“Love each single sound.”

One of the things that I appreciate most about Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli compositions is the depth he extracts from such minimal materials. One of the many ways in which he does this is exemplified in this excerpt from Fratres:

The key signature is modal; rather than being in D minor this passage is in a chromatically-inflected version of its fifth mode (i.e. based on A), whose tonic is also emphasized by duration, iteration, and register. Each of the three statements consist of a departure from, and return to, an A-major triad, all underpinned by a drone (A and E) in the left-hand part. In the first measure, the G and B-flat found in the left-hand act as upper and lower neighbors (and are also harmonized above in parallel 10ths), further framing the modal tonic (A). The next two statements, each with an added two beats, are successive expansions of the first measure.

On the score below, the initial neighbor figure is bracketed in red. The second measure introduces an expansion (bracketed in black) that prolongs the initial neighbor figure. This process continues in the third measure, where another expansion is nested between the pitches of the first expansion, further prolonging the initial neighbor figure:

The following graphic is meant to represent the structure of this passage, illustrating how each statement grows outward from the center of each measure (the colors correspond to the brackets above):

“This knowledge opens an entirely new world.”
I first saw the documentary 24 Preludes for a Fugue in 2003, and have watched it many times since then. Though it can get a bit dour in places Pärt describes some significant events in his life—including conflicts with the then-communist government in Estonia—all of which ultimately had an impact on his music. There is one story in particular that in comparison, seemed more like an anecdote than a parable, but whose message was no less powerful.

In short, Pärt describes a brief exchange that occurred between himself and a janitor who worked at the building where he was living. While waiting for the trolley to arrive, Pärt asked the janitor (seemingly in a rhetorical sense): “How should a composer write his music?” But the janitor paused to seriously consider the question, then replied: “I think he should love every single sound.” The response had a tremendous impact on Pärt, and he went on to say that “…this knowledge opens an entirely new world.”

It had a tremendous impact on me, too. But I don’t think aspiring to ‘love each single sound’ starts at the moment a note is played or after it’s been written down, instead it begins before both of those things occur—even if only for a split second. In other words, rather than attuning yourself to the choices you have already made, the choices arise from something to which you are already attuned‚ something that prevails beneath the music itself. If this is true then, it suggests that there is always something deeper, more fundamental to apprehend—an essence for every surface.

But, as Pärt added, to reach that understanding is “…a secret which requires much work.”

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