Posts Tagged ‘tabula rasa’


The Silence of Being: The Music of Arvo Pärt

May 20, 2008

Four weeks ago, my Music Theory teacher explained to the class that each of us were to do a short report on a classical composer of the twentieth century. I immediately called Arvo Pärt. Nothing else could have competed. I spent a weekend listening to his music and researching him at my local library. That weekend, I had a visit to Borders and by chance stumbled upon this box set. I walked out of the store having purchased it for approximately $32.

Why it took until 2008 for such a box set to be released is beyond me. How I got away with buying it for $32 is also beyond me.

I can say with great confidence that Arvo Pärt is my favorite composer, although I am probably not alone these days. In a world where classical music is becoming increasingly fashionable for the hip crowd, Pärt reigns supreme with his unique and somewhat legendary body of work.

The Silence of Being is a box set that contains many of the composers most famous or seminal works. Instead of being a sort of greatest hits compilation, this box set is instead a collection of five previously released collections of Pärt’s music, divided up somewhat chronologically.

The first disk contains six different recordings of possibly Pärt’s most popular song, Fratres, plus a lovely version of Festina Lente, a string version of Summa, and the timeless recording of Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. The second disk contains the tintinnabuli classic Tabula Rasa as well as some more essential early polyphonic works. The third disk contains the divided entirety of St. John’s Passion, perhaps Pärt’s longest work, and one of the most respected. The fourth and fifth disks explore the composers post-1980 choral music that has come to characterize him, in great variety, actually.

Rounding up Arvo Pärt music is hard. Your library probably has some, and you can order some for cheap off of amazon. But you will likely never be able to get a single collection with every Pärt essential on it. To be sure, this collection misses many important pieces. It contains neither Fur Alina or Spiegel Im Spiegel, two of his most beautiful minimalist pieces, and it also skips out on Te Deum, Pärt’s quintessential choral piece.

These two exclusions alone make this box set’s goals seem purely commercial. Also indicative of a money scheme is the inclusion of the Sonic Rebellion compilation, which contains only one of Pärt’s pieces which can already be found on disk one of the box set. The subtitle of Sonic Rebellion is “Alternative Classical Rebellion.” Clearly aimed toward the indie kids who were already interested in Pärt but wanted more modern music. Pärt doesn’t fit in with these other artists, except perhaps Philip Glass, and the rest is essentially a baited hook for listeners who want to experience the more aimless pretensions of modern composition. I also  noticed several typos and misprints in the track listing on the back of the box.

So it’s a money trick. Yeah. If Pärt had sanctioned and overlooked the release himself, I’m sure we would have gotten a completely new compilation. Instead we get five classic Pärt compilations and a bonus disk of goodies. And for $32? A steal. I should have paid one hundred dollars for this, at least, considering what is in it. If you can find it for a reasonable price, waste no time and buy it. This is a great place to start a Pärt collection, but a bad place to stop.


Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa (Again)

May 11, 2008

I was told several weeks ago that I was to do a presentation in my Music Theory class about a twentieth century composer. Arvo Pärt immediately came to mind as probably my favorite composer and perfect for the project. As much as I loved Pärt when I wrote the last review for the very same release of Tabula Rasa, I simply did not know him as well as I know him now. Part of this comes from having listened to Tabula Rasa fairly often up until last week, and then what happened to me last week. What happened was I acquired about fifteen Arvo Pärt releases in one weekend, both from a box set that I purchased called The Silence of Being (I’ll get to that later, after I find the time to sit down and comb through the five disks carefully and be able to make an assessment) and various other releases from my local library. I have been completely immersed in Pärt for the past week, and I feel that I owe it to him and this album to take another shot at the review with my added knowledge and understanding.

