You cannot expect a large crowd for formal concert music starting at 6:00 p.m. on a weekday in Washington, D.C., but May 27, 2014, the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall filled up. A line for free tickets had wrapped around the side of that massive building on the Potomac, filling seats usually reserved for subscribers to conventional programs after dinner time. So the audience was a little different, and there’s no better case for arts outreach than the experiment of giving it away (as other countries do better than ours). But this audience wasn’t only different because a barrier to entry had been eliminated. The audience was already enamored of something transcendent, and came to hear it, under the auspice that it was a rare visitation from a living composer who is sensationally characterized as both a rock star and a recluse. This was his first visit to the East Coast in 30 years.
For an occasion like this, hosts had to get a few words in first, including Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves who told his own “my first time hearing Arvo Pärt” story that would become a repeating anecdote throughout the week, revealing something. Albeit, many composers (and especially pop musicians) have been on the receiving end of that sentiment too; but something more than political rhetoric was at work, when he strained to project a personally transformative experience rather than, say, the story of a first kiss.
After the elation of hearing Arvo Pärt’s music that needs no introduction, personal transformation is an extraordinary claim. A composer’s music lives and breathes without it, but around this tour called The Arvo Pärt Project, healthy skepticism is worth contending against the taboo of actually asking anyone: what transformed?
I sat across the aisle from him at the more intimate music room of The Phillips Collection during his second Washington, D.C. concert, discreetly glancing a couple of times to read his demeanor while being confronted with the performance of his music. Afterward, during a reception at the Embassy of Estonia, I shook his hand simply to thank him. Both of these minimal encounters clarified one simple thing: Arvo Pärt is the exemplar of humility, not just in the way he carries himself, but in his music itself. Whether you call it minimalist or post-modern or Tintinnabuli as it’s formally named, the composer exists within his music just as any one person merely exists within the universe. The harder question than existence, always, is how anyone spends their existence.
So Arvo Pärt moves in the opposite direction from that ad-driven media moniker “rock star,” framing an occasion to think about the existence of ego in any composer’s work. Taking a broad view of contemporary music, we could fairly say that our generation has an ironic primitivism that accords creative artists celebrity (or requires a lust for it). Some tactics used are guilt, fashion, Apple commercials, and you know the rest. At a ubiquity manifested in endless Kickstarter campaigns for subsidizing personal dreams, and urban music that is the opposite of urbane, we know what we want, and we celebrate artists who do too.
Tintinnabuli is a term of music theory ascribed solely to Arvo Pärt, whose arpeggiated triads rise and fall against a slow and often foreboding diatonic progression. The implications of this duality are undebated, that they pit a symbolized holy trinity against the melancholy of human existence that is not so holy (and suffers).
There was a panel discussion at George Washington University last week between some composers and textual scholars to explore the “spirituality” of this composer, starting off with another round of anecdotes about first encounters. Nicholas Reeves, co-founder of the Project, then related one of the composer’s favorite quotations, from Eastern Orthodox monk Saint Silouan: “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.” Composer Andrew Simpson fielded comparisons to contemporaries like James MacMillan and John Tavener, who create similar moments of religious calm but also divert into composerly gestures of agitating parts that really enlarge the personality of the creative actor, unlike Pärt. Between these two, another composer, who also moderated the panel, seemed to bend towards relativism – befitting that academic setting – as a self-professed modernist who deals in abstraction. All of this seemed to reinforce the idea of a rare humility in Pärt, at odds with the practicing musical canon. His favorite quote really consummates the meaning of Tintinnabuli, to affirm the existence of an evil nature, while facing towards the battle that it wages against a sort of divine tintinnabulum – not avoiding it to celebrate humanity as its foil. Also: an uncomfortable forensic about composerly music, especially complex modernist abstraction, is that you might find it betraying true musical transcendence, really just showing that the creator wants to enlarge its presence.
After all, what has the argument been about all these years, between (say) Samuel Barber on one side and Pierre Boulez on the other? Academic production, especially from research universities that also happen to influence cultural trends, is not designed to whittle down humanism, and we tolerate its egoism for the limited purpose of collegiate education that is designed to nurture self-assertion. But most of today’s contemporary music is/was formed from those academic laboratories. Arvo Pärt seems to have passed them by completely.
