Guest post: Gareth K. Vile on Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt’s compositions aren’t vaguely spiritual. Their contemplative tone, his use of minimalism, his unique ‘tintinnabuli’ technique and the influence of Gregorian chant don’t point towards a New Age holism, but the rich tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Pärt himself is a practising Christian and while his music’s meditative atmosphere speaks across cultures and beliefs, he admits that the importance of his religion is both present and mysterious.

Yet even the titles of Tabula Rasa and Fratres simultaneously point towards both a broad spirituality and a specific Christian mysticism. Divorced from religion’s uncomfortable history of political alliances and the active contemporary debates surrounding faith and reason, Pärt appears to express instead a path that follows a call towards gentle prayer (the kind articulated by 14th-century guide The Cloud of Unknowing, or the monasticism of the Trappists and Franciscans, or the ‘Jesus Prayer’ of the Desert Fathers and the Desert Mothers - the earliest Christian monks - which is still today used by the Orthodox churches).

In their silence, these pieces dissolve distinctions, remove the business of mundane concern and celebrate the sacred in the tiniest gestures. The ability of Tabula Rasa to transcend sectarian concern focuses attention back to the power of this music to escape reductive analysis, encouraging the kind of investigation suggested by the collaboration between Scottish Ensemble and Vanishing Point. Matthew Lenton’s vigorous theatricality – and previous use of music in productions as diverse as Tomorrow and The Beautiful Cosmos of Ivor Cutler – denies simple illustration of sound in favour of a more complex relationship that evokes personal interpretations.

Jonathan Morton, as Artistic Director of Scottish Ensemble, has repeatedly sought ways to represent compositions within a mesh of expressive arts. A shared respect for Pärt’s music – and its social impact – has led them into a production that offers a diverse and deep appreciation of its mysterious meanings.

While Christianity is a starting point for these pieces, it is not the complete journey. That Tabula Rasa has been seen as therapeutic, or has inspired musicians to replicate his distinctive atmosphere, is not its only purpose. It remains a thing of beauty in itself, and an attempt to express humanity’s longing for purpose, meaning and coherence.

 Scottish Ensemble Artistic Director Jonathan Morton performs a haunting, understated  Spiegel Im Spiegel  before of a 'cast' of ghostly, ever-marching nurses. 

Scottish Ensemble Artistic Director Jonathan Morton performs a haunting, understated Spiegel Im Spiegel before of a 'cast' of ghostly, ever-marching nurses. 

Spiegel im Spiegel, composed in 1978, has become a go-to piece for film-makers, choreographers and TV producers whenever they need a spiritual-sounding soundtrack that doesn’t slip into maudlin sentimentality. Scored for piano and violin – although the parts have been reconsidered for other instruments - it is driven by minimalist piano, with the violin eloquently swaying around the simple and delicate motif. The title suggests the infinite reflection created when two mirrors are placed facing one another, an image of eternity that fits Arvo Pärt’s mystical enthusiasm, and the music’s gentle melancholy fits elegantly into Pärt’s reputation as a religious composer who can be appreciated by the non-religious.

As the comments beneath any online footage of Spiegel im Spiegel make clear, this subtle composition speaks of a quiet compassion: while the minimalists of the USA introduced a fierce rhythmic energy into classical music, Pärt ponders a more intimate sensitivity - there’s a sense of both instruments slowly fading in and out, never demanding attention but inviting the listener to inhabit a peaceful soundscape. Pärt has the ability to uncover the melancholy in even the most unlikely places – his setting of My Heart's In The Highlands peels away the romping interpretations of Robbie Burns’ lyrics in folk music and reimagines the Highlands as a mysterious landscape of misty hills and meditation – yet Spiegel im Spiegel is as remarkable for its flexibility as the familiar spirituality.

His association with minimalism, assured through his use of the distinctive bell-like tintinnabuli technique, goes beyond repetition, reducing the composition to the smallest elements to create the greatest effect. The silences within the work leave space, the ‘blank canvas’ or tabula rasa that encourages the listener to reflect. It’s this space that allows the piece to be used in films, suggesting a mood, establishing its presence without detracting from the images.

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Without ever becoming predictable, Pärt’s compositions are all expressive of what appears to be a peaceful and reflective personality: like Beethoven or Mozart, his music is expressive of the artist, yet he lacks their bombastic energy. In contemporary culture, the notion of the artist as a brand is increasingly important, but Pärt’s brand is not the slogan or the logo, but an insistence on music as a conduit beyond the human to higher aspirations. The inspiration is Christian, but a Christianity stripped of external features and expanded into a broad abstraction. Gentle yet insistent, Pärt’s music articulates a voice that is rarely heard.

The qualities that his music embodies are most often association with Zen Buddhism, in a lazy, generalised way: meditation, reflection, calm and compassion. Yet another facet of Zen – revealed in the stories of the masters who defied tradition and bring a demanding discipline – is often ignore even as Tabula Rasa invokes it. Far from being a background to meditation, the melodies hide a rough edge: never escaping into pure ambience, they manipulate a measured rotation to continually draw attention back to themselves, politely intruding, offering a challenge beneath the graceful arpeggios. It’s a forgotten part of spiritual practice, the refusal of a descent into self-consciousness and selfishness, and a reminder of the physical world and the community surrounding the individual.

That Pärt is so unapologetic – if tentative – about his religious beliefs lends his compositions an authority beyond mere abstracted ideals, and connects his work back to the traditions that inspire him: the simplicity of medieval chant, the masses of the Romantic era, the religious texts that provoked Messiaen in his Quartet for the End of Time. It’s a powerful counterpoint to the muscular fundamentalism of evangelical Christianity.

 Pauline Goldsmith stands amidst the snow - and the circling power of Arvo Pärt's notes - as Scottish Ensemble musicians perform  Tabula Rasa  

Pauline Goldsmith stands amidst the snow - and the circling power of Arvo Pärt's notes - as Scottish Ensemble musicians perform Tabula Rasa 


Gareth K. Vile is theatre editor at The List magazine as well as writer-in-residence with Scottish Ensemble. Follow him on Twitter or visit his blog.

Rosie Davies