11 September 2015

Happy Birthday Arvo Part

It is hard to discuss Baltic music without the giant Arvo Part. A composer who not only has the heavy weight title of the most famous composer in Eastern Europe, but also the most performed living composer. His music has been, and continues to be, performed worldwide and he touches audiences worldwide. I was fortunate enough to meet him at Sounds New Festival in 2010, in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral as the Amsterdam cello octet performed a dedicated concert to him. It was also there I was lucky enough to see the premiere of Adam's Lament. As a composer, Part has had a significant influence on my work.

When it comes to Part, I am of an opinion which is rarely expressed or even considered. The opinion is this: Part is more mathematical and serial than people give him credit for. The mathematical precision of his St. John's Passion is far more akin to the work of Morton Feldman and Anton Webern. Admittedly Webern never tackled large scale structures like Feldman or Part, but there are very strong similarities. Mostly the systematic control and slow evolution of ideas. In the St. John Passion, Part manages to maintain a meditative like aura for over an hour while essentially staying in A minor. Without the systematic precision the work would fall apart into nonsense.

But A minor is a tonal idiom, why are you comparing him to Webern and serialism? Well firstly to answer this, a myth or two needs to be dispelled. Firstly serialism is not having a 12-note row and going through it without repeating notes until it is finished. You do not even have to look at late serialists or post-serialists to find this. It can be easily seen in Webern, Berg, and Schoenberg. Serialism is simply this: in tonal music the significance of a singular note is determined by the root i.e. C major. This means certain notes and chords are more important than other. In serialism the significance of a singular note is determined by the row/series. What this means is all notes are equal, a musical socialism if you will. So what you do with your row is up to you. Webern used the row in his symphony to define harmonic areas, where as Peter Schat used serialism to highlight characters of three note chords. Secondly serialism is not just using all 12 notes. Stravinsky, Balakauskas, Maxwell-Davies and many more have produced music using small note rows. So in theory a scale like A minor could be used in serial music, the difference will be how it functions. 

With these myths displaced, listening to Arvo Part's St. John Passion gains a very different and intriguing light. The music becomes like a crystal clear glacier slowly moving and evolving. The austerity of material is remarkably like Webern using only as little as need. With this Part has continued to hypnotise listeners all over the globe.
So Palju õnne sünnipäevaks Arvo Part. May you continue to mystify us all.

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