From Merriam-Webster dictionary:

tintinnabulation:  the sound of ringing bells

I didn’t really intend on having a summer sabbatical from blogging, but that is how it seems to have turned out.  On the positive side, I did take the time to build a lot of stuff, including a large L-shaped desk from where I can write lots of things to put on this blog.

The first score that I reviewed while listening to music at my new workstation was the Symphony No. 4, “Los Angeles”,  by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.  The work was composed in 2008, and received its premiere in January of 2009.  I’ll bet that even if you have never heard the name Arvo Pärt before today, you can guess which city’s Philharmonic Orchestra performed the work at that concert.  Today the ink is hardly even dry on the score, at a mere 8 years since its creation, especially compared to some of the works which are on orchestra concert programs.  The work was a joint commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, its conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, the Canberra International Music Festival, and the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.  It is the association with Los Angeles, the city of Angels, that the composer made significant.  Pärt uses an ancient Russian Orthodox canon called “The Canon of the Guardian Angel” as a foundation for the work.


Arvo Pärt

The piece stands out to me in a couple of different ways.  First, it is an actual 21st century symphony composed by a living composer, which should garner our attention.  Contemporary works should speak to us deeper than any other, as they are a reflection of the times we live in.  The key word in that last sentence is “should”, as the sad truth of the 20th century in “classical” music is that all too often the composer didn’t seem to care if anyone listened.  In many cases, no one did, and orchestras went on happily playing old warhorses that were comfortable for audiences to hear. Second, it is the first symphony that Pärt had composed in 37 long years.  He had mainly been working with small vocal ensembles and choruses.  His previous symphony, his Third, was a transitional work written in 1971.  There is a definite change of style in the compositions of Mr. Pärt.  After a period of intense study of ancient music and chant, he began composing in a radically different style he developed and called “Tintinnabuli”.  Most of his compositions since 1977, and many of his most well-known works, are written in this style.  To the best of my knowledge, Symphony 4 is one of the few large-scale instrumental works he has written in this style.

A quote from Wikipedia is as good of a concise description of the style as any I have seen:

“Tintinnabuli (singular. tintinnabulum; from the Latin tintinnabulum, “a bell”) is a compositional style created by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, introduced in his Für Alina (1976), and used again in Spiegel im Spiegel (1978). This simple style was influenced by the composer’s mystical experiences with chant music. Musically, Pärt’s tintinnabular music is characterized by two types of voice, the first of which (dubbed the “tintinnabular voice”) arpeggiates the tonic triad, and the second of which moves diatonically in stepwise motion. The works often have a slow and meditative tempo, and a minimalist approach to both notation and performance. Pärt’s compositional approach has expanded somewhat in the years since 1970, but the overall effect remains largely the same.”

The overall effect is one of stillness, with motion that is only glacial in speed.  There are slight tensions in the music, but they always resolve, small dissonances that move to a consonance.  This is music of great subtlety, slowly building peaks and warm waves of sound.  I generally do not promote the “warm bath” approach to listening, just letting the music wash over you like warm water in the bath, but that seems to be the best way to experience the Symphony No. 4.  The music is meditative and hypnotic, slowly unfolding and enveloping the listener.

Arvo Pärt is so original in his creations that there is almost nothing to compare his music to.  Perhaps a selection of contrasting music would be the most revealing.  Here is the opening track to the John Coltrane album “Sun Ship”, recorded in 1965 and posthumously released.  It is one of the last recording of the “classic” Coltrane quartet with Elvin Jones on Drums, McCoy Tyner on piano and Jimmy Garrison on bass.  At this point in his life, Coltrane was as deeply spiritual man as has ever put shoe to concrete.  Equally as spiritual and interested in the mystical as Arvo Pärt, but the frenetic, harsh, screeching sounds of this track is the complete opposite of the sound of our Estonian friend.

 John Coltrane – Sun Ship

(As an aside, I once had a close friend and teacher that would use this track to go into electronic stores and test out different speakers.  Imagine the reaction of unsuspecting shoppers who had this sound invading their shopping experience on a random Tuesday evening!)

The spirituality of the Pärt Symphony No. 4 is the other end of the spectrum.  It is scored for string orchestra, harp, timpani, and percussion, written in three slow movements that last a total of about 39 minutes in performance.  Where Coltrane tries to play the entire overtone series at once, Pärt lives in the area of fourths, fifths and triads.  Where Coltrane is a jet engine, the music of Pärt is floating on air.  Where “Sun Ship” is cathartic, the Pärt Symphony has been described as a mournful, introspective lament (although I don’t necessarily consider sorrow to be the major emotional expression of the work).  Two completely different modes of expression from two equally spiritual men.  I find both important to me.

Arvo Pärt,  Symphony No. 4, “Los Angeles”



The Strength of Simplicity

The Strength of Simplicity


Arvo Pärt

Sometimes it’s the simplest pleasures in life that make you smile.  Sometimes it’s the strength of simplicity that is the most moving emotional experience.  Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer who seems to have turned away from some of the complexity of the twentieth century musical heritage, and as early as the 1970’s, was working in a style that used the strength and power of simplicity.  (He also sported a killer beard long before anyone ever heard of a “Duck Dynasty”).  One of his most frequently performed works is the Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten, written in 1977 in elegy after Britten’s death.  The piece is scored for only strings and bells, so a more sonorous and homogeneous texture could not be imagined.


Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten

The Cantus is deceptively simple. Pärt has created a prolation canon, which is actually one of the most complex contrapuntal constructions one could create.  (Please forgive the alliteration.)  A prolation, or mensuration canon, is one whereby the melody is accompanied by other versions of itself, played at different speeds.  All of the melodic voices are different, some at half speed of the original, some twice the initial speed, and others at different fractions in relation to the primary melody.  To create a composition like this is normally a puzzle as hard as solving a Rubik’s Cube.  This is a technique that originated in the early Renaissance period of music history.

In my humble opinion, where Arvo Pärt beats the system of the prolation canon is by creating a melody (Cantus) that is made up of mainly a descending Aeolian mode.  This is to say, he only used the white keys on the piano keyboard in a scale centering on the pitch “A”.  These are the same pitches that are used in the A natural minor scale, but by thinking of it as a mode, we know we are working outside the major/minor harmonic system.  By limiting himself to these seven pitches, with lots of pedal “A” in the bass, there is a limit to how harsh or dissonant the music can get.  By working in a mainly descending fashion, the tensions he does create seem to naturally resolve.  Pärt can layer his melody upon itself in whatever manner he chooses, and he knows it is going to work, and sound idiomatic in the aural world he has created.

The results are powerfully moving for the purposes of the elegy he was creating.  The strings have a rich, warm tone that naturally blends.  The melancholy tone of the Aeolian mode is pure, but sad, and fitting for the purposes of the Memoriam.  Arvo Pärt builds a texture that models an outpouring of emotion, and descends with a sense of loss and emptiness.  I honestly don’t know if Pärt knew Britten personally, or if he just knew his compositions,  and felt the great loss that Britten’s passing was to the world of music.

One last detail to point out is a very subtle thing at the end of the piece.  The entire texture has been in the somewhat “dark” minor character of the Aeolian mode, but the last  sound is a bell.  The overtones of the bell sound out a faint A Major chord, with a C# that is never overtly sounded in the piece.  It is a very small detail, but it is like there is a tiny Picardy third hovering at the end of the elegy, giving the listener a tiny glimmer of light or hope.  It’s like Arvo is saying “If there is a heaven, I hope old Benjamin has made it there”.  The experience of listening to this piece just leaves me speechless, so I will let you play it for yourself and be done.

Arvo Pärt, Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten