On Sunday in a quiet inner city church, the Gloriana chamber choir sang Arvo Pärt’s Da pacem Domine.

And I was reminded of Gorecki’s No. 3, of lying on the carpet in an apartment above Lavender Bay in Sydney, very late one night in the mid 1990s. The soprano was Dawn Upshaw. It was like cosmic weeping. (This glorious snippet on YouTube features Isabel Bayrakdaraian with the Sinfonietta Cracovia … and some pictures of Auschwitz.)

The Pärt, brief as it is, didn’t reach for that pitch of lamentation. (By the way, according to this native Estonian voice, it’s pronounced “Pat”, not Pee-at, as is commonly thought, and as a choir member misinformed me. Björk also pronounces it this way, below.) But the piece had tremendous clarity in its dolefulness, with its hushed spaciousness — a calling to calm. And like coming across a pop song I liked, I wanted to immediately hear it again, but that had to wait till I was back online.

I downloaded a satisfactory, authorised recording of it, but of course, it was impossible to find a YouTube version with a presence approaching the acoustics of a church hall. This one is by the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra and the Estonian Philarmonic Chamber Choir. (Pärt was born near Tallinn.) Da pacem Domine (Lord, give us peace) commemorates the victims of the Madrid bombing of March 2004.

How a musician understands the music

Gloriana’s talented director Andrew Raiskums is also very able at writing about the music he conducts: these are his notes to the piece. I find it fascinating and almost entirely esoteric: when he starts in on the technical remarks early on — “the bass line harmonises this a tenth lower throughout; a clear reference to medieval organum” — I am lost.

The extent to which Part’s music is dominated by early music techniques is laid bare in this work. Da pacem Domine is based on the Gregorian plainsong of the same name, which is placed in the alto line in long note vaues. The bass line harmonises this a tenth lower throughout; a clear reference to medieval organum. This level of organization also extends into the soprano and tenor lines who both sing the same sequence of pitches in canon; although the way the lines are staggered is also closely akin to the use of hocket by composers of the Notre Dame School in the 13th and early 14th centuries. There is also use of the ‘Machuat’ cadence-, which is basically a sequence of floating inversion chords at phrase endings. Despite the rigorous control of the musical materials, Da pacem Domine makes a clear and unified statement, powerfully amplifying the text.

As Andrew is on the Australian Music Examinations Board, I feel our musical education is in good hands.

Silencing the noise of the self

More useful to my layperson self is Alex Ross, the New Yorker‘s music critic. Ross mentions Pärt in his book on 20th century music; in his blog of the same name, the rest is noise, Ross interviews Pärt. He begins with illuminating anecdotes on the response to Pärt’s music by the dying (my colour highlight):

A few years ago, a man who faced a terminal diagnosis of cancer asked a friend to give him some compact disks so that he could have a little music to help him get through the night. Among the recordings … was “Tabula Rasa,” … which contained three works by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. A day or two later, the man called to thank his friend for the disks, and, especially, for the Pärt. In the last weeks of his life, he listened to practically nothing else.

Several people have told me essentially this same story about the still, sad music of Pärt—how it became, for them or for others, a vehicle of solace. One or two such anecdotes seem sentimental; a series of them begins to suggest a slightly uncanny phenomenon. Patrick Giles, in an article for Salon, reported that when he worked as a volunteer for an AIDS organization, in the nineteen-eighties, he played “Tabula Rasa” for those facing the final onslaught of the disease, and they developed a peculiar, almost desperate attachment to it. Once, when Giles was away, the mother of one of the dying men called with an anxious query. “He keeps asking for ‘angel music,’ ” she said. “What the hell is that?” The music in question was the second movement of “Tabula Rasa,” in which a rustling arpeggio on a prepared piano leads into glacial chords of D minor.

On the experience of listening to Pärt’s music Ross makes this acute judgement: “… anecdotes of listeners’ experiences, whether extreme or mundane, may give a better account of the music than any analysis of its inner workings.”

According to the unsentimental evidence of record sales [in the millions], Pärt’s music reaches far beyond the conspiracy of connoisseurs who support most new classical music. He is a composer who speaks in hauntingly clear, familiar tones, yet he does not duplicate the music of the past. He has put his finger on something that is almost impossible to put into words—something to do with the power of music to obliterate the rigidities of space and time. One after the other, his chords silence the noise of the self, binding the mind to an eternal present. For this reason, anecdotes of listeners’ experiences, whether extreme or mundane, may give a better account of the music than any analysis of its inner workings.

My Way, his way

This YouTube of a Pärt passage Mein Weg (My Way) from a recent disc, In Principio sounds very good, and is beautifully augmented by visuals of a stormy sky in Buenos Aires. You can hear the trademark Pärtian bells chiming in every so often.

The minimalist Master speaks

Lastly this brief, informative interview with the master by … Björk. Even more acutely than Ross, she divines the appeal of the work — that Pärt “gives space to the listener, he can go inside and live there. But a lot of music from the last few centuries, you just have to sit and listen.” Pärt’s response: “Maybe it’s because I … I … I need space for myself.”

She is rather cricket-like (she references Disney’s Jiminy Cricket), hands and face in full animation. In contrast, Pärt, who is 75, is very warm and slow. He has a classic, bald and bearded Baltic head, like aged wood, and his voice is considered and soft, and you feel like you’re hearing from an actually wise old man. But he is not stodgy — when Björk brings up her insightful and quirky comparison of his music to Pinnochio and his cricket conscience, Jiminy, Pärt smiles and grasps the analogy with relish: “It’s really so…this new style consists of two lines: one line is my sins, the other line is forgiveness for these sins.”

“I think sound is a very interesting phenomenon. Why people like and are so influenced by music — they don’t know how strong the music influence is, good and bad. You can kill people with sound, and if you can kill … then maybe there is the sound that is the opposite of killing. And the distance between these two points is very big. And you are free, you can choose. In art, everything is possible … but everything that is made is not necessary.” — Arvo Pärt

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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