Late in the evening, with a glass of wine, I’m sitting in a dark room trying to consider the packaging of an album by an Estonian composer named Arvo Pärt that will include a piece of his called “Fratres,” which is nearly 12 minutes long. Mine is an imaginary job, a problem for thinking through after dinner. But suppose I were to be faced with it. Suppose I were to try to contain this piece of Pärt’s, a piece that arises from design and vanishes from it just as quickly. How could it be done?
Memories strike first and hardest, and I begin to sort through them. The first time I ever heard Pärt was Thursday, 12 March 1998 on a cold night at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis. That night, the sun set at 6:16pm according to the Almanac, but new snow and a full moon kept the city looking bright and blue well after nightfall. Earlier that day I had been at the Walker Art Center to see a show by the artist Robert Gober, and, by chance, I picked up a brochure that said “Sound Visions Spring Music.” I still have the brochure in my files today, and getting out of my red chair, I set down my glass to find it.In my hands is a CD-booklet-sized, 16-page brochure printed in black and cyan only. The typography is neurotic – four weights of Akzidenz Grotesk including the Condensed and Bold Condensed weights, a rounded vernacular gothic, and close-set Clarendon caps. Looking at it today, I think what it said was more important than how it looked. A “rare opportunity,” a “hypnotic vocal tapestry” in an “acoustically superb sanctuary.” The language now sounds as clumsy as the type. But at a time in my life when I thought Minneapolis to be so provincial that any rare opportunity was one worth taking, here was a promise to hear something beyond hearing. I remember walking to the box office to buy tickets immediately. Hours later, sitting in the Basilica, the singers’ voices started the “Kyrie” of the Berlin Mass. There were no words for these sounds, nor shapes to give them form. The music existed as an encounter with thresholds, like standing on the firm earth over a void. The encounter was thrilling.
Once I was aware of him, I began to encounter Pärt more and more often. I remember finding him in the listening library at college by accident when someone had left a CD in the wrong tray. Then again at a friend’s debut recital in New York City. His music seems to inhabit the films I watch: Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, Michael Mann’s The Insider, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, Julie Bertucelli’s Since Otar Left, and Terrance Malick’s The Thin Red Line. You will find him in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, of Werner Herzog, of Mike Nichols and Michael Moore. I fell in love with a girl as I watched Tom Tykwer’s Heaven, where Pärt plays more than once.
As I consider the package, trying to bring a form from facts, I consider the process of listening itself. It is a process of building and unbuilding. The music I hear is first built for me, note by note, and I simply apprehend it. Then, with more listening and repeated playings, I break the shimmering thing back into pieces in an effort to understand its whole. There is, must be, a reason the filmmakers I watch, the designers I work with, the people I love, hear these sounds of Pärt’s and respond as they do. We all want to know: is what we’re hearing about Pärt or about us? Who is this package for, and what do its contents yield?
Part of me thinks of “Fratres” as a design. Its structure exists independently from its orchestration. It exists already as a piece for strings and percussion, winds and percussion, eight cellos, string quartet, violin and piano, and MIDI sequencer. Its phrases of four, six, and eight notes are voiced in three voices – high, middle, and low – over nine variations, or three triads of three. “Fratres” has three beginnings, three middles, and three ends in each of its three movements, and the arrangement of the three phrase-sets in the three different voices of each of these three movements creates first one, then two, then – just barely – three tonal centers to the piece. More than a third of the tonal experience of “Fratres” comes from the overtones that result from the three perfect intervals played – the octave, the fourth, and the fifth. So nothing exists: no given orchestration, no single experience, not even all of the notes on the page. This is fitting: Pärt often tells the story of a Russian monk he met, who, when asked how to improve oneself, said he knew of no way. Pärt said he tried by writing prayers and setting them to music. The monk shook his head. “You are wrong,” he said. “All the prayers have been written. Everything has been prepared. Now you must prepare yourself.”
This preparation comes from transcendence. In Pärt’s music, what is unknown is summoned from what is known through the natural variance of incantaton – of reciting something over and over – like the casting of spells and the saying of prayers. With no preordained thematic drive to obey, the music literally goes nowhere and operates with great drama by placing you where you are, intoning the same tones again and again to create a world of very few parts, a space that holds only the players, the sounds they play, and the person listening.
