Provocation No.2: What is the mysterious power of Arvo Part's music?


“A few years ago, a man who faced a terminal diagnosis of cancer asked a friend to give him some compact disks so that he could have a little music to help him get through the night. Among the recordings that the friend sent was "Tabula Rasa," on the ECM label, which contained three works by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. A day or two later, the man called to thank his friend for the disks, and, especially, for the Pärt. In the last weeks of his life, he listened to practically nothing else.

Several people have told me essentially this same story about the still, sad music of Pärt—how it became, for them or for others, a vehicle of solace. One or two such anecdotes seem sentimental; a series of them begins to suggest a slightly uncanny phenomenon.”

Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 2002

This extract is from an article titled Consolations, by the esteemed music writer Alex Ross - the article which inspired Vanishing Point director Matthew Lenton to want to create a performance in the first place. It’s an interview with Arvo Pärt, really, and yet it begins not with some biographical explanation of the composer, but this strange, mysterious power of his music.

It’s a lovely read, whether you’re a fan of the composer or music in general - he’s a fascinating man and the words of wisdom he scatters so freely in his interviews are sometimes heart-melting, always lingering. But the writer’s tentative approach to stating anything too factual about the nature of the response to Pärt’s music is equally interesting; his collection of anecdotes only begin to suggest a slightly uncanny phenomenon. 

I can understand why he might want to stay on the vaguer side of things. It’s quite a big claim to load onto someone’s music, that there is a whole phenomenon attached to it where people are using it as some sort of healing tool, flocking to the ECM online back catalogue as if it were some sort of digital Lourdes. 

But, now the internet is what it is, we’re exposed - for better or worse - to so many more reactions that I wonder now if Ross would feel more confident in his proclamations. Even a cursory glance at the Youtube comments on some of Pärt’s best-known pieces reveals a flood of emotional responses, and what links them is not only the intensity of feeling but this notion that the music is helping them in some way. 

Sometimes it's related to illness or death - whether their own, a loved one’s, or as a human-wide concept.

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

Some people speak of having a space where they can escape stress, worry, life. Many use it as a key which unlocks the part of their brain which can recognise beauty in life (seemingly switched off, in a lot of people - an interesting thought in itself).

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

For others, it's a form of straight-up pain relief. 

Youtube comment on Tabula Rasa

Youtube comment on Tabula Rasa

This is such a comforting thing to believe; that there is something other than scientific chemical formulae that can help us navigate through hard times, times as difficult and as profoundly serious as facing your own or others’ death. But in a way - and this is where the more mystical people will probably groan, and potentially disagree - perhaps the healing qualities of Pärt’s music are just as explainable as the science of what's in your ibruprofen?

Yes, we talk about it as this mysterious entity. But actually, there are elements of his music which do, for whatever reason - there's definitely still a mysterious bit, no matter how much 'music science' we throw at it - encourage feelings of solace, comfort, mental space, calm and healing.

And if this were true, and if more mathematically-minded people believed it to be true, it might encourage a more practical use of music as part of a 'healing toolkit', for want of a less hippy-ish phrase. If people were familiar with which elements of music they needed, in relation to their emotional needs, they might be able to use it more effectively. And wouldn't that be brilliant.

Of course, as we prodded around with in the first Provocation, all of this labours under the disclaimer that we can’t really claim that any of Part’s pieces bring about a specific reaction that everyone will agree with, as Dawn and Daniel so conveniently show. 

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

The intention here is to try and look at individual musical concepts and match them to universal feelings. But, it’s still ultimately my own reaction, and maybe it sounds rubbish to you, in which case, the comments box hungrily awaits your own response...

The wonder of simplicity

Born in 1935, Pärt is one of those started-in-the-womb, grabbed-by-destiny artists - music school at the age of seven, composing by the time he was an early teenager. But it was only from around 1976 onwards that he revealed the radically simplified style of writing we hear in the pieces performed in this performance -  Für Alina, Spiegel Im Spiegel, Fratres and, of course, Tabula Rasa.

Maybe it's just me, maybe it's a personal thing, but finding out that this simple-sounding new style came from a long period of creative struggle significantly changed my experience of listening to these pieces. This wasn’t some flippant decision to try his hand at another way of writing. He’d come to the end of the line with former, already-established methods of compositions; the old ways just weren’t doing it for him any more, and he lacked the tools to be able to express the things he not only wanted to but needed to. Or, in his beautifully idiosyncratic words, “I cannot eat soup with a fork or meat with a spoon.”

