Cultivating Stillness: A Conversation With Peter Bouteneff on Arvo Pärt

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Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer born in 1935. His compositions have had a deeper impact on music and culture than maybe any other living composer – minimalists build off his tintinnabuli songwriting technique, performers continue to experiment with his arrangements, and, perhaps most importantly, The Simpsons included Spiegel Im Spiegel in a couch gag. As a part of the Live Ideas festival (April 15-19) – sponsored by New York Live Arts and curated by Laurie Anderson – Arvo Pärt’s music will be the subject of a full day’s events. His work will sit alongside the festival’s impressive collection of musicians, including: Eyvind Kang performing Time Medicine with Laurie Anderson; Pauline Oliveros and IONE’s Water Above/Sky Below Now; John Zorn presenting music from In the Hall of Mirrors and his Masada project; and a Tai Chi demonstration set to Lou Reed’s DRONES.

Leading up to the Arvo Pärt chamber music performance on April 16th, I spoke with Peter Bouteneff. Peter is an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. He is also a jazz bassist. And, relevant for our conversation, he has a deep relationship with Arvo Pärt – both as a person and as a composer. Peter worked with Laurie Anderson to curate the portion of Live Ideas devoted to Pärt’s work. I spoke with Peter about the spiritual, but not necessarily religious, impact of Pärt’s compositions; the oceanic character of his melodies; the way that many of his sparse arrangements give the listener ample space to interpret and process; the importance of approaching Pärt with an open mind; and the difference between an “absence of noise” and a “presence of silence.”

DM: Arvo Pärt resonates deeply with a variety of listeners for any number of different reasons, so I’m interested in how you connect to Pärt’s music. Why it is such a meaningful collection of work for you? 

PB: Curiously, I actually met and befriended him before I ever heard his music. Not the usual sequence of things. But I met him in a monastery in England around 1990 and only, maybe a month after I first met him and started talking with him, did I see a performance of his work at Oxford where I was studying. It had an immediate, powerful, visceral effect on me. I would describe it at once as a musical revelation, a revelation about the possibilities of art, and it also affected me at the spiritual level.

DM: Because you are a theologian it makes sense that Pärt (a member of the Orthodox Christian Church) would have a particular resonation with your spirituality. Why do you think Pärt’s work in particular speaks to your spiritual background? 

PB: To begin with, one of the things that I find so interesting is that people of many different backgrounds and even of no particular background use that word, “spiritual,” to describe his music’s effect on them. So, for me, I would put his effect in two places that probably intersect somehow. And one of those places is that it affects me spiritually at a purely visceral level, that I think is shared with just about anybody who would use that word to describe his music. There is just something about it…perhaps owing to its “still” character. People speak of it as oceanic, ya know. It invites you in and it’s huge, so for this reason it has certainly affected me spiritually but, as somebody who does believe — as a Christian believer — the fact of the spiritual provenance of nearly every single text that he sets to music is also front and center. It is interesting for me to ponder, what is the relationship between those two? Because obviously the music speaks spiritually to people who, ya know, the texts leave them cold. But the music still has its effect. With me, the texts resonate as Christian spiritual texts — great, I buy into that (laughs). But the music speaks to me as well as it does to anybody.

It’s that relationship that has fascinated me over the past couple of years, where my relationship to his music has taken life in this whole project that I have been involved with through my institution. The Arvo Pärt Project brought him and the orchestra and choir from Estonia for performances at Carnegie Hall, the Met Museum, lectures…so all of that developed in a way to kind of explore these kinds of questions…in a very agenda free kind of way. Nobody wanted to come with any predigested conclusions. Nobody wanted to plant a flag on his music. But just to explore those connections in a very open-ended kind of way, so that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.

DM: Given the broader themes and the issues that are being explored by Live Ideas, why do you think Pärt was chosen as a prominent musical feature? 

PB: I think that had to do with Laurie Anderson, very specifically. She came to the second Pärt Project New York concert…it was at the Met Museum. So I was there when she met Pärt before the concert. There was a reception and I introduced the two of them, and at that point already she told me he was basically her favorite composer. And so, I’ve known of Laurie’s work, or have followed her work, on and off since the early 1980s and so I was excited to meet her. After those concerts, I kept trying to write her to see if I could talk with her about the book that I was writing at the time and get some of her insights. While that conversation couldn’t take place, she said, “I want to do something Pärt-related at this festival I am organizing for next April, would you do it with me?” And I said, “Yes!! Of course.” So it was her initiative. We had a couple of brainstorming meetings and then a lot of correspondence in the interim and it has been wonderful working with her and her team.

DM: How do you see Pärt’s music within the questions of “force and change in America” that are posed by Laurie Anderson and the festival? Do you think his work speaks to current social issues in a specific way? 

