Arvo Pärt: Richly minimalist

Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa

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What is it about far northern climes that seems to inspire minimalism in music? Consider the work of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Or Estonian classical composer Arvo Pärt, born just across the Gulf of Finland from Helsinki. Or experimental, ethereal Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós, for that matter.

I’m thinking on some level, it has something to do with winter. In these regions, winters aren’t just harsh, they are long and dark, given to contemplation and introspection. Certainly the four beautifully minimalist tracks of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, at once lush and austere, invite introspection. While there are melodic passages scattered through some of the pieces, much of the music consists of layer upon layer of tones, what a New York Times article described as eschewing display “in favor of a deliciously gloomy chordal unity.” The writer refers specifically to a piece composed for 12 cellos [apparently this piece has led a number of orchestras to add a full complement of 12 cellos for the lush depth they can create]. I don’t know that I agree with the gloomy assessment. To me, it feels more like a winter’s contemplation, but on a grand scale—like viewing a vast forest in snow.

On another track, Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, for string orchestra and bell, a single tubular bell tolls with solemn beauty against a similarly layered background of strings.

Which brings me to the various ways we all listen to music. I’m a big fan of the ubiquitous tiny white earbuds that let us take our own music with us wherever we go. Music through headphones in general lets you focus more intently. I’m often finding details I’ve missed in things I’ve heard a hundred times when I do this. Music in the car is a must, whether for road trips or just Saturday errands. It just is. Late at night, there’s something cozy about listening to jazz or classical music on the tinny speaker of a clock radio as you settle in. And of course, there’s the kitchen boombox, for which this blog is named. It really is one place where I hear practically everything you read about here.

I listened to Tabula Rasa in all these settings, before I’d even decided to feature it as a boombox listing. But when it really came to life for me, made me feel it more than I thought I already had, was when I put it on the stereo in the dining room, in the middle of the apartment one weekend afternoon. We were bustling around, cleaning up, probably getting ready for company, so I turned it up enough to hear it in every room—not blasting, but big. The first track starts quietly, then builds. As the music swelled and filled the physical space of our apartment, it filled us too, with the true sense of the music—feeling it all around us, hearing it resonate and echo in other rooms. I would love to hear this music performed live sometime, in a concert hall designed for just such performances. I’m not sure, though, if I would find it any more powerful than it sounded that day in our apartment.

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