The Music of Arvo Pärt

by Thomas Brett

Arvo Part‘s music moves me.  It could be the scales he uses, his sense of silence and space, the dissonances and unresolved tensions–all that musical stuff–but I suspect that it’s also something more.  Born in Estonia in 1935, Part is considered one of the most important living composers of sacred concert music.  His music has an old-fashioned sound it–as in Gregorian chant old–and is generally scored for a cappella voices and acoustic instruments.  In the 1970s, Part developed a unique compositional voice that grew out of his study of sacred chant music and early medieval polyphony.  Part calls this compositional style “Tintinnabuli” (from the Latin tintinnabulum, or bell) and it revolves around the idea of two musical voices that explore the expressive possibilities of the triad (or “do, mi, so”) in European music.  Simple, at least in terms of the technical explanation.  The sacred twist is that Part admits to have had ecstatic experiences with the early music that changed his perspective on the purpose of music for him.  Perhaps this is audible in the sounds or not.  You’ll have to decide.  Part’s Tintinnabuli style has been called minimalist which I suppose is accurate.

Part’s piece “Fratres” (1977) is a good place to start listening.  Fratres has been scored for various combinations of strings, percussion and piano, but perhaps the simplest version is one scored for violin and piano.  The piece is deceptively simple in the sense that there isn’t that much “material”–not much there, there.  You can get a sense of what I mean by looking at this video of a score for one version of Fratres.  As the music plays, different parts of the score are highlighted.  Fratres is incredibly elegant in its simplicity, gathering maximum power from minimal means. You can view the score here.

You can also watch a compelling live performance of Fratres for violin and piano (by Vladim Repin and Nikokai Lugansky in Tokyo in 2004) here:

 

Part has said relatively little about his work.  However, in 2008 the Icelandic singer Bjork interviewed him and Part opened up.  Bjork loves Part’s music, gushing that every one of the composer’s notes are “rational” and “full of sense.”  Then Part starts to talk:

“I think sound is a very interesting phenomenon.  Why people like are so influenced by music: they didn’t know how strong the music influences us for good or for bad.  You can kill people with sound.  And if you can kill, maybe there is also sound that is the opposite of killing.  And the distance between the two points is very big.  And you are free–you can choose.  In art everything is possible.  But everything that is made is not necessary.”

Bjork then interjects with a story about how Part’s Tintinnabuli style conjures for her an image of two sides in dialogue.  Part is happy that she can hear it in the music:

“This new style consists of two sides: so that one line is my sins, and another line is forgiveness for these sins.  Mostly the music has two voices: one is more complicated and subjective.  But another is very simple, clear and objective.”

Here’s the interview:

Here’s another Part piece, “Mein Weg”: