“A composition comes as a single gesture which is already, in essence, music. (…) The compositional task is to find the appropriate system for the gesture.” – Arvo Pärt in Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford U. Press,1997), p.201
In the documentary “Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes For A Fugue” there’s a remarkable seven minute scene (10:30-17:02) in which we see the composer explain his thinking about melody and his perception of musical affect. In the scene, Pärt is giving an informal masterclass for young musicians. He’s seated at a digital piano, his giant hands spread over the keyboard. “I’ll show you the beginning” he says, leaning over the keyboard to find the right preset sound. Then he begins to play “Für Alina” (1976), a brief piano solo considered to be Pärt’s first work in what he calls his minimalist “tintinnabuli” style.
“Listen to this voice” Part says as he very slowly and deliberately plays the right hand part. “Quite neutral.” Then Pärt plays the second, lower part with this left hand. “Also neutral” he says, describing its affect as a single melodic line. “Both together” he continues, combining the two hands. The sound is “a bit more serious or complicated. Like two people whose paths seem to cross, and then they don’t.” Part plays the two parts, listening to their blend. “There is some neutrality here.”
What is Pärt referring to when he speaks of “neutrality”? I don’t know. Then the composer changes course. He’s trying to explain to himself and for the students watching him at the keyboard what this piece of music–indeed, what the act of composing music–is fundamentally about. “I’d say that I had a need to…I wouldn’t call it neutrality.” Pärt describes the perceptual focus he’s trying to achieve through his music. As he describes this focus he shifts from one sensory modality to another–from heard sound to seen nature to the perception of time itself:
“A need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.”
“This is actually…It could be like a break on the radio. Such signals sometimes sound as if they lasted an entire life. Or future, or past, outside time. Like I said, a blade of grass has the status of a flower. To see in this tiny phrase, something more than just the black and white key. And further…Hold that note…It’s not the tune that matters so much here. It’s the combination with this triad. It makes such a heart-rending union. The soul yearns to sing it endlessly. Listen…”
To explain how “Für Alina” is more than a matter of its tune, Pärt then compares the design of a composition to the gestures of a conductor which seem to contain the work’s dynamics:
“I imagine the conductor having an upbeat when the whole thing starts. We can’t hear anything yet. And the people in the concert hall don’t know what’s coming. Then the conductor makes the upbeat. The upbeat, the moment when he raises his hand actually contains the formula of the entire work. Its character, dynamics, and plenty of other things.”
For Pärt, the composer is like the conductor in having “knowledge or a perception of what’s coming when the hand goes down.”
He concludes by asking the students where exactly a piece of music begins. Is it the first moment of a sound, or does it start on the upbeat of the conductor’s silent gesture? “What is the first note? And what’s the second one? The first step is everything, decisive. This is a complicated story.”
The students smile.
“I don’t quite understand myself. But I have an idea of what I want to say. I’m always looking for it. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Every time I feel I have to start from scratch.”
To watch the scene, scroll to 10:30 in this video: