I am not a religious man, yet almost anyone who has ever spent fifteen minutes talking to me will probably know that if I ever were to recognize the existence of something divine, it would have to be through music. It is almost as hard for me to explain this as it is for a believer to explain their faith to a neutral party. I feel that when my link to music is severed for whatever reason, every link my mind is able to establish goes with it. This is the context in which I can speak about Arvo Pärt‘s music, this is the bottom line, from which I attempt to verbalize the tempest his notes stir.
Arvo Pärt was the closest thing modern times allow to be called a “child prodigy”, composing ever since his early teens, with stunning ease and grace. His musical career, although starting off in the direction outlined by Shostakovich, was brutally side-tracked by Soviet censorship, which banned his early, serialist works. After going through a stage of unspeakable despair and complete inability to write music, he found inspiration in the study of early Western music – choral music from the 14th Century, Gregorian chant and the like. His new voice, his new compositional style, he called tintinnabuli – the Latin word which describes the sounds of a ringing bell, and that is precisely what it sounds like at the very core.
Listen to Fratres – listen to the drone and the simple percussion which initiate the piece. See how he establishes them as not only a foundation for his composition, but as a representation of the vibration which would animate the Chaos into becoming the Cosmos. I’m sorry, I should’ve warned you right at the start – I’m probably going to fall into the trap of using really big words with this write-up – it’s just the state this music puts me in is at the very limit of my ability to re-express. My hair expresses it better, by standing on end. My skin expresses it better, by prickling and burning up. My breath expresses it better, by becoming self-aware and different every time, as though each gasp I take is the first, as though each time I exhale, I wait for my lungs to turn inside out and pulverize some form of me into the air, so that I may turn around and see how small I am and how wide my eyes are when faced with this music. It swells like a great body of water, it builds luminous architecture in the air, it disassembles time and teaches the mind to circumvent it, to mold it, to remember it in different ways, and if ever there was a way for humans to be immortal, it lies here – these are short bursts of immortality consigned to sound by Arvo Pärt. Surely, they end. But while these sounds fill the air around you, age is a tiny, fragile, transparent thing, it shirks to the size of a keepsake, it shimmers and gives up on you.
I find it amazing that Arvo Pärt is a representative of so-called “holy minimalism”, a somewhat pretentious term for minimalism’s answer to the sacred music of old. It is his humanity and frailty and weakness which is distilled into this music, and the result is so staggeringly strong, so overwhelmingly brilliant, that it can give a faithless man like me a confirmation of the absolute value of human existence, a type of judgement usually reserved only for the various divine dogmas out there. Perhaps I should’ve refrained from trying to write a post on Arvo Pärt’s music… it is quite futile to try and translate into words that which doesn’t even submit itself fully to reasonable understanding in the first place, at least for me. But I felt I had to. Thank you for bearing with me, and enjoy! If ever there was music to enjoy, fully, devotedly, this is it.