There was a lot of joking going on, despite Pärt’s serious
look. My sister had an armful of cameras, clicking away for everyone to have
their own. At one point, Arvo Pärt pretended to try to escape, and quipped, “We
are NOT professional models!”
While Mr. Pärt had many dress rehearsal duties and events to
attend for Sounds New, we were
blessed with his presence at our morning conference sessions. It is daunting to
present analysis and speculation about musical meaning with the composer in the
room! He does speak English, but his gestures and body language are most
expressive, as well as a piercing connection with eye contact. He left his seat
and approached me after my presentation, grasped both my hands and said, “Thank
you very much.” There was no time to chat or ask for specifics.
The title of my
paper was “Bells and Beyond: How Tintinnabuli Reflects Meaning and Iconic
Structures.” My ideas were based on visual and programmatic connections to his
music which stem from strong, architectural structures. Without proselytizing,
I also incorporated a number of Orthodox icons to illustrate what I found in
the music, and to reflect his genuine religious beliefs. I have no idea what
combination of ideas elicited his thanks. This will remain a mystery, but I
like to think that a simple, visual inspiration is an optimum to not only understand
his compositional approach, but to appreciate his music as a general listener.
Arvo Pärt himself is very reluctant to provide detailed
explanations to the mystery of his compositional journeys, and his love of
simplicity has been paramount in his music. He has always expressed great joy
in the ways others connect to his music. In the documentary of his life, 24 Preludes to a Fugue, he illustrates
his relationship as a composer to the performers: He holds up a coat, then
drops it. His music is like a coat with no hanger; it cannot hang on its own.
The musicians make it possible for the music to exist.
Being a free agent at the festival/conference, Mr. Pärt was
seen at many of the dress rehearsals for the numerous performances. At our
charming Bed & Breakfast, my sister and I exchanged stories over breakfast
about our travels, and the young, Latvian jazz specialists at our house sat in
on some of the orchestral rehearsals where Pärt did his usual pacing and
watching from all around the performance venue.
It was also wonderful to hear
about the depth of Baltic musics represented at the conference, including a new
twist on the recent history of jazz from that region alone. Having a number of
jazz practitioners in my theory class at WV Wesleyan, I was amazed to hear the
same sort of banter, using the same lingo and jazz terms. Their love of jazz is
as American as ours. I jokingly mentioned that the concept of the tritone
substitution can be such a challenge for us classical musicians, and they just
laughed and said, “Oh, that’s so easy!” Their English was excellent, and they explained,
“It has to be,” since their own small countries are such a minority even in Europe.
They were young, energetic, and impressive.
Mr. Pärt’s most public profiles were seen at the evening
performances. His love of the Cello Octet Amsterdam (Cello8ctet Amsterdam) was
seen in the Cathedral Crypt, where the lush sound and ethereal resonance of
such an ensemble was heard at its best. Here we heard the England
premiers of Pärt’s Da Pacem Domine, Missa Brevis, O-Antiphonen, and Summa. The Octet offers many original
works by modern composers, and at the end of the concert, Mr. Pärt walked
behind the semi-circle of players, kissing each one on the head in thanks.
The next night was the UK Premiere of Adam’s Lament, performed by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge
and the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Cleobury in the nave. This
evening’s performances were recorded for broadcast on “Hear and Now” by BBC
Radio 3. Present were representatives of the Embassy of Estonia, as well as
other Baltic representatives. Arvo Pärt has a manner of humility in the way he
accepts applause and ovations extending over many minutes. He truly delights in
the artistry of all the performers, and with the audience that forms
connections to his music.
There were too many events to attend, such as poetry, Jazz
Day, folk instrument days for accordion, kantele, recorders, and kokle. Interactive
performances for young people, and dance were also scheduled. Films about the Baltic
Way, such as The
Singing Revolution were viewed. Few in the west are aware of the
non-violent human chain and the strong singing traditions that empowered the
Baltic nations to become free of Soviet domination beginning in 1989. Our new
jazz friends told of how jazz musicians went underground during Soviet
occupation, and that the old men kept it alive. They were also planning to
travel again to the Jazz and National Identities Conference in Amsterdam,
to be held in September.
Canterbury has a
population of about 45,000 or less, so is comparable to my home town of Morgantown.
However, the atmosphere is quite different. The entire rebuilding of the city
after the Blitz was done and even redone to maintain the historical styles of the
ancient metropolis that it has always been.
Academically, there are many
institutions of learning: The King’s School, supposedly the oldest organized
school in the western world, University
of Kent, Canterbury
Christ Church University,
and University College
for the Creative Arts in Canterbury.
There could be more. Rather than the dominance of one institution to which I am
accustomed, there was a great deal of mutual collaboration during the week of
the commercial and academic events of the Sounds
In general, a multi-media approach to community culture, and
an appreciation for the Humanities as a whole seem to permeate the European
academic hierarchies. Historically, it was also extremely meaningful to visit
Canterbury Cathedral, inside the medieval walled circle of the old city, and
see the steps worn by pilgrims on their knees, and the place of Thomas Becket’s
On the Sounds New
web page is a photo gallery of Arvo Pärt in the Cathedral rehearsals and
performances. As the composer simply states: “Every minute, every second, I was
happy...". Those of us who met with him again, and have the privilege of
publishing our studies of his life’s work, would have to agree!
Related post: Researching Arvo Pärt