Sunday, September 25, 2005

Meditative destiny

Supporters of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt say critics have wrongly trivialized his work because of his commercial success
BY Stacey Kors
New York Newsday, September 25, 2005

Arvo Pärt is an anomaly in the world of contemporary classical music: a successful living composer. His deeply emotive and spiritual music - which some call "holy minimalism" - has moved beyond the classical niche market and counts among its fans popular musicians such as Bjork and Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who describes it as "a house on fire and an infinite calm ... a rare voice, much needed in an upside-down world."

Pärt recently turned 70, and his birthday is being celebrated with the release of two new CDs and a DVD documentary. Arvo Pärt: A Tribute, is a Harmonia Mundi compilation of vocal works from 1964 to the present. Lamentate, on ECM, features one of the Estonian composer's most expansive works to date: a 40-minute piano concerto inspired by an Anish Kapoor sculpture.

The film 24 Preludes for a Fugue reveals a man who mirrors the quiet intensity and spiritual essence of his music - not only in character, but also countenance: pale and somewhat gaunt, with a balding pate, full beard and soulful, penetrating dark eyes under a furrowed brow.

Little interest in fame

Despite his popularity, fame holds little interest for Pärt (pronounced PAIRT), who remains a reclusive and enigmatic individual. While he seldom grants interviews, Pärt does contribute liner notes to his recordings, from which journalists often cull quotes. The most frequently cited comes from the 1984 release of Tabula Rasa: "I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played."

That was not always the case. Pärt began his compositional studies in 1957 at the national conservatory in Tallinn. Living in a Soviet-bloc country, he had little access to contemporary Western music, though some avant-garde techniques filtered in. Pärt became fascinated by serialism; his first orchestral piece, Nekrolog (1960), was the first 12-tone work written in Estonia. It prompted criticism from Soviet authorities, who regarded serialism as further evidence of Western decadence.

Such attacks dogged Pärt's music for years. In 1968, when the Estonian conductor Neeme Järvi premiered Pärt's Credo, it was officially censured for its overtly religious content. A prayer-like choral arrangement of Bach's Prelude in C Major, set to Latin text, which eventually distorts and fragments into dissonance and chaos, it was Pärt's final serialist work.

Creative silence

"The thing that the Soviet authorities were afraid of more than anything else," recalls conductor Paavo Järvi, Neeme Järvi's son, "was anything that had to do with religion and religious texts. It was a paranoia that threatened their own existence, because that kind of Soviet-style Communism was meant to replace religion."

Both because of his disagreement with authorities and his desire to rethink his musical approach, Pärt entered into a creative silence, composing nothing for two years. He broke that silence in 1971 with his Symphony No. 3 and then did virtually no composition for another five years. He immersed himself in the study of medieval and Renaissance music and joined the Russian Orthodox Church.

When he returned to composition in 1976, his musical transformation was radical: 12-tone dissonance was replaced by single notes, triads and simple harmonies; chaos supplanted by serenity and extended silence. Pärt found a way to distill music to its essence while still retaining its intellectual interest and emotional impact. He called his new style "tintinnabuli," from the Latin for little bells.

He brought out a host of new works in 1977, and three of them - Fratres, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa - remain among his most highly regarded compositions. Interest in Pärt's music quickly began to develop outside of Estonia, but he was still under Soviet censure and was unable to travel freely abroad.

Pärt, whose wife is Jewish, obtained an exit visa to Israel. Then in 1980, the Russian Jewish composer Alfred Schnittke arranged for Pärt and his family to stay in Vienna, which they did before finally settling in Berlin.

Pärt's "tintinnabuli" style, to which he remains dedicated, was introduced to Western audiences in 1984 with Tabula Rasa. At a time when the mainstream was embracing musical spirituality - from Gregorian chant to the new-age offerings of Windham Hill - Pärt's spare, meditative work soon found an audience and paved the way for other composers influenced by the mysticism of the Eastern Orthodox Church, including Henryk Górecki, Giya Kancheli and John Tavener.

Classical critics, however, were confounded by this new sound, and equally confused by its Eastern religious content. The press dubbed them, somewhat dismissively, as "holy minimalists," taking a cue from the repetitive compositions of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, despite obvious stylistic differences. It is a label that still sticks, although fans of Pärt's music detest it.

"It's a stupid term," says the celebrated choral conductor Paul Hillier, who has led most of Pärt's vocal works, "particularly the 'holy' bit. Any music that's any good is spiritual; it doesn't have to be about religion. If you like [Arnold] Schoenberg and [Anton] Webern, you can call that spiritual music. The press has made such a big deal of the religious aspect of his music, and it can get in the way of people's appreciation of what else is going on in the music."

Sept. 11's meaning

Paavo Järvi agrees and derides critics for trivializing Pärt's music because of its commercial success. "We've been so conditioned in contemporary classical music to think that music that connects to human beings cannot possibly be good," says Järvi, music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. "And that's nonsense. From the beginning of time, music has connected with people. I've conducted Pärt's music all over the world, and all of a sudden there will be a sort of unexplainable silence, and a concentration, and you feel like there is nobody breathing. It's so incredibly deep and transcendent."

Filmmaker Michael Moore, in his documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," paired images of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with Pärt's Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. In this poignant, funereal work, a string orchestra plays a slowly descending A-minor scale, interrupted only by the intermittent tolling of a church bell. It seems natural that Pärt's music would be featured in a film about 9/11; it is uncanny that the composer's birthday falls on that infamous date.

"There is something so awkward about this," says Järvi, whose performance of Cantus was used in the film, "but actually kind of nice. Because that is such a tragic day in American history, and there is this really spiritual man who is born at the same time. I think in a way it is so great.

"Nobody who has experienced Pärt's music can ever say it's a gimmick," Järvi adds. "He is the real thing."

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