Though I am describing the music to myself now, the package I’m trying to design is no closer. Here is what I hear: “Fratres” begins quietly. A beat maps the space, a pulse. Then, a breath, the drawing of bows, timed with the beat. Four notes, arching like a sunrise, then six in a similar pattern, then eight. The four return again, slightly different but hopeful, then six, then eight. The players are quiet and find the pulse again. Now four tones dipping like a valley, more laboured on their journey uphill. The same pattern of six then eight. Four. Six. Eight. The sound is broadening, rounder. The pulse. The beats are a rhythm, an organiser for the arrangement of the notes, sounding as they did before, but more insistently now. Two forces in opposing directions. The movements in this interval are laboured and driving forward. At last, the sound rings. The pulse returns and the first third is complete.
More falling than rising, the opera is greater. The drama of the second third. Beat, beat, beat. Beat, beat, beat. The music insists and refuses to resolve, simmering, then vapourising the structure it found before. Now it finds itself in two states at once. Beats and then the weather. A thunderclap and air fronts inside and out. The music hall trembles, tensing for the storm.
The final third begins. The warmest sounds so far, like a folk dance or children running in a ring, yelling with joy. The pulse of night-time beats with the regularity of vespers. A hushing when the sounds resume. The quieter of the two voices is found lower down. On the refrain, it is quieter still, sounding as if, in an icy forest, someone has just stopped walking. The pulse trails off, drifting. Now, after the storm, the wind settling, the intensity of resting after a hard day, of releasing breath. A good job. The pulse, calm, falls silent.
Ideas from Pärt of a typographic sort: the tabula rasa (or blank slate) – his name for a skittering piece written for the violinist Gideon Kremer. The package is empty. When I was younger, learning to play the piano by ear, I would play intervals that made the best shapes. The beauty of a perfect interval is more than sonic. The Estonian alphabet has 32 letters. Bracketing those that are only used in foreign words, 27 letters remain. Three nines, each of three threes. Pärt’s process for composing much of his music, including “Fratres,” is one he calls “tintinnabulation,” which takes a certain chord and inverts it several times over to evoke the pealing of bells, modulating its register in a manner that suggests overtones. This is the beauty of well-chosen arrangements. The sound is simultaneously static (the chord is not changing) and in flux (the chord is permuting). The triad sounds over and over again as instruments trade its notes, passing them through the auditorium as other, quieter voices wander afield, uprooted. These bell-like overtones are slippery, toning and overtoning and changing between the soundings. Something happens when metal is struck with that kind of force, I think to myself. Something else resonates.
I am searching for answers by considering form. I pour another glass of wine. Digging through a pile of articles I’ve made on the floor, I find Pärt searching for answers, too:
Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this unimportant thing appear in many guises, and everything that is unimportant falls away.
I am frustrated by the answers I am getting. Maybe it’s enough just to enjoy the music. As quickly as I can ask, “Is Pärt a designer?” I am asking myself, “Should I try to be claiming him as one?”
With “Fratres” on the stereo, I am on the noisy internet, and it is getting later. I find I can type F-R-A-T-R-E-S with one hand. When I translate a French interview with Pärt, the word for “composer” comes out “type-setter.” I find that Pärt’s birthday is 11 September 1935 – 66 years (two 33s) before the towers fell. In his music, he says, the second iteration of the triad represents “terror.” I find the moment of Pärt’s musical transformation from his early serialism to his later minimalism coincides to the month with my own birth. I find a quote about the packaging of his music that coincides with this coincidence: Alex Ross of The New Yorker writes, “Even the packaging of the disks, all crisp lines and monochromatic fields, is a beautiful exemplar of minimalist style.” I find each of the package designs and note the typefaces: Palatino, Palatino Titling, Trajan, Gill Sans, stretched Avant Garde, Garamond Bold, Akzidenz Grotesk, Times Roman, Frutiger, Rotis Serif. These facts refuse me.
We must count on the fact that our music will come to an end one day. Perhaps there will come a moment, even for the greatest artist, when he will no longer want to or have to make art. And perhaps at that very moment we will value his creation even more – because in this instant he will have transcended his work.
We reach a consensus on things, and these things should be noted down. Here is one: the Estonaian composer Arvo Pärt. Here are my notes. The wine is done. The room is quiet. As I get ready for bed, I remind myself that there is, in fact, no problem here to be solved.