The 1984 release Tabula Rasa is the most popular and essential example of Arvo Pärt’s minimalist tintinnabuli style. Although this is by no means a definitive collection of all of his best pieces of the style, the four recordings here have remarkable cohesion, and the presence of any one piece plays off of the others and brings out its best. It’s no surprise that this album is so popular with music fans who are not attuned to classical music. Pärt has a knack for classical structure, but his tintinnabuli style is both focused on melodicism as well as texture.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of the active working of this contrast are the two versions of Fratres collected here. The first features a fiery, raw solo violin part that represents entire chords at once in violent precision playing from Gidon Kremer, who seems to have little trouble with the complex bowing. The second version of Fratres is played by twelve cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and this recording of the piece is alternatively subdued and more safe sounding, but no matter how you slice it or dice it, Fratres is a soaring, thoughtful, and sometimes spiritual piece. And Pärt is definitely a spiritual composer, although not really a religious, or Christian composer. Although many of his later, particularly choral pieces might reflect a religious theme lyrically, the aural spirituality is universal and accessible to all.

Sandwiched between these two recordings is the collection’s shortest and arguably most memorable moment, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten. After a bell sounds off the beginning of the piece, a full orchestra cascades down over the constant pedal point of the bell like water over a cliff, or possibly like souls descending into the deep, in polyphonic parts. The downward moving strings get stronger and stronger, and then compound the dense sea of sound at the bottom. Before the piece has a chance to burn out, it cuts out, and is concluded by the same bell that started it. The word “cantus” has surely become synonymous with this piece as it is a perfect example of what kind of emotion a cantus should evoke.

The collection is rounded off with a full performance of one of Part’s most famous pieces, the twenty five minute long Tabula Rasa. The piece consists of two parts, which although are not separated in any way like on many other recordings, have unique enough ideas and emotions to make the distinction obvious. The first movement, Ludus, is a sprawling expansion on a single theme that grows in complexity with each repetition. Although the piece sounds something like more traditional European fiddle music at times, the harmonies are sublimely universal. Pärt’s experimental flair also comes through here on flourishes of prepared piano, which run rampant in the booming conclusion.

The second movement, Silentium, works opposite to Ludus by constructing a loose, polyphonic texture that delicately floats upwards into the stratosphere of the stringed instruments’ fingerboards on a melancholic chord progression which also seems to reach for the sky. There is little actual melody, but this is considered one of Pärt’s finest tintinnabuli moments and is a frequent pick along with Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten for favorite music of patients dying of terminal cancer or AIDS. Somewhere near the middle of Silentium, it sounds almost as if some ambient soundscape is vaguely introduced into the background. It might be a production trick, or perhaps even a nonexistent illusion of atmosphere, but it almost seems as if the song is ascending an icy, snowy mountain, as the air between the strings gets thinner and thinner. The piece finally fades gently into nothingness, a final equilibrium, a blank slate.

It is no surprise that this is Pärt’s most popular release to date. The pieces here are slowly seeping into popular culture; Fratres was featured in last years Academy Award nominated There Will Be Blood, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten was featured in Fahrenheit 9/11, and Tabula Rasa was used in War Photographer. But this popular exposure does not mean that Pärt is a modern classical sellout, nor does it mean that Tabula Rasa is any less of a quaint release than it really is. All of these pieces mesh stylistically and represent a time of great inspiration in Pärt’s career, and the collection stands up as a collection of four (or five, if you count the two Tabula Rasa movements as seperate) utterly unforgettable works.


Arvo Pärt – Tabula Rasa

August 26, 2007

I don’t think I would call myself a fan of classical music. I like classical music, and appreciate classical music very much, and have played classical music for many years, but I don’t listen to it in my spare time very much. I have very little classical music in my collection. The essentials mostly… Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi, etc. And my mother is big on Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, etc. And unfortunately, most of these works lie untouched by my fingers simply because I usually have a taste for more engaging music. It is not the kind of music that keeps my ear in touch, even though it interests me. I’m not a fanatic, or a fan.

