Arvo Pärt in Conversation

September 29, 2013

Arvo Pärt in Conversation
Enzo Restagno and others
(Dalkey, 2012)
182 p.

This book is a nice pendant to The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, about which I wrote a few months ago. Roughly half of the present volume is a transcription of a wide-ranging interview which Pärt gave to Enzo Restagno, an Italian musicologist, in 2003. The book is filled out by a technical essay on Pärt’s compositional style by Leopold Brauneiss, a brief reflection on his music by Saale Kareda, transcriptions of several of his award acceptance speeches, and a select (and well-chosen) discography of his music.

The interview was for me the most interesting section of the book; hearing Pärt speak about his music in his own words is far preferable to hearing about it from others. The interview begins with an overview of Pärt’s childhood and early career in Estonia, and the gradual means by which he abandoned modernist compositional techniques and found his own distinctive voice. He makes it clear that the quest for a musical voice was not only a musical challenge: it was deeply personal and spiritual as well. He was dismayed by the manner in which musical composition in the mid-twentieth century was politicized: the use of western-style methods was considered “capitalist” by the Soviet authorities, and that same music was often considered “anti-capitalist” by western commentators. Part grew tired of this conflict, and his remarks are worth quoting at length:

“Do you want to know why I distanced myself from this music? It did it because for me by this time these conflicts had lost their power, and with it their meaning. One might say that I had come to terms with myself and with God — and in so doing, all personal demands on the world had receded into the background…

I have come to recognize that it is not my duty to struggle with the world, nor to condemn this or that, but first and foremost to know myself, since every conflict begins within ourselves. This does not mean that I am indifferent, but if someone wants to change the world then he must begin with himself. I am absolutely convinced of this. If one does not begin with oneself, every step towards the world will be nothing but a big lie and at the same time an attack, and this hidden aggressiveness tends to go on spreading. How to do this is quite a different story, but if one starts off with this idea, everything else appears in a new light.”

No doubt the position articulated here will not be agreeable to everyone, but I must say that it makes me feel that Pärt is a kindred spirit. His inner retreat, and his search for simplicity, led him eventually to the very roots of music in monophonic song, and in particular to the music of Gregorian chant. He acquired a copy of the Liber Usualis, which contains a wide selection of the liturgical chant of the Catholic Church, and he describes this encounter in memorable terms:

“When I began to sing and to play these melodies I had the feeling that I was being given a blood transfusion.”

Pärt spent years filling his private notebooks with monophonic melodies, not exactly reproducing the idiom of Gregorian chant, but taking it, and its “spirit”, as a model. For a long time he was uncertain how to add a second voice to his melodies, from fear that doing so would lead to conflict and complication when what he really sought was unity and simplicity.

Finally he found his way to a unique compositional system which he called tinntinnabulation. The essay in this volume by Leopold Brauneiss is the clearest exposition of the principles of tinntinnabulation that I have yet found. Not that I understood everything, of course. In its simplest form, a composition in this system consists of two voices, each paired with one of two basic musical elements: the scale and the triad. The two voices, though distinct, are closely related: the main voice usually moves stepwise up and down scales, and the second voice sounds notes related to the main voice by the triad. Thus the second voice is, in a sense, tethered to the main voice, and creates a kind of aural halo around it. Pärt expresses this symbiotic relationship using the aphorism “1 + 1 = 1”.

The interview proceeds to discuss Pärt’s later music, including in-depth reflections on many individual compositions. For a reader who knows and loves these pieces, this is absorbing reading; I have not found anything comparable in other sources. Most of Pärt’s compositions have been settings of sacred texts, and he makes some illuminating comments on their strength (“The texts exist independently of us and are waiting for us: each of us has a time when he will find a way to them. This meeting happens when the texts are not treated as literature or works of art but as points of reference, or as models.”). He and Restagno also discuss Pärt’s special relationship with the Hilliard Ensemble, who are still the finest interpreters of his music, and with the ECM record label, which has issued the premiere recordings of most of Pärt’s works. Taken as a whole, it is a fascinating conversation, one which has only deepened my respect for Pärt as both man and musician.

The brief essay by Saale Kareda makes a couple of interesting points about the spiritual roots of Pärt’s music. First, she sees his music, correctly I think, as seeking to restore the “vertical dimension” to human life; the music is basically religious in spirit and is oriented towards God. She thus contrasts his music with that of the “minimalist” school into which he is often put. In his interview, Pärt himself also remarks that he does not understand why people perceive an affinity between his music and that of the minimalists. (I assume he, and they, are thinking of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.) Even more interestingly, Kareda makes a connection between Pärt and Webern, arguing that “both approach the spiritual through mathematical formulae… both their lives’ work consisted of penetrating deeply into the basic musical cell…”. I don’t know if that claim would stand up to detailed scrutiny, but I will say that I, at least, feel a strong attraction to the music of both men, for what feels like similar reasons. This is the first time I have seen another person mention the two together, and that brings a smile to my face.

My suggestion to anyone whose interest in Pärt extends far enough to have read to the bottom of this post: get a copy of this book (perhaps from the library, as I did), buy all of the CDs listed in the discography at the back, listen to them over and over, and then return to this book to read the interview and supplementary material. I can almost guarantee that you’ll receive no better advice today.

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