ARVO PART, TABULA RASA: The sound of angel wings

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Arvo Part: Tabula rasa (for two violins and prepared piano)
ARVO PART, TABULA RASA: The sound of angel wings

The story is such an improbable cliché it can only be true: one night in the late 70s while driving between Stuttgart and Zurich, the famous jazz producer Manfred Eicher heard music on the radio so entrancing he had to pull over to listen more closely.

Eicher – founder of the ECM label which has a reputation for music of often profound austerity – was so enthralled by what he was hearing he made efforts to track down the composer, Estonian Arvo Part.

Eicher – who had been classically trained – was so taken by Part's piece Tabula rasa that within a few years he had launched the ECM New Series imprint of contemporary classical music with an album of Part's works, Tabula rasa being the title track.

In a story free of irony, there is one: Part's Tabula rasa is less a demanding piece of contemporary classical music than a work which owe a debt to various ancient traditions.

On the occasion of Part's 75th birthday in September 2010, ECM presented a special edition of the Tabula rasa album which comes in 200-page hardback book with a brief essay and the scores of Part's pieces on the album, including a facsimile of his previously unpublished original scores for Tabula rasa and Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten.

A glance at the original Tabula rasa score for two violins, prepared piano and orchestra, confirms why violinists Gidon Kremer and Tatjana Grindenko were confused when they saw it in 1977.

“We were all a bit surprised by the the empty pictures of the score,” Kremer told Gareth McConnell of The New York Times. “It was all tonal and so transparent. There were so few notes.”

It also explains why Part has been lumped in with John Tavener and Henryk Gorecki as one of the “holy minimalists”.

part score_1In spare dots on a page -- like graphic art generated by a computer with a limited vocabulary, see left – the music may have looked like very little . . . but it also sounded like little which preceded it.

The austere beauty, almost weightless quality of the 27 minute Tabula rasa -- with two versions of Fratres (one for violin and piano, the other for a cello ensemble) and the Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten – all work on the album as an integrated experience, enhanced by Eicher's clean but warm production.

In a much quoted piece from the on-line magazine Salon in 99, the columnist Patrick Giles wrote of the music's soothing qualities for those dying of Aids in 80s.

"Tabula rasa's relentlessly severe, repetitive and deeply inspiring sound had a powerful impact on my dying friends and their attendants. 'It sounds like the motion of angels' wings,' a client whom I had a secret crush on once said.

“The music brought comfort to many of us after we'd given up on the very possibility of it. People played it at night, during meditation and, especially, when they were in the hospital and feared they were dying. We had learned that even patients in comas were still capable of hearing, and several people with Aids requested Part on their death beds.”

And Part writes “the tonality of this music has no mechanical purpose. It is there to transport us toward something that has never been heard before.”

Part may look like a holy ascetic – tall, stooped and heavily bearded like an Apostle in a Raphael painting – but he is very much a man of the world and came to this rare, spare music after decades under Soviet oppression.

As Alex Ross in The Rest is Noise; Listening to the Twentieth Century noted, “References to him as 'monkish' miss the mark; behind his sad eyes and long beard is a steely will. In 1979 he performed the un-Shostakovich-like gesture of donning a long-haired wig and haranguing the Estonian Composers' Union on the subject of official restriction. He defected to the West the following year.”

Part composed 12-tone music as a young man (“avant-garde bourgeois music” as the Soviet authorities called it) but for 1968 his choral piece Credo he included the provocative line “I believe in Jesus Christ” which angered the atheistic authorities. It was a dramatically dissonant piece – references to Bach juxtaposed with discordant 12-tone – and was the last significant thing he would compose for many years.

However a chance encounter with Gregorian chant and its emotional purity lead to immersion in that music, and that of the early Renaissance. He found his way back to writing and in 76 presented a piano piece Fur Alina in his new, poetically spare style.

His music seemed driven by a holy simplicity of expression more than the minimalist tag he has so often been given, although in its sparseness “it's a cleansing of all the noise that surrounds us,” as violinist Kremer has said.

And it has a restful, meditative quality as those Aids patients in New York discovered decades ago.

But this is not music of death, rather it is of life and reflection, and of transcendence.

As the title of Tabula rasa – from the Latin, meaning “a clean slate” -- suggests, it is music of a new beginning, life from silence and space. Just a few dots on a score proving less is more. A rare kind of soul music where you can hear the wings of angels.

And as Manfred Eicher discovered that night, it makes you slow down and pull over. In every sense.

Tabula Rasa; Special Edition (ECM New Series) is available now in New Zealand through Ode Records.

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