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October 15, 2010

The Sound of Spirit


By ARTHUR LUBOW

Emigrating from the Soviet Union to the West in January 1980 with his wife, Nora, and their
two small sons, the Estonian composer Arvo Prt was stopped by border police at the Brest railroad
station for a luggage search. We had only seven suitcases, full of my scores, records and tapes, he
recalled recently. They said, Lets listen. It was a big station. No one else was there. We took my
record player and played Cantus. It was like liturgy. Then they played another record, Missa
Syllabica. They were so friendly to us. I think it is the first time in the history of the Soviet Union
that the police are friendly. He was joking, but not entirely. Later, when I asked Nora about that
strange scene at the border, she said, I saw the power of music to transform people.
Most contemporary composers aim to ravish the ear or to tickle (or boggle) the mind. Prt is
playing for higher stakes. He wants to touch something that he would call the soul, and to a
remarkable extent, he is succeeding. When I would mention to friends or acquaintances that I was
writing about Prt, I was surprised at how many responded, Oh, I love Arvo Prt! Its not
something you often hear when you mention a contemporary composer. The enthusiasm for Prts
music extends beyond the circles of classical music (where he is sometimes derided as backwardlooking and boring) to include admirers in the pop-music world, like Michael Stipe of R.E.M. and
Bjork. Many of Prts pieces are settings of religious texts, and even the instrumental works bear a
whiff of church incense. Yet the compositions resonate profoundly for the unconverted as well as
the faithful. Its a cleansing of all the noise that surrounds us, says the violinist Gidon Kremer. It
is music that reveals itself gradually, with a harmonic stillness that conjures up an alternative to
hectic everyday existence. I was attracted to the unbelievable calm and brilliance of his music, and
a seeming simplicity, Stipe told me. As a musician and an artist, you realize that within its
simplicity, its incredibly complex. It brings one to a total meditative state. Its amazing, amazing
music.
Prt (pronounced PAIRT) writes in a style that is unmistakably his own. You put on a piece and
you can tell at once it is Prt even the early pieces, says the Estonian-born conductor Neeme
Jarvi, who has known Prt since 1960. You can tell that with Shostakovich or Khatchaturian, but
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we dont have many composers these days who have that ability to show, This is me. Although
Prts music is often compared to the Gregorian chant in a monastery or the early polyphonic
music of the Renaissance, you could just as easily liken it to the abstract paintings of Mondrian. It
is governed by very strict rules in a framework so simple and clear that any deviation a single
dissonant note or an unexpected pause can be as galvanizing as a small, yellow rectangle in a
painted grid.
Last month, Prt marked his 75th birthday, and the event was celebrated with a festival of his
music throughout Estonia, where, says the younger Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tuur, he is a
living legend. There were performances of recent as well as familiar pieces, a reminder that Prt,
an energetic man with a reedy voice, loping gait and erect posture, shows few signs of slowing
down. ECM New Series, which was inaugurated 26 years ago with his breakthrough work Tabula
Rasa, likewise balanced the old and new, releasing a first recording of Prts Fourth Symphony
(which was premiered in 2009 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic) and preparing to issue a deluxe
commemorative edition of Tabula Rasa in December. This year, Prts major new work is
Adams Lament, a 25-minute piece for string orchestra and chorus, based on an old Russian text.
(Adams Lament will have its first North American performance next month in New York, as part
of the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center.)
In one birthday-festival concert that I attended, in an old church in the Estonian capital of Tallinn,
a long-stemmed red rose was handed to each of the players and then to the composer, who
bounded up to the stage, playfully bopping the heads of the musicians with his floral baton. Belying
his mythologized public reputation as solemn and monklike, Prt disarmingly blends the antic with
the earnest. Before we met, I could comprehend the impulse to cast him in a religious mold
(although for me, with his aquiline nose, furrowed brow and gray-flecked black beard, a different
holy prototype comes to mind one of the apostles as painted by Tintoretto). Appearance
notwithstanding, he is neither an ascetic nor a recluse. Hes a man of the world, says Manfred
Eicher, the ECM founder and record producer, who is his close friend. He is very centered. He
knows exactly what he wants and doesnt want.
He is also forthright on worldly matters that he deems important. He dedicated the Fourth
Symphony last year to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was an oil oligarch before he ran afoul of
Vladimir Putin, the former president and current premier of Russia; since 2003, Khodorkovsky has
been imprisoned for fraud and tax evasion. And after the murder, in October 2006, of the
outspoken investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, whose articles embarrassed both Putin and
the pro-Moscow government in Chechnya, Prt declared that all concerts of his music that season
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would be performed in her memory. He volunteered to me that he knew that in making such
gestures he was venturing outside his recognized bailiwick. I am not a politician; Im a dilettante,
he said. But this is the normal thinking of people who came through this Soviet hell.
