Arvo Pärt in Sejny (November 4-11, 2003)

BORDERS NOT FOR CROSSING - Arvo Pärt in Sejny (November 4-11, 2003)

by Tomasz Cyz (Tygodnik Powszechny (Everybody's Weekly), nr 47 (2837), 23.XI.2003)
1. Sejny is a border town in the Suwalki region of northeast Poland with two-thirds of its
residents being Poles, the remainder being Lithuanians. The main street with its White
Synagogue and old talmudic school recalls the Jews who lived here once, the little Evangelical
church - Protestants, the basilica with the grave of the bishop and poet Antanas Baranauskas -
Poles and Lithuanians living together. Traces of Russian Old Believers, Tartars and Gypsies are
still evident.

For 12 years Sejny has been home to the Borderland Centre of Arts, Cultures and

Nationalities, while the Borderland Foundation has been active for 13 years. Since 1999 both
institutions have been bestowing the title "Person of the Borderland" on individuals who promote
tolerance, break down stereotypes, build bridges between nationalities and religious
denominations. Jerzy Ficowski was the first laureate, followed by Tomas Venclova in 2001. Arvo
Pärt became this year's "Person of the Borderland."
2. The title obliges the donor to make the laureate's work more widely known. And there
was much going on in Sejny: concerts, exhibits, showings of documentary films, open rehearsals;
deep emotion and revelations. If only, for instance, during the Stabat Mater performed by the
Hilliard Ensemble, Joanne Lunn, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, Jan Stanienda, Bartosz Bryla
and Lidia Grzanka-Urbaniak. Or Miserere as interpreted by young Polish instrumentalists, the
Hilliards and Gloria Choir from Lviv. The
Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Saulius Sondeckis gave an intense rendition of
the brief Psalom. The Gloria Choir led a prayerful evening in the difficult Kanon Pokajanen. The
purest of Pärt's pearls, his My Heart's In The Highlands for countertenor and organ, resounded.
There were a few minor dissonances, the saddest being the botching of Cezary
Duchnowski's Melodia by the Hilliards.
The concert by the Bialystok Philharmonic Orchestra in their home hall was an example of how
not to play Pärt. [...]
Even so the organizers deserve a gold medal for their efforts, and most important of all: those for
whom all these many events had been assembled, namely Arvo and Nora Pärt and the local
residents, were everywhere to be seen.
3. Pärt grew up in a Lutheran family, married a Russian Jewish woman, with whom he
entered the Orthodox Church. The composer's spiritual development was also influenced by
hesychasm. (The Greek word hesychia means "silence", and the founder of this movement was
Arsenius the Great (c.360-449) who, having heard the words "Flee, keep silent and be still,"
exchanged his royal palace for the desert.) Pärt left the Soviet Union in 1980, travelled to Vienna,
and then on to Berlin where he lives to this day. He also has a house in Essex, England.
He started from neoclassicism and dodecaphony, fascinated by Bach, medieval monody
and Flemish polyphony. The end of the 1960s brought a crisis. A profound, and spiritual, change
took place, giving birth to the tintinnabuli style. The first such work was Für Alina (performed by
the composer in Sejny), followed by Fratres and Tabula Rasa. His music now tended towards
silence, whose current was marked more and more often by the word (Passio, Stabat Mater,
Miserere). Symmetry, equilibrium, the triad, sounds coming and going, natural as breathing in
and out, had become the foundation of his music.
A streetsweeper once said to Pärt, "A composer should love every sound." Another
anecdote is also worth repeating:
in the 1970s, Irena Veisaite, a close friend of the Pärts living in Lithuania, allowed her husband
and daughter Alina to emigrate to England to make a better life, unable to go with them herself
because of family and professional obligations. Being so close to this family, Pärt felt their pain
at parting deeply and, after what had been a long silence, sat down at the piano to compose the
first few bars of Für Alina, marking the beginning of his tintinnabuli style.
4. In Sejny they showed the documentary "24 Preludes For A Fugue" made by Dorian
Supin, the brother of the composer's wife. This unusual film provides an entree not only into
Pärt's musical world, but also reveals him to be a colourful personality gifted with a sense of
humour. In one scene Arvo and Nora are sitting in front of their wooden house and eating plenty
of tomatoes. The composer says that as a boy he loved to sprinkle tomatoes with sugar when
eating them... In another scene Pärt tells of how he used to spend whole days listening to
classical music on the radio when he was home alone. But when the remaining inhabitants
returned, he would take his bicycle and ride on it for hours around the town square, where a
speaker had been hung on a pole. "I listened to symphonic concerts riding in circles. It seemed
to me that standing under the pole would have looked rather strange. Today riding around on a
bike seems even stranger (laughter)."
Another scene shows Pärt sitting over the newly published score of Cecilia, vergine
