Friday, July 20, 2007

Tabula Rasa

Have been drowning myself with a great deal of recordings of modern works lately, with works by Messiaen, Takemitsu, Arvo Pärt, Penderecki and others appearing on my player more often than before.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is most well known for his third and current phase of compositional style, which he himself termed as tintinnabulation. It's intriguing to learn of how he has progressed since he first appeared on the scene. From an experimental twelve-tone compositional technique following Schoenberg, he reached an interim phase whereby he made use of collage techniques whereby he "cut-and-paste" sections from pieces ranging from the renaissance to the romantic periods onto his twelve-tone compositions. Being still unsatisfied, he went into a stage of self-imposed silence, only to emerge with a most unique voice.

I was first drawn to his music by his most peculiar concept of sound and have been hooked since. I surprise myself when I look at recordings of his works which I've amassed over the past few months. One could almost see a holy aura surrounding the music from the very moment the first note is sounded. Here, I shall attempt to put into words my reflections on one of his most famous compositions, Tabula Rasa.

Scored for two violins, string orchestra, and prepared piano, this work consists of two movements - Ludus (with movement) and Silentium (without movement). For the first time, I actually loved and could understand the sounds of a prepared piano. The prepared piano uses a tonic pedal to give the pulse and movement, like a breathless race through time. Some other points, it was used to create the bell tones like those coming from a monastery. At other times, it is used to create a tone cluster of an unimaginable depth to sound a death knell.

The first movement is just a simple yet profound alternation between two sections - the theme and silence. Behold the depth in the impulsive pulsing sections where the instruments come together to create tensional surge to propel the music forth, choking the listener of the space to breath. It is only resolved in a series of monastric bell-like sounds on the prepared piano before fading away into midst of of the calm and tranquil silence. The extended periods of contemplative silence provide the much needed deliverence from the tensional rush, such stoic moments so indifferent to the contrasting sections encompassing them.

How can one help but be drawn into this masterful blend of arsis (movement and impulse) and thesis (rest) - a rhythmic technique found commonly in Gregorian chants in the renaissance era? The two solo violins, as the music progresses on, engages in an almost devilish dance, encouraged on by the sounding of the death knell on the prepared piano, originally sounding once every time the theme comes on, but recurring repeatedly like a hounding nightmare in the last segment. In a most enigmatic way, all the tension is resolved in a cold A min drone, creating the effect of sounding on for eternity.

How apt, when it leads on to the 2nd movement, where for the sixteen over minutes, Arvo Pärt creates the most beatific effect of a most tranquil suspension in eternity. When it all ends, I sense in myself a disappointment in the very fact that it has ended. I guess I shan't go too much into the second movement for any form of description in words would be far from sufficient to put that music into words.

Nonetheless, it's been a most spiritually rich journey, not just through this particular masterpiece, but through his other works as well. Truly blessed this deeply spiritual man is, with such an esoteric concept of sound and ability to create such exoteric compositions palatable for most.

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