of Gregorian chant notation. Barely two pages long, it has neither time signature nor note stems. Notes are black dots (like crotchet/quaver note heads) or semibreves, the former representing short notes and the latter, long. In place of a tempo marking is the direction “Ruhig, erhaben, in sich hineinhorchend”, which translates roughly into “peaceful, sublimely, introspectively”. The notes are relatively easy to read and play, but to achieve the pure and ringing sound takes much sensitivity on the pianist’s part. Both left and right hand play notes simultaneously, the right hand voice moving stepwise from and to a central pitch, first up then down, and the left hand sounding the notes of the B minor triad. The two voices are joined in the tintinnabuli principle, leaving ethereal harmonies and overtones ringing.

Pärt himself describes it as; “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

The beauty of Pärt’s music is that one does not have to understand classical music to enjoy it; in fact, if one listens through the filter of Western musical values, they might find it lacking in expression and stark. However, if doing nothing for a whole day or praying in receptive silence for about an hour sounds like something you would do, then you’ll be probably be one of the many who weep inexplicably to Pärt’s music, whose poignant beauty in simplicity can unearth the reservoir of joy and sorrow in the hardest of hearts.

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