The jagged steeples of Cologne Cathedral towered ominously beneath a cloud-covered night sky as crowds gathered for Tuesday night's world premiere performance of Arvo Part's epic Kanon Pokajanen. Inside the cathedral, the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Tonu Kaljuste donned floor- length robes - black for men, white for women - as protection against an indoor temperature at least five degrees colder than that outside.
The text is based on the `canon of repentance' which appears in the earliest Slavonic church manuscripts and has fascinated Part for years. "I believe in it 100 per cent," Part had told me earlier. "I think that it concerns all people, but then it's a matter of whether one is prepared to accept what's written there. Like the surgeon's scalpel, it doesn't work without blood or pain. At first, it ought not be pleasurable to us, not pleasant, although it's perhaps a little easier to accept with music."
Part confesses that learning to love the text took time. "It is the beginning," he says with passion and obvious conviction. "It is, in a sense, the core of world literature and deals with problems that Goethe, Shakespeare and Dostevksy would later tackle. In fact, there is still much unrealised potential in the text."
Arvo's wife Nora explains the role of the `microcosm' in the Eastern tradition, the single point from which everything grows, not unlike our own Depth Psychology. And there is of course a direct parallel between the loaded content of a few choice words and the spare but spiritually charged language of Part's own work. He tells me of his search for the essential basis of his musical style and of a life-changing encounter with a street worker in his native Estonia.
"I asked him the question: how are we supposed to write music? He looked at me with his big eyes - maybe he hadn't even heard the word `music' before - and he said, `I think you have to love every note, every tone.' Such profound wisdom; but where did it come from? I learned more from that statement than I had learned in all then time I spent at the conservatory."
And, yes, with Part every note does tell - or at least, that's how his latest work sounds. Although Part insists that he is an artist and not a priest, and does not intend for his music to change the world, he says: "Before that moment of revelation, I composed `barbed wire'-like, avant- garde music; but I now realised that you cannot heal wounds with barbed wire."
His perfectionist approach to sound, both in his writing and the way it should be realised in performance, is fastidiously mirrored in ECM's recordings; and while rival CDs of other works are accepted - some respectfully, others regretfully, it seems clear that the artistic relationship with producer Manfred Eicher is something rather special. ECM are about to release Kanon Pokajanen, although I heard it played in a Berlin CD store a week ego. The Cologne performance was similarly involving, though less than responsive to an unwieldy acoustic.
How might one best describe Part's music? As "minimalist", perhaps? Definitely not. Its basic simplicity suggests worlds that are at once more meaningful and more harmonically animated than most of the minimalist pieces we hear. Then there's the plain-chant connection, though the gentle chiming that characterises much of Part's mature work hints more at musical post-modernism.
What's for sure is that every bar, every phrase pre-echoes an infinite chain of related ideas, so that what you don't actually "hear" you can at least "sense". Kanon Pokajanen is music of infinite spaciousness; it opens with a radiant celebration of the Israelites' triumph over Pharaoh, proceeds through seven further "Odes" and ends with a glorious "Prayer after the Canon". Composing it was rewarding but arduous.
"One lets `the language create' the music," writes Part in ECM's booklet note, though the idea of "a marriage between words and music, where two become one" seems rather more apposite. Part's creative phases fall onto his life like waves falling along the shore. "Some years are very full, others less so," his wife tells me; "and when he's not composing, he's concentrating, gathering himself: it's still work, it's just a different kind of work."
Part laughs (he has an impish sense of humour). He leans back in his chair. "It's a difficult profession," he says sagely; "there are icebergs everywhere - a bit like the Titanic! Anything can happen!"