June 12, 1998 Postimees

Arvo Pärt: "Say what you will, but the earth will still be round."

by Immo Mihkelson

Arvo Pärt was born in 1935 in Paide, Estonia. He studied composition with Heino Eller at the Conservatory of Music in Tallinn. After graduation he became a recording engineer at the Estonian broadcasting station in Tallinn. In 1980 he moved to Vienna and two years later toBerlin, where he lives as a freelance composer.

Two distinct ä divide Pärt's work. His early compositions consisted mainly of serial works; this first phase came to an end with his Credo (1968). The period from 1968 to 1976 was one of transition, during which he wrote the Third Symphony. His intense studies of medieval music opened a new phase in 1976, which Pärt calls "tintinnabuli-style".

(Arvo Pärt's biography in ECM's publicity material)

Arvo Pärt on television. "In the end, the word is still more important than the music." he says thoughtfully, giving a brief commentary about his choral work on the new ECM recording "Kanon Pokajanen".

Arvo Pärt in Tallinn. The Tõnu Kaljuste ECM Festival is underway. Pärt's works will be sung and performed.

Music and word. The composer speaks for a little while. To the newspaper. To the reader. To the listener. Even though music is music and a word in the newspaper is just a word.

Immo Mihkelson (I.M.): Is this word, which is more important than the music, only the word of the Bible or can it be a person's word as well?

Arvo Pärt (A.P.): A word is a word. The word of the Bible is a strong word. Our word is a weak word. Our word is a meagre word. What counts is the value of a word and its weight, wherever it comes from.

With a sound, it is somewhat similar. One sound will carry, another will not. One sound will persuade people, another will not. This is the same with a word, a language or some concrete information, whatever its name is All is one. Everything in this world comes from single source. The primary question is what relationship does something have with that source.

The sun shines on all of us, no matter what horrible things one or another person might do. We are not able to set restrictions on the sun because of this. However, the sun is a very small thing in the universe. This connection is very far and yet, very strong.

I.M.: What about those words which speak of or are written about your music? Do they touch upon your music, do they speak a similar language with your music?

A.P.: There are as many different ways of perception as there are listeners and all of them are justified. From the perception to the words, however, there is a great loss when music is being written about. In translating poetry there is a very great loss as well. A new poem will partially result from this.

I.M.: But all people cannot understand foreign languages. Translation assists many in understanding.

A.P.: I don't know what can even be written about music. You can write about your impressions, the music's structure, its form and perhaps something else. It is much more difficult to put music itself into words.

I think that this truth, that exists in art and music, causes a resonance in a person somewhere deep and secret. When they themselves have a need to feel the truth and a gift for the cognition of the truth.

Music remains music and a word is still a word. They can very freely and peaceably coexist.

I.M.: Is this feeling which occurs to a person while listening to music and which they may not be able to write about, earthly or heavenly?

A.P.: You can take this as very earthly. A sound is an quantifiable amount. You can write it down with numbers. There are machines which can show everything about a sound. You can get a full picture of what the sound consists of and with what numbers it can be expressed.

These numbers have their own influence. This is just as in all vibrations. Over everything. Over the living and the dead. This can be so immense that a sound can even kill a human being. If so, then you can surmise that sound might have the opposite effect. Everything depends on how a knife is used: Is it in the hands of an evildoer or the trained fingers of a surgeon.

The heavens are so far away that there is no need to talk about them very much. Here we are dealing with much more elementary things. To put them in order, inside ourselves and around ourselves, you need all sorts of proper acts and thoughts inside yourself and towards others. Then the heavens are closer. At the start you must begin from below and then bring it into harmony with what is above.

I.M.: Tönu Kaljuste explained his choir's basic repertoire in an interview by saying that Pärt's music points to the sky and Tormis' music was in the direction of the earth's forces.

A.P.: Say what you will, but the earth will still be round. In what direction are the skies? Above or below? There is no difference here.

