Book Review: The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt / by Scott Ordway

My review of The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt is now published at MAKE, a Chicago literary magazine.


Arvo Pärt is a paradoxical figure in contemporary music: his work is widely performed, but almost never studied; it presents itself as disarmingly simple, but is fiendishly difficult to perform; it is meant to be heard in concert, though most know it only in recorded form; it is unabashedly sacred in a profoundly secular age.

For those unfamiliar with the composer, Pärt is known globally as the prolific creator of luminous choral and instrumental music that blends the gestural language of Medieval chant with the rigor of academic serialism. The composer devised his signature technique, “tintinnabulation” – which takes it name from the Latin word for “bells” – during a period of personal artistic crisis in the 1970s. In so doing, he established a radical aesthetic agenda, both with respect to his contemporaries and his own prior work. It is worth recalling that in the dogmatically modernist mid-twentieth century, composing simple, emotionally arresting music using the affective language of the distant past was itself a radical gesture. Working only with the triad, the most fundamental musical building block, Pärt unexpectedly married the procedural techniques of minimalism and high modernism with the tonal materials and gestural language of ancient church music, in the process becoming simultaneously one of the twentieth century’s most arcane, but also performed, recorded, and appreciated composers.

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