Culture > Music

Music: P"rt of the old world

Music | Estonian composer on contemporary classical's cutting edge

Issue: "Hong Kong," June 28, 1997

Arvo P"rt (pronounced "pairt") leads the current Eastern European school of serious contemporary music. He also writes music that is explicitly, unapologetically religious.

Mr. P"rt was born in 1935 in Estonia, which would soon be occupied by the Communists and forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union. He spent the early years of his career until 1977 writing in a jarring serialist style, like most avant-garde composers during the first half of this century. Then he had an epiphany of sorts, which followed a creative crisis during the 1970s, bringing a complete halt to his work. During this time, his native Russian Orthodox faith became the center of his life. Gradually Mr. P"rt forged a unique style using Gregorian chant, Russian Orthodox chant, Renaissance vocal style, Estonian folk music, and a mixture of the simplest possible materials.

Mr. P"rt, in his effort toward simplicity, adopted (and is still developing) a "tintinnabuli" style, combining medieval techniques with modern repetition. His technique is what musicologists call "minimalist"-using a minimum amount of pitch material, repeating at different timbres and volumes to create intensity. Such music demands concentration-a cursory listening session does it no justice-and it requires a salutary adjustment from the 20th-century mind.

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Mr. P"rt has become a cult figure among serious contemporary music fans. But his own approach to his music is self-effacing. Living in Berlin, he continues his exploration of ancient techniques and pure sound, heard in over 75 recordings to date.

Twentieth-Century Choral Music, which also includes works by other composers, allows a window into the world of the ancient/contemporary fusions common to today's European music. Included on this CD are three of Mr. P"rt's most-recorded works.

"Summa" (1977) was his first work using the tintinnabuli technique. Under Jeremy Backhouse, the Vasari singers gently sway with the composer's interpretation of the Creed. The music rocks calmly between the pitches of a minor chord.

"The Beatitudes" (1991) uses four soloists with chorus and organ. A setting of Matthew 5:3-12, this music is most accessible, strongly tonal, in a major key, lyrical, beautiful, and haunting in its simplicity.

"Seven Magnificat Antiphons" (1991) are settings in German of the seven Advent verses that begin with "O." Ranging in length from 51 seconds to 3 minutes, 10 seconds, they are brief but stunning in their purity. Especially "O Emmanuel" in its dissonant but gloriously resolved vocal crescendo displays Mr. P"rt's flexibility with the text. The Vasari Singers work together in perfected blend and coordination throughout this release, a real treasure of contemporary music.

Another release from ECM/BMG Classics, Litany, explores recent choral and instrumental music of the Estonian composer. St. John of Chrysostom's Litany is a suite of short sentence prayers. After a slow-moving opening, the orchestra begins to play a distinctive role, often creating an atmosphere of mystery or intense pleading ("O Lord, as a man I have sinned ...") The haunting, archaic quality Mr. P"rt creates perfectly complements John's supplicatory prayers, which end with

O Lord, Thou knowest that Thou dost as Thou willest, let then

Thy will be done in me, sinner, for blessed art Thou unto the ages. Amen.

Mr. P"rt's music came out of the darkest days of Soviet oppression as a ray of truth. Today, transcending the wreckage of modernism, he unabashedly proclaims biblical faith.

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