In a spare, simple room, an old Estonian man sits at an unremarkable upright piano. He is composing, and occasionally marks a large score before him.
On top of the piano sits a wide-eyed ceramic owl, its head tilted quizzically, next to a candelabra and a large icon of the Mother of God. When the man plays, the music is not complex, but it suggests depths that its simplicity belies. The man pauses and marks the score again. He is Arvo Pärt, the most frequently performed composer alive.
He is also the first musician to win the Ratzinger Prize, awarded every year for the promotion of theology in the spirit of Joseph Ratzinger, because his music is richly and inescapably theological. “If anybody wishes to understand me,” Pärt writes, “they must listen to my music; if anybody wishes to know my philosophy, then they can read any of the Church Fathers.”
Listening to Pärt for the first time, one can hear a resemblance between him and minimalist composers. “Holy minimalism” was a term some journalists coined to describe his music – Philip Glass does Orthodox Church music. The music unfolds through small intervals and unexpected chords. But Pärt resembles earlier sacred composers as well. Like the masters of Renaissance polyphony, his music has a purity and a simplicity that allows its notes and chords to resonate and shine. Like Bach, his music is a prayer and, more significantly, he has created his own musical language. But where Bach used his language to create towering edifices of complexity, Pärt uses his to map silences.
Bells have always played an important role in Christian worship. They are inscribed with prayers, given names and treated almost as if they were alive. That sense of life comes, in large part, from the harmonics at work. When you strike a bell, it emits a dominant note, but as the bell continues to resonate it produces a rich tapestry of overtones and chords that grow and shrink until the frequencies audible to the human ear cease. Pärt’s music resembles that striking of a bell. A note is played, then followed by another note. Tight chords slowly open and close, resolving in unexpected ways.
Pärt began composing in this style after a long period of stagnation near the beginning of his career. He calls it Tintinnabuli, after the word for the ringing or sounding of bells. By way of explanation of the name, Pärt writes: “I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuse me, and I must search for unity. [With Tintinnabuli] I am alone with silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive elements – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of the triad are like bells. And that is why I called it Tintinnabulation.”
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