How a 78-Year-Old Estonian Composer Became the Hottest Thing in Music
Arvo Pärt is returning to America as a conquering hero, with his 'Tintinnabuli' style that's best explained through algorithm.
Image: Hans Thijs/Flickr
Arvo Pärt is the classical music equivalent of that guy you met at a party once and then, after that, he starts popping up everywhere in your life. On the train. In the grocery store. He might even have the table next to yours at a restaurant or compose the soundtrack of one of your favorite movies, without you even noticing.
If this is your first time reading the name Arvo Pärt, I promise you, it will not be your last.
Arvo Pärt (see?) is one of the most interesting and accomplished musicians alive today. There are many reasons for his success, including hard work and being at the right place at the right time. But Pärt appeals immediately to the veteran musicologist and to the first time listener in the same powerful way. In the introduction to her wonderful 1997 video interview with the composer, Björk (in typical Björk fashion) says, "Arvo Pärt is a so-called serious composer who, in a very sensitive way, has got the whole battle of this century inside him."
For several years, he has been the most widely-performed living classical composer, but that is just the beginning. Thom Yorke, PJ Harvey, Rufus Wainwright, Nick Cave, and Keith Jarrett all claim him as a major influence. Lupe Fiasco, heavy metal bands, and Berlin DJs frequently sample his works. His music lurks behind scenes in There Will Be Blood, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Gravity, just to name a few of his film credits.
Despite being a 78-year-old Estonian, devout Russian Orthodox Catholic, and classical music composer who made his name in the Soviet Avant-Garde through experiments with collage, 12-tone music, and inventing a form of music called Tintinnabuli that can best be explained through algorithm, Pärt has a transcendent appeal and is kind of blowing up right now.
How can a man who has often said that if you ever want to truly understand his music, that you must read "the Church fathers" have such a wide cultural cachet? There is absolutely no avoiding the religious nature of his work—while describing Tintinnabuli to Björk, he said, "One line is my sins. The next line is my forgiveness for sins." It is a facet of his work that he never compromises on, which actually got him into a lot of trouble with Soviet officials, who drove him from his native Estonia to Vienna and then Berlin.
Though stressful on Pärt personally, this forced immigration was the beginning of his international success. While Russia and Estonia basically struck his name from the official record, banning mention of his name or his work in official performances, Western Europe and America warmly embraced him. Almost immediately upon arriving in Vienna, he was approached by an executive from ECM Records, who, before Pärt, were mostly publishing jazz records.
When Pärt joined the ECM label, it turned out to be a perfect combination. Pärt is elusive but hardworking and appealing, with an extensive background in sound engineering, and ECM was looking for a star. They threw all their best PR at his first record in 1984, "Tabula rasa," getting it coverage not only in classical music venues but in the alternative rock magazines, as well. The record struck a chord, especially with musicians and especially with those who were trying experimenting with new sounds and techniques. PJ Harvey has said that the more contemplative inclinations of her 2007 album "White Chalk" were almost entirely inspired by Pärt's debut album and the innovative, mathematical technique it brought to the [still slightly esoteric] masses.
Tintinnabuli came to Pärt at the end of a relative period of silence in his career. According to the Cambridge Companion to Arov Pärt, it was on a sunny morning in February 1976 when the composer sat down at his piano and composed "Aliinale" (or "Für Alina") and a movement was born. In Tintinnabuli there are two dominant voices. The first voice or the "tintinnabular voice" sings or performs an arpeggio or the tonic triad. The second voice moves diatonically in a stepwise motion. One of the clearest and most famous examples of this is "Spiegel im Spiegel," seen above in the Gravity trailer.
Tintinnabulism sounds rather simple, and perhaps even repeatable, but only a handful of other composers have ever attempted their own version of Tintinnabuli.
Despite traveling extensively, Pärt hasn't been to New York since "Tabula rasa" was released, until this year. It was the St. Vladmir's Seminary that finally lured the composer back to the East Coast for a full-fledged tour of cultural institutions in New York and Washington, including a free concert at the John F. Kennedy Center, a lecture and an upcoming performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
These particular church fathers at St. Vladmir's are very social media and publicity savvy, or at least hired people who are. They have a very active and responsive Twitter account. Posters for "The Arvo Pärt Project" were posted all over New York subway stations next to ads announcing the return of your favorite primetime dramas. The Pärt ads featured beautiful design and large quotes from the likes of Thom Yorke singing Pärt's praises.
The crown jewel of the tour was a performance of his work by longtime collaborators Tõnu Kaljuste and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir (EPCC) at Carnegie Hall. On May 31st Pärt's American fandom amassed in Manhattan: the Orthodox church deacons, the classic music lovers, the film buffs, the young socialites. I think the full range of those in attendance can be summed up by the twenty-something in front of me updating his Facebook throughout most of the performance and the man behind me telling his wife stories about life in Estonia in the 60s whenever there was a pause. The music is undeniably appealing. When you hear it live or even when you listen to recordings, you understand why it has influenced so many people. It is spiritual but not dogmatic and you need not prescribe to any faith to feel its transcendence. In fact, one of the songs performed at Carnegie, "Adam's Lament," was written as a reconciliatory gesture towards Christians and Muslims.
The highlight was the finale "Te Deum," which is a popular Tintinnabuli piece composed especially for the excellent vocal capabilities of EPCC. Clocking at almost half an hour, the song features a complicated and multi-part vocal arrangement using the text from the Ambrosian Hymn in Latin with the sparest accompaniment by strings, piano, and wind harp. It is an intensely moving experience. Kaljuste lowered his arms and there was a silence immediately followed by a standing ovation that grew to a fever pitch when Pärt, himself, came on stage and the audience rushed to take a photo using their smart phones.
"I suppose secretly we love each other. It is very beautiful," Pärt said about his influence on popular music. Though as non-classical music fans line up to praise and support his work, it seems like the secret is out.