In 1992, once Estonian independence had been proclaimed upon the ashes of the Soviet Union,
Prt and his wife came back to see their native land. They had spent 12 years in exile, mainly in
Berlin. I asked him if he found Estonia very different on his return.
It was nearly the same as when we left, he said. Same functionaries have changed their color.
Some people say that after being occupied by another state, you need for healing the same amount
of time as you were occupied. So we need 50 years and East Germany 48 years.
He chuckled. There was some kind of enthusiasm, he added.
Like teenager, Nora chimed in. We were in a car, with Arvo driving us from the village in the
country where they spend most of their time back to Tallinn, in which they keep a spacious
apartment in the Old Town.
Now we are free, Prt mimicked, with a tone that was both wistful and amused. Nave a little
bit. But the real life is something different. Then comes the difficulties. New bandits.
At this point, a different strain of his personality sounded. There is a good rule in spiritual life,
which we all forget continually, he said, that you must see more of your own sins than other
peoples. He remarked that the sum of human sin has been growing since Adams time, and we all
share some of the blame. So I think everyone must say to himself, We must change our thinking.
We cannot see what is in the heart of another person. Maybe he is a holy man, and I can see only
that he is wearing a wrong jacket.
Some weeks later, I thought back on this conversation and reflected that in its two parallel lines
one worldly and critical, the other forgiving and tolerant Prt was recapitulating the two musical
voices of the tintinnabuli style of composition, which he discovered after years of painful
searching in the 1970s, and which has guided his music ever since.
The Arvo Prt Center is located near the Prts country home, in a newly built nouveau riche
residence that conveniently became available in a foreclosure sale when the recession hit. The
house now shelters the centers administrative offices, and the former garage has been renovated
into a climate-controlled archive.

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The Prts younger son, Michael, who was working abroad as a film-music editor, returned to
Estonia two years ago to become the director of the center. Michael, who is 32, showed me the
manuscripts that are the jewel of the archive, with a special place for his fathers spiral notebooks
of the 70s, which had been reinforced in those impoverished times with whatever was available,
like scraps of leather or denim from old jeans. The acid in the Soviet recycled paper is leaching
away the brightly colored felt-tipped-pen ink that the composer used to try out different harmonic
accompaniments to his melodies; the centers most pressing priority, occupying the attention of
three staff members, is to scan these pages into digital images.
A little later, Prt joined us and brought photostats of a 1976 notebook to show me. Along with
musical notations, there were comments in Estonian, Russian, Latin, German and English
that recorded his thoughts as well as quotes from texts. He read a few aloud, translating them into
English for me. The collection of energy must be the ground of form, he recited, and laughed.
What it means I do not know. Such words are embellishments to the bulk of the journals, which
are filled with musical notes. I wrote thousands and thousands of pages, he recalled, to think in
musical language, What happened here? Why one melody makes this impression and traces the
spirit, and another not? Every day, 10 or 20 pages or more. This was my work, every day. No way
out.
Before this long ordeal, music had come easily to him. The son of a heavy-machinery operator who
left when Arvo was 2, Prt moved into a more cultured milieu once his mother remarried a few
years later. His stepfather was a commercial sign painter; in the family house were a concert piano
and a stash of scores. The piano was lacking many keys in the middle register like a 5-year-old
child with teeth missing, Prt told me. But even with this dilapidated instrument, he
demonstrated his talent. His musical ability propelled him to a position as a drummer when he was
drafted into the Soviet Army, and later to a place at the musical academy in Tallinn. There he
became known as someone to watch which, in the Soviet Union, was a mixed blessing.
As a young man, Prt composed music that was exuberantly and aggressively modern. In 1962, his
first orchestral piece, Nekrolog, was also the first Estonian 12-tone music to be performed; as
Prts biographer Paul Hillier recounts, it stirred great controversy, earning a specific denunciation
in Moscow as avant-garde bourgeois music by the formidable musical arbiter Tikhon
Khrennikov, secretary of the Union of Soviet Composers. Serial music was just one of the styles
that Prt was exploring. In numerous works of musical collage, a compositional approach that was
popular with Shostakovich and other Soviet composers, he incorporated passages of shrill
dissonance. Some pieces were nonsensically Dadaesque: in his Second Symphony, the musicians at
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certain points are instructed to crinkle pieces of brown wrapping paper or to squeak childrens
toys.
