The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt

Reviewed by Scott Ordway


Published by Cambridge University Press, 2012   |   268 pages

Arvo Pärt is a paradoxical figure in contemporary music: his work is widely performed, but almost never studied; it presents itself as disarmingly simple, but is fiendishly difficult to perform; it is meant to be heard in concert, though most know it only in recorded form; it is unabashedly sacred in a profoundly secular age.

For those unfamiliar with the composer, Pärt is known globally as the prolific creator of luminous choral and instrumental music that blends the gestural language of Medieval chant with the rigor of high modernism. The composer devised his signature technique, “tintinnabulation” – which takes it name from the Latin word for “bells” – during a period of personal artistic crisis in the 1970s. In so doing, he established a radical aesthetic agenda, both with respect to his contemporaries and his own prior work. It is worth recalling that in the dogmatically modernist mid-twentieth century, composing simple, emotionally arresting music using the affective language of the distant past was itself a radical gesture. Working only with the triad, the most fundamental musical building block, Pärt unexpectedly married the procedural techniques of minimalism and high modernism with the tonal materials and gestural language of ancient church music, in the process becoming simultaneously one of the twentieth century’s most arcane, but also performed, recorded, and appreciated composers.

Despite—or perhaps because of—this enormous success, the international scholarly community has spilt comparatively little ink discussing his work. But Pärt’s stance is neither reactionary retrenchment nor commercial pandering, and demands serious critical inquiry. This Cambridge Companion makes a high-quality, if incomplete, attempt to address this imbalance. In his introduction, editor Andrew Shenton explains that “the purpose of this book is to elucidate the essential and phenomenal traits of this remarkable composer and his music,” and this dual mandate (analysis of both the man and his music) ensures that this is a well-rounded volume.

It is, to be certain, the contributions of the latter type, in their illumination of previously untreated technical aspects of Pärt’s compositional process, language, and oeuvre that are the most noteworthy contributions to the literature. In his chapter “Musical Archetypes: the basic elements of the tintinnabuli style”, Leopold Brauneiss gives the most general overview of Pärt’s major innovation: his invention of the “tintinnabuli” style. Wikipedia describes it as “characterized by two types of voices, the first of which arpeggiates the tonic triad, and the second of which moves diatonically in stepwise motion,” but a simpler way to describe it is to note that with it Pärt vigorously reasserted medieval Christian chant into the Western musical vocabulary. Brauneiss’s chapter offers a useful catalogue of Pärt’s musical materials, creating context for understanding the composer’s idiosyncratic use of scale and triad.

Relying heavily on musical examples, Brauneiss methodically reveals an aspect of Pärt’s musical language that is not typically associated with other Minimalist composers: an almost manic obsession with pitch control. To an extent virtually unheard of outside of academic serialism, we see that Pärt’s pitch language is governed by a system of very strict rules. Whereas classical composers have traditionally chosen their notes according to a flexible grammar of accepted musical practices, the tones of a Pärt melody literally “control” which other(s) will accompany them: notes may only be accompanied by tones from the tonic triad—the three notes that define the home key. This flattens traditional music’s three-dimensional harmonic perspective, thwarting the classic harmonic narrative of departure and return. The surprisingly beautiful result has been described as analogous to a perspective-less Russian icon. Robert Sholl explores this visual metaphor in detail, while Immo Mihkelson’s discussion of dodecaphonic experimentation in 1960’s and 70’s Estonia offers deeper insight into the historical origin of the system itself.

Thomas Robinson moves the analysis into theoretically deeper waters, examining a handful of Pärt compositions using more rigorously analytic and even mathematical methods: stylistic, Schenkerian, set-class, and Neo-Riemannian. These methods reveal a level of theoretical richness that may not be immediately apparent from casual listening to music as starkly minimal as this. Revisiting familiar works after reading this analysis, one is struck by Pärt’s remarkable ability to compose in radically modern and rigorously traditional forms simultaneously. In the second part of his excellent essay, Robinson applies analytical methods that detail the composer’s compositional process. Robinson moves beyond the scale-triad relationship to reveal similarly novel schema for causing pitch to interact with rhythm, timbre, and text.

Jeffers Engelhardt, contributing a biographical and, as the editor calls, “phenomenal” (ie phenomenological) study of Pärt, furnishes a fascinating portrait of the composer as a “cosmopolitan persona of global renown, a genre-transcending artist at the center of multiple musical worlds, an icon of contemporary spirituality, and, since the early 1980s, a figure around whom narratives and meanings of contemporary European experience have coalesced.” Pärt’s surreal mega-popularity—which surpasses that of any other contemporary composer by an order of magnitude, despite his music’s ostensibly rigorously unpopular solemn religious choral form—demands analysis and explanation. Engelhardt explores Pärt’s “symbiotic relationship with the recording industry”, presenting a savvy and brand-sensitive artist rather at odds with the popular conception of Pärt as an otherworldly mystic. As a listener occasionally disappointed by the experience of hearing Pärt live—the product often falls short of the immersive, reverberant sound of ECM’s beautifully produced recordings—I can second Engelhardt’s observation that “Pärt’s relationship with his mediators and collaborators is fundamental to his creative work.” Engelhardt also traces the vast diaspora of the recordings themselves, noting sampled appearances in hip hop songs, dance music, and ambient techno. The extraordinary portability of the “Pärt sound” is one of its most fascinating aspects, and the portrait Engelhardt paints of the creation and distribution of Pärt’s music further deepens our appreciation of how resonant it is with the musical ethos of the 21st century.

Scott Ordway is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Bates College. Much of his work, including his three symphonies, responds to landscape, urban culture, and social geography. For more information about current projects, including new multimedia works addressing urban life in Philadelphia and Detroit, visit www.scottjordway.com or follow @scott_ordway.

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