ARVO PÄRT Tabula Rasa (ECM New Series)


I’m not trying to suggest that the works of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt are in any way, shape or form jazz-influenced, but given that a) this album is released by ECM and b) one piece features Keith Jarrett on piano it seemed a better fit for discussion here than over in the Rock SIG newsletter.


This collection was originally released in 1984, and includes two arrangements of “Fratres”, “Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten” and the titular work. As played by Jarrett and Gidon Kramer, “Fratres” is alternately jagged and spiky and soothing dialogue between piano and violin. However, arranged for the 12 cellists of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, all contrast is softened out and smoothed over, reducing it to fodder fit for the musical Mogadon that is the Classic FM compilation CD. In this form, it slowly describes an amplitude arc familiar from Górecki’s contemporaneous third symphony. “Tabula Rasa”, presented in a live recording made by West German Radio in 1977, sculpts silence against sound the way a photographer works with light and shadow, shards of orchestration being corroded away by the spaces that surround them. The first movement, “Ludus” works itself into what sounds like a natural disaster of screeching, sawing and clanking, before the second movement, appropriately titled “Silentium”, succeeds it, an almost static study in draining melody from regular, repeated phrases. The album peaks with the staggering “Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten”: opening with a chiming bell that sounds like a call to prayer, it becomes a massed tumbling of string instruments that’s almost like listening to the orchestral climax of “A Day In The Life”, backwards, in slow motion.


Pärt’s music doesn’t seem like the works of Michael Nyman or Phillip Glass with which it might be categorised: whatever mathematics are involved in its creation generate something far more ethereal than the short, repetitive phrases typical of their work. Wikipedia categorises his work as “holy minimalism”, which seems as accurate and misleading a description as words are likely to provide.