I.M. How easy or difficult is it for a composer to bring their work to completion, to get it on the paper for the interpreter to play?

A.P.: I don't even know how this came to Mozart, although 99% of people think that it came easily and poured forth as though from a volcano. I do not know his sufferings. Or Schubert? Perhaps he burned himself out due to the height of his own quality. I believe that a true artist always faced with the situation of making a sacrificial choice.

I.M. Is the sacrifice made towards people or towards God? If music is dedicated only to God then it isn't strictly necessary that people should listen to it.

A.P. An sacrifice is made in the name of truth. This does not necessarily have to be art. Behind the sacrifice is love. Universal love. This is what I think about when I speak of Schubert. He had such a soul. We can read this from his music.

An artistic work is to some extent their creator's fingerprint. You cannot escape from this. Every word and every act is the same sort of fingerprint.

Although - everything changes constantly. Our own blood's make up changes, but this blood is still our blood. Our genes and the information about ourselves are always present. Even after death. This can be studied a thousand years later, if necessary.

I.M. Does a music's strength remain on a recording? Manfred Eicher has said that music doesn't exist in the past, music is always in the future. Each performance, each resounding brings music to birth again. During recording, a work is formed into shape like a sculpture. Does this act somehow drain a music's strength?

A.P. Not necessarily, if the recording is properly done. Which has the greater worth, is it Shakespeare's printed text or a chance performance based on this text? I believe that the nuclear strength is primarily in the original. In the case of music this is the original score, the notes.

I.M. The interpreter's ability is to shift the music's emphasis during a performance and through this to direct the music's energy somewhere other than where the composer's original thought was. What, in your own opinion, is the most important component of your music? That which your music would lose the most if it were ignored.

A.P. When we speak with an architect about a building we cannot get a complete picture only from inside, being inside a single room. We must see it from many perspectives. From outside, from above, from the front, from the back. This distance must first occur to the interpreter towards the whole work's form and content. Strange as it may sound, this distance must also occur to the composer as well. It is one thing, when a work is written and another when it is heard for the first time. This is like an airplane ride from one end of the earth to the other. After landing, you are not quite all in place yet, some part of you doesn't quite join up until later.

This is the most difficult and interesting moment at a premiere. Everything must now be born - just as a person is born. The thing becomes quite serious. You can't lose a single minute as the newborn's life is in the balance. Every wrong movement can bring unexpected and unwanted results.

I have had good fortune with interpreters in my life. Tönu Kaljuste, his choir and orchestra are a good example. We simply try things. Just like you try on a suit at the tailor's. This requires time and patience. You have to try it here and cut from there, in other places sew it together. Sometimes you have to make the sleeves shorter and if that doesn't help, then you even have to cut off the hand. This is what happens - the music must be changed during the course of the work.

Quite often the work is born after many performances, when the correct contours become apparent. It seems to me that this sort of work is very beneficial not only for the composer and conductor but for the choir and orchestra as well. This is like cutting a piece of your own flesh. The pain threshold can be touched by the hand and felt by the heart. This is not something theoretical. It is not something like the conductor comes and says: let's play loud here and softly here and the musicians haven't got any idea about why they should do it that way. We are together collectively in the work and in fact during rehearsals we are dealing with something more than just the music.

These musicians have a very keen style and feeling. The conductor has taken them into the presence of the music, the sounds and the phrases. Every nuance is searched for and worked on to the utmost extent. The result is that Kaljuste's choir and chamber orchestra are in demand throughout the world. In some fantastic way these young people have achieved the means to enter into the music. This can be heard not only by specialists but also by the public.

I.M. Is the cooperation in the work with the choir and orchestra related to your common Estonian heritage? It is sometimes said that Estonian music is best played by Estonian interpreters. The language communication, the common society and sense of spirit?

A.P. I, of course, do not know what happens in the hearts of these people when they perform this music. Between us there are definitely some connections. We do not have to invent the wheel and the road between us is somewhat less rocky. I still think that the main thing is their professionalism and that they are willing to work at the music. It is hard to explain what this exactly means. Many thousands of configurations are necessary for the formation of one phrase, before it can become a free standing carrier of information.