Talking about some of his notebooks from that period, he has said: “I wrote thousands and thousands of pages, to think in musical language, ‘What happened here?’. Why one melody makes this impression and traces the spirit, and another not? Every day, 10 or 20 pages or more. This was my work, every day. No way out… The hopeless was an everyday guest.”

"The hopeless was an everyday guest". I think that deserves a moment's pause to really sink in; this is music borne from an existential need (and what would have happened had he not found a solution?)

He explored nature, birds, creativity… The style which he eventually arrived at, that saved him, was christened ‘tinntinabuli’ (which means ‘bells’ in Latin). The very basic musical premise is that there are two lines, one moving in small, stepwise motions, and the other rotating through pitches of a chord. The beauty is that you don’t need to understand anything about music to appreciate what he was trying to do - it was always intended as a metaphor.

“This is the whole secret of tintinnabuli - the two lines. One line is who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us. Sometimes I say- it is not a joke, but also it is as a joke taken - that the melodic line is our reality, our sins. But the other line is forgiving the sins.”

Whether you’re interested in the hard mathematics behind the structure or not - there is something powerful about the cyclic, progressive, self-contained notion that the very thing which provided such intense relief for a struggling creative mind is now doing the same for others. His music was, and is, a solution - and it sounds like one. Its deceptive simplicity makes us feel that Pärt has answered a question we didn’t even know we’d asked. And it does this exactly as his technique suggests - by simultaneously pitting opposing forces against each other so they cancel each other out. It’s like a mathematical equation, with the components and answer laid out at the same time so as to solve itself…

And, there we go. Mind = blown. Must calm down.

Youtube comment on Tabula Rasa

Youtube comment on Tabula Rasa

The opposite of normal life

Another quote from the composer highlights something significant:

“When you play the dissonance between two strings — a very, very painful dissonance — then it is something very certain. And when you play a tune on the violin and the fifth is clean, then there is no other vibration. It’s like an oscilloscope when you see it goes flat… A resurrection of purity from impurity.”

Pärt’s music represents the complete opposite of what we experience every day under the bracket of ‘modern life’. It is the opposite of confusion, uncertainty, unresolved conflict, messiness, tension, complication. This cannot be overlooked. How many other things in our lives are (a) so completely different from the concepts we experience every minute, and (b) out of these, how many are experienced in so self-contained a form as music, so separate from the distractions and interruptions of the outside world?

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

Arguably, as an art form, music comes out on top in terms of its ability for the listener or participant to be able to shut off from everyday life around them. It exists in a separate, invisible realm. It does not necessarily involve travelling anywhere. It can be enjoyed alone, any time, in darkness or in daylight, with or without sight. 

Even if this is at a very subconscious level, we’re always aware, somewhere, of this otherness. What is this thing that we can’t see, can’t touch? Where does it exist? Why is hearing music so different to hearing the sound of speaking - what is this power? (Yes, it looks like we’re back to the philosophy of music again…)

Bringing it back to the actual notes, it is the specific qualities of Pärt’s music help to take this concept even further, which help to make his music so separate and other and escapist. Take the way Pärt deals with change, that often-dreaded concept in our lives (or more specifically when it's it's doing its unpredicatable, uncontrollable, random thing).

Again, in direct contrast to our experience of it in our everyday lives, change in Pärt’s music is gradual, happening in small movements, and at an unalarming pace. To clarify: this is very different to saying that the music is slow or without action - it’s just, when it moves somewhere unexpected, as it often does, we are already listening with acceptance as, within the music and within us, we know that everything that makes up the piece will be contained within this one piece. This change is never instigated by some threat of external influence - and at some point, this encourages in us a feeling of safety and calm, certain that we will not have to deal with any major disruption. If we’re going all the way here: this representation of change mirrors a feeling of inevitable, eternal change, and all the acceptance that comes with that, as opposed to the volatile instability of human change.  

Also of huge importance is that the change is unhurried; listening to Spiegel Im Spiegel, no matter how fast or slow the performers choose to take it, we are promised the necessary allocated space to move and change and resolve in.  

Now, unless you inhabit some strange utopia (in which case, greetings from 21st-century Earth! Any tips?), think about all of that in contrast to what we deal with every day. Then imagine you’re not only experiencing just the humdrum stresses of your daily commute, but serious emotional turmoil, in which all the abstract concepts above take on a harsh new and inescapable reality...

Yes. Wow.

One last thing on this: it's worth pointing out that change does happen in his music. So, on one hand, you have elements in there which create a feeling of stasis, and which bring about comfort, resolution, safety, a feeling of self-contained eternity, depending on how much you personally experience and how far you want to take it. (And if you do want to take this far, this is certainly how it’s used by many ‘chillcore’ or ‘dronechill’ or whatever-it’s-called-tomorrow acts who create the kind of soundscapey, static, drone-based, gorgeous music which may well heal your soul like Arvo P's).