Other works were more politically provocative. In 1968, he caused an uproar when his choral piece
Credo was premiered. This time, the Latin text it proclaims, I believe in Jesus Christ is
what outraged the devoutly atheistic authorities. Neeme Jarvi, who conducted the sole Soviet
performance, told me: The law was that you first had to show the score to the composers union. I
didnt. I thought they wouldnt let us. The Estonian Philharmonic organization said, Lets do it.
Next morning it was a big scandal in the Politburo of Estonia. Then the pressure starts. Some
people were sacked from the Philharmonic organization. He says that he retained his position
because no one was available to replace him, but that the scandal dried up Prts official
commissions, forcing him to rely on writing film scores to earn a living.
In retrospect, what is most important about Credo is that in it, Prt described in musical terms
the crisis that was afflicting him. The composition juxtaposes a lovely harmonic progression from
Bachs Prelude in C with violently discordant music. I wanted to put together the two worlds of
love and hate, he explained. I knew what kind of music I would write for hate, and I did it. But for
love, I was not able to do it. That was what drew him to the idea of borrowing Bachs theme and
incorporating it into a collage. Like a tone poem, Credo dramatizes a story, in this case a scene
from the New Testament. As Prt explained, It was my deep conviction that the words of Christ
You have heard an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, Do not resist evil, go with
love to your enemies this was a theological musical form. Love destroyed the hate. Not
destroyed: the hate collapsed itself when it met the love. A convulsion. So it is in Credo. Early
on, the piece introduces the Bach quotation, the notes evolve into a sequence that is transformed
following the rules of 12-tone music and then erupts into dissonance and clashing before subsiding
once again into a gentle reprise of the Prelude.
After Credo, Prt stopped composing. He no longer believed in the musical forms he had
depended on. I think if the human has conflict in his soul and with everything, then this system of
12-tone music is exactly good for this, he told me. But if you have no more conflict with people,
with the world, with God, then it is not necessary. You have no need to have a Browning in your
pocket, or a dagger. One day, around that time, he thinks perhaps it was in a bookstore, he heard a
snippet of Gregorian chant playing on a radio; it was like a window opening onto another world.
In one moment it was clear how much deeper and more pure is this world, he continued.
Everyone has many antennae, and they catch what we cannot even register in our minds. But the
feeling is clear. In his obsessively thorough way, he began to study monody the single line of
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Gregorian plainsong and the birth of Western polyphony in medieval and early Renaissance
music. He filled his notebooks with ancient melodies.
I asked if his attraction to religious music drew him into the church, but that was a distinction he
didnt recognize. There is no border that divided, he said. Religion and life it is all the same.
He was reading early Christian writings while he was immersing himself in musical study. The old
music, when it was written, the focus of this music was the Holy Scripture for composers for
centuries, he said. It was the reality for every artist. Through one, you can understand the other.
Otherwise, you are like some teachers in the Soviet Union who say, Bach was a great composer but
he had a defect; he was religious. It means this teacher cannot understand the music of Bach.
At this time of spiritual searching, he met Nora, a musical conductor, who was embarked on a
similar quest. Of Jewish origin, she was planning to immigrate to Israel with her parents, but after
meeting Prt, she chose to stay behind. In 1972, she entered the Russian Orthodox Church a few
months before he did, and in that year, they married. We had the same journey in the same
direction; we had the feeling we must do it together, he said. Ever since, they have formed a tightknit unit, speaking in one voice to the outside world.
During the first years of their marriage, Nora watched her husband struggle to find his way out of
his musical impasse. Prt told me he felt that the tools he had were inadequate: I cannot eat soup
with a fork or meat with a spoon. He was searching for a new system, one that would provide the
kind of logical framework that 12-tone music offers but would allow him to express his evolving
state of small steps of tolerance to the world. During this period of exploration, someone
suggested that to escape his creative stalemate, he needed to disrupt his normal habits. To
encourage that dislocation, the Prts experimented with visual art; they would provide plain clay
flowerpots to visiting friends, and they would all paint them. At the Arvo Prt Center, there is one
specimen of the composers handiwork, and it stands apart from the group. Other people daubed
their pots with bright splotches. His is decorated with perfectly regular, muted color bands.
