by Allan Greene
(Read part one of this series here)
Arvo Pärt (pronounced “pair-t”), the contemporary classical composer, insists, as recorded in Arvo Pärt in Conversation (Enzo Restagno, et al., 2010), that in contrast to whatever anybody else takes away from his highly spiritual compositions, he is driven by technical goals; and that the “system” that he devised after 1976, which he calls Tintinnabuli, is meant to prove that “1+1=1”, that in the End is the Beginning. In other words, Happiness is a Cosmic Blanket.
His route to happiness took him through his own extended breakdown, between 1968 and 1976, a span during which he had largely stopped composing. He had already changed direction twice in his short career.
Born in 1935 into an independent Estonia at the fringes of Western culture, he grew up as the Soviets took effective control during the war and then complete control afterward. The Estonian musical community had been pretty much ignored by the powerful and reactionary Composers Union in Moscow. Pärt, however, was a seeker, not an entertainer, and when visiting artists performed and brought recordings and scores of what was happening in the West (Boulez, Stockhausen, Henze, Dallapicola, Berio, and above all Webern), he found the path he was seeking. His early popular success (1960) with a student composition, Nekrolog, which was one of the first twelve-tone pieces written inside the Soviet Union, drew “relentless criticism from elevated cultural circles” (Restagno, p. 14) because it allowed a corrupt Western aesthetic to penetrate the Iron Curtain. A few years later he was trying heterogeneous pieces (Collage on B-A-C-H, 1964) which he described as:
A sort of transplantation: if you have the feeling you don’t have a skin of your own,you try to take strips from skin all around you and apply them to yourself. In time these strips change, and turn into a new skin. I didn’t know where this experiment with the Collages would lead me, but in any case I had the impression I was carrying a living organism in my hands, a living substance, such as I had yet not found in twelve-tone music… But one cannot go on forever with the method transplantation. (Restagno, 17)
He was in a record store (remember those places?) and overheard a short Gregorian chant, just a few seconds of it, as he recalls (ibid., 18).
In it I discovered a world that I didn’t know, a world without harmony, without meter, without timbre, without instrumentation, without anything. At this moment it became clear to me which direction I had to follow, and a long journey began in my unconscious mind. (ibid., 18)
Pärt continued to experiment in the mid-Sixties with works juxtaposing radically different styles, like his Second Symphony (1966), which after the most frightening clashes of sound masses introduces a note-for-note symphonic quotation from Tchaikovsky twice in the final movement.
He gave up on twelve-tone, serial, musique concrète, even Webern-like miniatures, after that, having decided that mid-Twentieth Century New Music was a carrier of “the germ of conflict”. The conflicts had lost their power and meaning for him.
One could say I had come to terms with myself and with God – and in so doing, all personal demands on the world receded into the background. (ibid., 22)
I have come to recognize that it 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 in ourselves. (ibid.)
And so I set off in search of new sounds. In this way, the path itself becomes a source of inspiration. The path no longer runs outwards from us, but inwards, to the core from which everything springs. That is what all my actions have come to mean: building and not destroying. (ibid.)
In 1968 he composed a Credo (Summa), a work for piano, orchestra and chorus with Latin texts from the Gospels. The Composers Union caught up with him, and soon he was receiving coded threats that investigations were going on at the highest level. This combination of twelve-tone language and Jesus’ suffering proved too provocative for the authorities.
After this I was interrogated several times, and the interrogators repeated the same question over and over again: “What political aim are you pursuing in this work?” (ibid.)
His wife Nora added, “And they added, ‘And do not forget that this work must never again be performed, and you must not offer it to anyone else’”. (ibid.)
Understandably, the confluence of all these doubts and pressures led to his choice to cease composing. This was his nervous breakdown moment, when nothing which had worked for him in the past worked now.
He spent the next eight years copying daily prayer chants from the Liber Usualis, trying to tease out the essences of their spirituality. These are clearly the actions of a personality falling deeper and deeper into crisis. He gave up on harmony. He released rhythm from his being. Polyphony became too much to bear. Only one voice, monody, was necessary.
In time he recognized a yin-yang relationship between two monodic voices, which eventually became his concept of tintinnabuli, two voices sharing tones but not melody, thrumming in a simple harmonic equilibrium with one another. This became the basis of all his subsequent music after 1976.
Links to my favorite post-1976 Pärt works on YouTube, with choreography where I could find it
Again, I shall list compositions I think are seminal, with links to performances available on the Internet. Going into an analysis of each one would expand this blog post to book length.
