A celebration of the music of composer Arvo Pärt, produced by The Arvo Pärt Project at St. Vladimir’s Seminary

May 31, 2014 on the Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage at Carnegie Hall

Program:
• Fratres
• Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten
• Adam's Lament
• Salve Regina
• Te Deum

Performers: Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra. Tõnu Kaljuste, Conductor

 

 

 

But thou,
when thou prayest, enter into thy closet,

and when thou hast shut thy door,
pray to thy Father which is in secret
Matthew 6:6

 

 

It is the nineteen fifties. Arvo Pärt plays drums in the army band. He likes the army band; they let him grow his hair long. But he is a terrible drummer. Autumn comes and goes. He plays oboe too, surprisingly serious music. The Coriolan Overture. The midday sun, suddenly Soviet. He gets the idea that instead of generating the beat himself, he could discern the beat in what the rest of the band is playing. He improves. One is capable of doing anything, if only one is listening attentively enough.

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Carnegie Hall, May 31, 2014. I watch Arvo Pärt step haltingly into the rear of the auditorium. An usher, thinking him the old man he appears from outside of sound to be, asks if he needs any help, a faint impatience curling the edges of his speech. He shakes his head and proceeds to an aisle, occluded by clusters of Orthodox priests. He navigates among them slowly and without solemnity. Like the people around me, I’m anticipating the concert by remembering things. A procession of them, connected by an invisible logic that feels somehow singular. It’s like mourning. Slow motion up a chain of small bells.

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 Arvo Pärt greets a priest prior to the May 31st concert at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Eleri Ever.

Arvo Pärt greets a priest prior to the May 31st concert at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Eleri Ever.

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In 2001, I sailed on a cruise ship to the island of Valaam. The cruise ship had been designed to instantiate the social principles of Stalinism. For breakfast they served hot dogs in a little dish of butter. Valaam for years was the main Karelian outpost of the Slavonic Church. The monastery there is very old. At night the monks would come aboard our ship, to smoke Peter the First cigarettes, drink Stepan Razin beer from cheap glass mugs, and eat Dairy Milk candy bars. They were politely intense. We became convinced that Lake Ladoga, which holds the island and is Europe’s largest, must have its own species of seagull. But my memory more than anything is of sounds: bells, combined voices.

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So much comes out of a name when it opens. The person you were on a boat with, the person who woke up one morning and declared himself a genius of boats. The country you lived in, then. I try to imagine Arvo Pärt flubbing his way through the Coriolan Overture, hair to his shoulders. Joseph von Collin’s play Coriolan, for which Beethoven composed the overture, revises history. Livy writes that Coriolanus was assassinated while standing accused in a barbarian court. But von Collin has Coriolanus take his own life. Shakespeare has him assassinated. Brecht never reaches his death. I think. I haven’t read any of this. Still, there are many ways to listen, many lines of depth to curve down toward. To become a person, you must first be deprived of truth. At the bottom of a sea, stars shimmer. Language is a diving bell.

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Arvo Pärt has reached his seat in the front row of Carnegie Hall. The concert starts. A solo violin, arcing sadly toward land. Fratres.

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A ripple of strings builds over the room like miraculous glass. Vibrations accrete. Immediately we realize we are on earth. Karlheinz Stockhausen once said, “A sound exists either here – or here – or here,” beating with his fist different points on a table.

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Whatever thought enlaces with the expanding music. Arvo Pärt is in New York City. He has fled the religion that gave him his alphabet, the politics that granted his generative crisis. In the world in which he is an old man, his is the most performed music in the world. Every future is real, but only one is inevitable.

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Slow strings still. There are twitches, micro-frenzies. Listening travels inward. Rhythm is massed intelligence.

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  Tõnu  Kaljuste conducts  Fratres  at Carnegie Hall. May 31, 2014. Photo: Eleri Ever.

Tõnu Kaljuste conducts Fratres at Carnegie Hall. May 31, 2014. Photo: Eleri Ever.

