Tabula Rasa, Arvo Pärt

“I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played.” The musical world of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has long existed in a curious state of tension, balancing the hermit-like aura of the composer himself, and the outstanding commercial success his music has achieved since the 1980s.

In Tallinn during the 50s, Pärt’s subversive serialist experiments attracted the critical eye of the regime. Exhausted by state censorship, Pärt drifted towards writing for Soviet films, but at the same time his personal musical language was undergoing a profound transformation; his music absorbed lessons learned from his study of Franco-Flemish choral music, Gregorian chant and ultimately the sound of the Orthodox Church. Where once his serialism was denounced as decadent, now his new religiosity was in flagrant defiance of state atheism. His music existed in a state of “time and timelessness”, bathed in the sound of fading bells.

Pärt eventually fled the country and settled in Berlin in 1981. But exile was to prove lucrative. The German music label ECM, set up by Manfred Eicher, had for some time focused on championing an austere minimalist aesthetic and its interest in the “New Simplicity” – the term for the 80s wave of spiritual minimalist music emerging from the former Soviet bloc – was inevitable. In 1984 Eicher founded ECM New Series for new composers, with Pärt’s 1977 composition Tabula Rasa as its first imprint.

Why does Pärt’s music continually evoke descriptions soaked in hyperbole? Much of his musical language relies on the simplest of means – silence, the tolling of bells: “The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation [from the Latin for bells]”. 1977’s Tabula Rasa is a blossoming of his new-found style, where kaleidoscopic simplicity and bells are utilised in heightened emotion, both reminiscent of something archaic and yet never victim to Romantic escapism. Whereas early attempts at tonality, such as 1966’s Pro et Contra, were often presented in ironic juxtaposition with atonality, Tabula Rasa represents a fully fledged style. The piece’s orchestration is reminiscent of the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke – 2 violins, prepared piano and strings – and was dedicated to the Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer. The intensity of woven melodic voices and the stylistic absorption of the late medieval and Russian Orthodoxy produces a cathartic, “cleansing” experience.

But Tabula Rasa’s appeal also relied on something more prosaic. The sparse scalic and triadic figuration treads a fine line between modernist critique and banality. Its retrogressive aspects are buried under its “timeless” religiosity. This brand of spiritual music provided a minimalist oasis for the technological over-load of the 80s economic boom, as well as a triumphalist “healing” for the violence of 20th century music’s history of conflict. And yet we should not forget that the same musical language had its roots back in Estonia as a defiant gesture. Tabula Rasa exists in two states – its stylistic birth under the Soviet regime, and its aesthetic appeal under the West’s late capitalist culture.

Below is a recording of  Tabula Rasa followed by a brief listening guide.

The first movement, ‘Ludus’, opens (0:00) with the solo violins searing through at dual register. Silence follows (0:04). Then an orchestral motif (0:12) gradually emerges, around which the soloists orbit. The music pushes towards a climax, furiously closing on the opening’s chord, now in full orchestra (9:20). The second movement, ‘Silentium’, is announced by prepared piano arpeggiation (9:37), and then again reveals a pattern – an orchestral motif over a descending scale. The solo violins continually circle from above, marked by piano chords. The music fades into a whisper (25:37).

The recording comes from the 1984 ECM recording, with Gidon Kremer, Tatjana Grindenko and Alfred Schnittke as soloists.

1977’s Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten, also on the ECM Tabula Rasa record, is a fine example of Pärt’s ability to put a fleeting musical moment to devastating impact, smeared through with Mahlerian peaks and submerged bells. For the UK’s answer to the “new simplicity”, the music of John Tavener similarly marries a familiar transparent sound with popular success – 1988’s The Protecting Veil is a typical example.

Artwork: Black on Maroon, Mark Rothko

by En Liang Khong