Don't bring all your noise into my silence

Arvo Part, one-time angry young serialist and now chart-topping devotional composer, is either genius or fruitcake. Michael Church tries to discover which
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The Independent Culture
A bell-like chord on the piano, a high arpeggio on the violin: a musical line of exquisite simplicity, arching out of a bowl of silence. You may not think you know Arvo Part's Fratres, but you've almost certainly heard it: it crops up all over the place, and it's the one contemporary work that regularly tops the charts on Radio 3. It comes in so many forms, and on so many combinations of instruments, that it has acquired mythical force; its limpid calls and counter-calls echo round the globe.

Almost as celebrated are the composer's lapidary thoughts. "It is enough when a single note is beautifully played." "If one approaches silence with love, music may arise." "My music could be compared to white light, which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide those colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener."

Not much is known about this publicity-shy Estonian - he insists that not much need be known - but here are some pointers. Born in 1935, he first encountered orchestral music as a teenager, bicycling round his home town's main square to savour the records being played over the loudspeaker system. He studied at Tallinn Conservatory, worked as a sound engineer, became a noted serialist composer, and wrote music for films. He then spent seven years in creative silence, from which he emerged with his new-minted - but medievally inspired - "tintinnabular" style, of which Fratres is a ringing example. Married with two teenage sons, he now lives in splendid elegance in Berlin, where his favourite instrument is his harmonium. He also has a house in Essex, whence he often retreats to a nearby Orthodox monastery. He likes big cars.

He views music in strikingly physical terms. Of Credo, in which a simple theme by Bach does symbolic battle with the evils of serialism, he comments: "I had a longing for the white keys, for the clean C major triad, with its undamaged associations." And he often resorts to culinary metaphor: "I choose the pitches and the relationships between tones in the same manner in which I select fruit and vegetables when I go to market." Last year, the organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent - one of Part's regular collaborators - hit the jackpot by getting the composer to agree to write a piece expressly for him. "He did me a pencil-sketch of its shape, but its composition is a slow, tortuous process," says the organist. "At present he describes it as a green, unripe tomato." When stuck for inspiration, Part impulsively peels potatoes - whether his wife needs them or not.

If the occasion is right - if he responds to the audience - Part can be wonderfully loquacious, but he has a horror of journalists; so much so that his publishers issue would-be interrogators with "Some notes on interviewing Part".

"He hates his music being described as minimalist," we are informed: don't lump him with Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Point taken, though it might have been more pertinent to warn us not to confuse him with Orthodox convert and chant-freak John Tavener. "Be wary of describing him as reclusive or as some kind of mystic. He is married with two strapping sons..." Well, I am tempted to do that (and strapping sons can surely happen to anyone, even mystics). The notes go on to castigate journalists who indulge in "inaccurate hearsay", and they indict this newspaper for describing him pouring a glass of water over his head in response to a question, "which he did do, but not in horseplay" (this is clearly deep stuff).

More tellingly, the notes dwell on Part's pathological aversion to talking about his work. "There are some questions he does not like to be asked at all, and which he describes as 'painful'." This seems fair. A composer (or a painter, or a writer) should feel under no obligation to talk about his art to journalists or to anyone else: his obligation is to his muse - or, in Part's case, to God - and if he discharges that with honour, it's enough. But which are these painful questions? The notes don't say. I shall have to find out by trial and error - assuming I get the chance. Tracking him down to an EMI recording session in Stockholm is only half the battle.

As Part and his minders snatch a bite and run through the programme for the day, that chance threatens to vanish before my eyes. At what time, he is asked, would he like to do the interview with the journalist from the Independent? He fixes us with a look of disbelief: "Are you serious?" Yes, we are. "So am I." He eats on in silence, the subject is dropped, and I wonder whether I should head back to London.

From his vantage point in the studio, he keenly studies the orchestra - to be conducted by his young compatriot, Paavo Jarvi, son of Neeme - and then visibly relaxes, because for him a recording studio is home territory. He brushes away the offer of headphones: "We never had them at the broadcasting station in Tallinn. We just used to listen with the speakers - the more beautiful the music, the louder. The job turned us all into composers."

