Arvo Pärt Festival preview: Spirituality in sound

Contemporary music master's method embeds meaning in music


Music is essentially powerless to express anything at all.
—Igor Stravinsky

Though music’s ability to express anything is questionable, its purely sensual nature can serve meaning, and composers continually mate it with words to express our common experience, to help us locate ourselves between life and death, to turn our outward existence back toward ourselves for consideration, reflection, rejuvenation, reaffirmation, reassurance. A text set to music is thought expanded into an outward, sensual expression of its meaning. Such combinations are infinitely communicative and express every kind of human experience. Often, the most sublime examples are settings of religious texts. And if record sales are any indication of success, the “sacred minimalist” music that has been welling up out of the Baltic region and northern Europe since the early 1970s is the cream of the sublime.

Cappella Romana sings music of Arvo Pärt this weekend.

Following on the heels of their performance of Einojuhani Rautavaara’s sacred choral work Vigilia, Portland-based internationally touring vocal ensemble Cappella Romana presents the five-day Arvo Pärt Festival, which Cappella artistic director Alexander Lingas believes is North America’s first to showcase the work of the most performed living composer worldwide for the past six years — and a profoundly devout one. The fest runs February 5-12 and features full scale a capella choral works as well as chamber ensemble music and solo instrumentals.

A Composer Seeking Meaning

Credited with the birth of holy minimalism, Estonian Arvo Pärt joined other Western composers in Europe and the US in the late 1960s and ’70s in abandoning the rigid aesthetics of twelve-tone and serial music to seek more culturally pertinent pathways to new music. The Eastern Orthodox composer’s departure from modernism was marked by an intense reexamination of all that he knew about music and an exploration and embracing of its sacred history. As a result of his deep introspection, Arvo Pärt created a unique approach to setting text that may actually challenge Stravinsky’s idea of pure music devoid of meaning.

Mirroring the career path of many composers who came to maturity in the 1950s and 60s, Pärt started out as a neoclassical composer and then crossed over into the intellectual rigor of twelve-tone techniques and serialism in the early ‘60s. Responding to the Soviet repression of modernism and finding the modernist methods unfertile ground, Pärt retreated into periods of creative limbo and non-productivity late in the ‘60s, spending much of his time studying 14th and 15th century choral music.

Composer Arvo Pärt

These were times of great struggle for Pärt during which, Hillier writes “he lacked the musical faith and willpower to write even a single note.” His continued study of ancient western music—Gregorian chant, plainsong, Renaissance polyphony—led to a radical shift to a spare, minimal style that often employed sacred texts in choral settings with and without instrumentation.

Part’s break from modernism’s obsession with abstraction and musical process wasn’t so abrupt as it may superficially sound. Pärt’s epiphanic stylistic transformation was born of (and still employs) an abstract process, with close ties to the rationalist serial techniques cranked out by legions of midcentury academic composers. Strict rules of relation between notes are set up in the realms of “melodic” and “harmonic” content—a technique the composer’s wife Nora likened to the ringing of bells and was thus dubbed tintinnabuli. This is not the western harmonic tradition of tonic–dominant power plays but an abstracted tonality that is pitch centric and depends on foundation triads (three-note chords that permeate the entire piece), and tightly defined modes.

Arvo and Nora Pärt in 2012. Photo: Rene Riisalu.

Transcending the traditional technique of “word painting” in the composition of masses, Part’s mature music translates the mechanics of the text into the tools needed to select and write the music, using the very skeleton and guts of a text—its syllables, words, punctuation— to craft the musical form. Passio, which Cappella Romana performs by candlelight on February 11, is the quintessential work in this style. Each syllable is given a duration dependent on its place in the sentence and that sentence’s role in the larger text. The punctuation of a text secures its fundamental reading. Pärt uses the punctuation to select durations that shape phrasing and to highlight the relationships of one phrase to another. Syntax and cadence are married to pitch and duration to reveal music written by words. (Or are the words being written in tones and durations and spoken by the music?)

The composer considers the technique to be anchored in sacred concepts, with the melodic elements representing the mundane sacrifices and sins of everyday life and the harmonic, triadic elements to be an ever-present force that keeps the melody from straying. And, in fact, and again at his wife’s suggestion, the composer insists that both aspects of his method are facets of the same thing: 1 + 1 = 1.

In the early 1970s, the result of Arvo Pärt’s rigorous reexamination of Western music and disciplined reconstruction of his approach to composing was a string of stunningly calm, open, resonant works that spread like a rising tide across the international classical music landscape. Many will be performed during the festival — a rare opportunity to experience in a few days a range of this transcendent and (for many) spiritual music.

The Listener’s Role

“All music arises from silence, to which sooner or later it must return,” writes singer and conductor Paul Hillier in his book, Arvo Pärt. I would add that a text arises from thought and to thought must return. When text and music are brought together, meaning and mind are mated with sound and soul, and the listener experiences moments of synergy, sensations that are larger than the sum of the two elements. And there is a reason for this.

Music itself is purely abstract and any emotion that swells up in the listener’s chest or electrifies their spine, or emboldens their arrogance, has its source in their consciousness, in association. Very few of Pärt’s fans understand Latin or liturgical Slavonic, yet they claim his music is holy, sacred, mystical. Perhaps this is due to the snowball effect of listeners who are tuned in to opportunities for spiritual experience (church members, spiritualists, New Age enthusiasts) stumbling on his work and excitedly spreading the word.

I suggest a different reason. Listeners, by the very act of listening, take the music to another level: broad-thinking composers refer to this as the audience “completing” a piece and embrace the phenomenon. I consider this the reason for listeners’ claims of holy, mystical, sacred: their own completion of the piece within their sphere of meaningful association. And the musical sphere of many of these listeners is the sanctity of the church where choirs pour forth their collective souls. From the early sacred performance contexts on through to the popular success of his commercial recordings, the terms of sacred, mystical have abided and inevitably the label was born.

Perhaps Pärt’s tintinnabuli style approaches music that conveys meaning. Yet, though the structure of the text colonizes the music, the meaning still resides in the words. But by embedding the structure of a text so intimately within the music, the composer brings listeners to a sensual understanding of its meaning through which they witness the vivification of the word — a mystical experience indeed.

The Arvo Pärt Festival continues February 9-12 at various venues in Portland. Please click on the festival link above for more information.

Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene.

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