Arvo Part

Arvo Part, picture by Woesinger on Flicklr

After our first guest post dedicated to John Cage, here is another great article by Mirco Mungari dedicated to Arvo Pärt (a musician also splendidly exalted by Sorrentino in some of the most delicate and oneiric scenes of The Great Beauty).

Wir haben Zeit, “we have time”. This simple phrase has become a symbol for the poetic of Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer who obtained during the last decades an international mainstream celebrity. This phrase owns a mainly musical sense: in Pärt’s music silence plays an essential role, not only symbolic, but above all structural. All the pauses, carefully studied and placed during the sound stream, have not only a rhythmic function, but also substantial; the composer uses silence as a concrete building material, as necessary as sound. To have time, thus, is the same as to be able to wait for the sound through the silence.

This poetic is apparently simple, and it could risk to drift into a gloomy new age stereotype (as we will see, the whole part of later Pärt’s works are affected by this risk, and it has often brought bad consequences); however, it is the perfect result of his biography. Arvo Pärt was born in 1935, and till 1968 he went on composing his music by using all the typical techniques of late 20th century composers, such as serialism and collage; in 1968 his creative process began not to work anymore; this crisis conducted him into a deep rethinking of his modus operandi, by taking a strong decision: the total refusal to compose. Silence, indeed. Until 1976 Pärt applied his energies, with bravery and deep humility, to a hard intimate labour, defined by himself “a re-training of the ear”. He studied ancient music, from Gregorian chant to early polyphony, and through this work the gentle composer  plumbed his intimate sensitivity searching his own language; he fumbled in the darkness, step by step, like wandering through the fields in a Baltic night. Finally, after an eight-year long way, his new voice started flourishing. In 1976 a new work was released, completely different from the composer’s previous ones, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. In this new composition – a sweet epitaph for his English colleague who had just passed away – Arvo Pärt defined, using a few severe composing rules, a completely new language, based on a revolutionary use of triadic chords (so abhorred by cultured 20th century musicians) and thorough structures, built using numeric recurrings. The result of this courageous research is the so-called tintinnabuli style; recognizing it is simple, because of its apparently tonal language, with few chromaticisms, and its regular and constant use of the three notes of a perfect major or minor chord, like bell rings (tintinnabuli, indeed), constantly joined to the main melody. The two joined parts don’t generate a two-part counterpoint, but a single, inseparable voice; Pärt describes this composing device with the formula 1 + 1 = 1. The first perceived characteristic of the tintinnabuli language is its ability to create subtle, aerial atmospheres, and boundless mental landscapes; however, there is no worse mistake about Pärt’s music than to consider it easy listening. As said before, the Estonian composer built his often complex, unintuitive style through strong rules. Studying one of Pärt’s scores can be as difficult as analysing one of the most intricate works of Xenakis, or a panserialist insanity by Boulez.

Beyond a properly musical and musicological analysis – which are not in the aim of this post – the matter that makes Arvo Pärt’s work so interesting in a communicative way is its capacity to be accepted by cultured listeners (not all of them, in fact) as well as by a less cultured audience. Pärt is without doubt the most loved 20th century musician by mainstream audience, because of the expressiveness of the tintinnabuli style and its capacity to evoke simple but deep emotions, like a primitive language. However, this apparent simplicity risks to make Pärt’s music seem dangerously similar to new age by-products or some long-curly-haired commercial phenomenon (for the record, the Estonian composer shows his quiet eighty-year old wisdom through a majestic grey beard, framed by a couple of peaceful light eyes and a respectable baldness). For a twist of fate, those critics who should have saved him from such dangerous comparisons have instead often refused his music a priori, because of its supposed tonal simplicity.

As stressed by Enzo Restagno in his beautiful book on the Estonian musician (Arvo Pärt allo specchio, edizioni Il Saggiatore), Arvo Pärt’s music makes us trouble about the Proustian question on “bad music”: should – or, worse, must – an artwork be understood only by few cultured people? Can clarity be a criterion of comparison for bad art? In fact, as I tried to explain before, concerning Pärt’s music this matter is a false problem. Pärt’s music is not simple at all, but it is able to speak in a simple way. His painful and methodical simplifying work drove him to a crystalline language, and made his music able to speak in deep communicative levels. Like in a circular reflection,  this purpose needs essential musical gestures, up to giving material essence to silence.

The peaceful Estonian musician seems not to mind too much the frequent misunderstandings of his beautiful music, and carries on industriously his research and composing work, like he would answer, spreading his peaceful smile against the buzzing swarm of ignorant wasps around his musical diamonds, “take it easy, you will understand step by step; we have time, “wir haben Zeit“.