All Music Guide
When you listen to the music of Arvo Part, you need to forget everything you thought you knew about music.
In the Western world, we know that music must have a beginning, a purpose and an end. It is built on melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre. Music is for entertainment, pleasure, and intellectual stimulation.
In the music of Arvo Part, these elements are not important. His music is very different to anything else ever written. He has defined a new style, an entirely new music.
Arvo Part was born in Estonia in 1935. He has composed music since the 1950's, music which in Soviet-controlled country was alternately praised or banned, but was completely unknown in the West until the 1980's.
His early works show the experimentation of youth - there is the influence of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, and the twelve-tone style of Schoenberg.
In 1977, he wrote a trio of works that were to define his own style, and set his future course of composition. In that year he wrote the three works that made him famous in the West, the three works that are still regarded as his best, and the three works that appear on this week's CD; Fratres, Cantus for Benjamin Britten and Tabula Rasa.
Arvo Part is deeply religious, a follower of the Eastern Orthodox Christian faith. Almost all of his music is based on some spiritual idea. Part's music, along with that of the Polish Henryk Gorecki and the English John Taverner has become known as "holy minimalism". While he term is not quite accurate, all three explore spiritual themes, (they were quite independent in their development) and their music has a common serenity.
Arvo Part's is probably the most unique. He often dispense with melody and common harmony. He explore simple patterns, almost mathematical progressions. His silences are as expressive as his sounds. And yet he achieves a lot with very little. While superficially very simple in structure, you come away from a performance profoundly moved. There is a depth to his music that defies explanation.
Much of his music since 1977 is based on the concept of "tintinnabulation". The word come from Latin for "little bells". Tintinnabulation is the literal and metaphorical sounds of bells. The bell-like sound-idea is represented by two apposed voices. The base voice plays a single tonic triad, over and over, forming a harmonic base and an unchanging anchor. Over that is played the second voice, a motif moving step-wise through the scale.
The effect is a shimmering, forever changing tonal landscape, shifting from consonance to dissonance and back again. These two voices are just sounds, but for Part they can represent the opposing ideas of light and dark, spirit and matter, salvation and damnation.
"I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements - with one voice, two voices. I build with primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells and that is why I call it tintinnabulation"- Arvo Part
The three works on this CD represent the essence of tintinnabula and Arvo Part. The first, Fratres (Latin for "brothers") is in two forms. The first for violin and piano and the second for 12 cellos. This is ethereal music, floating, chant-like, purposeless yet full of meaning.
The Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten is structurally simple, but hauntingly beautiful. On a background of tolling tubular bells, the strings play a simple descending minor scale. Not one, but many, all at different speeds. The result is mesmerising. This is not just a simple concert-parlour trick. Incredibly, it becomes overwhelmingly moving, a profound experience.
The final work, which lends its name to the entire CD is Tabula Rasa, Latin for "clean slate". Whether the clean slate represents a spiritual awakeing, or the dawn of Part's new compositional style, or any other meaning is open to debate. The music is wondrous.
At about half an hour Tabula Rasa is the longest work on the CD. Written for the violinist Gidon Kremer, who plays on this recording, it is also scored for string orchestra and prepared piano (the piano strings are separated by rubber stoppers and metal screws to create a mysterious bell-like tone).
Tabula Rasa has two movements. The first called Ludis ("play") is nimble, energetic, with unremitting momentum. On the background trademark chords plays out an ever-expanding melodic line that culminates in a devastating climax. The second movement Silentium is slower, more deliberate. The melody evolves slowly, aiming for resolution. But as it approaches its tonic end, it gets ever-slower, ever-quieter until the final note is left unplayed and just implied. Perfection is acheived by silence alone.
This is the original mid 1980's recording of Arvo Part's most famous works. It was the first ever released in the West and it caused an immediate sensation. Perhaps the time was ripe for this sort of music. Maybe the West was hungry for spirituality in an ever-materialistic world. Or maybe it is just very good music.
Arvo Part became a marketing phenomenon after this recording, perhaps even a bit of a victim of his own success. But for the most profound, essential Part, this is the CD to get, a CD that has changed people's lives.