Estonian Arvo Pärt (1935– ) is usually described as a composer in the “minimalist” style, an appellation that is minimally informative.
Arvo Pärt at Carnegie Hall
To be a minimalist simply means to use the elements of music sparingly, which could equally apply to a Miles Davis solo, or John Cage’s 4 minutes 33 seconds of silence, or the middle movements of Mozart’s piano concertos.
So, what kind of composer is Pärt? To adopt a spatial metaphor, his music deliberately restricts the vertical dimension in order to emphasise the horizontal. Thus it becomes the sonic equivalent of staring at the horizon. The implied paradox is that as one moves forwards towards the horizon the distance remains the same; as time unfolds, we move but seem to go nowhere. The resulting effect is a sense of stillness within movement, a kind of sacral unfolding: creation in time. The intention appears to be to create an analogue of Creation itself.
The technical means by which this is achieved are easy enough to identify. Pärt mostly avoids large intervals, and the music is not characterised by fast moving intervals or harmonies. This reduces the sense of vertical drama.
To create the horizontal dimension, the phrasing is greatly elongated in order to create a sense of slow, revelatory movement. The risk with the approach is that the music becomes too slow, descending into tedium. But Pärt has the exquisite sense of balance required to make it work; it is perhaps his greatest skill. What he generates is not so much a balance of parts (pardon the pun) but of sound and silence.
Pärt has given the method a name: tintinnabuli, from the Latin tintinnabulum, meaning the sound of a bell. He attributes the development of his style to his mystical experiences hearing chant music.
The technique, which is by no means followed slavishly in his music, is based on two types of voice. The first, called the tintinnabular voice, arpeggiates the tonic triad (the tonic triad is the most static arpeggio because it is the first chord of the key). The second voice moves diatonically, in stepwise motion. Because the arpeggio outlined by the first voice lacks motion its main function is to sound like a bell, a sound that simply resonates. It is the stepwise movement of the second voice that takes the music forward, usually very slowly.
This drama of unfolding is evident in Passio. The introduction of musical voices always has a slightly surprising element because of the silence that precedes it. There is also a great sense of sparseness in the composition; it is music that is the antithesis of clutter.
It is in the silences that the sacral element is developed, something like the musical analogue of a picture negative; everything back to front. The music is powerful, stentorian at times, intermittently angelic, and elegiac. Yet it all seems as if it is in a call-and-response relationship with no sound – and it is in the absence of sound that one locates the ineffable. As with the ringing of a bell, one is just as conscious of the vibrations dying out as of the sound itself.
Another technique Pärt uses is repetition, evident in his composition Spiegel im Spiegel. The method of creating a still point by continuously repeating a figure is very common, but Pärt does it more slowly than is usual. The effect is to draw the listener into a sense of the passing of time, which in turn encourages reverie. The slow development also gives the ear time to enjoy the sonority of the instruments.
Tabula Rasa is a busier piece, with greater textural density. The title might have led one to expect emptiness, but this is not the case. The bell effects here are more explicit – arpeggio figures played on bells – and there is more polyphonic movement.
There is also considerable tension in the close harmonies in the strings, which means there is less sense of repose. But the development is characteristically slow, and the repetitious phrasing often sounds like a throbbing pulse, broken by the bell arpeggios. The latter are diatonic, while the strings are playing non-diatonic harmonies, creating a powerful tension between two different approaches to harmony.
The slow, stepwise movement of the strings seems to be aimless, but every little while the bells play what sounds like a resolving cadence. The effect is something like a person talking ramblingly, without purpose, yet periodically putting in a full stop and conclusion that has no relation to what was said before.
In the end, unsurprisingly, the pulse slows. The bells disappear and the silence wins.