Within many of Pärt’s pieces, there is also a subtle metamorphosis - in both the notes themselves, and the response within the listener. And what this does is reminds us that change, and therefore hope, is possible.

If you like that, try this… 

La Monte Young - The Tortoise, His Dreams and Journeys
The influential avant-garde American known for his pioneering work in Western drone music, or 'dream music'

F**K Buttons - Sweet Love For Planet Earth 

Thick, dense slabs of noise which blanket the entire brain

A Winged Victory For The Sullen - Live in Belgium
Heaven music. How to choose? Here's a whole live show.

Stars Of The Lid - The Ballasted Orchestra
Again, just one choice amongst an insanely good back catalogue.

The comfort of repetition

Another specific thing on this notion of simplicity which is worth picking out is the solace of repetition. We hear about people ‘stuck in the same routine’; we also express relief at getting back into a routine. The attraction of routine depends on personality, but also on the state of the external forces in your life. When things feel chaotic, messy, unstructured or random, returning to routine - by which we really just mean repetition - can offer a break, and a comfort.  

As Pärt has revealed about his compositional style, the very structure of his music centres on a series of opposing forces - good vs bad, sin vs forgiveness, the divine vs the human. I think another we can add to this is chaos vs stasis, or variety vs repetition.

Now, there are negative implications of all of this. Not everyone enjoys Pärt’s music (I know - gasp!) and many of the things listed in this article are not necessarily considered positives - calling someone’s music simple and repetitive could sound really quite mean, and there are people who see him as some higher-level Muzak composer.

Youtube comment on Für Alina

Youtube comment on Für Alina

But in general, Part’s music is accepted as being revered for these very reasons, if not directly then indirectly, for the responses they provoke - and it’s worth pointing out that this is by no means a universal thing. If you look at other genres, these qualities are sometimes used as a put down. Electronic music, techno in particular, is often almost comically associated with repetition by those who dislike it. It didn’t help that it was its repetitive nature that was used in attempts to curtail it in the ‘Rave Act’ of 1994, subtly associating it evermore with idiocy and lack of sophistication. Repetition in this instance is used as a catch all for a list of insults: boring, unintelligent, unlistenable, uninspired. A classic accusation of techno is that it ‘doesn’t go anywhere’.

With some exceptions, most of the elements in this article, which we're encouraged to link with therapeutic qualities, could equally be applied to much electronic music. The attitudes to change, simplicity, repetition, silence, space… As with Part, by ‘not going anywhere’ (and that’s obviously a contentious point; it goes somewhere, but it’s a subtle metamorphosis) it allows the listener to go somewhere. By repeating the same beats, it allows our emotions and imagination to go somewhere new. By providing us with the comfort of stasis, we know where home is, so we can go and play freely.

Youtube comment on Tabula Rasa

Youtube comment on Tabula Rasa

If you like that, try this...

Slam - Positive Education
Easing in...

Karenn - Pace Yourself 
...A little bit more...

Plastikman - S*****k
...Really hammering home the point now...

Autechre - Flutter 

Making musical history


Where Pärt’s music is arguably different to, say, Plastikman, is that this repetition of the same notes, rhythms and patterns is directly inspired by ancient chants and drones. Because of this it’s easy to assign a vague spirituality to his music. This is after all the same tool used by yoga and meditation practitioners as a means of focusing the mind on the moment, instead of rummaging around in the past or the future. (It's also, as this SUMMARY OF WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSIC HISTORY - yes, all caps - reinforces, this is also the basis of the entire classical tradition, so let's put a pin in that for later when we look at why, then, it seems so special in Pärt's work? Bearing in mind that we may not necessarily have an answer to this.)

The creative seed for Pärt’s new style did indeed come from the composer hearing some Gregorian chant on a shop radio (I know; I love this, and am desperate to know which shop was playing monastic chanting as people loaded their trolleys). He knew he’d felt something, but he couldn’t figure out what, and devoted the next years of his life to trying to pinpoint it: “In one moment it was clear how much deeper [sic] and more pure is this world… Everyone has many antennae, and they catch what we cannot even register in our minds. But the feeling is clear.”

