For Arvo Pärt, Music And Silence Are Divine

In her essay, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” Susan Sontag writes that “the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence.” Though Sontag never mentions the work of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (of whom she could hardly have been aware at the time), few artists in any medium so fully embody her words – “a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence.”

Pärt, born and raised in Estonia in 1935, is still alive, still composing, and still, for the sixth year running, the world’s most performed living composer. Since the 1970’s, his music has been explicitly religious, bare (in the sense of sparseness, but more in the sense of laid bare), meditative. For all those adjectives, however, Pärt is not a minimalist (like Phillip Glass or Steve Reich, for instance) and never has been. His work, largely, does not deal with elongated repetitions or the sort of stitch-work effect exemplified by pieces like Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood.” Rather, Pärt’s music displays a radical openness (airiness would also be a fitting description), a sonic purity dependent more upon individual constituent voices than their layering.

His uniquely open sound is the result of his “tintinnabuli” method of composition. Tintinnabuli comes from the latin word tintinnabulum which translates to bell (you may recognize the word from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Bells,” in which he coined the word “tintinnabulation”). When a bell is struck, we hear an initial single tone but then we also begin to hear the overtones emanating from the initial tone. “The tintinnabuli method,” writer Arthur Lubow explains in a 2010 article for The New York Time Magazine, “pairs each note of the melody with a note that comes from a harmonizing chord, so they ring together with bell-like resonance.” Specifically, Pärt is concerned with triads and diatonic melodies, heavily influenced by the sound of Gregorian chant and the Notre Dame School (which refers to a group of composers working between the mid 12th and 13th centuries). To our contemporary ears, it is a relatively simple music, evocative (as you would imagine) of dark, incense-filled abbeys .

Despite the simplicity of Pärt’s sound, however, tinitinnabuli is (at least as it was first deployed) a highly structured system, building upon the mathematical rigidity of Schoenberg’s dodecaphonic (another word for “twelve tone”) compositions, at least in their adherence to method, to create a sound radically different from that of Schoenberg and his immediate followers. Not only is Pärt’s tintinnabuli music much less dissonant (by and large – when it plays in dissonance, as sometimes does, it is almost never chromatic) than the music of Schoenberg and other modernists, it is also thematically divorced, in its explicitly religious content and inspiration, from much of the modernist enterprise.

Pärt, and his wife Nora (who was, at one time, a practicing Jew), are both members of the Christian Orthodox Church, and it is Pärt’s committed religiosity that first drew him into disfavor with the Estonian Soviet authorities. Prior to the 1970’s, Pärt’s music sounded vastly different than it does today. As Estonia’s brightest young composer, Pärt was one of the first to introduce the country to the musical advances of modernism – serialism, dodecaphonic compositions, collage, etc… and his early music exhibits an intimate understanding and mastery of the modernist and avant-garde forms and sounds so in vogue at his time. Despite (or rather, because of) his undeniable compositional genius, Pärt was, like so many composers under Soviet rule before him, frequently decried as a “bourgeois formalist,” but it wasn’t until the debut of “Credo,” (still, to me, his most thrilling and intense work) a collage work for choir and orchestra in which the choir declares, in Latin, “I believe in Jesus Christ,” that the dedicatedly atheistic Soviet authorities finally had enough.

The resultant blacklisting and eventual exile contributed to Pärt’s musical transformation into his role (more assigned than self-professed) as classical music’s great spiritualist. It is Pärt’s commingling of compositional innovation and religious conviction that have led him to be as passionately (a loaded word in this context, I suppose) discussed in theological circles as in musical ones.

This past Wednesday, I attended a performance of Pärt’s music that stemmed from a combination of the two discussions surrounding the composer. The concert was produced in conjunction with the Sounding the Sacred Conference, an academic conference focusing on the ways in which the sonic qualities of Pärt’s music are able to convey spiritual themes (the conference itself produced in conjunction with The Arvo Pärt Project, the Sacred Arts Initiative, and Fordham University). The performance took place at the beautiful and imposing Holy Trinity Catholic Church on the Upper West Side, built in the Byzantine style. As we sat down in the pews facing the towering gold statue of Jesus on the cross and the stained glass and mosaics, the altar in front of us was bare. Then, as if out of nowhere, the immense sound of the church’s Létourneau organ came from above and behind, both the organist and the organ out of sight to those of us sitting closer to the entrance of the church. The piece was “Trivium,” composed in 1976, the same year that Pärt debuted his tintinnabuli style. As the concert program points out “Trivium” is aptly named – the piece involves three series of three: “three sections, three voices (right hand, left hand, and pedals), and three pitches of the D Minor triad.”

The program describes tintinnabuli as “the colliding and ebbing of tonic triads and diatonic melodies, two distinct musical elements that fuse into a wholeness of reverberation. 1+1=1,” but the tripartite structure of “Trivium” suggests a different sort of metaphor, one that operates on a more explicitly religious level – three, as we know, is a charged number in Catholicism. In “Trivium” the shifting D Minor triads comprise both the harmony and melody of the piece, all anchored by the deep D droned by the Organ’s pedal. The three distinct parts blend in an indistinguishable manner to create an aural rendering of that fundamental Catholic arithmetic – 1+1+1 = 1.

The piece was at turns spacious and awful (in the religious sense of the word), suggesting both meditation and a sense of the power of the meditated subject (that is, the divine). And in a more concrete sense, “Trivium” and the two organ-centric pieces that followed, were exercises in concentration and meditation for the audience. Facing nothing but the church’s empty front, the music, carried by the wonderful reverberatory acoustics of the church, seemingly emanated from the ether. With nothing to hold our gaze, we had to concentrate exclusively on the music and the sonic qualities of the space. It led to, I think, a deeper engagement with the performers and the pieces and to a sort of small and (unfortunately) reversible heightened sensory awareness.

