012: Arvo Pärt, ‘Cantate Domino’

I don’t consider myself to be a very spiritual person. I’m pretty cynical, and tend to hang out in the here and now. When pressed, I define myself as ‘observant’, rather than ‘religious’. But I’ve been listening for the last couple of weeks to the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Which means it’s been a pretty serene couple of weeks.

Pärt was born in Estonia in 1935, composed furiously in the tonally severe vein of Bartok, then in the serialist mode of Schoenberg, which got him into a heap of trouble with the Soviets, then he stopped composing completely for about a decade, working as a radio engineer. And then he was reborn musically in the early 1970s, heavily influenced by Gregorian and Medieval and Renaissance liturgical music, and apparently motivated by his own devout Russian Orthodox belief.

He emigrated from Estonia in 1980, ultimately settling in Berlin, where he still lives and composes. The piece attached here is Cantate Domino, Psalm 95, composed in 1977 and performed by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices. This piece is light, even playful. Typically, Pärt’s music is more elevated, glorious, full of gravitas, gorgeous. I’ve known this CD for a number of years, but it recently started speaking to me in a certain quiet voice that’s riveted my attention. I acquired thirteen more CDs over the course of a week (he’s surprisingly popular, can be found in stores), and I’m working hard at broadening my appreciation for his work. Actually, I’ve listened to nothing else. That’s deep immersion, even for me. But as I say, I’m feeling pretty serene.

He frequently employs a technique he calls ‘tintinnabuli’, a bell-like sustained triad. His music doesn’t really move forward in the standard Western dramatic sense of tension and release, complications and resolutions. It’s as thought he’s not interested in getting anywhere, just in letting go and floating up into a rarer place. As if the music exists outside time, outside the turmoil of tempo, in peace and harmony. Utter simplicity, utter serenity. Much of his music is choral. He calls the voice “the most perfect instrument of all”.

“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.”

Well, thank heaven he usually writes music, not words, and thank heaven I mostly listen to him rather than talk about him.

Some people associate him with the ‘minimalists‘, but hear quite a lot happening. I sure wouldn’t call him any names at all. So let’s check our cynicism at the gate, settle in and relax. Make sure there’s no one about to disturb, and crank the speakers way up loud. Let them float, them tintinnabulous triads.

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084: Dmitri Shostakovich, Prelude & Fugue No 16 in B-flat Minor (Tatiana Nikolaeva)

086: ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich (Kronos Quartet)