Arvo Pärt on Life and Music

On words, music, and expression

“Most of my early music was non-vocal. In fact, I only started writing intensively for choirs after I met the Hilliards. Hearing them for the first time changed my life totally. The tears fell over my face and I was not able to say where I was – in heaven or here on Earth. It was a shock.”

— Arvo Pärt, The Telegraph

“I have nothing to say […] Music says what I need to say. And it is dangerous to say anything, because if I’ve said it already in words there might be nothing left for my music.”

— Arvo Pärt, The Telegraph

“Talking about my music traps me in a vicious circle and it’s very seldom that I manage to escape it. If I’m writing a new piece then I mustn’t talk about it because if I do then I have no impulse to write it any more. Once it’s written, then there is nothing left to say. That’s very apparent to me. It ‘s a matter of thinking in music, and I hope my music finds a direct way to the listener without any further explanation.”

— Arvo Pärt, Gramophone

“While I tend to find a title for a particular work during the process of composing, there will eventuallybe a point in this process where the title dictates to me how the work shall proceed. The relationship between title, biography and music is a bit like a wound: it does not just heal from the outside but also from the inside.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

“If that happens then there’s nothing to say about it. It can’t be described. This is the mystery of music . It may sound a bit metaphorical. It’s an inner attitude of the composer: your whole being must be prepared for it. I’m talking of an inner tone. You could perhaps compare it with the up-beat of a conductor. There is no music yet. We don’t hear a thing, but the musicians can see it. They know character, dynamic, tempo: everything is there. This is the one tone.”

Arvo Pärt, Gramophone

“At the time when my music came into existence I had my hands full just trying to solve my own problems. I had to put myself into a state of mind which would allow me to discover a musical language that I could live with. I was in search of a little island of sound. In search of a place in my innermost being where—shall we say—a dialogue with God might take place. Finding this place became a task of vital importance to me.”

— Arvo Pärt, Acceptance Speech for the International Brücke Prize (2007)

On time

“Time has a deep meaning, but it is temporary, like our lives. Only eternity is timeless.”

— Arvo Pärt, The Telegraph

On earlier work

“There is only one central composition school in Estonia, and it’s Eller’s school. He gave me a path, but this path was very broad. He didn’t push in any direction, he supported you even if what you wrote wasn’t exactly like his own credo. He was very human, and it was a vivid apprenticeship.”

Arvo Pärt, Gramophone

“It’s self-evident that there is no argument for me to hide behind. The Pärt of the past and of the present are one and the same person, only my ideals have changed since. In practical terms, none the less, I find it rather difficult to listen to pieces from different times in one concert. I have also noticed the audience having the same problem with such programmes. I mean attentive listeners.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

“My works are like my children – I would never disown the early pieces but they worry me. I have no calm about these particular children of mine.”

— Arvo Pärt, The Telegraph

On religion, faith, spirituality

“Religion plays an important role in my composition, but I’m not really able to say how it works. I’m merely writing music for myself.”

— Arvo Pärt, The Telegraph

“Religion influences everything. Not just music, but everything.”

— Arvo Pärt, The Musical Times

“I admire nearly all works by other composers (there are exceptions of course, works which I find totally uninteresting – political works for example), but I listen to very little music and I seldom go to a concert in order to hear music by a particular composer. It’s difficult to talk of a sympathy in relation to the work of other composers, since my work comes from a slightly unusual area and has not been influenced by the same things as Western composers. But such things are better seen with the perspective of time. I am always interested by people who are in search of purity. This need can occur in different ways, but when it exists it marks a living spirit. Unfortunately most of the time it is petrified. If people simply hear the word ‘God’ they become sad; but what is sad is when it has that effect. But wonders are forever occurring and people who think like that today will feel differently tomorrow.”

— Arvo Pärt, The Musical Times

“It is said that God suffers men to live only as long as it is important for them to come to know the truth. It is also said that when someone dies, whether they be young or old, that moment has been chosen as the best time to die. Therefore the last moments before death are very precious – very important – for at that time things can happen which have not come about during a whole lifetime.”

— Arvo Pärt, The Musical Times

On calm

“I peel potatoes, that calms me down.”

Arvo Pärt, Gramophone

On the human voice

“The human voice is the most perfect instrument of all, the instrument that is closest to us, and we respond to its finest nuances. The words are very ‘important for me, they define the music. The intonations, phrases, pauses, almost all the parameters of the text, have an important meaning. One can say that the construction of the music is based on the construction of text.”

— Arvo Pärt, Gramophone

On beginning again

“When I begin a new work, I have to start from scratch again, from nothing. I have to be cleared of everything: Tabula rasa.”

Arvo Pärt, Gramophone

“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.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

On silence

“[W]hen we speak about silence, we must keep in mind that it has two different wings, so to speak. Silence can be both that which is outside of us and that which is inside a person. The silence of our soul, which isn’t even affected by external distractions, is actually more crucial but more difficult to achieve.”

— Arvo Pärt, NPR

On growing plants

“You have to do something to keep your creativity going,”

Arvo Pärt, The Guardian

On a conversation with a street cleaner in the snow

“‘What should a composer do?’ ‘Well, he should love every note,’ was the reply. ‘No professor had ever told me something like that,’

Arvo Pärt, The Guardian

On art and life

“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.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

“All important things in life are simple.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

“I’m actually not that much interested in theoretical reasoning because I can deal with it in practical terms. Still, I would formulate and sum up the theory one day should the opportunity arise. This theory has the same clarity as the structure of breathing. It is so simple and tangible.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

“The student must remain true to himself. At the end of the day, everybody has to rescue himself by whatever means he can.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

On the relationship between composer and listener

“Moments of recognition between composer and listener happen somehow like sitting in two passing trains. You only make out the person in the other train during a fleeting glance through the window. We composers have our path to follow, and the listeners theirs. The artist is also just a traveller, like the listener too. And still, we meet … through music, let’s say.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

On our contemporary moment

“In our century we have somehow forgotten that two times two make four. Old music was a bit like a breath of fresh air for me. At that stage, I was missing something natural like that. I began to realise through old music that there are hidden worlds behind two notes.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

On beauty

“One person prefers a flower in his vase, another one a thistle. You have to admit: This is beautiful, too.”

— Arvo Pärt, Interview by Geoff Smith

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