Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Arvo Part - Te Deum

What is minimalism? What drives it?

John Cage said, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” Whereas other forms of music rely on various devices to convey emotions and themes, minimalism seems content to express nothing. Or does it, rather, use its own devices to express nothingness?

Western philosophy always begins with the reality of being. “I think, therefore I am.” All truths are contingent on this duality of existence and perception. The 50's and 60's were a turbulent time; everyone was still reacting to the horrors of WWII and the formation of the Soviet Union. In the art world, Dada, Surrealism, and abstract art continued to demand a response. Every artist took it upon himself to smash every necessary truth he could find. And the most primal of these is that of being. Thus, many minimalists turned to Eastern philosophy.

Buddhism and Taoism, when specifically contrasted against most trends in Western philosophy, take an inverted approach. Rather than start with the conception of being, they begin with the idea of absolute nothingness. This idea is much less familiar to us than being. To form a conception of nothingness is to negate it. And yet, as wise men tell us, it lurks beneath everything.

1952 saw the first performance of 4'33”. Many were outraged when the musical performance they paid for just ended up being four and a half minutes of silence. John Cage, however, denied any such thing. The human mind does not have access to absolute silence. John Cage wanted his audience to realize that although the performance they were seeing was one of nothing, it was nonetheless a performance. Even though nothing was played, sound still filled the room. Something had still happened.

What everyone expected from the performance was a drama. Each sound is supposed to be an actor, working to increase or resolve the central conflict. Minimalism strips music of its illusions. A sound is simply a sound, and should be appreciated on that level. To assign meaning to certain sounds, to interpret abstract music, is to look away from life and to enter into the game we have draped over it.

Minimalism is about the journey, not the destination. No future moment in the music will justify what you are hearing right now; each moment is its own justification.

Where does this piece of music fit in? Arvo Pärt's music is often described as “sacred minimalism.” But how does all the drama of religion sneak into minimalism without tearing it apart? Although minimalism sacrifices many elements of the drama, it most often retains tonality. Pärt finds God in the trinity of tonality, the triad. He uses a technique he calls tintinnabulum, whereby the three notes of the triad ring out like bells, and form the foundation of the piece. The drama now consists in sounds pulling themselves out of the void, in the patches of silence that tend to subsume everything, and in the divine relationship between pure tones.

Is this a cop-out? Has minimalism been torn from staring into the abyss to contemplating the infinite? For me there is no difference. Steve Reich was fond of Pärt's compositions, and said that they filled an essential human need. According to Reich they missed the zeitgeist of the times, but thereby generated their own appeal. This music is on many levels a reaction—a response to the detachment of atonality as well as the excesses of Romanticism. But more than this it is an affirmation. Arvo Pärt went through a long period of silence. Like John Cage, he may have come to the conclusion that the artist betrays himself by speaking. Ultimately, however, something led him to compose—and the results are divine.


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