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The precise meaning of tintinnabulum is given as a "small tinkling bell." It is generally to be distinguished from campana, a term normally reserved for larger, deeper-sounding bells and derived from the name Campania, which is the province around Naples famous since antiquity for its bronze casting. The word’s onomatopoeic origin is attested to by Saint Isidore of Seville in his Etymologiarum, while later there is report of a tintinnabulum which "gave a joyful sound as if struck by an angel."

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It is the nineteen forties. Arvo Pärt’s house is in Estonia, which has changed hands again. There must be some sense in which the nation itself is accustomed to this. But where to locate that sense? For young Arvo, it’s completely new. His mother buys a piano manufactured in their new country. Something is special about whole middle register – the majority of the spectrum that would, in a slightly more operational reality, have showered Arvo’s world, peals of frequency vaulting from the apparatus. But only the high and low ends sound – the middle thuds into a rain of almost structureless almost percussion.

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The vowels that surge beneath a consonantal metropolis.

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In 1976, Pärt declares his need to learn how “to walk again as a composer.” He has just finished his Third Symphony. He has colleagues who are reconceiving the musical line, turning to birdsong, everyday speech, folk melody ironic or straight. Pärt goes into plainchant. It becomes for him a form as basic as an anchor or apple, a blooming of monodic axiom. Writing semi-automatically, page after page, filling book after book, he seeks to enter or constitute a different sense of time. Sometimes he draws a shape – a butterfly, winding stalk, or landscape – and then creates a melody to fill it. It is a peak of minimalism, an extravagant poverty of gesture and ideation.

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Sarah was ninety years old. A slow start, silences eddying. Then voices, winding like stalks.  It’s as though there were a ceiling. The missing words are she laughed.

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Arvo Pärt’s music seeks to replenish our depleted historical conscience, to sing the missing words. But in again a simple way: a rowboat comes unmoored and drifts through the ghosts of mountains. Bats come down and mark the perimeter of the water, pivoting and twisting in an exact destinational calculus. Desire for continuity bends the air into song. A possibility of return. It receives all of history, yielding a present.

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The music is incredibly spare. In Petersburg, I remember walking into the Church of the Smolensk Icon of the Mother of God. It’s on Vasilievsky Island. As in all Orthodox churches, there are no chairs. The air thick with incense, rain and light collude in a moment that bends my experience of time like light on water. Distance awakens. And then unseen choir, suddenly an organ, sound welling up to fill the entire space.

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 Carnegie Hall on May 31, 2014. Photo: Eleri Ever.

Carnegie Hall on May 31, 2014. Photo: Eleri Ever.

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Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. Bells and strings piling strata of harmony as thick and combinatorial as snow.

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Crucial to the Orthodox Church is the feeling of smirenie. It is often translated as "humility" or "resignation," but it is much more. Embedded in smirenie is a sense that nothing we can do will rock our passage through time. Experience is the assimilation into breath of an emerging, single future we are powerless to configure. In Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky writes, "God will save Russia, as He has many times before. Salvation will come from the people, from their faith, their smirenie." Vladimir Solovyov writes that smirenie is what’s needed to clear room in the soul for accepting the mystery of Golgotha. Under Soviet rule, lexicographers are forced to generate pejorative definitions – "absence of dignity," say, or "readiness to submit to the will of another." These definitions presume the vacuity of an infinite oneness that lies just beyond speech.

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Far off, another present. Just for a second. A boy fell from a boat, house above and on the shore still burning, icy depths but not those icy depths. And a bell rings through the water, repeatingly, a searchlight.

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Also in 1976, Pärt composes Aliinale, a piece known more often by its German name, Für Alina. It is easy to play. There are Bs, very high and very low Bs, and through the use of the pedal they extend, linger, build into a harmonic miasma, a background radiation of overtones that vibrate up against one another, fissile, recombinant, building and building. Finally, the pedal is lifted, clearing the fog at once, at a moment Pärt has marked in the score with a little drawing of a flower. While not part of this performance, Aliinale communes with a perpetually receding present in a way that feels connected with all of Pärt’s music, with his desire to cultivate a single flower.

