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Monday, December 21, 2009

Where Pärt and I Part

The Estonian mystic minimalist composer Arvo Pärt (b.1935) is having an Orgy.

On December 19th and 20th Harvard's WHRB radio 95.3 FM presented a two-day marathon featuring 19 hours of Pärt's recorded music.

I can't say that I listened from beginning to end, but I did tune in to hear a sampling of his work distributed throughout his long and still active career. The first piece in the Orgy [a registered Trademark of Harvard University] was Pärt's Opus 1 Sonatina from 1958. The Orgy concluded with Pärt's Symphony No. 4 performed in concert by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Walt Disney Concert Hall earlier this year - a work that signaled the composer's return to the symphonic form. Pärt's 3rd Symphony was written some 37 years earlier, and while not yet available on CD, can be obtained as an iTunes download.

In the United States we have been aware of Pärt's compositions since about the mid-1980s when the jazz and new music label ECM Records released some of his works. He has steadily grown in popularity.

To be honest, his music never caught my fancy. From the beginning it seemed completely antithetical to my musical interests. His music is painstakingly slow, repetitive, sparsely orchestrated, soft, built entirely on a static single mode or scale, and relentlessly periodic. My preferences in musical expression are just the opposite. I have a penchant for fast, frenetic, densely orchestrated, pitch-rich, aperiodic, abrasive, loud, grab-you-by-the-balls high-octane music. Frankly, Pärt's brand of modernism (or mystic minimalism as they say) - pretty as it can be on the surface - ain't my cup of tea.

Granted, if musical success can be measured by the number of commercial recordings or making it to WHRB's Orgy list, then Pärt's notion of music is a hands-down winner and my preference for musical discourse is dead as a door nail. My hat is off to you Mr. Pärt. But this is where we Part.

Listening to Cantus In Memoriam for Benjamin Britten for string orchestra and bell (1977) makes my skin itch. The entire piece is based on a series of temporally shifted lines descending along adjacent tones of the Aeolian mode. Sure, if played in tune and by good musicians, this can produce a lush and pretty sound. But is it music? The thought crossed my mind that I could write out something quite similar with my music notation software (using the cut and paste function) in less than an hour. By contrast, I have spent up to a year and a half writing a single piece of my own music. I don't want to equate time spent composing with artistic value, but jeez, something that simplistic in my view is the definition of pure boredom. Perhaps listeners latch onto the purity of the idea, but I just can't ignore the boredom aspect it.

Call me a dinosaur, but I think listeners should be presented with a wealth of aural excitement for their entertainment dollar (figuratively speaking). What Pärt offers is a sparse and immobile sonic backdrop for listeners to zone-out. Music should assault you rather than facilitate or encourage passive daydreaming. The contemporary musical aesthetic that I subscribe to says that listeners need to be emotionally and intellectually engaged, challenged, and confronted. If a composer uses his or her art as a form of meditative prayer or devotion, that's fine, but it should be a private matter. I'm a stanch advocate of secular "headache music" (as some have described it).

Another series of works by Pärt that drives me up the wall is from the Fratres collection. Fratres I (1977, revised 1983) is for string quartet. It was orchestrated in 1980 by the composer for string orchestra and percussion. [This version I heard performed a number of times by the Amsterdam Symfonietta when they were on tour in the United States. My brother-in law is a cellist]. Pärt also created a solo violin version (Fratres II) and a version for cello ensemble (Fratres III). In my view, one version of Fratres is more than enough. The music just does nothing for me.

Clearly Pärt does not have to defend his music to me or anyone else. He has become very successful. In fact, a symposium on the composer will soon be held at Boston University titled "Arvo Pärt and Contemporary Spirituality Conference." It's scheduled for March 25, 26 and 27, 2010.

"...the conference will examine Pärt’s music using and developing cross-disciplinary methodologies drawing on media studies, theological studies and different analytical approaches to music. By working on issues of interpretation it endeavors to bridge the traditional gap between scholars and performers, and it directly addresses the largest group of people who come across Pärt’s music: the audience."