Arvo Part: Nothing to Do With Fashion

Truly rewarding music is hard to find. So is a good haircut and a wife as resolute and hopeful as mine. I can only help you with the music “part”. Not pronounced “part” but “pert.” Arvo Part is a modern composer with whom I deeply resonate, and I think you will too. As a living Estonian composer who suffered through the Soviet occupation, the bulk of his music is an expression of his orthodox faith and an extended meditation on the life of Christ.  As a result of this inspiration he became a highly controversial figure in Soviet controlled Estonia due to the “religious” nature of his music. A few of his compositions, like his Credo, were actually banned because of their Christian content. After a long struggle, Soviet officials finally allowed Arvo and his wife to move to Berlin after years living in their occupied homeland. He is still alive and actively composing.

Although often categorized as minimalist, Part’s music has deep roots in the music of the early and medieval church. His chord arrangements are simple yet deeply emotional. And it is striking how beautifully Part’s music “serves” the text, in a way that is uncommon in many modern compositions. He is so good at this that many secular minded musicians are not sure how to respond (see Paul Hillier’s liner notes to Da Pacem). But none can argue its genius. Steve Reich, one of America’s most popular minimalist composers, had this to say about Part, “He became involved in the Russian Orthodox church at a time when that was dangerous, and for the last 20 years he has written religious music for ensembles that might have existed in the middle ages. He’s completely out of step with the zeitgeist and yet he’s enormously popular, which is so inspiring. His music fulfils a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.”

I have found this to be true, and it gives me hope.

In an interview with Spike magazine Lewis Owens recounts his first interactions with Part in this way, “Pärt himself is as ‘present’ as his music; his deep, dark Slavonic eyes pierce you as sharply as any of his religious works. We discussed my intentions to write about the ‘philosophy’ behind his music. “‘Philosophy’? He has none”, his wife cut in sharply in broken English, “he learns everything from the old Church Fathers.” To really understand his music, she continued, you must first understand how this religious tradition (Eastern Orthodoxy) flows through him. Her husband agreed: I was therefore invited to spend a day with the Pärt’s at the Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist…We talked philosophy, theology and music, but Mr Pärt was visibly uncomfortable and nervous. Any book about him, he claimed, must begin with the substance of music itself – the arrangement of the notes. It is from this musical epicentre that everything else must radiate. ‘If anybody wishes to understand me’, he continued, ‘they must listen to my music; if anybody wishes to know my ‘philosophy’ then they can read any of the Church Fathers; if anybody wishes to know about my life, then there are things that I wish to keep closed…unlike our friend John [Tavener]!’ It was clear that my proposed project was running into difficulties before he suggested that we headed for the monastery.” I like that. Here is a man who is changing the world by embodying irrelevancy and expressing the deepest desires of the human heart, by recounting the true story of human history.  Vicit Angus Noster.

Below is a brief introduction to the music of Arvo Part. My favorites continue to be his setting of the Te Deum and the Berlin Mass. I have included a terrific video of a performance of the Te Deum as well as a sample playlist. For a good introduction to Parts instrumental music try Fratres or the Tabula Rasa. And for an example of his increasing influence among pop musicians take a look at Bjork’s fascinating interview.