A SINGLE NOTE, A SILENT BEAT : The Spare Beauty of Arvo Part

Article excerpt

At age sixty-six, the Estonian-born composer Arvo Part continues to defy categories. In a new compilation album from Virgin Classics, Classical Dreams: Music to Inspire, Part's 1990 "Summa" for strings has a noble, open-hearted spirit, and does not sound difficult or unfamiliar like other, more modernist new music. Part's music, included on the soundtrack of the recent film The Thin Red Line, about the 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal, was lauded by one critic who stated that it nudged the audience "onto a higher plane of awareness."

Part's work was not always acclaimed. In his earlier years, when Estonia was still under Soviet rule, some of his works with overt religious content, like the 1968 choral work "Credo," were banned by the government. The young composer reacted by immersing himself in the study of old Franco-Flemish choral music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, by such composers as Machaut, Ockeghem, Obrecht, and Josquin. After some years of what he later called "despair and search," he emerged in 1976 with a new and extremely spare approach to composition. A new minimal style limited itself to one tone--or combinations of two and three chords--as the basic musical content of a work. Part states, "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, two voices."

Some outstanding chamber pieces, including "Fratres" (on Telarc CD-80387) and "Tabula Rasa," (on EMI Classics for Pleasure 2221), both from 1977, resulted. Both sound like music with links to the Early Middle Ages, balancing silence with sound in an emotional, sweet-sounding way. Some American minimalists like Philip Glass, despite commercial success, seem to write music on automatic pilot, undemanding and lulling for both composer and listener alike. The popular British composer John Tavener, like Part much involved with Eastern Orthodoxy, has been criticized for sugary-sounding works. But Part has, according to a statement welcoming him five years ago as honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, "created a body of religious and secular music that simultaneously moves the heart and impresses itself on the mind through its purity of craftsmanship." He often composes "with no more than basic scales," the anonymous academic noted, but the results transcend mere simplicity. …