Arvo Part – From Avant garde to spiritual minimalism

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Arvo Part is the most popular modern classical composer living today. His music has filtered out beyond the confines of the conventional classical music scene. His laer music is justifiably at the heart of modern ‘minimalism’ with pieces like Fur Alina and Speigal I’m Speigal having an almost spiritual sense of atmosphere and stillness gobbled up by film makers and chill out playlist creators. It is surprising to find out that his roots lie in an austere and challenging atonal serial composition.

Born and brought up in communist Estonia, Arvo Part composed Estonia’s first serial piece ‘Nekrolog’ in 1960 which certainly ran against the grain with the communist regime of the time. During this period, he grew ever more at odds with the authorities experimenting with collage, atonality and intense dissonance. His further symphonies becoming popular in the west at the same time particularly as they represented a form of peaceful protest against the communist politics of the time.

During this period of experimentation and challenging the dogmatic political atmosphere he was living in, Part started to question the true essence of what he was trying to achieve – slowly coming to the conclusion that the modern Avant Garde was in many ways a very simplistic ‘game’ using reduced rules to challenge the status quo – but devoid of the spiritual depth that brought him to music in the first place. In response to these frustrations, he composed ‘Credo’ in 1968 which would crystallise these musical, aesthetic and spiritual conflicts with a text based on rite and scripture and playing with Bach’s musical structures juxtaposed with intense avant-garde forms. The piece was deemed representative of a passive resistance and the premiere in 1968 would have certainly been banned by the authorities but for the fact that the conductor hid the score from the Estonian Composers Union.

Credo would be the start of an 8 year hiatus and a period of reflection and study after which Part’s music shifts into a much more atmospheric, emotively compelling compositional form. HIs piece ‘Fur Alina’ composed 8 years after Credo would become the blue print for his subsequent work which enjoys enduring popularity today. Fur Alina combines various inversions of a simple triad with a melodic progression. Although the music appears very simple, it is in fact built on a complex understanding of harmonic form, strictly adhering to a set of rules more akin to the dry serial compositon’s of his past. Part has called this form ‘tintinnabulation’ commonly associated with the ring of bells. Underlying his work is a deep connection with the spiritual and his yearning to get closer to a universal ‘oneness’.
Arvo Part has inspired an entire generation of modern classical composers who use minimalist forms to evoke deep spiritual and emotional expression. You can download some free music by one such composer, Giles Lamb here