The third piece in the program, the longest of the four, was also the most difficult. Pärt’s “Sarah Was Ninety Years Old” is a meditation on the story of Sarah’s late conception and birth of Isaac. The piece is divided into seven movements. The odd numbered movements, with the exception of the finale, consist only of a repeated four note pattern for the bass drum and tom-tom, which can be effectively illustrated like so: …I, ..I., .I.., I… Each four note sequence is repeated increasingly loudly, four times, then three, then two, then one, with the only difference between the movements being a slight increase in tempo. The second and fourth movements consist of two tenor voices performing various permutations of a five note diatonic sequence – each sequence similar, but different than the one that preceded it. Finally, in the sixth movement, the repetitions cease and we’re given an exultant explosion – cymbals, the organ, the introduction of the soprano voice (all three singers in the show, particularly countertenor Alex Chance who had a voice unlike anything I have ever heard, gave immaculately pure and stunningly beautiful performances). In the seventh and final movement, the music again goes quiet, a solitary voice.

From this description, the piece may sound disjointed, but in light of the title and text, a clear narrative logic emerges. The drum pattern takes us on a long a fruitless journey; its goal is unclear, its pattern never resolves though it grows in urgency and pain – the barrenness and the spite of Sarah. The 2nd and 4th movements repeat vocal phrases, each only slightly different from the last – here each phrase becomes a futile prayer, a cry, the singers desperately trying every possible combination and appeal, but to no avail. That is, until, movement 6 – the arrival of the angels, Sarah’s prayers finally answered. But the music is not triumphant. No, it is terrifying, awesome (again, in the religious sense). The crash of the cymbal visibly startled the audience and the piercing voice soprano Maria Valdmaa was almost unbearably clear, unbearably portentous. And finally, movement 7, Sarah has given birth, and we’re left alone, with her solitary voice – a voice of thanks, yes, but in its quiet loneliness it is in awe, a touch frightened, humbled by the sublimity what had come before.

I stress the narrative of the piece not out of any religious feeling (I have none), but only to give shape to the strangeness of Pärt’s forms. The first five movements are all almost childlike in their simplicity. Playing so fundamentally on the basic structure of music – dynamics, duration, pitch – it could sound almost as if Pärt were discovering music for the first time, delighting in the mere fact of its existence. Pärt’s music is almost, and this is perhaps an odd comparison, similar to the music of Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi in its seeming naiveté (Scelsi, like Pärt, often delights in music’s barest, basest structure – composing pieces that concentrate on a single pitch and the microtones that surround it). But Pärt’s music is not naive – it can’t be, he knows too much. He has lived through Soviet rule, through exile. His musical knowledge is studiously cultivated and his output includes the prickliest of modernist sounds. No, he is not naive, and it is perhaps because he knows so much that his music has returned to ostensibly simpler pleasures (an apt comparison here might be found in Pawel Pawlikowski’s film “Ida,” in which a nun, the titular Ida, returns to her life at the convent after a brief excursion into the world).

In this way, his music is possibly of a more “saintly” order than the Gregorian chant and other 12th and 13th century music that inspired it. Whereas the medieval composers had, by our standards, radically limited musical possibilities, Pärt’s compositions are a rejection of sorts, a sacrifice. I don’t mean to posit some kind of value judgment between tintinnibuli and more avant-garde or difficult works, but rather to again suggest that Pärt’s music cannot be naive. It is, if anything, knowingly ascetic – but still, full of feeling. It is structured without harshness, without coldness –  it rejects, but never out of spite.

The final piece in the program, “Stabat Mater,” (the name of a Catholic hymn to Mary) was notable for two reasons (aside from the fantastic performance): first, the piece is sometimes performed as an orchestral or full choir work, but the Goeyvaerts String Trio’s stripped-down rendering was both the correct choice for the space and also showcased the best aspects of Pärt’s music, those being his use of space and the breathability of his work. Second, the piece was performed in just intonation – an old tuning system which sought to render mathematically perfect intervals. The resulting sound can be at once slightly dissonant and more consonant – it is a strange, and for the performers, technically challenging experience. The piece and the intonation served as a perfect vehicle for the voices of Tore Denys (tenor), Chance (the aforementioned countertenor), and Valdmaa (the aforementioned soprano), all three of whom, I cannot stress this enough, were simply perfect.

And here, I would like to return to the Sontag quote with which I began the review. “Stabat Mater” is, as previously stated, an airy work – the large intervals of the strings leave plenty of room to breathe. But what lies in between those intervals, inside that space? It is not simply empty, awaiting more notes, more sound. As the piece was performed, the sound of sirens and Manhattan traffic could be heard outside, intermittently attempting to force its way between the cello and the violin, between the countertenor and the viola. But, again and again, it was rejected. Unlike in the music of say, John Cage, who is also so enamored with silence, the ambient did not belong. No, Pärt’s brilliance is such that he cultivates, to the extent possible, a positive silence. His silence is not absence, it cannot be filled; it is a thing in itself. This, I think, is why the reaction by so many to his music is a spiritual one. Cage has rightly pointed out that “there is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.” But Pärt’s music represents the impossible struggle for that silence, almost Kierkegaardian in its absurd hope. And at the center of his compositions, in that unreachable kernel of silence, maybe there, for those given to the search, is the divine.

The concert was performed by Yousif Sheronick (percussion), Andrew Shenton (organ), Kristien Roels (violin), Kris Matthynssens (viola), Matthew Anderson (tenor) Pieter Stas (cello), Tore Denys (tenor), Maria Valdmaa (soprano), and Alex Chance (countertenor)

Jake Romm is a Contributing Editor for The Forward. Contact him at romm@forward.com or on Twitter, @JakeRomm

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