October 17, 2010

"LET'S LISTEN":

The Sound of Spirit (ARTHUR LUBOW, 10/17/10, NY Times Magazine)

Emigrating from the Soviet Union to the West in January 1980 with his wife, Nora, and their two small sons, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt was stopped by border police at the Brest railroad station for a luggage search. “We had only seven suitcases, full of my scores, records and tapes,” he recalled recently. “They said, ‘Let’s listen.’ It was a big station. No one else was there. We took my record player and played ‘Cantus.’ It was like liturgy. Then they played another record, ‘Missa Syllabica.’ They were so friendly to us. I think it is the first time in the history of the Soviet Union that the police are friendly.” He was joking, but not entirely. Later, when I asked Nora about that strange scene at the border, she said, “I saw the power of music to transform people.”

Most contemporary composers aim to ravish the ear or to tickle (or boggle) the mind. Pärt is playing for higher stakes. He wants to touch something that he would call the soul, and to a remarkable extent, he is succeeding. When I would mention to friends or acquaintances that I was writing about Pärt, I was surprised at how many responded, “Oh, I love Arvo Pärt!” It’s not something you often hear when you mention a contemporary composer. The enthusiasm for Pärt’s music extends beyond the circles of classical music (where he is sometimes derided as backward-looking and boring) to include admirers in the pop-music world, like Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and Bjork. Many of Pärt’s pieces are settings of religious texts, and even the instrumental works bear a whiff of church incense. Yet the compositions resonate profoundly for the unconverted as well as the faithful. “It’s a cleansing of all the noise that surrounds us,” says the violinist Gidon Kremer. It is music that reveals itself gradually, with a harmonic stillness that conjures up an alternative to hectic everyday existence. “I was attracted to the unbelievable calm and brilliance of his music, and a seeming simplicity,” Stipe told me. “As a musician and an artist, you realize that within its simplicity, it’s incredibly complex. It brings one to a total meditative state. It’s amazing, amazing music.”

MORE:
-ARCHIVES: Arvo Part (NPR)
-Arvo Pärt and the New Simplicity (Bill McGlaughlin, 10/11/1998, MPR: St. Paul Sunday)



Posted by Orrin Judd at October 17, 2010 10:37 AM
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