In the average world, a symphonic concert program is rehearsed for only a couple of days. The repertoire is played at a gallop. Occasionally, they concentrate on some episodes in depth and that's it. Our collaboration is different, primarily we do not have such time limits, such tight deadlines. We know that there is no point to the work if we are not willing to go for the highest quality of interpretation. We strive to always see what is still missing.

When a phrase of two or three notes is in front of us - white potatoes on the paper - and we don't understand why we should rehearse them, thinking that any 5 year old musically educated child could play this, then there is nothing to hope for. But if we begin searching for how to make a beautiful meal from these potatoes, to flavour them with care and to give them their own form, then totally different needs and skills can grow in the interpretation. In the end, something very strange can come about, in the positive sense. This is what we require. We are not searching for plastic packaged product at the supermarket which is available everywhere and then has to be thrown out after its "best before" date. We want something that will remain, that some new life is born.

I.M. In your biographical information, which is very briefly summarized by ECM, it says that you worked for some time as a studio engineer at the Estonian Radio. Does this period have a special meaning for you?

A.P. This influenced me in a very odd way. The high end of audio techniques, which comes from having a high quality apparatus, drove me to the opposite extreme. To music's being, because audio cosmetics do not speak of substance. Music's substance is the interaction between two, three or four notes. The first steps, the changes which occur between these notes. For this you don't need sound techniques, you don't require a Steinway. This comes from the human voice, it begins with the most primitive instrument. I am not against the progress of audio techniques but you shouldn't overestimate their importance.

I.M. What is the most amazing musical instrument?

A.P. The human heart when it is in tune and perhaps the human voice a conductor's hand movement

I.M. What sort of shape does your music have, if it was compared to an architectural structure for instance?

A.P. I think that all human achievement is like a lego. Everything can be supported by small components which have a common source material. When we go inside the material - stone, glass or a piece of wood - with an electron microscope, the deeper we go, magnifying a hundred-, a thousand-, a million times, then the more interesting the picture becomes. We see wonderful and fantastic landscapes. If we then magnify it even further, closer to the depths, there come unbelievable things. Then suddenly in front of us is an absolutely uniform commonality. This is the picture of the atom, which is common to all things. No matter what the material. Be it a stone or something else. We are at the boundary. Here there is no difference between architecture and music.

I.M. The latest disc of Kanon Pokajanen has received much praise. Many critics have said that this is your best work to date. Which composition of yours is the most important to yourself?

A.P. This is a very personal thing. I don't wish to speak about it. All the compositions are like my own children. It is not necessarily so that the healthiest or most beautiful child is the most precious. Some piece which has not succeeded and which may never be finished may still be the closest to one's heart.

I.M. What is your own contact with the audience?

A.P. Very odd. This cannot be explained. And nobody seems to believe me, when I say, that I am embarrassed about the fact that people come to concerts and listen for my sake

I.M. But they are probably thankful.

A.P. I can understand that, but I have this feeling, that perhaps I somehow betray their expectations. It is very difficult for me to invite someone to a concert. I have this feeling, that, oh no, don't come, nothing there anyway

I.M. People want to develop a contact with something. To me, on the receiving end, it often seems that music is like a door or a gate, like a road to somewhere. People want to travel that road, even if they don't know what exactly awaits them. They have this sense that, once into listening to the music, when the door opens, they will find something extraordinary.

A.P. Perhaps together with the audience, we are at the same distance from something larger. Perhaps that is what I wanted to write down, this something, which people seek when coming to a concert. Only, I sometimes doubt whether I was able to do it not quite as I wished to. That is why the words, "come to my concert", just don't come to my lips.

Both of us have a overwhelming desire. The artist that creates their work and the observer or the listener that comes to see it. We come together with open hearts. Once we are there, perhaps we will find ourselves.