Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Pärt of Something Else

     New England in the flesh, and the idea of "New England" with all that it implies, has always been something that lived only in my mind while growing up in a southwestern desert. It has primarily lived in history books, revealing itself through tales of the Revolution or passages of Walden. As of today, though, it became less foreign. I'm visiting colleges, the classic junior-year-spring-break activity, but I'm learning not only about possible venues of higher education, but about the birthplace of many of my favorite subjects in American culture, which sounds much more epic and monolith-like than it did initially. That is, until I started listening to music on the evergreen way from Amherst to Cambridge. 
     For some reason, my finger clicked on the Arvo Pärt annex of my iPod, somewhere I don't visit with as much frequency lately as "The Dharma at Big Sur" or "I Might Be Wrong" by Radiohead (I should let you know: I'm known for my too-long binges on very specific works). Immediately, I knew I had chosen the soundtrack to my trip, the first notes of "Da pacem Domine," the echoy fragments of a triad fit to worship, making everything feel like a water color. Pärt's music has a way of making itself a memory, and like a time capsule takes you back to the past, whatever that means at the moment. So, for me, in this place that both makes me think of "history" the class and "history" the concept, it turned the present from a concrete reality into a transparent lens. 

     Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer and has made a significant crater in the terrain of contemporary music. His music does not evoke the word "contemporary" as often as other living composers, though, due to its sacred categorization. While he began composing with influences from Shostakovich and Schoenberg, his works after 1976 focus on ideas surrounding Christianity. His numinous works are airy and spacious, usually beginning and ending in gradual silence. His works have also been inspired by Gregorian chant, the slowly moving, monophonic works of medieval music. He has been categorized as a minimalist or as a part of the "New Simplicy" movement, a European group that went against the avant garde movements of the 50s and 60s, but that tells you much less than his music itself does:

     Pärt, along with his maturation into a sacred composer, developed a style of composition he calls "tintinnabuli," or "tintinnabulation." Straightforwardly, the term refers to his use of one triad spread over three or four voices, creating a cavernous, open sound, but also one he likens to bells. He says of the term:
     "Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers - in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises - and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. . . . The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation."
     Leave it to little Arvo to create a composition technique that is both concrete and metaphysical. And, while I am no expert on his creation and have never really looked at a Pärt score, it's difficult not to read about tintinnabulation and feel a sense of it in his music after. Aside from his consitstent usage of spread-out triads, he constructs his pieces like answer seekers themselves. His unresolved, gradual, metastasis-like structures often begin with healthy amounts of silences and tones that drift away. Sometimes they seem to find answers, like in the middle of his vocal piece "Nunc dimittis," which crescendos and unifies to a triumphant C major chord before resting and returning back to the melancholy melodies of the beginning, eventually ending in the contemplative, hushed, separate voicing of the beginning, never resolving. Just like most answer seekers. 
     He has more intense, dramatic pieces as well, but they have similar themes as his more bare works. "Tablua Rasa" is his concerto for two violins and orchestra, and is, in terms of size, much grander than many other pieces. It builds itself on evolving cycles. The first movement, "Ludus," is composed of a theme with close, slightly dissonant notes from the violins that is repeated, gradually becoming more intense with each repetition. The second movement, "Silentium," marks each cycle with a prepared piano arpeggio that leads into a tragic collaboration of the violins, again eventually ending in silence after the theme is transferred to the bass section. The piece, when thought about from Pärt's religious point of view, might be trying to ask "why?", but it eventually drowns itself in the journey to answer itself, so similar to many people who try to do the same. Pärt is able to make listeners feel as though something has been revealed, even if that thing may be that the quest towards revealing is long and often undoable. In his more peaceful works, like the violin and piano duet "Spiegle im Spiegle," I finish listening with a greater sense of my own perspective. 
     Perhaps it is the opposite of obvious why New England and Arvo Pärt are connected in my mind as I write this. Some of the connection is from my overdone-metaphor-loving mind, but a lot of it is from one sentence of that bolded quote up there: "In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning." 
     This sentence could be applied to almost anything, but it really has me thinking about history and how the past relates to our actions. Here, in New England, where our country was grown out of tobacco farms and kept in wooden houses on mud roads and written in humid, confined rooms in Pennsylvania, "history" is big and statuesque, both literally and figuratively. But while those revolutionary years were happening, I am positive there were nights when people sat awake in their beds, having some of those dark hours, thinking exactly what Pärt says he sometimes does. In the present, it is difficult to understand the influence each action will have on shaping the future, and it is often difficult to see how the past has constructed those actions. 
     America, to keep with this theme, is a place that has both succeeded and failed in recognizing that everything outside "this one thing," the present, a given lifetime, does in fact have meaning. When we succeeded, we wrote our Constitution with the past of monarchacal England in our heads, and we built culture trends off the influence of those before. But we have also failed. We began the peculiar, or cruel, institution of slavery without the thought of how those we treated with such unbelievable disrespect resembled ourselves at points, and we have begun wars without thinking of their repercussions decades into the future. It's the clash between our longevities and our minds, our realistic selfishness and our ability to understand that the butterfly effect is true to a certain extent. So, as I sit here in a Cambridge hotel, I can understand that I wouldn't be here if my ancestors weren't able to come to a country that was founded on the land I find myself on. But I also sit here occupied by my thoughts of myself: where I'll go to college, what I'll have for breakfast tomorrow, and what I want to make of myself. Maybe Arvo Pärt can't make me understand "history" to the extent it deserves, but he makes me meditate. With that, I can at least recognize


  1. There were no tobacco farms in New England you DUNCE but also i'm crying and ecstatic to be true and alive?

  2. Elena: Thanks for the Part links. Although I really see you in NYC, I hope you will at least consider the USC Thornton School. Let me know if you want a tour.

  3. Arvo part reminds me so much of playing piano around New England in the 1970s. The sound and feel of music at that time was awesome. This was when everything was acoustic and bars would let you come in and just play. I miss this time period.

  4. Great song.

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  6. Great piece about Arvo Pärt, truly one of the word's greatest living composers. BTW, nice blog you have here. Keep it up.

  7. Magnifcent truly is a great piece of music. One thing I admire about Arvo Part is how much they add to the simple parts of the song and hold the chords. Great post.