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A milestone for semplice's master

Arvo Part's 70th birthday spawns a flurry of releases that celebrate his strains.

October 30, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

LAST month, the universe executed another of its capricious yin-yang maneuvers. Although now a black date on the calendar, 9/11 also happens to be the birthday of Arvo Part, that otherworldly composer and spiritually wholesome presence on the musical scene. This year he turned 70.

Too little, concert-wise, has been made of a happy milestone in music, the main celebration having been an Arvo Part festival in the small Estonian town of Rakvere, where the composer grew up. Fortunately, though, Part's birthday has not been neglected on CD and DVD.

Indeed, a remarkable collection of Part recordings and films has just come out that not only helps us keep up to date with a composer whose music has a way of reverberating with the world mood in uncanny fashion but also provides an unusually interesting portrait of a musician and man as enigmatic as he is brilliant.

Part has caught on because of the luminous beauty of his sound. It seems to come from somewhere beyond our normal experience and expectations. It haunts the ear. But just about every tribute to him I've read lately begins defensively, explaining that musical simplicity does not necessarily equal triviality. No, we are reminded, Arvo Part is not New Age. He isn't a Minimalist, as such. He's neither this nor that.

We need no such reminders. Maybe he's not to everyone's taste, but he's loved and admired by a following that is wide and that breaks through categories.

The reason for so strong a fan base is, no doubt, the outward simplicity of Part's music. He is religious, and he often sets Christian texts with mystical fervor. But he transcends dogma. What his music is really about is the religion of sound. He worships it, and he worships its surrounding silences. There is only one way to listen to Part, and that is in a state of awe.

Among the new CD releases are three compilations that offer good introductions to Part, who started out as a dissident 12-tone composer in Soviet-controlled Estonia but had a breakthrough in the mid-'70s when he converted to the Russian Orthodox faith and discovered a stunning consonant chord. He played the chord on the piano, and it rang like the carillon of a grand cathedral. He called the style "tintinnabuli," from the Latin word for "bells." He wrote a small piano piece, "For Alina," based upon it, and the act of composing served as a rite of absolution.

"For Alina" is simple, if unforgettably original, music. An outstanding performance of it by Alexei Lubimov begins the Naxos two-CD "Portrait" of Part, which includes a wide selection of excerpts from his oeuvre along with a handy 78-page booklet introducing him and his music. From it, as well as from the rapt choral music found on the Harmonia Mundi "Tribute" and on the miscellaneous collection on BIS, you will discover a composer who keeps trying to get inside the timbres of instruments, of voices and of the texts that he sets.

Ultimately, Part is not so much simple as deep. He revisits techniques of Gregorian chant and early polyphony, but he also displays an up-to-date Cagean sense of letting sounds be. He even has a fondness for Cage's prepared piano. Nor is he all that mellow. Look out for violent, jarring contrasts.

Part of the Part mystique is his monk-like persona. He is not known to be much of a public figure. But in the film "24 Preludes for a Fugue," we find, as with everything else about the composer, that nothing is quite as simple as it seems. A Russian filmmaker, Dorian Supin, followed him around with a camera for five years. In snippets broken up by a more formal interview, the film peeks into Part's life.

It offers little in the way of explanation of this shy, gentle man, with his bushy beard and saintly demeanor, who reveals a sly sense of humor and a very good fashion sense. His pleasures appear basic but just a little off. In one scene, he visits Estonia for the first time in many years (he moved to Germany in the early '80s) and munches contentedly on a tomato with sugar, much to his wife's disapproval. But watch him in action as a musician and you understand that he knows exactly what he wants and how to get it.

From page to performance

INCLUDED on the Ideale Audience DVD (one in a new series of composer films that also includes Luciano Berio, Philip Glass, Stravinsky and Mahler) are three additional short films. There is a priceless eavesdropping on conductor Myung-Whun Chung preparing the first performance of a new Part work in Rome amid the chaos of working with Italian musicians. Between players who don't listen and coping with continual new suggestions from the composer, Chung looks ready to shoot someone. Part says the performers are not together. Chung wrings his hands. He's told them that three times, and all they do is get louder. In the end, the performance is heavenly.

The other films are of a very different but equally riveting choral rehearsal in Iceland and of a concert performance in Tallinn, Estonia.

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