Cantus Benjamin Britten, http://youtu.be/82-xbhfNR2g
Für Alina, http://youtu.be/CNbuIh_1q1c
Lamentate (Lamentations, notable for its chromaticism and pathos; similar to works by Bohuslav Martinů; and definitely an exception to his tintinnabulism), http://youtu.be/VGQ4lswR-3k
Spiegel im Spiegel, http://youtu.be/D646MfCoAyY
Tabula Rasa, http://youtu.be/6OwdlKiB_ro
Post-Pärt Radical Diatonicism: Child’s Play?
I had mentioned at the top of the essay that one salient difference between Pärt and Liszt is that the Hungarian fired the imaginations of subsequent generations of composers, and the Estonian has not, as of yet. This was true even of Liszt’s radical late compositions, as he foreshadowed the bleakness expressed by the war-oppressed composers of Mitteleuropa and the Soviet East.
Perhaps a future generation of “serious” composers will embrace the antique resonances and unashamed diatonic modalities of Pärt. We encounter echoes of this aesthetic in some commercial film scores, but in my opinion the resemblance is surface-shallow. In the movies, the music accelerates the action, whereas Pärt’s music slows it down. Does anybody else’s music do that nowadays?
One could conjecture that the so-called Minimalists (Steve Reich, et al.) or the New Age musicians (the George Winston happening) could qualify, but in my mind they are a separate species developing on a separate musical branch.
There are liturgical composers, but they are adherents to their own specific traditions. They certainly aren’t branching out of Pärt’s oeuvre.
I do, however, know of one composer who seems to be on Pärt’s wavelength. And he’s ten years old. And I picked him and his seven-year-old brother from P.S. 32 in Brooklyn this afternoon and brought him home to do his homework.
My older son, Oliver Greene, composes music on my computer using the Sibelius music notation program, which is what I use. I showed him how to notate music on it about a year ago, and he plunged right in. I have never once suggested what he should input. He sits down at the computer when he’s moved to do so, and he’s written more than fifteen pieces so far.
Oliver has been taking piano lessons for a couple years, with as yet no evidence of a particular keyboard aptitude. But he does understand how to make music with Sibelius. And it appears to me that, with a musical language based on the technique in his beginner piano books, he has fashioned his own diatonic / modal language. Its hallmarks are obsessive figurations, contrasting metric sections, and a poetic sense of timing and structure.
Now, I don’t really know what I should be saying about this. He’s my kid. I was writing music at his age on manuscript paper, but it reflected my somewhat greater aptitude for piano-playing. Is this a case of a child’s finger-painting looking like Kandinsky? Partly, yes. But there are the seeds of perfect, Pärt-like poetry in Oliver’s compositions that could develop in Pärt’s direction.
Is this possible? I would say yes, and here’s why. Oliver has been diagnosed with a form of high-functioning autism called Asperger’s Syndrome and has attended a unique program administered by the New York City Department of Education for children with similar diagnoses. He has been attending integrated classes with the general grade-school population since kindergarten. He has been learning through intensive therapy, both individual and in groups with other similarly-diagnosed kids, how to deal with his tics, his hypersensitivities and his physical impairments. Throughout this, he has continued to be a prodigy in design and has acquired a highly-advanced understanding of transportation systems, electronics and audio engineering, as well as a smattering of the physical sciences.
Inside Oliver’s head is an unusual and hard-to-track imagination. It is certainly, in my judgment, highly advanced with regard to structure and architecture. If what he is doing is concentrating on music as a system of elements which can be imaginatively reconstituted, he is in my opinion thinking like a composer.
There’s no reason why his knowledge of music and how to produce it in the 21st Century can’t be built on his current knowledge. Not that it’s necessarily going to happen; but there’s really no reason why it couldn’t. He hasn’t even reached pre-adolescence yet. Who knows which intellectual course he’ll strike out upon when he gets to the age of fourteen, or twenty?
Maybe he is Pärt’s heir. Who knows? Here’s his Nothing IX, http://youtu.be/z_3cDrleDd4, Nothing X, http://youtu.be/ODeczzpikvM, Nothing XII, http://youtu.be/XQFbznfEf8M, and Nothing XIII, http://youtu.be/TywbR7eiQws, which I put up on YouTube. The first three were composed in June and July of 2012 and the latest about six weeks ago. This is just a little taste of what Oliver’s been up to. He most recently composed Thing, which is more sweetly melodic than his Nothing pieces.
Unlike Liszt, whose leonine mane stayed with him into old age, Pärt is mostly bald. If his hair has no part, perhaps Pärt has no heirs. I just wish Oliver would learn how to use a comb.
BIO: Contributor Allan Greene has been a dancers’ musician for nearly forty years. He is a composer, pianist, teacher, conductor, music director, father to Oliver, 9, and Ravi, 6, and husband to Juliana Boehm. He has also been an architect, an editor, a writer and a boiler mechanic. He lives and works in New York City. His ballet class music can be found on www.BalletClassTunes.com