Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus”

How handy it all is, manufactured melancholy. Most useful, especially when the intentions are heartfelt, it’s easier to market. Of course, that need not be the intention of the creator of said melancholy, but somebody’s got to find the hook, which is why I heard about Arvo Pärt in the first place.

Actually, not entirely true. Simon Reynolds is to blame, but in a good way. See, when he reviewed the utterly glorious and good Selected Ambient Works, Volume II collection by the Aphex Twin back in 1994 for Melody Maker, he mentioned that the third track on the first disc reminded him of Pärt. This I figured could only be a good thing, since by chance I had played that song first of all of them on those discs, randomly selecting it when a friend wanted to know what all the excitement was about. The slow, steady melody and cyclical nature of the track called to mind a more structured version of Peter Gabriel’s Passion album to my ears, more elegantly alien but just as beautifully meditative. So I figured Pärt must have a certain something if said Aphex track could capture my attention so well (played it to death on my radio show), and I kept the name in mind.

Happily, I guess, I stumbled across Tabula Rasa, actually a collection of recordings from various sources assembled by ECM, Pärt’s more or less official label, I gather. It happened to be manufactured and marketed very well thanks to the sticker on the front with the approving quote from Michael Stipe – ergo, quality! By that time I had learned Pärt was Estonian by birth, dedicated strongly to his faith, and apparently had quite a reputation in the modern classical world. A good sign, I thought, though I can’t really pretend to know anything about that world, and indeed I haven’t investigated much about Pärt since gleaning those initial bits of knowledge. It’s a bit like those other figures I know of but don’t really know, that I have a few recordings around almost fashionably – the omnipresent Gorecki, or so it seemed at one time, Bryars, Taverner. But Pärt actually connected with me the most, to the point where I have a few of his recordings now (and in one twist of fate I bought a copy of his Passio from Jim O’Rourke, so go figure!).

So what captivates about Pärt for me? Well, I can’t speak for all of his work, so I could be stereotyping terribly, but there’s a sense of restraint and emotion in perfect balance, not so much minimalism (I mean, maybe it is, I just don’t know!) as minimal, but designed for maximum impact, like when Kraftwerk suddenly adds the drum machine on “Europe Endless” or when Orbital suddenly kicks in with the main melody on the live version of “Chime” I have from the three part Satan single. Pärt isn’t quite so demonstrative, though – he can explore space, pauses, the most astonishing of subtleties. Lacking the vocabulary to describe what he does, I search for the words, to describe how the violin and piano version of “Fratres” just captivates my heart.

And then there’s “Cantus.” More accurately, it’s called “Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten,” another composer I know of but don’t really know. Did some scrounging around on the net and found this, if you’d like some more info:

“Why did the date of Benjamin Britten’s death — 4th December 1976 touch such a chord in me?” Pärt asks, and continues: “During this time I was obviously at the point where I could recognize the magnitude of such a loss… I had just discovered Britten for myself. Just before his death I began to appreciate the unusual purity of his music… And besides, for a long time I had wanted to meet Britten personally – and now it would not come to that.” (It has been pointed out that this piece moved Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, to tears.)

CANTUS IN MEMORIAM BENJAMIN BRITTEN for string orchestra and one bell (1977) is an excellent example of the influence Medieval music has had on Pärt — however tacitly. There are no particular Medieval melodic or harmonic structures. Instead, the historical references are achieved in different ways. The whole piece is a double canon. The first violin leads one of the processes by expanding a descending diatonic scale by one step for each cycle until the low C has been reached. The lower instruments follow at different speed — as in the mensuration canons by composers such as Josquin and Ockeghem. Also the tintinnabulation parts appear in canon and at different speeds. The whole process ends when the lowest double bass Pärt reaches its goal — the low A. Another Medieval reference lies in the fact that the first top melody follows the first rhythmic mode, origination from the Notre Dame school during the twelfth century — long-short-long-short. A wonderful event in this piece occurs during the final bar when the bell is struck inaudibly and then resonates after the strings have stopped playing as if it were sounding from nowhere.

Well, okay, but what is it like, you ask? Like a sob, I always thought, like a huge heartfelt cry, like the universe in mourning. It was deeply effective at that, standing out starkly and suddenly in the course of the album, a statement so simple and yet so vast, performance and recording and all coming together in a deep connection. I was struck and honestly moved, and though I could not understand PŠrt’s own emotion, simply because I wasn’t him, I certainly can understand now why Pears was so moved.

And so I continued with my knowledge of Pärt and this track in particular, and went on in life. I was terribly fortunate to be able to see one night of the BBC Proms earlier this summer when I visited the UK, and the orchestra that night performed “Fratres,” though I remember telling friends what I would really like to do is hear the “Cantus” performed (still would, actually).

Then September 11 happened.

I lost nobody, thankfully. I feared, but all fears were proven wrong in the end. And for that I am grateful beyond words. But the “Cantus” kept coming to me, and I heard it, and I heard it again.

I now know what it is like. I just realized why tonight, and while it is only my own interpretation, it is now the one I will always associate with the memory of the day that will likely torment my soul for however long I live.

In a vision, I look up and see two gleaming towers scraping the sky, reaching up into a black void. When the bells begin the song, I merely note flashes — no explosions, no crashes, merely a brief, sudden change that almost can’t be noticed. And then as the strings begin everything begins to change, happening quickly and yet slowly at the same time. They both begin to collapse downwards, silently, quietly, only the music heard, the slow descent of the music matching it, the heights of the beginning already expressing nothing but grief. The buildings fragment and split and fragment again, but all the pieces are crystalline and lovely, sparkling shards brighter and harder than diamonds, and the papers freed by the collapse are like swirling doves, swooping, moving down, soaring up again, eternally dancing. The music swells even as it sorrows more and more and more, and then the people are noticeable, swirling amidst the paper, engaging in dances they can’t control, their eyes closed, pirouetting on air, holding hands or lost in themselves in spinning, glowing but shining with a color I can’t put a name to. As the music concludes on its largest, most vast note, filling all conscious thought and surroundings with all the misery a world can offer, buildings, papers, people all combine in a final burst on the ground and then the people and papers arc up and out again, echoing outward, outward, spreading out from the center like a slow motion shock wave, rolling out until that final bell tone fades. And then all is simply black.

Of course this is abstraction. Of course this is fantasy. Of course this is me trying to come to terms. Of course given all the pain and death inflicted by our species on our species over millennia the event that prompts this vision is but the latest example that should not happen, not the biggest either. But which would you rather, if you were me?

The reality of the heat, the agony, the screams, the terrifying quickness, the destruction, the evisceration, the disemboweling, the crushing, the jaws smashed, the guts strewn, the eyes gouged out, the limbs dismembered, the reduction to flat meat?

Or the only attempt I can make in my now finally brutally atheist vision of the universe to acknowledge what happened then, what happened there, in a way that makes sense to me, who finds salvation in music?

My choice is clear. The “Cantus” is no longer for Britten. It is no longer written by Pärt. In the universe I inhabit, it is fixed elsewhere.