Classical: Saying most with least

Arvo Part: Kanon Pokajanen

Cologne Cathedral

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!"

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Software Implementation Consultant

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Desk Co-ordinator / Client Services Administrator

    £22000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful applicant will s...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales & Warehouse Assistant

    £14807 - £15470 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This manufacturer and supplier ...

    Ampersand Consulting LLP: Security Consultant (CREST/CHECK/OSCP)

    £45000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Security Consu...

    Day In a Page

    Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

    Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

    After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
    The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

    Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

    The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
    10 best sun creams for kids

    10 best sun creams for kids

    Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
    Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

    Tate Sensorium

    New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
    Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

    He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
    Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

    Remember Ashton Agar?

    The No 11 that nearly toppled England
    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks