A Blank Slate, Part II: Jonathan Morton


Scottish Ensemble Artistic Director Jonathan Morton on the beginnings of Tabula Rasa

There’s an incredible paradox at the heart of Arvo Pärt’s music. On one level, there is a beautiful simplicity to it - which is, of course, a very hard thing to achieve. That’s not intended as a reductive criticism.

But the paradox is that even though it’s extremely simple in many ways, the way it affects people, and the nature and variety of people’s reactions, is anything but simple. It’s not only staggeringly powerful – it contains things that we can barely even begin to comprehend. The concept of people asking for the ‘angel music’ when they’re dying – what does that really mean? What are they hearing, what are they telling us?

I’ve always been intrigued by that side of music – especially when on the surface it’s so deceptively simple. How can something that appears so straightforward mean so much, provoke so much?

It is so interesting to invite somebody in whose craft or art form is not about making music, but about answering and exploring these questions through other means. As a musician, you might spend quite a bit of time thinking about these sorts of things, but the nature of our discipline is that we don’t have the framework to begin to answer that question by talking about it. Working with someone like Matt was a way of working around that obstacle, and I was very curious to see what might come of it.

As musicians, we would never usually get the opportunity to sit and discuss all the ideas around the music. Working with someone like Matt, from a different discipline, one which by its nature is used to teasing out ideas and meanings from something, is simply not something you ever usually get much time to do when you’re working towards a ‘standard’ musical concert. We spent so much time discussing ideas around the music that when we went back to it, back to unravelling the structure, we saw it in completely different way. 

There is also something very valuable about having to become articulate about your own art form. It’s no longer just you and your colleagues having a chat over a cup of tea – we needed to do better than that. Non-musicians needed to understand what we were saying and be fed information about something they didn’t know about in a way which was useful and meaningful but also easy to understand.

And, it was a two-way process - they needed to do the same with us. In fact, it was interesting that one of the most powerful parts of the week for Matt and the actors seemed to be when we ‘took apart’ Tabula Rasa during a rehearsal – that is, dismantling the music into its separate components in order to look at how it had been put together. I think it really changed how they saw the piece, which then fed back into his work…

The three Arvo Pärt pieces which I chose for the show – Tabula Rasa, Spiegel Im Spiegel and Fratres – are three iconic pieces, each incredibly powerful in their own way. I’ve lived with them for many years; when ECM released them in the early 80s, I remember my dad getting them and playing them in the house. Tabula Rasa was also one of the first pieces I played with Scottish Ensemble – more than 15 years ago now – and we haven’t played it since. Working on it and opening it up in this new way will be something very special indeed.

Jonathan Morton, August 2017




Rosie Davies