Arvo Pärt: Orient Occident

Kila Packett

Arvo PÄrt

Orient Occident

Label: ECM

In the world of new music, Arvo Pärt is a puritan's feast. On the threshold of being a globally resonating composer, Pärt remains full of powerful ideas in film, stage, oratorio and orchestral music. Pärt's talent surmises the infinite variety of spiritual symbolism. He is a composer deeply rooted in the ancestrally religious past of his native Estonia. Further removed from Roman Catholic preaching, the Eastern European Orthodox church took to a more enlightening approach -- renunciation. Pärt has, indeed, spent much of his time clarifying his search for richness in life's meaning. His work is as timeless as the art of work is meaningless. This meaningless struggle has dispirited Pärt's yearning soul, and with his newest music we are drawn to his misty, remote retreat.

Orient Occident represents the newest and, more importantly, epic portrayal of historical music to date. This album is nominated for a Grammy (2002) for best Classical Album. Regardless of any award, this album will continue its reputation as the most important record of new music in 2002. The disc is as surprising as it is breath-taking. Not only does Pärt recreate a shameless force of magnitude as a great work (three great works to be exact: "Wallfahrtslied", "Orient & Occident", and "Como Cierva Sedienta"), he has reorganized his approach making this change a revelatory turn from past familiar traits. Having rediscovered himself half dozen times before this year, Pärt introduces a lustrous version of his suffering, and a handsomely classical departure than previously heard.

Born in Estonia on 11 September 1935, Part stands alone as a V.I.P. in the study of serialism, sonoric, 12-tone and aleatory techniques applied to music. While studying music in the early 1950s Part was strongly influenced by the Russian neo-classic composers Prokofiev and Shostakovich. During the 1960s Pärt experimented with the canonic effect of choral arrangements. In 1963, Part mathematically conceived a ground-breaking technique in Perpetuum Mobile. This new system introduced a new note (from a pitch class set derived from the Polyphonic Symphony) and a new rhythm (derived from two sets which contain twelve figures of equal duration) both assigned to successive entrances of each new instrument or group of instruments. From these practices Part grew into unique experiments with collage technique during which he studied the works of J.S. Bach, Sibelius and Satie. Pärt practiced for a while, grew distant, studied 14th century French and Franco-Flemish choral music, finished his 3rd Symphony (1971), grew unfulfilled and reclusive again before inventing what he calls tintinnabuli (from the Latin, little bells). The guiding principle behind tintinnabuliation composes two simultaneous voices as one line -- one voice moving stepwise from and to a central pitch, first up then down, and the other surrounding the notes of the triad. Sounds like a roller coaster ride and a video game played in congruence but logically ends up sounding like a pulsating harmonium of dissonant qualities. Tabula Rasa is still one of his most highly acclaimed works that illuminates this technique, especially the resonating perfection of "Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten." Pärt discovered his new musical designs while living in Soviet Russia. For a deeply religious artist the secular world of Communist rule disrupted his work. With his family he immigrated to Austria in 1980 and eventually Berlin where he lives today. The Berlin-based record label ECM released the first recordings of Part's music outside the Soviet bloc and continues to represent this very important composer.

Each track on this disc demonstrates a different sect of Part's newest individuality. "Wallfahrtslied" (Pilgrims Songs) was taken from Psalm 121 and composed in 1984. In this newly revised recording it is brought back to life in a chillingly somber memorial to a fellow composer friend. The male voices of the Swedish Radio Choir sullenly and succinctly follow a pure line of clarity while scattered pulses of strings flow around the one note phrase. The affect is utterly depressing, tragically soothing, but somehow magnetically alluring. "Orient Occident" lasts only seven minutes, but it is an arrestingly dramatic piece full of swirling contradictions, climactic rises of pitch and snake-like coiling of monophonic lines. With strings clashing together like ocean waves crashing against rocks it resembles a Russian neo-classic romp blaring its own dissonant vices and questions like that of Stravinsky's muse. The third and final work on this disc, "Come Cierva Sedienta", is a Spanish setting of Psalms 42 and 43 and the primary reason to own this album. Its 30-minute premiere was one year earlier in Tenerife. Like their male counterparts the women of the Swedish Radio Choir give a tremendous performance by demonstrating excellence in pitch and tone. This lengthy track offers a sample of choral versatility. It is a performance of great dramatic clarity, ingenuity and consistency. The beauty of the female voices matched with the celebratory use of strings comes across as though you are walking the stairway to heavenly clouds, sunshine, and zodiac's kiss. Pärt's climactic reinvention of his artistic path makes this album a sumptuous account of a composer charged with a silent worship. He has been quoted to say of his triumphant "Third Symphony", "a joyous piece of music but not yet the end of my despair and search". Still, there are many more of Pärt's wonderful discoveries to come, and I would recommend paying close attention to his next spiritual awakenings.

PM Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.