But it’s not so easy, and he has a problem of his own: getting tagged “spiritual.” It’s the same thing that afflicts filmmaker Terrence Malick, and even some atheists like Lars Von Trier on the receiving end of a word that doesn’t really exist. Granted, it exists in real terms whenever an audience wraps things up that way. But “spiritual” is in the armory of avoidance. It is the failure to “keep your mind in hell.” It describes only the pleasant effect of “fear not,” and it is a conscious choice to avoid, rather than anything mystical. No coincidence, then, that Malick turned to Pärt’s music for his best films. The Thin Red Line’s opening chords are the foreboding 1980 organ work Annum per annum, morphing into the glorious “In paradisum” from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem – a sort of tintinnabulum between the two. Malick frequently cuts between miniatures of animals killing each other, and beautiful women twirling beneath the shining light of dusk (to the groans of most film critics), and his characters are all subordinate to a larger existence. Usually, he doesn’t even let them talk.
Somehow, audiences have acclimated to Malick with the belief that they are receiving a universally spiritual experience, and feel cleansed. What actually happens in his films, though, is a sort of perpetual wandering by characters who are confused by their capacity to hurt those whom they love. “Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us?” “Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?” “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”
The similarities between Pärt and Malick are more than just seclusion and facial hair; idiomatically, they each strike that delicate balance between keeping their minds in hell, and facing into the light. Their works also orchestrate specific denominational orthodoxies rather than a vague embrace of “all good things.” The fact that audiences select transcendent effects divorced from their central complications isn’t inherently bad, though (and who am I to say?). This “spiritual” experience from hearing the music of Arvo Pärt is an opportunity for maybe accessing enlightenment. After all, during the panel discussion, a Buddhist said that Pärt’s music changed her life. And the most elementary of liberal arts proclaims that art is what you make of it. That must mean, it’s okay to ask: what do you make of it? And what are you getting out of it?
As an ethnically once-Russian composer, Pärt could be haunted by the saying of Karl Marx, ironically: “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Straight to the essence of human instinct, Marx perceived our psychological need to believe that we have permanent value. In the meantime, there is that word “masses” to keep in mind: a dominant truth, that behavior speaks for itself. When masses adopt and ingest something, it’s already proof of a quick and easy return – otherwise it wouldn’t be a mass phenomenon, right? Marx knew all of this about religion, and the rest is history: God got reconfigured as the totalitarian State.
Music might be an opiate too, efficient at delivering its short-term effect; and as its consumption grows in number, the more you know it works. It needs to be quick, with minimal effort, otherwise something else will come along and do the job better, and we’ll just flip to the next track. Similarly reality television answers a demand; masses ponder the real possibility that they could be the subject of a show; or in any case, the President of Estonia wanted us to know when he first heard Pärt.
This music is on a lot of yoga playlists. Spiegel im Spiegel is on the trailer to Gravity, an action flick that had almost nothing to say about our existence beyond the fact that gravity sucks us in. Audiences en masse nonetheless called it a spiritual experience. In effect, for many people, the music of Arvo Pärt bypasses much reconciliation, discipline, ritual, even the theology at its core. Efficient at creating elation, a sense of divine self, and a cleansing of guilt, this is the most widely consumed music from any living composer. For some, hearing it might be tantamount to confession, or worship without all the kneeling, standing and chanting. Instead of associating with an organized church politic, or relaxing one’s reason for putting faith into the unproven (or the unlikely), it is: just enough. Just right.
Towards the end of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, Justine says: “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. …I know things. And when I say we’re alone, we’re alone. Life is only on earth, and not for long.” Strangely, that atheistic creed could be a more lasting comfort than so-called spirituality, even though it lacks the mass efficiency. And for believers in Pärt’s God, they are already “keeping their minds in hell, fearing not.”
What’s left? To some extent, it doesn’t matter. There’s an interfaith principle named “remnant” that assures its minority (even in our equality-romanticizing culture) that the authentic faithful will always be outnumbered – it was already prophesized, so no surprise. But it can’t hurt to promote the truth behind Arvo Pärt’s music: to direct listeners away from the spiritual opiate, at risk of decreasing the mass audience, to value the remnant. After all, at any typical modern institution that abides by political correctness, great pains are taken to accurately and faithfully represent the true meanings of literary and artistic sources, especially from minority cultures. Now, only after winding down its universally acclaimed concert run, with performances at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s showtime for The Arvo Pärt Project.
H. Paul Moon
June 5, 2014