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And now it is 2014. Carnegie Hall is incandescent with attentions. The Cantus envisions a sea as powerfully as one of Britten’s interludes, though not as realistically. In memoriam is not in but into memory. A porousness envelopes our fleeting intimations that a world exists. We hold things there, not permanently, but long enough for their cohesion slowly to dissipate.

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What is the role in this music of sameness, insistence, automorphism? Is there one sameness that all congruences partake in, like the way that there’s one vacancy, a consolidated state of the entirety of absence? Can anything but zero attain unity? The sublime is a garden of predicates.

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In 1980 the Pärts leave the Soviet Union. Nora, Arvo’s wife, is Jewish, and on the promise of being bound for Israel they can in fact go anywhere. Nora and Arvo have two sons. They pack seven suitcases, mostly with scores, records, and tapes, big ones recorded maybe on an Orbita tape deck at Tallinn University. They ride a train west into Germany, where they’re detained in a security office at the Brest railway station. A large space, and empty. "Let’s listen," one of the officers says. And they do, first Cantus then Missa Syllabica emerging from the portable phonograph Pärt will bring to the West with him, where it will be less exceptional, chintzier. In the music, multiplicities enlace and slowly converge, cycling into mutuality. The Pärts proceed to Vienna, where Schnittke has made arrangements for them.

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Salve Regina. It has the feel of an upside-down rainfall. First voices come up from soil to pool on the surface, weltering on the ground. Then they start to rise quickly into the air, sparsely at first, but soon in thick sheets. Gravity’s opposite, in torrents. They have already taken on the fresh sweet smell of the sky as they ascend. As they stream into altitude, liquidity gives out, and they are accumulated into clouds.

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Maps are the first tool of conquest. A failed seminarian from Georgia woke up one morning and declared himself a genius of cartography, redrew the shape of a complicated future to include Arvo Pärt’s country. There had been many conquests already. There were cities of camels and boxes encrusted with jewels. There were endless hills where men herded goats on horseback. The children born of Ajysyt, Birthgiving Nourishing Mother of the steppe.

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   i.
   in the invisible glow
   of pulverized ache
   I know uselessness as the poor know their last clothes
   and having old stuff
   and I know my country
   needs this uselessness from me
   secure as a secret agreement
   not speaking as life
   and even for all my life

   ii.
   But not speaking is tribute; the silence is for myself.

   iii.
   to get used to such silence
   to lose the sound of one’s heartbeat
   like how life is
   like some place in it
   where I am, where Poetry is
   and I know
   that my work will be hard and off on its own
   as at the city cemetery
   the night watchman’s not sleeping

   (Genadii Aigi)

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In 1972, encouraged by friends, Pärt submits a composition for a state prize, a set of contrapuntal variations on the Internationale. Paul Hillier will later say that it opens up like a star. It brings state agents to Tallinn to investigate. Pärt’s friends defend him, and tell the officers that Pärt is as beloved to them as Shostakovich is to the Russians. "Shostakovich is not so precious to us," they reply.

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A cloud is always in some state of storm.

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Te Deum. At first a remarkable hum, a stasis. A panorama, Pärt said, of a mountain. Soon melodies blossom. The chant honey floats to the surface. An infinite drone running underneath, loosing memory and meter which is its register in the body. It opens up like a star.

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 Arvo Pärt is welcomed on stage following the final performance of the evening. Photo: Eleri Ever.

Arvo Pärt is welcomed on stage following the final performance of the evening. Photo: Eleri Ever.

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Precisely at the moment when we recognize and admit our own insignificance, then comes the moment of our inner liberation: the “resurrection.”

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In Russian, “resurrection” is also what you call Sunday. Part of the trick is to read limit as renewal. In Pärt’s music we feel closer than ever to the oneness of silence, a consolidated state of the entirety of not hearing. Music mere emissary. How absence connects all absent things, or we feel around the lips of the holes in meaning.