But every once and a while there is a classical piece that I hear and really, really enjoy. Many times they are various works by Handel, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, etc. The basic, well known stuff. It came to my attention that a good deal of popular music fans, or at least indie rockers, seem to have a taste for a piece called Tabula Rasa by a Russian artist known as Arvo Pärt, whom I had never heard of. Apparently this collection of four pieces is a rather big deal, and I’m surprised that I had not heard of it. Upon first listen, I was already floored by the CD which I had ordered on the internet by complete speculation. At least as floored as a classical album can floor me.

Actually, the first time I heard anything from Tabula Rasa was about a half year ago, when this absolutely wonderful violinist from my school played Fratres as a solo. It was pretty intense. He came from the audience and played as he walked up onto the stage. It was almost a little pretentious, but he’s that good that he can pull off the fingering acrobatics that are necessary at the beginning of Fratres, as heard on the first moments of Tabula Rasa. It was not until I mentioned to my music theory teacher last week, who also directs the schools orchestras, that I really loved Tabula Rasa that I found out that it was that same piece that I heard so long ago.

One thing that needs to be in effect when I listen to classical music. I only listen to classical music very loud. I’m sure there is a reason for it, but classical music is mixed much quieter than other recordings, so to get the full effect and hear the resilience, I just have to crank the volume to ludicrous levels. Hearing Tabula Rasa this loud was a liberating experience. Why this music held my interest more than other stuff I probably like more, like Beethoven or Handel, could be due to a myriad of reasons. For one thing, the pieces switch up the style a lot, which is unusual for a classical album. The album consists of four songs total. Two of them are different versions of the same piece called Fratres, one played with a violin and a piano and the other played with twelve cellists. Another song is the absolutely gorgeous, destructively tragic funeral dirge Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten. And the final song is a twenty five minute long progressive melancholy masterpiece, Tabula Rasa, which gives the album it’s name. All of these songs are surely gorgeous.

The two versions of Fratres are both absolutely wonderful, without a doubt. The piece is a ten minute long creative forray into melancholy orchestral music. In some ways, the music sounds a bit religious, but not demandingly so. I have a feeling the word “Fratres,” which is Latin for “brother” might refer to a religious figure. But I don’t think that the pieces are very religiously themed as they are religiously styled. What the two different versions allow are for completely different angles to be explored in the music. The first version with violin and piano allows for a lot of impressive, complex dynamics that only a solo can make way for. The piano adds a bit of needed mystique, and the rapid fire soloing power that the violin is quite great. The version with twelve cellos is more melancholy, and at the same time sounds more polished. When you have twelve instruments on the playing field for making music, some doors really get opened up. The cello is a beautiful, gorgeous instrument that really gets a lot of room for expansion here, and the sweeping orchestration sounds perfect next to the occasional simple drum beats that softly pervade the music.

Possibly the albums most beautiful moment comes with the comparatively brief and fleeting Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten. A mere five minutes long in comparison to the releases three other epics. This piece needs to be heard to be believed. The strings melt down and tragically swoop into the listeners ears. This is truly the sound of death, a perfect song to remember the living. Beautiful, tragic, destructive, wonderful. The final piece which consists about half of the album, Tabula Rasa, is as continuously interesting and engaging as Fratres, an already impressively engaging classical piece. I go to a lot of symphonies, and even when it is a great piece that I love, I fall asleep a lot, which isn’t good. I can imagine if I heard Tabula Rasa played all the way through, I would not fall asleep. This is, strangely enough, a classical piece that is very fun to get to know, and it has distinctly different parts that all mesh together, so it is never boring or repetitive. Arvo Pärt knows how to appeal to mass audience, I’ll bet.

This music is very inspiring, and it lets me know that not all modern classical music is atonal experimental trash. I feel like I really was rewarded by listening to the album, and gained a lot. This is now one of my favorite classical pieces, and I hope to hear more pieces by Pärt in the future.