For several years, he studied old music, especially Gregorian plainsong. Nothing changed in me,
but I instinctively feel it has a life-giving power, he said. But where is this secret? Where is this
secret? He was following many different alleys, all of them blind. As Nora recalled, We both dont
know in what direction to look nature, forest, birds, bells. For Arvo, the seagull was important.
He wanted the line of power of their flight. How do they have so much power? Maybe it is in these
lines. He drew patterns of notes that mimicked the motions of wings. That was not the answer.
I hoped, of course, that I can find the way out, but also the hopeless was an everyday guest, Prt
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told me. And I was full of energy. It was possible that I explode from all of this situation. During
that period, he wrote only one piece of music, the Third Symphony (1971), a transitional work.
Mostly, he studied. And maybe there was one point when I said, Stop with this old music as a
composer. Now in this place must be born something of mine from everything that I have
learned in old music, in religion, in life, and how much I was able to see my own sins and
imperfections, and to repent it. To say, Yes. And if you do, then it is like when you are on a
computer, and you write a text and then you press something and it is empty. But it is a good thing.
Begin from zero, from nothing. Its like if there is a fresh snow and nobody has walked, and you
take the first steps on this snow. And this is the beginning of new life.
Prts mature style was inaugurated in 1976 with a small piano piece, Fr Alina, that remains
one of his best-known works. It is governed by the compositional system that he called
tintinnabuli, derived from the Latin word for bells. The tintinnabuli method pairs each note of
the melody with a note that comes from a harmonizing chord, so they ring together with bell-like
resonance. But the name of the method should not be taken too literally. Its a metaphor, Prt
told me. His wife chimed in, Its poetical, and the sound of the word is musical.
I wondered whom the piece was named for. Alina is the daughter of our very good friend who
visited us in Tallinn, Prt said. And this day, as they visited us, the mother of Alina has a
birthday. But Alina, the daughter, was not with her. She left the Soviet Union some years ago with
her father and lived in London. And there was no connection, and it was hard for all. And then I
decided to dedicate this small piano piece to Alina, like a small consolation.
I replied that this suggested another metaphor, because the tintinnabuli style especially in the
simple form in which it exists in Fr Alina consists of two lines. The melody, which proceeds
mainly in steps up and down the scale, might be compared to a child tentatively walking. The
second line underpins each note of the melody with a note from a harmonizing triad (the
fundamental chord of Western music) that is positioned as close as possible to the note of the
melody, but always below. You could imagine this accompaniment to be a mother with her hands
outstretched to ensure her toddler doesnt fall.
Prt grabbed my own hand with excitement. This is the whole secret of tintinnabuli, he
exclaimed. The two lines. One line is who we are, and the other line is who is holding and takes
care of us. Sometimes I say it is not a joke, but also it is as a joke taken that the melodic line is
our reality, our sins. But the other line is forgiving the sins. Metaphors aside, the tintinnabuli style
proved to be an ingenious and fertile system for generating compositions. From the late 70s
onward, after his long drought, Prt has been an extremely productive composer.
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While Prts music is often categorized (although not by him) as minimalist, it avoids the
monotony of some of the pieces that go by that label and too often sound as though they were
stitched together by a sewing machine. This is primarily because the rules that bind the triadic to
the melodic line produce unexpected outcomes; consequently, the music seems to move, even if,
remaining in the home key, it never really goes very far. But it is also important that Prt, a fanatic
for detail, painstakingly adjusts each score to achieve the result he is after.
In the first tintinnabuli pieces, Prt was not thinking about performances, and (as with medieval
music) his notation was sparse. He stepped out publicly in 1977 with Tabula Rasa. His friend, the
conductor Eri Klas, was looking for a work to accompany a performance of Alfred Schnittkes First
Concerto Grosso, which was written for two violins, harpsichord, prepared piano and string
orchestra. He asked Prt if he could deliver a piece in three months with the same orchestration.
The composer complied (eliminating the harpsichord). When the new piece arrived, the orchestra
players and the violin soloists, Gidon Kremer and Tatjana Grindenko, were bewildered. We were
all a bit surprised by the empty picture of the score, Kremer told me. It was all tonal and so
transparent. There were so few notes.
The night of the concert, the auditorium in Tallinn was full. Having had only two days of rehearsal,
the musicians were filled with apprehension. They came to the concert expecting a catastrophe,
even Gidon Kremer and Tatjana Grindenko, who put all their talent on every note, especially the
second part, the slow part, Prt said. And it was a magnet for the orchestra, and they took over
this articulation. And it was wonderful. It was so still that the people could not breathe or cough, it
would disrupt. It was with me the same feeling. My heartbeat was so noisy that I thought everyone
could hear. The composer Tuur, who was still a teenager, was in the audience that night. I was
carried beyond, he told me. I had the feeling that eternity was touching me through this music.