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Pulses spark into and out of existence. Time struggles to differentiate itself from the particular, resonant shape of the room. The way a concert is like a train trip, and you see the effect on everyone of being for a while in a provisional state. You feel the effect on air of having held this calibrated vibration so long.

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Like Pärt, the Chuvash poet Genadii Aigi grew into a conquered language, sought a vocabulary so simple that a person could talk in it about absence – of buildings, of angles, consonants, sovereignties. He ends one poem by invoking, out of nowhere, “a no-purity.” It reminds me of when God in Deuteronomy calls Israel his “no-children,” how they made him jealous of a “no-god.” And he threatens to make them jealous of a “no-people.” The closeness of domination to void has not been news in thousands of years.

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Once, in 2012, I attended a meeting at the Consulate General of Estonia, with a friendly young cultural attaché. He told this story: “My father knows an industrial cafeteria about a hundred kilometers outside Tallinn. It’s very basic. My father likes to go there because the food is cheap: potatoes maybe, or spaetzle, and some meat stewed in sauce. I went with my father for lunch there one day. We sat at a long bench with our trays, surrounded by miners and factory workers – it’s a very rugged region, industrial. Suddenly, my father kicked me under the table, and gestured toward the door, slightly, with his head. "That’s Arvo Pärt," he told me. He was with his wife. They had the same food as the rest of us. You see, he is a very simple man.  In the corner of the room by the exit sat an old, Soviet-made piano. When he had finished his meal, he was walking to leave and this piano caught his attention. He went over to it, removed the cover, and held his hands over the keyboard for a moment. Half the room had noticed him, half hadn’t. Then, he dropped his hand, and played one single note, slowly, gently. And when it had died down, the Maestro turned back toward the exit, and walked out.  Very, very simple.”

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 Arvo Pärt, following the May 31, 2014 performance at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Eleri Ever.

Arvo Pärt, following the May 31, 2014 performance at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Eleri Ever.

The language of ratios measures everything against an absent wholeness. Heartbeats are the register of a steady flow.  What comes first, the sound or the construction? It is 2014 again, Arvo Pärt is getting tired. All night long his music has been played and listened to. There is a great deal of applause, the crowd’s appreciations reverberating through Carnegie Hall. Various futures come apart, cleave down the middle to make room for the one in which Arvo Pärt takes the stage. He is surprisingly funny, a little Chaplinesque. He bows. The applause does not stop, a continuing wash of exuberant sound that signals the passage of an evening’s phenomena of presence into memory. He puts his hands near his heart, smiling, and makes a little gesture of laying down his head to sleep. Time, unable to move backward, wavers slightly.

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It is late now. Dusk has loosed itself into the ambient conceptual space where every sun dies. Following Arvo Pärt’s flowering direction, a room of voices has sung the dipper into stars. In the spaces between them the evening’s tiny vacancies, absences, dyings, displacements eddy together, a growing unison of not. We anticipate resurrection, or maybe remember it, and open up like a star.

 

 

 

Author's note: in writing this response, I have relied on several texts, especially Paul Hillier's Arvo Pärt and the anthology Arvo Pärt in Converation. At several points, language from these (or from statements made by Pärt) has been brought in, either unchanged or adjusted to suit my purposes. All translations are my own. —I.D.

 

 

Ian Drieblatt is a poet, translator, critic, and musician. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bomblog, Web Conjunctions, The Agriculture Reader, Pallaksch. Pallaksch., Elderly, and Sink Review, among many others. His recent translations include Comrade Greetings: The Prison Letters of Nadya and Slavoj (Verso Books, 2014), The Nose (Melville House, 2014), and contributions to Circling the Square: Maidan and Cultural Insurgency in Ukraine (Cicada Press, 2014). He lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and works at Seven Stories Press.

 

Banner photo courtesy of Eleri Ever.