Arvo Pärt: Sources of Invention

Arvo Pärt
Arvo Pärt
Geoff Smith interviews Arvo Pärt

At a time when publicists worldwide are clamouring to apply the media driven rules of popular culture to sell ‘high’ art, the music of Arvo Part seems particularly vulnerable. The ‘minimalist’, ‘mystical’, ‘contemplative’ tags and their tired associative meanings abound, as does the continuing image of Part the pious pontiff.

In the musical world, too, his work is carelessly dismissed as a fashionable, neo-medieval short cut to quasienlightenment and has attracted relatively litte serious musicological study. Part himself tends to talk of the compositional process in biblical terms and, listening to his music, there is a sense of adjusting one’s eyes to a light one was least expecting. There is certainly no trace of the quietism or piritual limpness so often assumed; rather, it is music born of extremes (of dynamic, register, silence), shaped by an uncompromising concern with the numinous, and framed with terse master-craftsmanship. There is both the absolute detachment and absolute beauty one finds in the work of S. John of the Cross and, far from an escape, it seems an heroic attempt to reestablish lines with our collective unconscious. One needs the receptivity of the Princess and the Pea and all the aural acuity one can muster if Part’s ‘invisible bridges’ to the hidden worlds within the triad are to be rossed.

This interview, conducted in German and translated by Elke Hockings, took place at Universal Edition’s London office in 1998. Part was accompanied by his wife Nora, who, in a partnership resembling that of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, helped him steer a coursethrough difficult terrain.

Geoff Smith (GS): Your fellow Estonian Errki-Sven Tuur recently told me that the most important experience he had as a young composer was hearing Tabula rasa. He felt it was the first piece he had heard that wasn’t concerned with language, style, the past or the future, but that was about ‘soul’. How did you manage to rise above what you called the ‘children’s games’?

Arvo Part (AP): Ah… well…, I did once speak of a ‘sand pit game’ referring to a kind of composition commonly associated with the Darmstadt-School. I wouldn’t even know if I myself have risen above Athose ‘children’s games’ yet. It is difficult to tell. But at the time it was an attempt at – and a conscious decision for – a correction.

GS: Are those ‘children’s games’ inherent in art for art’s sake?

AP: The artistic reflection of ideas, style, history etc. is indeed a form of game. Art, however, cannot be separated from it. Yet, I did not want to create art. I wanted to free and distance myself from making artificial art. Rather I wanted to combine two different issues; namely, art and life, art and being.
This approach comes from a completely different perspective and has a different starting point. It doesn’t need to start from art.

GS: Is your art a result rather than a starting point?

AP: If there were no continual effort to start from the beginning there would be no art. I cannot help it but start from scratch. I am tempted only when I experience something unknown, something new and meaningful for me. It seems, however, that this unknown territory is sooner reached by way of reduction than by growing complexity. Reduction certainly doesn’t mean simplification, but it is the way – at least in an ideal scenario – to the most intense concentration on the essence of things. In the compositional process I always have to find this nucleus first from which the work will eventually emerge. First of all, I will have to get to this nucleus. Everything depends on which nucleus, or which part of the nucleus, I choose (or am able to choose at a given time) and on the profundity of consequences. Imagine, for example, you look at a substance or an object through an electron microscope. A thousand-fold enlargement will obviously look different from a millionfold enlargement. Moving through the different stages of enlargement you can see incredible landscapes. Somewhere, though, there is a limit (let’s say at the thirty million-fold enlargement). The landscapes then will have disappeared. What you can see now is a cool geometry: very particular and very clear. Most importantly, however, this geometry will be similar for most substances or objects. At first glance, this geometry has very little to do with the variety of those fantastic landscapes. Landscapes and geometry are, nevertheless, inseparable. The geometry is the point where everything starts. Geometry and landscapes are not independent from each other but relate as starting point and process. This geometry is an abstraction not unlike a mathematical formula.

GS: Once you’ve found this nucleus, what is the first musical incarnation of the formula?

AP: It can be many different things, yet each one of them would relate to the nucleus only partially. Just as there are many different languages, this ‘artistic incarnation’ can take on many different forms. It does not necessarily have to be a sound. It could be a movement [Arvo Part moves his hand]. It’s got something to do with life, and, with this movement, as it were. Conducting, for example, is a relationship between music and motion. Surely this is not coincidental. I think there is a shared synaesthetic consciousness among painters, musicians and choreographers. I am confident that one thing stands for all. One is all. [Read More]

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