Still Searching for the Rest

Answers to the simple questions are always more complicated than you think. For instance: what is it that you like about silence? Some might say, “I don’t like silence,” but I’m not sure that would be the popular answer. More often, people value silence because it allows them to think, to take a moment of solace, to appreciate their surroundings. A typical answer might be, “because it allows me to take a break from the world.” But if you dig further, the way that people relate to silence is much more convoluted, unpredictable, and contradictory. During the Arvo Pärt Journeys in Silence – Discussion Panel – held as a part of New York Live Arts Live Ideas (April 15-19) – Laurie Anderson pointed out that silent moments in our lives can hold a wide swath of emotions, all slamming into one another. Silence might offer an opportunity to reflect on a happy turn of events; it can also serve as a vessel for torment and crippling loneliness. Silence can mean that there is a shared understanding; it can also mean that a connection has been broken between two people. Arvo Pärt’s music, in its exchange with the concept of silence, brings many of these possibilities to the fore, allowing the listener to find something complex within what initially seems simple.

On April 16th, I attended Journeys In Silence – a daylong examination of Arvo Pärt’s work that incorporated a panel discussion, film screening, and chamber music performance. I had no agenda for the day. No intention of reviewing or passing judgment on anything that I saw (although I ultimately did). My goal was to try to understand Pärt in a different way and potentially make sense of why he was included in the Live Ideas festival in the first place. Sure, it was clear to me why people revere his work and speak about in hushed tones. But where does Pärt – a 79 year-old-man from Estonia whose work holds the beauty of individual musical tones up to the light, spins them around, and sets them back down gently – fit in alongside Laurie Anderson’s philosophical foundations for the festival? Is it not the case that Pärt’s fascination with minutiae sits awkwardly with the examination of the “most important political, social, environmental, and artistic issues facing society today” that the festival was meant to spur? I wanted to find out, so I took the unusually noisy train from my apartment to Chelsea as the girl next to me listened to Kanye West “All Day” on repeat.

The panel discussion included Peter Bouteneff as the moderator and James Jordan (choral conductor), William Robin (musicologist), and Laurie Anderson as panelists. Each speaker came at Pärt from a different perspective and, fittingly, this led to a discussion that meandered around the issues central to Pärt’s work (silence, spirituality, text, community, etc.) while never suggesting that any one viewpoint is more valuable than another. Touching on the choral elements of a piece like Te Deum, James Jordan spoke about how even the moments of quiet that piece together voiced passages are deeply charged with anticipation and intent. Peter Bouteneff followed up, suggesting that, in Pärt’s mind, the conductor’s initial upswing contains within it the entire piece. These moments of calm, they seemed to be suggesting, formed a spiritual core around which Pärt’s compositions were able to unfold. As the crowd digested these thoughts, Laurie Anderson interjected: “well, the thing about oxygen is…” So it went, with interesting panelists reflecting on work that can bring out innumerable insights, none of them necessarily wrong. However, one of the most valuable comments came in the last few minutes of the discussion. A woman in the crowd, visibly tearing up, spoke about seeing Pärt receive an honorary award in Australia. The last words of his talk, she said, were: “I’m still searching for the rest…I’m still searching for the rest…” In many ways, this anecdote said more about Pärt’ philosophy – with its fierce insistence on exploring purity and depth – than the preceding hour of conversation. As Bill T. Jones remarked before the panel began, “with his work you always feel like you are moving toward the ineffable.”

The film screening was 24 Preludes for a Fugue, directed by Dorian Supin. Made over the course of three years, the film is an intimate portrait of Pärt told as a series of 24 vignettes. Crucially, Supin is the brother of Nora Pärt, Arvo’s wife, allowing him access to the small, seemingly mundane details that make up the composer’s day-to-day existence. Some of the scenes are less than 30 seconds. The vignette titled “Tomatoes with Sugar,” for example, consists of Arvo and Nora sitting on a porch eating tomatoes as Arvo explains that as a child his parents served tomatoes with sugar, rather than salt. Other vignettes show Pärt’s connection with the broader musical world. In a haunting scene, Pärt is seen observing a performance of his work in a vast Estonian church. The camera moves shakily from the composer’s stern gaze to the clarinetists situated at the far end of the building. As they finish, the lead player consults with Pärt as if he is speaking to a hardened general. With these stark juxtapositions of different facets of the composer’s life, one leaves the movie with a sense that Arvo Pärt is, above all else, a human being – not necessarily more complex, troubled, or satisfied than any one of us.  He tells meandering stories about his childhood, laughs with his friends, speaks earnestly about his music, and maintains a tender relationship with his wife. As Pärt’s music and persona have seeped into popular culture, most accounts tend to frame him as a stoic, guarded individual that channels the Orthodox Church. 24 Preludes for a Fugue shows exactly the opposite. It says nothing definitive about the man and says everything that it should.

At the end of the day, I sat down to watch a performance of Pärt’s work. The concert itself was stunning – Spiegel Im Spiegel becomes uniquely heartbreaking when seen live and Fratres as a string quartet brought clarity to the way that the voices in the piece interact. Still, I didn’t feel the full weight of the music until I was well on my way to the train. It was much cooler than it had been earlier in the day and, as I walked quietly with my partner, she squeezed my hand for warmth. The opening note of Fur Alina seemed to be pouring out of the steam vents. And it was in these few minutes that I thought about what “silence” brings to Pärt’s music. For me, it serves as a call-to-action. It seems to be Pärt saying, in his idiosyncratic way, “this music is here for you to pour yourself into. I’m not going to impose. I have my own ways of experiencing these notes, but you take them and make them entirely your own.” In this sense, silence becomes an invitation, a statement of intent, a doorway that is only slightly ajar. And, perhaps, this is where Arvo Pärt fits within the visions of “force and change” that undergird Live Ideas. His music suggests that, when coming in contact with things that we love, we should approach them with the focus and sincerity that silence is able to evoke. For me, on that particular day, that meant walking closely next to a person that I care about, waiting patiently for the train, and calling my mom when I got home. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

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