The work to be recorded is his long-ignored First Symphony, a diploma piece bursting with youthful aggression: relentlessly atonal, full of driving accelerations, piling up great mountains of jagged sound. Part pores over his score like a monk over his Bible, repeatedly calling a halt, explaining his requirements with physical gestures - arms flung wide, or with great scooping bow-movements - which spill over into pencil-scrawls on any surface to hand. "This is barbed-wire music!" he shouts at one point. "It must not be played as though it were balsam." He seems to know exactly what he wants, yet at crucial moments he doesn't. Jarvi wants to know how the opening should be played. "Forcefully, or mechanically?" The composer gives a sudden, apologetic smile. "I have no opinion. No feeling either here [pointing to his head], or here [his heart], or here [his gut]." "Bit of a head-hanger, this," mutters the producer, but somehow all is resolved, and the recording is made to Part's satisfaction.

Whereupon he is transformed, clowning around the studio, picking up fruit from a bowl and assessing its acoustic qualities, comparing the sound of a grape with the superior sound of a strawberry. A surreal moment, and my cue to switch on my recorder.

The wariness instantly returns. Though his English is serviceable, he insists we converse in German. In the hesitant pas de deux that follows, the point of his publishers' warning becomes clear: some questions make him so nervous that his hands shake and he literally can't speak.

How long did it take him to write Fratres? "Do you know the story of the artist who had been commissioned to paint a rooster? The patron paid a large sum and said he'd come back to collect it in two years' time. When he comes back and asks if it's done, the artist says no, but he will do it immediately - and he does a quick sketch on a piece of paper. The patron gets angry, so the artist says, 'Come with me', and opens the door of his studio. And the walls are covered with sketches of that rooster. That's how it is with me. I sketched out Fratres in a few minutes, but I'd been preparing it for many years."

How many versions does it now exist in? "Many, and there will be many more to come, because the music is not bound up with any particular tone- colour. It's simply three-voiced music, with many possibilities. Every week I get requests to set it for different instruments. But my music looks simpler on the page than it is in reality. Musicians must put their souls into it, and this frightens them - as though they were standing in front of a mirror and seeing their true selves."

What music did he first play? "My own compositions. They were improvisatory, because I had difficulty writing them down and my parents, who were not musicians, could not help me."

When did he decide to be a composer? "I have not yet decided if I want to be one! My first ambition was to be a tram-driver - even though I had never seen a tram, and did not know what they looked like."

Is it still his ambition to write a piece using one note only? "That is the most beautiful possible utopia. I never stop dreaming of it." Which instrument would he use? "That is a hard question. Music is music. First there was music, and then came instruments. The most perfect instrument in the world is the human voice - the most perfect, exact measure. When we learn to play the violin, we try to make it sound like a human voice, not the other way round."

Why is mathematics so important in his music? "In every piece there is a number - maybe several numbers, but if so there is also a base-number, and that is the true one. That is something that affects all of us, and links us all together."

How much time does he spend in the monastery? A tortured silence. Does he regard himself as a religious composer? This is another "painful" question. "I can't say. But every step we take, everything we do, has to do with God, whether we like it or not. I write music: that's all I know. Listeners may be able to tell me more about it."

Does he listen to other people's music? "Absolutely not. But it's impossible not to hear it by accident - open the window and it comes in. There's far too much of it in the air. Beautiful things are played too often - we don't yet know what the consequences of this will be. One day we shall hate this music. Its use in television advertisements is a crime - but what can we do against this huge industry? Nobody is safe from it. None of us can stop them using our music."

He once said that he created his music out of silence. "Yes, but I regret that I said it. It has brought so much noise into my silence. Creative silence must be buried, secret: when it's talked about, it's destroyed."

And his jealously preserved privacy? "I despair of being able to preserve it. People don't realise the significance of what they ask me. If I am too open with interviewers, I become poorer by what I have given away - it's as though I have lost something. And my interviewers have gained nothing. This material is my energy, and it must go into music. If I put it into words, I no longer have it to put into music. If I put it into music, I have no interest in talking about it. It's as simple as two plus two."

Yes, I think it is.

Arvo Part is a featured composer at the 1996 Vale of Glamorgan Festival, 7-14 Sept. Booking: 01446 792151

His new CD, Litany, is on ECM (449 810-2)