Scholars from around the world have traveled to Laulasmaa, Estonia, to study the musical diaries of Arvo Pärt, the most performed living composer. In an interview with ERR News, Kevin C. Karnes, a professor and associate dean for the arts at Emory University, discusses his experience working in the archives and his understanding of Pärt's process of creating music.
Karnes wrote two monographs on Wagner and Austrian-German musical culture and published extensively on Latvian music history before embarking on a decade-long study of Estonian archives and conducting interviews with Estonian musicians and officials.
"I have learned to read and speak some Russian and now I had to learn Estonian," he recalls, "I actually became quite good at it, but the language is rather difficult!"
How did this happen? He laughs, "People tell stories about discovering Pärt's music. The most recent I heard is from a German friend: he was driving his car late at night and heard a concert recording of 'Tabula Rasa' on the radio. He had to pull over because he could not concentrate on driving, just had to sit and listen, as the music was so brilliant. That was his moment of discovery."
"I really want to resist narratives like this, but I will say, ever since I first heard of Pärt in 2001," he pauses. "All right, here is my story: I was up late at night as a postgraduate student grading student papers and I had a radio on. They aired what was then non-mainstream classical music and I had a near-embarrassing experience when I heard this sound on the radio and it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was simply captivating — it was beautiful. I sat there and listened, trying to understand what I was hearing (later I learned it was 'Silentium,' the second movement of 'Tabula Rasa'), and that is how it begun!"
Karnes published his monograph titled "Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa" in 2017, which is the only book-length study devoted to a single composition by Pärt.
His most recent publication examines the early period of Pärt's musical diaries (Estonian: Muusikapäevikud) that he suggests provide a glimpse into the moment Pärt discovers his "syllabic" mode of composition, "You could literally see it unfold there!"
A welcoming house in the woods
How do you study a living composer? "It is difficult. It was always a challenge!"
As a historian of 19th-century musical culture, Karnes says he wanted to adopt an archival approach to studying Pärt's music. "I love working in archival spaces," he says, "my happy place is an archive or library."
"Everyone knew that the place [Pärt's archives] existed, but it was still the Aliina house, the house in the woods, stories about which would kind of float around."
Karnes drove from Tallinn to Laulasmaa and knocked on the door of the house, expecting to be greeted by an archivist with whom he had corresponded.
"The door opened and there stood Nora [Pärt]," he recalls, "and then Arvo appears from around the corner, and I thought, 'This is going to be a very different experience than any kind of research that I have done before!'"
"It was an absolute pleasure working with them," he says, "throughout the entire process, they were incredibly kind and generous. By saying it was a challenge, I mean that it is fundamentally different to work with living people with whom you interact in this intersubjective way," he explains.
"You are exposed to perspectives that may not be drawn from your own conclusions, and there is an ethical dimension to working with people; it is simply very different," he says.
People and their diaries
Old diaries are unique witnesses to events that a historian tries to reconstruct, but they are competing with the author's later recollections. [For example,] "This was a challenge for American musicologist Benjamin Piekut," Karnes continues.
Piekut is the author of the book "Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem," in which he "describes how most of the memories [of the events he studied] are still alive, even after much time has passed, and he has to work with them. He discusses 'a problem of relative importance,' which he says is a serious challenge to his work," Karnes explains.
"I am constantly reminded of this challenge in my own work, particularly in my study of Pärt's earlier period, where I would be examining material and diaries written 14 or 15 years ago."
"I know in a sense it is unreasonable," he pauses, "we all remember what we were doing five or six years ago, but we do not remember the details."
"As a historian, I would find details in the diaries and question them obsessively because I felt they were so important," he recalls. "Pärt, however, would have forgotten about the detail or deemed it unimportant (after 15 years and everything he has done), but that detail would be deeply important to me!"
Karnes suggests that the musical diaries reveal that the composer's method is not mainly about an exploration of musical structures. Even though Pärt studied medieval musical forms, and the early Orthodox Christian theology that underpins them, Pärt's way of creating music was not scholastic, but devotional in its very nature, "a sacred project at its core."
What does this mean? And what makes this interpretation unique? After all, Pärt's music was described in terms of "holy minimalism" as early as 1995 and he is compared to other European composers influenced by Orthodox music heritage and liturgy.
Karnes says he is attempting to highlight something else in his thesis. When he first started researching Pärt's music, he read every academic publication on the subject — and there was not much at the time. "The Cambridge Companion was not even published, or it had just come out. Paul Hellier's seminal work has been available since 1997, but it is a very descriptive, albeit valuable, account of musical structures."
[At the same time,] "There were many interviews with Pärt, in which he would say things that sounded cryptic," Karnes continues.
"He would say them to me as well, 'The words make their own music,' and I really struggled, 'What does this mean?' Right, I hear Pärt saying this, but I do not see anyone explaining what this means," he recalls.