In the score, Prt wrote an exceptionally long four measures of rest at the end of the piece, but the
silence went on even longer. Nobody wanted to start clapping, Tuur said.
When you listen to Tabula Rasa, the silence that is being broken is as palpable as the music being
played; it is like the void that is shaped by a bowl. The two violins pierce with catlike delicacy and
purpose. The piano (which is altered and amplified to produce the timbre of a bell or gong) streaks
repeatedly like raindrops on a windshield and knells occasionally with a portentous clang. The
chamber orchestra weaves a web of sustained notes that shimmer and glisten. If you were floating
in space looking down on earth, this is what you would want in your headphones. Writing in The
New Yorker eight years ago, Alex Ross reported that Tabula Rasa was often requested by
terminally ill patients afflicted with AIDS or cancer.
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It was Tabula Rasa that ECMs Eicher heard, coming over the radio on a late-night drive he was
making from Stuttgart to Zurich and which so transfixed him that he pulled onto the side of the
road to listen more closely. Eventually, he tracked down the name of the piece and the composer,
and he contacted Prt. Because his label up until then was devoted to jazz and improvised music,
Eicher started the New Series to release composed works, with Tabula Rasa the first. Since that
time, he has produced 11 more recordings devoted to Prts music, always with the composers
participation. It has been Prts main avenue to international recognition.
Critics of Prts work usually complain that it is ersatz and simple-minded. But unlike some socalled holy minimalists (like Henryk Gorecki and John Tavener) with whom he is unfairly
grouped, Prt composes by a process that is as rigorously systematic as anything propounded by
Schoenberg. He is not an old-fashioned composer but a contemporary one. Without his having
traveled through serial music, it is hard to imagine that he could have arrived at his method.
Much of what Prt writes is choral music. Although his compositions are intended for concert
performance and not religious service, in one regard he is medieval: his acute sensitivity to texts
recalls the Gregorian chants he so admires. But here too, his mathematical brain is at work. He
applies a set of principles to determine the phrasing of a piece: so that in Passio, a setting of the
Passion according to St. John, which dates from 1982 and is one of his major accomplishments, he
gives a different duration value to different syllables, depending on the syllables relationship to
punctuation marks in the sentences. A similar operating system is used in instrumental works that
are derived from texts, like the second movement of the Fourth Symphony; as the conductor Tonu
Kaljuste observes, Behind this string music is words they pray between notes.
Since he typically writes now in response to commissions, Prt orchestrates his work with a detail
that he didnt apply in the early days, when his music was playing mainly in his own head or, if it
was performed, could be adapted to whatever musical forces were available. It was music without
colors, Prt explained to me. Whatever instruments you had in Tallinn, you played at that time.
The more recent music also sounds freer than some of the older work. Before, the algebra was
most important, Kaljuste says. Now the algebra becomes more organic. The language he created
has started to breathe.
Over lunch with the Prts, I asked if his music had become less confined by guidelines.
The first period was very strict, Nora said. It was very important for Arvo to give himself a
system, rules and discipline. And over time, Arvo had more and more freedom.

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I believed in myself more and more, he said. Then he added: It can be good or bad. It is
dangerous, this freedom.
Without discipline, freedom is very dangerous, Nora said, with emphasis.
In some way, we go back to the tintinnabuli, Arvo resumed. One line is like freedom, and the
triad line is like discipline. It must work together.
Back at the Prt Center, shortly before this lunch, Prt had described to me his attraction to early
music and his exodus from the camp of contemporary 12-tone and atonal music.
Actually, music is a very material thing, he said. When you play the dissonance between two
strings a very, very painful dissonance then it is something very certain. And when you play a
tune on the violin and the fifth is clean, then there is no other vibration. Its like an oscilloscope
when you see it goes flat.
I said that when a medical oscilloscope went flat, the patient was dead.
He laughed. This is a resurrection for purity from impurity.
He walked to the piano in a corner of the room and crashed out some loud dissonant chords, a
bedlam of black and white keys. Then he used two fingers to pick out two white keys and play an
open fifth, an interval that is a fundamental musical consonance, a sound that soothes and
resolves.
We read it in our hearts and minds, he said. And you can choose. The composer can choose what
he needs. This is very primitive explaining, but it is so. Who can say it is not so?
Arthur Lubow is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last article was about the artist Tino
Sehgal.

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