Updated: May 29
Before you say something, perhaps you should say nothing (p,85)
Arvo Pärt-Out of Silence
I now start my days with listening to Arvo Pärt.
And you should too. Let me share some of the reasons why.
So, my own journey with Arvo Pärt began with a self-imposed desire to learn everything I could about this man’s music for many personal and musical reasons. When I started this journey I had no idea what a profound and life altering experience his music would have on me and the Westminster Williamson Voices choir. In hindsight, performing the Kanon Pokajanen was one of the moutaintop experiences of my life. The journey of that piece and other works by Arvo Pärt, unlocked some essential understandings about what his music can provide to everyone that hears it as we transition to new ways of music-making and new understandings we will have acquired in these days of isolation.
The Fruits of Isolation
Let us begin with the isolation and imposed solitude that we all have been “gifted” during this pandemic. My friend, artist Makoto Fujimura speaks of the Japanese art of Niyonga, or slow art (makototfujimura.com). Before the pandemic, I realized that for myself and my students there is a need for us to slow ourselves down regarding the rate that we perceive music. Most of the great music that I know does not move at the speed that we are living. One of the gifts of this isolation is that it has forced us to slow down, to appreciate things in that slower life that passed us by. It has been a calm forced upon us by this imposed solitude. Part of what I refer to as “The Great Reset” is that as artists we may have slowed ourselves and our perception of sound and music to the point where we can begin to really hear what we are hearing…and feeling.
Central to this discussion is the fact that Arvo Pärt had self-imposed eight years, yes, eight years of silence where on some days all he did was place notes on a stave—no text, not rhythm, just dots on a page. The years between 1968 and 1977 is known as his “silent period” or his “eight year silence”.. As Peter Bouteneff in his essential book on Arvo Pärt, Out of Silence (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2015) comments that characterization is “not entirely misleading, neither is it precise.” Pärt endured a compositional impasse during this period. Technically, then as Professor Bouteneff points out, the “eight-year silence describes three years when he was compositionally mute where he kept afloat by “utilitarian film music.” It was, for all purposes, a quarantine of silence. To quote Professor Bouteneff again, “these were years of profound ferment and change that were finally marked by their result: the birth of a completely new compositional style, a fresh way of thinking that would change the composer’s life and make an indelible mark on the history of music" (p.87).
From my vantage point, Pärt has given us not only a blueprint (albeit extreme) for slowing, but has given us the reasons why the music coming out of this period can not only help us through these long days as artists, but teach us lessons, not about sounds, but the solitude that only silence can bring. In Pärt, for me, it is all about the silences. If one looks at those years for Arvo Pärt as years of “profound ferment and change,” perhaps we should use the music that came out of that ferment to lead us through our own period of ferment and change that this Covid pandemic will certainly bring to us all, in both our lives and our musicking.
The Journey of The Arvo Pärt Kanon Pokajanen.
In 2015, the Williamson Voices and myself were invited to perform one of the early works that was written by Pärt after this “period of silence,” the monumental Kanon Pokajanen. This is a 90-minute work to be performed without intermission. What we all learned by the performance of this work, changed all of us forever. In hindsight, what changed us was not the 90 minutes of church Slavonic, but rather the hundreds of silences that, in hindsight, kept forcing us, as human beings, into our own silences…over and over again. Some of the silences were short and some were long, almost seemingly long abysses for us at the time. But it is my belief that Pärt was forcing us all, over the 90 minutes of the work, into our most lonely place to ponder, contemplate and feel in haunting and sometimes loud silences. For me, those vast silences are not unlike the daily silences of being isolated during this pandemic. In that performance of the Kanon Pokajanen, when we reached the final “Prayer After the Kanon” we emerged as different people and certainly more empathic musicians who were infinitely more human and in touch with ourselves because of our musical imposed “periods of silences’ that Pärt built into that monumental piece. To get some idea of the work, view the brief video trailer of our performance of the Kanon Pokajanon at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qX3y3OytnUc&feature=youtu.be
Why Arvo Pärt Now?
It is my belief that every musician’s day should start with listening to some work of Arvo Pärt’s after 1977 because of the way he gently guides us, using silences, to our deepest places. On the Westminster Williamson Voices CD, Silence Into Light, we recorded the final cathartic “Prayer After the Kanon”. I would highly recommend that each of you listen to that track. After that, I would encourage you to listen to the instrumental work Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, Salve Regina, Da Pacem Domine, and virtually any work by Arvo Pärt. Each day of my isolation during this pandemic began with the music of Pärt. It helped me to slow myself, and to be comfortable with the wisdom that silences contain.
Yes, all of us need to listen to the music of Arvo Pärt now and when we emerge from this isolation. Why? Because like Pärt, this period of our lives are days of profound ferment and change. It has been our own “period of Silence” whether we want to admit it or not. We need to embrace the silence, the time with ourselves, so that when we emerge, our music-making, artistry and humanness will produce music the likes of which each of us has never known.
All because of the journey into our silences, led by our first inspiration, Arvo Pärt.
The Westminster Williamson Voices , James Jordan conducting performing the Arvo Pärt Kanon Pokajanon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur to a capacity audience as part of the MetLive Arts Series in 2015.
To get some idea of the work, view the brief video trailer of our performance of the Kanon Pokajanon at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.