Even though the syllabic method of composition [syllable, text-based] has been described, there was no discussion what it really is and how it works in the score. "The emphasis in the existing literature was not on the text/words [as in, words make their own music]," he explains.
In a 1998 interview with Postimees Pärt says, "There is a great loss when music is written about," music as an art form cannot be fully described. "You can write about your impressions, the music's structure, its form, and perhaps something else,.."
Karnes writes about how Pärt's music comes together, not which musical theory or tradition it borrows from or is inspired by, but how it is being composed, what the creative process is: "how it all comes together."
"This idea — words generates the sounding essence of the music — became an obsession of mine," he says.
Words make their own music
Karnes makes about 10 trips to the center over the course of five years. "I would sit down with the diaries and read them through, page by page, and then sit down with them again and read them again, page by page by page," he says. "You could clearly see how he [Pärt] becomes one with the text."
"The first thing he would inscribe on an empty page is text [an Orthodox prayer, or a single word], and then, through the process of meditating on that text and the sound and structure of that text, you could see, by flipping through the diaries, how the musical structures are taking form."
"For me, this was a remarkable finding. While the published score is more like a photograph at the end of the process, which lack details of how it was made, here I saw something that cannot be learned from the final score."
"We all narrate our own lives in different ways and we remember things differently," he explains. "And I always presuppose that composers have a certain project, a story that they want to tell us about their work. Pärt was saying things that sounded cryptic to me and I thought, 'This is interesting, philosophically interesting, but let's see how it is actually happening, whether it all comes together,' and in his case it absolutely does, and this realization was profound!"
"I think that it is fair to say," Karnes says in response to whether Pärt's musical investigation is guided by the knowledge of Christian dogma.
Pärt had four silent years during which he studied medieval musical tradition and converted to Orthodox Christianity, and it was this spiritual search that led to the discovery of tintinnabuli [derived from Latin for 'little bells'] in the early 1970s, Karnes says.
From the first time he spoke with Pärt in 2014 at the Aliina house, Karnes says, it was clear that the theological essence of his work was most important. "The historical context of his music and even its musical structures were of less interest than its theological essence."
[Rather,] "How the prayer embodied in those texts would manifest itself in musical sounds — that seemed to be a binding concern for him," Karnes says.
Three elements of tintinnabuli
What is tintinnabuli? "It is not a single style of music," Karnes explains.
If you listen to the first tintinnabuli suit "forces were arranged between harpsichord and the drum in most of 'Sarah,' prerecorded tape-like music in the 'If Bach Had Been a Beekeeper...' composition, and electric guitars in 'Calex.' It is like you go from one world to the next, and stylistically, it is so diverse!" he says.
Tintinnabuli is not a single well-defined method, he emphasizes, "but rather a complex way of thinking about musical structures," which Pärt has been developing during his conversion to Orthodoxy. "A single note beautifully played," is how Pärt himself phrased the essence of his tintinnabuli aesthetics.
"There are three main components to the tintinnabuli style in general," Karnes continues, "not every tintinnabuli piece contains all three, but each piece contains at least one or two."
- "First one is a specific type of contrapuntal structure: a way of pairing the melodic line with the triadic line. This is what creates the characteristic resonance, or bell-like sound." The completion of "Für Alina" is commonly regarded as Pärt's discovery of this technique: the strict interplay of melodic and triadic voices.
- "The algorithmic approach to music composition is the second component. It is not featured in 'Für Alina,' but it comes up very strongly in 'Sarah' [sometimes called 'Modus,' and was eventually published under the title 'Sarah Was Ninety Years Old']." Karnes provides an example of how to think about it, "Say you have an eight-note line, and you play it from note one to note eight, then from note two through note eight and back to note one. And then you start at note three and play it back to note two, and each time it sounds different, but it is almost like this kaleidoscope of something familiar, and eventually you are back where you started." Many of the works from the early period use these two methods combined, e.g., "Tabula Rasa."
- February 12, 1977 is the day. "The day Pärt discovers a compositional method that became known as his syllabic technique," the third key element of his composition style.
"He writes in his musical diaries every day, searching for months for ways to set his music, he is doing all these things with single lines of prayer, trying this and trying that, he would start something and then put it away and do something else, and then one day, he finds it," Karnes continues.
"It was one of many experiments, but he stopped searching at this point. He found a way of setting the text and then immediately tried it on a different text, on the 'Gloria,' and he tried it on 'Credo,' and within about a week he had composed the whole four pieces of 'Missa Syllabica' using that method. It is incredible to see this unfold in the diaries — how things became so clear," he says.
Karnes suggests the term radical abstraction for such works or cultural expressions, whose authors have an expressly devotional, prayer-like way of creating them. He also draws a parallel to another Orthodox Christian convert in the Soviet Union, painter Eduard Steinberg.