romana, his face showing visible signs of stress. Nora's voice can be heard off camera, "Let's
have some tea." Pärt takes a pen in hand and begins to draw over whole bars. "What won't be
played must be destroyed." A few moments later he is pasting over some places with pieces of
paper and suddenly says, "I don't know what's supposed to be next." Nora places a freshly
brewed glass of camomile tea in front of him....
In yet another scene Pärt confesses to the members of the Hilliard Ensemble: "A
composer is like a coat without the coathanger." He also explains the idea behind Fratres to
some young Italian instrumentalists: "The recurring consonance is zero degrees, a step upwards
is plus one, a step down is minus one and again the return to zero. And so on: zero, plus one,
plus two, minus two, minus one, zero...."
5. "Number is the basis of music," states Pärt. The foundation of his work is the relationship
of numbers, combinations, resonances, everything which arises between sounds, or which arises
after they have bonded. For it seems that more than once aliquot notes appear, unnoticed as it
were, in the music of this Estonian, as if the joining together of notes released seemingly nonexistent,
hidden sonic spectres. Here Pärt's music draws close to the sign of spectralism. After
all he once said, "Sound is a living organism located in space."
The origins of spectralism reach back to the beginning of the 1970s when Pärt too was
searching for a new language. A reminder is in order here: for the spectralists the most important
are the component tones (aliquots) of a given sound. "Pure sound," treated as a living organism,
as a structure possessing a rich inner spectrum, is what interests them above all. Peter Niklas
Wilson wrote the following about the spectralist Gérard Grisey, "Sound [is] a living microorganism
(...) the 'naturalness' of going from tension to relaxation, from activity to rest, with breathing as the
model." Could not the same be said about the music of Arvo Pärt?
There is another element, however, that distinguishes this "Man of the Borderland": a
belief that underneath sounds is a world that must be discovered; that sounds, consonances,
harmonies lead to something. During the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra's rehearsal of Orient &
Occident, Pärt drew attention to the final sound: " 'la' must sound like music, not like a search or
tuning. Something, I don't know what, must be there..."
Various interpretations are possible in music and all of them fit within the borders of a
given work. It seems as if Pärt's music has a constant, single, unique frequency. Only then is it
real, only then does it open on to the unnameable. In the Sejny synagogue the German
conductor Andreas Peter Kähler spoke of Fratres this way, "The steady beat of the percussion is
the heart beating, the movements of the strings revolve around this centre, creating a closed,
circulating orbit." He used different words than Pärt, though choosing "physical" terminology as
well. Without anyone noticing, physics has become metaphysics.
6. Pärt keeps hundreds of notebooks in a cabinet bought in a tobacco store. They date
mainly from 1975 to 1985, when the tintinnabuli style was coming into being, with thousands of
tiny notes set down in many colours gradually taking shape to form a coherent system. Pärt
opens a notebook and explains, "I read Psalm 111 and wrote down what I heard." He spreads
some papers on the piano and begins to sing, the notes forming a strange, wonderful chorale.
"It's like breathing, it flows naturally... It's a spiritual exercise directed against evil thoughts."
Fragments of future works can be found among the notes. Some elements have been
discarded, others have undergone reduction. Perhaps we need to return to the history of those
hermits searching for hesychasm, a state of mind focused excusively on God. Isaac the Syrian
(of Nineveh) wrote, "Only those who remain in continual silence will find. (...) Silence, like
sunlight, will make you shine in God. Silence will unite you with God Himself."
7. The head of the Borderland Institute, Krzysztof Czyzewski, handed Arvo Pärt an unusual
present: three bells tuned to form a triad. The composer thought for a moment and played a few
notes on them. Suddenly he said, "You have made me a borderlander, that is a man guarding a
border. I too have crossed that border. I did it consciously to show how easily one cross into a
forbidden zone... There are different borders, some visible, some invisible. We should not cross
the latter. They are inscribed into our souls, sacred, like God's commandments: do not steal; do
not do unto others what you would not have done unto you. The most important commandment
came from Christ: 'Love your enemies.'"
When he finished speaking, he smiled good-naturedly, the same as when he had spoken
of eating tomatoes with sugar. Wisdom, the most profound kind, almost always goes hand in
hand with irony and humour....
Tomasz Cyz
translated from the Polish by Mark Klus,
with thanks to Tomasz Cyz, Tygodnik Powszechny and Krzysztof Czyzewski
website address:,1141080,dzial.html


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