PB: I think that one of the words that loomed large for Laurie as she organized this festival was the word “Sky.” The openness of sky, and the emptiness, and the stillness. And how that is kind of an antithesis to the noise and turmoil that surrounds us. Another theme for her I think that was related was “pilgrimage.” The idea of, whether it is a physical pilgrimage that we embark upon to go to a holy place or to a sacred space, or even if it is an inner pilgrimage. The pilgrimage perhaps to seek stillness. That is another word that often comes up in diverse people’s description of Pärt’s music: that it is “still”…that it comes from a still space and it helps clear my inner clutter. A lot of artists that I have spoken to, they compose their sculpture or choreography or painting, they have Pärt playing in the background because somehow that helps clear the clutter. And so evidently – I don’t want to put words in Laurie’s mouth – but I think that these themes of stillness and seeking it, going somewhere to seek it, are related to the effect that Pärt’s music has.

DM: Right, well I think you mentioned before, and others have said this as well, that something about Pärt’s music invites the listener to create their own space within it, in some sense. So pilgrimage is an interesting term in relation to that because it’s almost, in the way that you would seek something out in a physical space, you could do so in a sonic space in relation to Pärt’s work. 

PB: Absolutely. The sonic space is so powerful. It has this effect that can kind of get under our radar without our even knowing it.

DM: As I understand it, April 16th will be a day devoted to exploring Arvo Pärt from various perspectives. There will be a panel discussion, a film, and a chamber music performance. Given Pärt’s extensive history and career, what elements of his work are you hoping to speak to specifically? 

PB: Each component has its own role to play, I think. A discussion, there is just kind of a lot of data going on, and hopefully through the interaction of four diverse people – with different backgrounds, different entry points – hopefully, in ways that we don’t yet know, it will bring not only insight but also just enjoyment. Because Pärt’s fans like to listen to each other and talk to each other. To kind of see how their own experience is shared. It’s like, on the one hand he is a hugely popular composer. He is the most performed living composer in the world. On the other hand, it is still kind of a well-kept secret. You have his devoted listenership that kind of nod to each other, like, “Yeah, you’re one too.” So there is that for the panel discussion…maybe just listening to Laurie [Anderson]…anybody would come and listen to her ideas. I can’t wait to hear what she says (laughs).

The film has its own role to play. You know, what I think is lovely about the whole day is that nobody is going to be pressing any one idea or perspective on Pärt. So, this panel won’t do that. The film, which I’ve seen a couple of times, is a series of vignettes that are not in any explicit way connected. They basically have a kind of cumulative effect of giving fairly gentle insight into this man and his work. It’s gentle. Likewise, the performance, while it will have a few of the absolute mainstay Pärt pieces like Fratres and Spiegel Im Spiegel, it will also have stuff that you just never hear performed live, ya know. So I’m just so excited, I heard the rehearsal yesterday and it is just unbelievably good. And some of it is actually challenging music. You know we think, “ahh it is such beautiful, serene music,” well some of the chamber pieces we are going to hear are tonally challenging. They are not easy listening, necessarily. So I think the whole day will have this effect of, “for your consideration.” Here is Arvo Pärt in some ways you have heard him before and in some ways I bet you haven’t.

DM: In terms of the chamber performance specifically, what did you have in mind when you were curating the pieces and choosing the way that they would be ordered

PB: There was a very practical consideration in that the venue could not accommodate an orchestra and/or a choir. It’s a small venue. So we rather quickly said, well, what if we basically limited whatever we did to four or five musicians. “Ah, cool!” Now lets comb the repertoire and see what would be a fit. My colleague Nicholas Reeves, he and I kind of conceived The Arvo Pärt Project together, we sat down with this complete list of works and cobbled together this list and then we quickly realized that…several of his works are composed with either no fixed instrumentation or with multiple different settings. So for example Fratres, there is a violin and piano version, there is a cello version, there is a string orchestra version, and it might have even been composed as a three part work with no fixed instrumentation. And so, people just never heard it in string quartet form. Likewise, a much earlier work, Solfeggio (1963) it was originally composed for choir and then in 2008 he re-orchestrated it for a string quartet. So, there ya go.

We put together what we thought would be a really fun set. Again, Fur Alina and Spiegel Im Spiegel are very widely known and it is the kind of thing where a lot of people don’t even know it’s Arvo Pärt because it’s in the background of, ya know, in film soundtracks. In the trailer for Gravity with George Clooney, the first notes that you here are Spiegel Im Spiegel. 

DM: He has this really interesting connection with pop culture, where he gets integrated into things that you would never anticipate. It can sometimes make for some absurd juxtaposition. 

PB: Totally, totally.