With the influence of chant and drone, but also Pärt’s religion - he is a practising Orthodox Christian - it would be easy to assume that his music is religious. However, when asked directly if it is intended to be so, he is most often credited with saying that religion and life are the same thing for him - and in this answer, here we have yet another powerful character trait of his music.
It feels not only pointless but boring to argue whether his music is officially religious or not: in merging a feeling of the divine (both the context of him being religious, as well as actual musical elements such as drone, chant, and bells) with this feeling of the human, of ordinary life, he allows people across the spectrum of religion to experience something from this realm in an accessible, unpushy and idiosyncratic way.

He unites the religious, the spiritual and the stubbornly atheistic by offering them a sense of the eternal - a feeling of eternal continuity, timelessness, agelessness, even infinity. 

Arvo Feedback - portal to a new dimension, the Creator.PNG
Youtube comments on Tabula Rasa

Youtube comments on Tabula Rasa

Of course, every time we stick on the radio or listen to something like Arvo Pärt we’re not transported into a different spiritual realm - and thank goodness, because how inconvenient would that be. But if we need to use it, if this is what we’re seeking, then it’s there. By being invisible and intangible, we're almost forced to rise above the mundanity of the world we are sitting in as we cannot escape the fact that as we listen, we are contemplating another. And if you are looking to escape the physical realities or limitations of your own life or body, if you are sick or dying or dealing with sickness or dying, this might suddenly look like a very attractive door to open.

But. There's always a but. This link between music and the eternal has existed pretty much since anyone started thinking about music, ever. Plato’s notion of ‘musica universalis’ - or ‘music of the spheres’, which is such a gorgeous-sounding notion that I want to believe it no matter what the facts - continued in popularity throughout the Renaissance, with its wealth of spiritual music from plainsong chant through to religious music for kings and queens, through to the time when science started seeming a whole lot more attractive and, well, reasonable than some mad theory about singing moons and so on.

Bach’s music, though, and the notion that it contained the secrets of the universe as well as a direct channel to God, seems to have stood up to the test of time in terms of this link to the divine. One shared element between his and Pärt’s music is this feeling of continuity, for sure. The endless flow of notes, the feeling that everything is contained within the one piece, the feeling of cyclic continuity rather than any beginning or ending… This is just one example. The hints of eternity offered in Pärt’s music existed long before him.

So why this particular reverence? Why does Pärt’s approach feel so distinctive, so different, to myself and so many others? It’s by no means new news that a composer has used Gregorian chant as inspiration. It’s nothing new that his religion has infused into his creative output. So sometimes, when I listen to Pärt, I still wonder - why this music? Why not the other music inspired by holy sounds or using repetition or flow or space or silence?

This is a very crude and squashed kind of place to talk about this enormous topic so I’ll crudely squash in my own thought on this: music such as Bach’s is so tied to a time, a place, a story, in a way which Pärt’s seems to escape, and I wonder if it’s this that draws more people to the latter when they are looking for healing. It’s just a little more of a blank canvas. Bach sometimes, through no fault of his own, gets served alongside the big bloated weight of (all caps) WESTERN CLASSICAL MUSIC HISTORY - the historical drama, the costumes, all just normal life at the time, of course, but now specifically poised in their paintings, in our textbooks. We don’t know yet how people will look back at the work of Pärt, whether he will be swept up in the vague hippy-ish New Age movement (which, like Bach, he equally gets served up with sometimes). 

Let’s hope not. Because right now, it feels like he manages to escape the labels and the positioning, as much as any work of art ever can. And I think it's yet another signpost of the genius of his music. And, if that helps people, it can only be a good thing.

If you like that, try this...

Thomas Tallis - Spem In Alium
The sound of the Renaissance

Bach - Final Chorus from St. Matthew Passion
Bach for heavenly choir

Bach - Partita No.3 in E Major
Bach for - heavenly? - solo violin

Joep Franssens - Harmony Of The Spheres
A modern composer inspired by, amongst others, Bach and Pärt

The comfort of rules

As Pärt’s style progressed, and he became more confident and secure in what he was doing, he found himself able to move a little more freely around the quite rigid framework of his new compositional style. However, he also recognised the ‘danger in freedom’, even overtly linking this very human push-pull battle between freedom and discipline to the very structure of the music: “One line is like freedom, and the triad line is like discipline. It must work together.”

Coming from someone who had lived and suffered under the post-war Soviet regime, and been politically involved, too, it’s certainly interesting to note that freedom is not a purely positive concept and that its positives exist in relation to its opposing force - discipline, restriction, rules.

Pärt seemed to have got all of his wildness out in his early compositions treating the notes “as if scattering them like jewels”, as he told Alex Ross, instead of treating each and every one with the reverence it deserves. And I don’t think the listener needs to know anything about his compositional technique to immediately be aware of how important each and every note is, and how functional, and how deliberate.

