A Blank Slate, Part I: Matthew Lenton


Vanishing Point director Matthew Lenton on the beginnings of Tabula Rasa.

“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.”

Alex Ross for The New Yorker, 2012

Arvo Pärt’s music is exquisitely beautiful and the idea of working on a production that would feature Pärt’s music played live on stage is a dream. Ivor Cutler said ‘silence and space are the dark flowers of creativity’ and I think that’s true. There is a lot of silence and space in Arvo Pärt’s work, and you can really put yourself into gaps between the notes. The question was, what can I add to the music?

Then I read an article in the New Yorker about how Arvo Pärt’s music had become important for people suffering with terminal illnesses, particularly AIDS. I found the ‘hook’ which would enable Vanishing Point to give theatrical context to the music.

It made me think about the role music, and more broadly art, plays in our lives and the offer one person makes to another when they offer care – especially within a care system. There is a medical offer but also another, an offer of compassion and empathy. It made me think about the role both art and our social care system play in our lives, particularly at a time with, arguably, both are underappreciated and underfunded.   

More specifically, Tabula Rasa is a story of dualities. Pärt talks about the two ‘voices' in his music as being his sins, and the forgiveness of his sins. Bjork, interviewing Pärt, describes them as like Pinocchio and the little cricket. The show embodies this idea of opposites: two actors, two friends - one living, one dying - black and white, sin and forgiveness. Also, the contrast of spoken word and image, which I hope will be beautiful and make meaning together with music itself.

What attracted me to working with Scottish Ensemble in the first place is the group’s openness to trying new things. Jonathan Morton, and Scottish Ensemble, are bringing their own perspective to this project as musicians and what they bring as musicians is unique.

The musicians all had ideas about the form of the show and its subject matter and were willing to try many different approaches. It really helped me see what the show could be and what it could not be. Importantly they also took the actors and me through the mechanics of the music, explaining how it is structured and how something so simple can seem and feel so complex.

Matthew Lenton, September 2017

Niall Walker