DM: The program on Thursday opens with Fur Alina, which is one of Pärt’s most renowned pieces because it was one of the first to use his tintinnabuli composition technique, and the program ends with Da Pacem Domine, which was written almost 30 years later but seems to have a strong connection to Fur Alina in the way that it approaches melody – or the way that the different voices in the composition speak to one another. To what extent do you see a continuity running through the post-1976 compositions?

PB: Tintinnabuli began as a very elemental musical rule. There were two voices: one melody voice and one triad voice that are voiced usually simultaneously. But it kind of becomes a lot more than that. Actually (laughs) there are computer algorithms that will produce tintinnabuli music for you, like on the Internet. You just press a button and it will produce melodies and triads. And it sounds awful, just horrible. So obviously tintinnabuli becomes something greater than the rule. A few people have tried to give expression to the idea, well, what is it besides the rule?  Well, very gradual development, a resistance to modulation (tintinnabuli pieces tend not to modulate different keys), slow, patterned-based music. So, you can kind of give all of these qualifying adjectives, but in the end it is just an ethos. And he even, in one of his famous sound bites, he said “tintinnabuli is a space I like to wander into.” It’s like a place or a space, and, as you just pointed out, the works that are decades apart in their origin…when he comes back into these simpler, still works it’s just “Arvo.” It is his soul being expressed in his language. And tintinnabuli is that language.

DM: Looking at the Arvo Pärt Project – which I know began partly as a way of thinking about how the Orthodox Christian church can offer unique insight into Pärt’s work – what kinds of insights has the collaboration gleaned for you and your colleagues? 

PB: The project began as, just, “let’s honor this man and his music.” It was our seminary’s 75th anniversary, it was close to his 80th year, he hasn’t been in New York in 30 years, let’s do this. Let’s bring him and his music here. But when we flew over there and kind of pitched this idea, we came to realize that he himself…he’s been honored by secular institutions and he is only beginning to be honored by any kind of religious institution. He welcomed us as, “ya know, there are a bunch of connections that I haven’t made yet.” And so we immediately thought, “we have a bigger potential role to play in this than we even thought.” The more our relationship developed, the more it developed into serious content. Our conversations with him very quickly became intimate and substantial. It just became a total no-brainer to at least explore this stuff. I’m a musician as well…I’m trained in music and then I got all of these theology degrees too. So for me it is kind of the coming together of so many things that I care about and so many things that I am supposedly trained to do. At every stage I have felt welcome and encouragement by him in what I am trying to do.

DM: Coming back Pärt’s music, I am interested in how you see “silence” in the context of his compositions. April 16th of the festival is termed Journeys in Silence. Why is silence important to Pärt’s music in particular? 

PB: There is a lovely quote where he writes about his piece Te Deum. He said, “I had to draw this music gently out of silence.” You could say that about the Te Deum and that piece itself actually begins with silence and then a very, very gradual…before you even know it you realize you are hearing this kind of drone and then the male voices come in. It’s like the music itself is coming very gradually out of silence. But I think, in another way, all of his music stems from a place of quiet. Another quote of his is, “before you say something it’s probably better to say nothing for a while.” Even he, who is generally a reluctant theologian, he quotes the St. John’s Gospel: “in the beginning was the word.” And so, before the word there is silence. Before any spoken word there is silence. Everything comes out of silence, and ends in silence and silence is in some ways the bookend of anything that is spoken. You could say that some things that are spoken, or some music that is created actually bears the quality of silence.

DM: In the sense that it’s contemplative? What exactly do you mean by that? 

PB: It’s a good question. I suppose everything comes from silence, a sportscast comes from silence. A Bugs Bunny cartoon comes out of silence. But then there is…I think what you could say at least about his music is that the silence is something that is conscious and actually cultivated. So it is not just the absence of noise it is the presence of silence. And owing to that cultivation of silence, as it were, the music carries a reverence for silence. It is almost like the music is saying, “here I am, I hope this is okay and that it didn’t interrupt your silence too much.” It’s very unimposing.

DM: It’s interesting because I think so often people see silence in music as way of creating tension or creating a moment that builds anticipation for noise. But it’s interesting to flip it on its head and think of the music itself as a way of encapsulating the particular moments of silence. 

PB: Right, and sometimes it’s actually just incorporating the rests, incorporating non-playing. Other great musicians…you know, Miles Davis was called the “prince of silence” because of just how much silence there is between notes. So it is kind of a theme that runs though a lot of interesting composers.

DM: So for those who may be new to Pärt, and who will be attending on Thursday, what would you hope they take away from the experience? 

PB: A joyous and unexpected encounter with beauty and depth (Laughs). Is that okay? A humble wish.

http://newyorklivearts.org/liveideas/

http://newyorklivearts.org/liveideas/

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