Most importantly, they will feel the effect of these many rules, which is that the music we hear never ventures too far from home. It moves somewhere, but it never really goes very far. Sometimes it’s just a circle. Maybe this is why I find it so therapeutic to play them on repeat - it ties into the simultaneous completion and continuity present in each track. When it ends, it’s still going, somewhere, in the sense that it never really started so it can never really stop.  

But before I slip into a rabbit-hole of pretentious ponderings about eternity (it has been known), one more significant thing to do with rules: what comes with this is a feeling of privacy. It’s not something I’d ever considered too much before unpicking my love of Arvo Pärt - it all feels a bit 1950s suburbia, this need for privacy - but it’s something so often valued in relation to the Gregorian or Ambrosian chant which inspired it, too. All the notes which we hear as part of the piece feel like a self-contained nodule which is entirely private within itself. It has everything it needs to exist, and it’s closed off to anyone else but you and your mind. Think whatever you like, feel whatever you like; no-one else is going to be able to see it.

Unless you post it on Youtube, obviously.

Youtube comment on Fratres

Youtube comment on Fratres

The value of silence

So much can, and has, been written on the use of silence in Pärt’s music - and it’s something we’ll say more on in later posts. But in the context of healing in particular, I think the benefits are twofold: by creating space between the notes, it’s as if the composer is not allowing us to sit and let the notes wash over us, unthinking, as we might with a busier piece of music. He is instead inviting us to be part of it, to slip between the gaps and try it on.

I love the way this is used in Tabula Rasa. Listen to the very start. The silence after the shrill, shocking, call-to-attention shriek is just long enough to disarm us. Where has the sound gone? What is this feeling of emptiness?

...then the creeping of the violins, with that insistent, niggling march. It sounds like the ticking clock of time marching on, undeterrable, towards another swaying pause. The whole effect means when the pauses do come we experience a moment of ourselves. The clock has ceased, for once, it has slowed - what do we put in there? What is present in us, and what is absent? Do we have anything?

There are also four bars’ rest at the end of the piece, and you have to love the intention of that. Each silence is a note, and each one feels like beginning again. At the end of Tabula Rasa, when there are no more notes following the silence, we are provided with a tool to cleanse ourselves. Speaking about the birth of his new way of composing, Part said: “Begin from zero, from nothing. It’s like if there is a fresh snow and nobody has walked, and you take the first steps on this snow. And this is the beginning of new life.” With the silences peppered in some of his works, it is like we are being given a blank slate to begin again, and it is a liberating, cleansing experience.  

It’s this reason that sometimes the thought of listening to Pärt is too much. I’ll get too involved, or might be forced to - groan - think about things. But other times (because, as we’ve previously discussed, it’s all about the mixing desk of chemicals in our head at any one time) it has almost the opposite effect. Pärt’s silences emphasise the silence inherent in listening to music - that is, both a silencing of the outside world, and a silencing of our own voice. Words can be exhausting. Music gives us the right to remain silent, to not have to explain ourselves or contribute verbally or vocally, for a contained amount of time.

There is a direct link to death in this, I think. Thinking back to Part’s comments on the ‘cleansing’ effect of the open strings, or the ‘clean’ perfect fifth, he said: “It’s like an oscilloscope when you see it goes flat.” The silences in Part’s music are, each time, a bit like an oscilloscope going flat. Each one is a death, followed by life starting again - unannounced, innocuous, unapologetic, at peace.

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

Youtube comment on Spiegel Im Spiegel

If you like that, try this...

Orbital - Are We Here? (Criminal Justice Bill)
John Cage - 4’33"

Questioning whether anything that came above is important or useful in any way is always a satisfying way to finish an article - but I feel the question must be asked. Does any of this help to explain the mysterious healing power of Arvo Part’s music? And, even if it does help, and we can quite happily see why some people must get some good from it - does it take something away?

Maybe the reason his music works - the reason it heals and soothes and calms - its its very unexplainable-ness. Maybe when we are looking for an answer, part of that answer comes from its mystery. Think about how you feel when you see a magic trick explained - are you satisfied? Or do you feel like you've just lost something?

Maybe, as humans, we need some things to remain as unexplained phenomena, no matter how much we think we want the answer.

Maybe when we try and talk about the space between the notes, we should actually just let them be, and let music be the great equaliser it has always been since the dawn of time.

Youtube comment on Tabula Rasa

Youtube comment on Tabula Rasa

Rosie Davies is the Scottish Ensemble blogger-in-residence as well as a freelance music writer. She has previously written for The Skinny and The List, and currently writes for The Herald

Rosie Davies