Book review: Arvo Pärt in Conversation

Arvo Pärt in Conversation (Dalkey Archive Press) began as a book by Enzo Restagno that was published in 2004. Its publication coincided with the Torino-Milano music festival Settembre musica, of which Restagno was artistic director, and which in 2004 had a special focus on Pärt. In 2010 much of this book was translated into German, some new material was added, and it was published by Universal Edition. The book under review is the English edition of this text (translated by Robert Crow), and it should be noted that the title is now misleading: the first half of the English edition indeed features a long interview between Pärt and Restagno, but this has been supplemented with three two scholarly essays. Also included are two short speeches by Pärt himself.

It has to be said that content for serious readers is patchy. In the second of the essays Saale Kareda discusses the spiritual aspects of Pärt’s work. Many spiritual and religious themes are invoked, in the service of too little penetrative insight.

Kaire Maimets-Volt takes a potentially more interesting line, analysing Pärt reception through filmmakers’ use of his music. Tackling Pärt’s music through film, rather than the more obviously sanctioned paths of religious text and the tintinnabulation style could be an interesting line of approach. As a reception history of Pärt’s music in film it is well researched, and the appendix of films in which the composer’s work has been used (including films from Georgia, France, Brazil, the USA and South Korea) will surely prove invaluable to future researchers. However, I again felt that the essay fell just short of presenting a genuinely new understanding of Pärt’s music. [edit: This review was based on an advance copy of the book; it appears that the essay by Maimets-Volt did not make the final publication.]

The essay by Leopold Brauneiss is the longest and most substantial. Essentially it is a study of the evolution of Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique over 30 years, from Für Alina (1976) to Adam’s Lament (2010). This is more valuable work, and the breadth of his analysis is impressive. By narrating the increasing complexity of Pärt’s music, from the single note to chords, polyphony and finally chromaticism, he provides considerable insight into the technical range of the tintinnabuli technique.

The two acceptance speeches delivered by Pärt, on receiving the International Brücke Prize of Görlitz (2007) and the Léonie-Sonning Music Prize (2008) are short, but may contain points of interest for scholars.

The book’s most valuable contribution is the publication of a long interview between Pärt, his wife Nora and Restagno, conducted in 2003. The interview takes a more or less chronological approach, beginning with Pärt’s childhood and progressing through to Kanon Pokajanen of 1997. Restagno is prone to digressions as an interviewer, but he elicits plenty of material from the composer and this section of the book (which makes up half its length) is the most interesting to generalist reader and specialist alike. The passages regarding Estonian musical life in the 1960s, Pärt’s relationship to colleagues such as Nono and Schnittke, and the reception of Credo in 1968 are fascinating. Nevertheless, the most revealing section is undoubtedly that dealing with Pärt’s “silent years,” the period in the 1970s, shortly after Credo, when he withdrew from public composition and developed the tinntinabuli style for which he would become internationally recognised. This period was essential to Pärt’s development as a composer, but is often glossed by biographers. Here Pärt reveals in some detail what he was doing during this time, the precise nature of his exercises in monody, and the studies he was undertaking into plainsong and medieval polyphony. A valuable emotional counterpoint is provided by Nora:

You can’t imagine how important this period was, with all its pages of exercises and psalms. He didn’t know if he had found anything at all, and if he had, what it was. … I was very worried about him, and saw how much he was suffering. I knew that he would not have been able to go on living without that music, which was the real content of his life. I saw that he was about to implode, and didn’t know if he would manage to bring these labour pains to a happy conclusion.

Like many books of its type, Arvo Pärt in Conversation suffers from being too close to its subject and too credulous of their own words on their music. This is particularly true of the analytical essays, which could have afforded a more critical perspective. Other composers – Gubaidulina and Stravinsky, as well as Schnittke and Nono – are discussed in the interview with Restagno. Our understanding of Pärt’s music would surely benefit from greater examination of its interconnectedness with other currents in Western music. With its inspiration in bell tones and the prolongation of scales and tonal triads, spectral music – broadly defined – would seem like one starting point. That possibility is occasionally hinted at in the book, although only via secondary sources that refer to Pythagorean harmony (in Kareda), or the harmonic properties of bells.

The triad does indeed form the starting point of each work, and its pervasive presence yields a distinctive mixture of overtone and undertones which is highly suggestive of the sound of bells. (Philip Borg-Wheeler, disc notes to Arvo Pärt: Beatus, Virgin Classics, 1997; cited by Maimets-Volt)

Readers looking for a generalist’s introduction to Pärt’s music will still want to turn first to Paul Hillier’s well-known introduction of 1997. And for a more in-depth and scholarly approach I expect (although I have not read it) the Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt, edited by Andrew Shenton will be preferred. Nevertheless, Arvo Pärt in Conversation contains enough supplementary detail, and some useful original research, to be of value to scholars not only of Pärt’s music, but also of music in the former USSR and in the later 20th century in general.

3 thoughts on “Book review: Arvo Pärt in Conversation

  1. Greetings and thank you for a thoughtful appraisal of this book — what version of it has an essay by Kaire Maimets-Volt? I did not find one in my copy.

  2. Hello Peter – Thank you for your comment. This was meant to be the English language version recently published by the Dalkey Archive. However, I’m working from an advance copy, and looking online I now see that perhaps this chapter didn’t make the final edition. Which is a pity, as I think it was one of the stronger contributions. I’ve amended the text above.

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