Silence Punctuated Occasionally by Music

“…When the musicians saw the score, they cried out: ‘Where is the music?’ But then they went on to play it very well. It was beautiful; it was quiet and beautiful.”

— Arvo Pärt1

OK, I confess I’m being a bit hyperbolic with the title. But music can be as much about the space/time between the surrounding notes—the silence—as about the notes themselves. This space can evoke a sense of tranquility, melancholia, anticipation, drama, etc. or combinations thereof.  Both Arvo Pärt and Erik Satie exemplify this approach of placing more distance between notes on the page, to varying degrees, in some of their compositions.

Pärt:

Arvo Part

Arvo Pärt was previously featured in a blog post about 1.5 years ago. That post centered on the music of, lyrics to, and background of one brief choral prayer of peace. Below is a bit more biographical data on the man as well as some historical background on his oeuvre:

Arvo Pärt began his series of orchestral works with an obituary—but one that was at the same time the start of something new. Written in the year 1959 while he was a student at the conservatory in Tallinn, Necrology is the first piece by the Estonian composer to make use of serial music—a scandal for Soviet aesthetics. And so Pärt began what was to be an eventful life as a composer alternating between periods of withdrawal in the search for a style and periods of considerable creative output. Since the early ‘60s, Pärt (who was born in 1935) has traveled between the extremes of official recognition and official censure. Our Garden for children’s choir and orchestra (1959) and the oratorio The Pace of the World (1961) were awarded the first prize in composition in Moscow in 1962. Because of its text—“I believe in Jesus Christ”—Credo for piano, choir and orchestra, was banned.2

The quote at the beginning of this blog post (Where is the music?) is a reference to one of Pärt’s most famous pieces, Tabula rasa (Latin for “clean slate”), composed of two movements. Below is a performance of this work by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Paavo Järvi, with Viktoria Mullova (1st violin), Florian Donderer (2nd violin), and Liam Dunachie (prepared piano):


In many of the renditions I have heard the second movement is played too hurriedly. The above rendering is suitably slow. Near the end of the piece only one bass viol remains, and in its solitude it grows ever quieter until it ceases altogether, acquiescing to the increasing scarcity of musical notation.

Below is, in my opinion, the best complete live performance currently on YouTube (disregard the grainy video; the audio is clear enough). Inexplicably, however, the initial strokes of each of the violins are omitted (each instrument is to actuate its own note—different from the other—and is to play in unison with the other). In the first movement (Ludus), the diminuendo portion is slower-paced than the intervening crescendos, thus providing a fittingly moving contrast. The final movement (Silentium, beginning at 11:26) is paced at what I deem to be the right tempo, resulting in a more delicately rounded prepared piano tone—not somewhat abruptly truncated like faster readings—every note retaining appropriate distinction and intonation:

My favorite rendition, though, is found in the (premier?) ECM Records WDR (West German Radio) recording of November 1977, featuring the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Saulus Sondeckis, with Gidon Kremer & Tatjana Grindenko (violins) and Alfred Schnittke (prepared piano).

From the same period of creativity producing Tabula rasa is the brief, sparse piano piece Für Alina. Below is a vlog showing the score as the doubled single notes are struck—one note for each hand (two different notes are struck simultaneously, with the exception of the very first one):

Below is the same piece rendered just a bit slower by a different interpreter:

Satie:

Satie

Some of Erik Satie’s music is recognized as a precursor to minimalism, or minimal music, as in the works of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Gavin Bryars, etc. Thus, Satie may have had indirect influence on Pärt. But whereas Pärt seems to be spiritually grounded throughout his (still-ongoing) career, one may perhaps describe Satie’s life as a bit ‘messy’—not unlike many Biblical characters. Not unlike me.

An eccentric with a wry sense of humor, Satie titled one of his written works, Mémoires d’un amnésique (Memories of an Amnesiac). Additionally, he wrote cryptic player’s instructions between the staffs (staves) such as, “with astonishment”, “on yellowed velvet”, and “like a nightingale with toothache”.3 (I would have really enjoyed getting to know this man!) His Vexations, unpublished during his lifetime—and there is no evidence to suggest it was intended for publication4—is conjectured to have been written in response to the demise of a romantic relationship, though there may be a different impetus for this work.

Reinbert de Leeuw (who just recently passed) provides my favorite interpretations of Satie’s piano music. His tempi are typically slower than other Satie interpreters—this extra space allowing the pieces to ‘breathe’ a bit more—and his touch seems appropriately light or heavy given the particular piece or section of a piece. The vlog just below is timestamped at what is probably my favorite Satie composition, Gymnopédies (1888; there are three variations), performed live (though, somewhat annoyingly, with an inordinate amount of coughing):

And here are de Leeuw’s slower-paced studio renditions of Gymnopédies 1 & 3 from 1977, with suitably stark mostly b&w images:

Also from 1977 is de Leeuw’s Ogives 1—4 (1889), set to interspersings of Monet’s and others’ artwork:

Here are more of de Leeuw’s interpretations (again rec. 1977), including the much lauded—and probably my second favorite—Gnossiennes (1890—1897; six in total):

Act Three of Satie’s ‘Christian Ballet’ Upsud (1892; de Leeuw, rec. date unknown), set to the artwork of Monet, Robert Reid and others:

Sarabande # 1 (1887; de Leeuw, 1977) set to various artists’ works:

All the above reminds me of the former tag line of my favorite record label, ECM Records, as found in one of their album inserts from the ‘70s:

ECM tagline

1 From an interview with Wolfgang Sandner (as translated by Anne Cattaneo), regarding his piece Tabula rasa, published in 1984 as part of the liner notes to ECM Records 1275.

2 Ibid; emphasis added.

3 This according to Ornella Volta’s liner notes (translated by Susannah Howe) for Erik Satie: The Complete Solo Piano Music (483 0236), p 26.

4 Ibid. “The care he took over any piece of writing destined to be seen by anyone else (even the shortest of letters) was always meticulous, bordering on the excessive; during his lifetime, he only ever gave his publishers signed and dated manuscripts, displaying the most elegant calligraphy throughout, his signature acting as his official authorisation for publication” (p 20). Vexations bears no date by the author.

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