Karl Marx’s famous condemnation of organized religion rejects intrinsic suffering. Easily discounted in his quote, “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature”, is the subject of intrinsic faith and the metaphysical manifestations implicit in the struggle between the ego, the physical world, and the eternal. Arvo Part wrestles with these questions by examining the allure of the metaphysical in a time when the subject is swiftly dismissed under the guise of empiricism. Part’s Kanon Pokajanen finds the strength to ask questions of a force strongly attached to history as much as it is attached to faith.
Part, an Estonian who lived under the hood of Soviet atheism until he emigrated to Germany in 1980, found solace in his Eastern Orthodox faith after his conversion in the 1970s. As a result, he found a mystical bent to minimalism in the same way that his contemporary Gorecki had. This presents a strange confluence of factors: minimalism focuses on the subject as it is, whereas mysticism extends beyond the subject, delving into a meaning whose finite subjects cannot comprehend.
Kanon Pokajanen, Canon of Repentance, has enthralled audiences since 1998. Written to commemorate the anniversary of the Cologne Cathedral, each ode captures the poetry buried beneath the incantations, expressing devotion in repetition even when the world changes day after day. “Ode 1” presents a responsorial Psalm, petitioning God to have mercy on the “burdened sinner”. The mixed a capella choir imitates the Roman Catholic polyphony, mixing plainchanting with it, permitting contemplation of man’s petition to the Master of the Universe. The lento expressions fit with the minimalistic styling attached to Part’s compositional approach.
“Ode 3” provides a dimension to the supplicant through musical expression. Again, the petitioner begs mercy of God, and the voices mirror the humility expressed in each verse. Concern expressed from the righteous for sinners drags the inevitable of the individual’s failure to repent, stating that “then no one will be able to help us, but our deeds will condemn us.” A resigned conclusion to the “Ode 3” leaves their fate in the hands of the higher power. The eternal creates cowards of even the most faithful.
Each ode owes to the 6th century manifestation of the Psalmic model. The introductory rite, the heirmos, establishes the meter and rhythm for the responsorial Psalm. How Part differentiates the blend of Orthodox liturgy is in large part based on what he set out to do, which is for “...the word to be able to find its own sound, to draw its own melodic line.” Nowhere is this more prevalent than in “Ode 4”. Here, the mystery of the Virgin and her role in the plan of salvation emerges. The piece opens with the theotokion using a similar lento pace. Notes draw out until the Gloria Patri, then returning to the same ponderous lament with contrasting dynamics.
If minimalism’s foundation rests in repetition, then Part’s repeated theme of redemption mirrors the choral approach throughout. It is consistent with liturgical composition, that it can be conducted the same way no matter the time or place. The shift from piano during the prayer and forte during the response makes this masterful recording and performance a sacred exercise in the lost art of contemplation of the eternal, especially during a time when the world’s answers are at our fingertips. The closing prayer extolls the holy martyrs, the desert saints, the hermits—those whose hope for an everlasting relationship with their creator. The final moments fill time and space with rich polyphonic layers of reflection that can only come to be by revisiting Kanon Pokajanen as many times as one is called to it.