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Arvo Pärt and the New Simplicity

October 11, 1998
By Bill McGlaughlin


Listen to more than a dozen samples of Part's works.

"That is my goal: time and timelessness are connected.
This instant and eternity are struggling within us.
And this is the cause of all our contradictions...."
- Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt FOR A PERIOD WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I enjoyed reading some of the writers who professed to see cycles in human history, people like Toynbee and Spengler. I still think they were on to something. We can frequently make out some sort of pattern of behavior which seems to swing back and forth like a pendulum.

An example we find over and over in the history of music is a tendency from simplicity toward complexity. This is just human nature. If we get a new toy, we have to improve on it, make it do more tricks, exceed what anyone else has been able to achieve, until finally we arrive at the point where the toy no longer works very well and the pendulum swings back toward something simpler.

For example, take the progression of romantic music in the nineteenth century, beginning with Beethoven and Schubert and following through the developments of Wagner and Mahler and Strauss to Schoenberg. Music became increasingly complex through this period up to about the time of the First World War.

Pendulum Swings

It seemed as if composers had gone as far as they could with this increasing complexity. The war shattered old Europe and changed the art forms as well. When the pendulum swings back, after the war, we find Stravinsky, not writing for 100 or more players as in his ballets Petrushka and The Rite of Spring, but for seven, as in The Soldier's Tale, or for the Octet for Winds. Moreover, Stravinsky is writing clear, simple, more tonal lines. Neo-Classicism is born.

We can find examples in American popular music. The big band swing of the 30s and early 40s gave way to a type of jazz called bebop, which became very complicated indeed. While the excitement generated by such geniuses as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach was enormous, so was the complexity, for performer and listener alike, and before long the pendulum swung back again. What we got was rock and roll-Chuck Berry and Elvis-and we all shook our leg and danced to a simpler, more basic music.

We see the pattern again in classical music of the 50s through the 80s. Composers, many of them based at universities, combined musical and mathematical theories to introduce extraordinary levels of complexity to their work. Faced with complaints that they had left their audience behind, some replied that they didn't need an audience. They were composing for themselves.

This was followed in the 1980s by a trend back away from complexity, a movement which the Germans call "The New Simplicity." In the United States, we have composers such as Aaron Kernis, with his straightforward lines and tonal harmony. We find composers as different as John Adams and Philip Glass building up tremendous structures out of simple repeated fragments. In Europe, perhaps the most important exponent of this "New Simplicity" is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.

Born into a Welter of Complexity

I think of Arvo Pärt as a model for us all. Here is a man who was born into a welter of complexity, who has simplified his life, making something very beautiful. Pärt was born in Estonia in 1935 into a society which was, by definition, godless. Yet, he was a believer. There's one of the first contradictions.

His earliest musical impulses seem to have been toward a rather straightforward way of expressing himself. This impulse was not at all in vogue, so Pärt wrestled with the problems of modernism, like any other composer of his age. For a period, he followed the twelve-tone technique developed by Schoenberg and his disciples, writing a very expressionist sort of music. He became head of music for Estonian Radio and as an offshoot, wrote music for dramatic purposes, including some film scores.

The big development in Pärt's music came in 1980, when he left Estonia to live in Berlin. From that point on, his impulse toward simplicity and toward a music which expressed his deep spirituality guided him in developing a powerfully affecting style of composition. What is interesting in Pärt's music is what is not there. There is little rhythmic complexity, no extravagant use of orchestration, no self-conscious harmonic display or dissonance. What we do find is a straightforward flowing rhythm, reminiscent of chant, and a very spare harmonic palette of pure intervals.

Three Perfect Intervals

In music there are only three intervals which are called "perfect." We have the prime and its octave, the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth. Pärt's music, like that of the medieval composers he sometime reminds us of, is built around these perfect intervals. Acoustically, these intervals are based upon very simple ratios: 2-1 for the octave, 3-2 for the fifth. When we hear these intervals sung in a large resonant space, like a cathedral, they have a miraculous effect. The two notes a fifth apart, C and G, for example, start to generate other sounds. They fill in the chord. We glance around the cathedral, wondering, looking for an angel choir.

Well. The physicists can explain all of this in terms of mathematics: we're hearing overtones, they tell us. Angels or overtones? It doesn't matter. Arvo Pärt's simplicity touches us deeply.

"The human voice is the most perfect instrument of all."
- Arvo Pärt

Audio Selections
Listen to these selections with RealAudio 28.8
How to Listen

Kyrie and Gloria from the Berlin Mass
(5:38 mins.)
Sanctus and Agnus Dei from the Berlin Mass
(4:53 mins.)
Discussion and demonstration of the Agnus Dei from the Berlin Mass
(1:51 mins.)
(5:00 mins.)
Spiegel im Spiegel
(8:48 mins.)
Nun Eile ich Zu Euch
(7:35 mins.)
Background on Arvo Pärt / Introduction to Solfège
(2:32 mins.)
(3:38 mins.)
Outro from Solfège
(1:26 mins.)
(2:09 mins.)
And One of the Pharisees
(6:34 mins.)
(3:43 mins.)