"I am not saying that all of Pärt's spiritual journey-inspired work was abstract," he says, "but some of it really was. And for me, that term [radical abstraction] comes down not to the discovery of tintinnabuli or the broader investment in composing music as a realization of the sounds and spiritual meanings of the text, but specifically to the syllabic method of composition."
"He discovered it by using the structure of the text, with the most basic component being the syllable count of words, and other aspects such as punctuation, etc., to generate musical lines that literally map the structure of the given word," he explains.
"And the structure of the next word will produce a distinct piece of music again. In a direct mapping way, you create musical lines in which you do not determine what comes next based upon the notes that came before — you decide which notes come next based upon the word," he continues.
"The entire musical sense of beginning, middle and the end — musical trajectory — is determined by the words."
The music "makes no sense without the words. It could be lovely. It does not mean it is not melodious or harmonious! However, if you only had the music, you could pause a recording at any random point and ask, 'What do you think will come next?' and there is no way to predict that," he explains. "Nothing in your listening prepares you for what comes next without that text being there."
This was Pärt's groundbreaking achievement, Karnes summarizes his interpretation, "essentially trying to compose music, which was a realization of the text itself."
Karnes tells the story of how Arvo or Nora Pärt brought several of these early pieces to the composers' union. He says that the protocols from that meeting are quite revealing: "What is the point of this?" one of the critics asks, "There are no Catholic churches here; where will it be performed?" someone else asks, and another adds, "Without the text, this would be so boring!"
"I think these comments get to the heart of the matter; the work is anything but boring, but it does not make sense to them: it is text-based music that as such cannot be performed anywhere, and if the text is removed, the work is monotonous: it makes no sense. That is what I mean when I introduce the concept of radical abstraction," Karnes explains.
"If you want to speculate as to what kind of music Pärt would have written if he had lived in an earlier age — he would not have been conventional about it," Karnes ponders about the idea.
[However,] "What his diaries reveal — something that fills page after page — is that all his work, whether he is explicitly composing pieces of music or investigating various tintinnabuli techniques — what we see page after page — appears to be like a chant, a single musical line set to text of Orthodox prayers, or sometimes single words. I do not know to speculate, but I guess that a third of all the material in these diaries is just these chant-like single lines, just him meditating musically on the sound of these texts," he says.
"This is certainly the practice, which I think would be consonant with music that is going back to the beginning of the Christian tradition," he says.
We do not know where the Gregorian chants come from, Karnes says, but "Pärt is part of that tradition in terms of his roots, his music and his concern for this sort of devotional space while composing music, which is a sounding expression of the sacred text."
The times and places the music is sounding in
"I am deeply interested in community, and for me studying music cannot go without thinking about the communities from which it comes, or to which it was addressed, without thinking about all the other ways that creative individuals are trying to navigate the same challenges," he says.
Karnes draws a parallel to an Orthodox painter Eduard Steinberg. He says Steinberg's work is not so much about geometrical figures and empty spaces, not only about that, but rather what you hide in this process of making them.
"Some of Steinberg's most extreme compositions consist of nothing more than a triangle and a line. If you are not an admirer of geometrical forms, it makes little sense when they are viewed in isolation [of text – Orthodox scriptures]. It is so simple that it is often mischaracterized as the work of a minimal art; however, this is not minimalist art, this is really a different set of commitments," Karnes says.
"Reading his [Steinberg's] own writing on his art, you begin to see what he is doing with it," Karnes explains. "He was looking for a visual expression of his theological commitments, much like Part was looking for a sounding expression of his," he continues.
"Soviet Union in the 1970s, depending on where you were and what kind of environment you were in, was a deeply repressive society in a political structure, where opportunities for expression were very limited but music was one of them," he says.
"Many of the famous ones — 'Fratres,' 'Missa Syllabica,' etc. — premiered in student venues in Riga. I have found studying these archives that there was a generation of younger artists, for whom Pärt's music was profoundly moving and they were interested not only in Pärt but also in knowing other people who are interested in Pärt. This was the community's formation and I think that was incredibly important."
Pärt immigrated in 1980 and within a few years found a remarkable receptivity for his music throughout Western Europe. "There is also something in it that speaks to what is much deeper than your particular place in history or your particular faith. I am not an Orthodox believer, but some of the most moving music for me in my life is Pärt's, explicitly Orthodox, music."
"His music, like any art that speaks to us, will change our lives if we let it," he says.
"I had never spoken Estonian before, and I was already attempting to learn Latvian, but now I started wondering, 'Am I really going to have to learn Estonian?' The experience of his music compelled me to say, 'Yes.' The music takes you on this kind of path."
"Similarly, I would never have imagined 10 years ago that Orthodox theology would be important to my experience as a listener or as a musicologist, but it is now. And this is just following the way, taking this journey ever more deeply into the musical world."
Kevin Karnes' research publication,"Tintinnabuli and the Sacred: A View from the Archives, 1976-77," appeared in Res Musica no.14/2022.