Miraculous Moments - One Note At a Time
By Victoria Looseleaf Â
Unlike the high-flying, über-embellished melodies of Mozart, who was chastised by Emperor Joseph II for writing “too many notes,” the Estonian-born composer Arvo Pärt creates an exquisite sonic universe with very few. Luminous sounds with harmonies that hover in one place and seem to tunnel into the subconscious, this is, nevertheless, muscle music capable of annihilating the strictures of time and space. Transporting us to an aural Eden, where the stream of chords quashes the clatter of self and connects us to the present, this radically simplified language is what the composer calls “tintinnabuli,” after the Latin word for bell. Instantly recognizable, Pärt's compositions attract myriad classical aficionados, as well as those gaga for Coldplay, U2 and Out-Kast. It has also been mainstreamed into cinema, featured in dozens of films, including the remake of Swept Away with Madonna, and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Pärt, who celebrated his 70th birthday last year, began as a 12-tone, Schoenbergian, but after converting to the Russian Orthodox faith in the mid-70's had an epiphany upon hearing a splendid consonant chord, with his 1976 “Tabula Rasa” hurling him to global fame. At its most basic, the form involves the interweaving of two voices, one moving by melodic steps, the other rotating through the pitches of a major or minor chord. In spite of Pärt's adoration of spare, cyclic sounds, he does not regard himself a minimalist. The world, however, begs to differ, which is why Pärt, Meredith Monk and Michael Torke are included in the Los Angeles Philharmonic's “Minimalist Jukebox” festival. Pärt's By the Waters of Babylon, We Sat Down and Wept is a meterless, wordless journey, with abstract vowel sounds lending austerity to the strict outlines of a mournful A minor chord. Inspired by Psalm 137 (so, too, was the African-American vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock), the eight-minute work comforts with unison octaves, counter melodies and lines that alternate between solos, duets and full chorus. After building to a fortissimo, the piece ends abruptly, as if Pärt, himself, is beaming it into the stratosphere. The composer's 1990 The Beatitudes, a complex chain of modulations wending through major and minor chords, is his first foray into setting the English language. The chosen text, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven,” from the Gospel of Matthew, is composed in a one-note-per-syllable style, which also gives the silence created between tones (when the organ is not sustaining a single low note), an immediate emotional impact. The mammoth “amen,” in block chords, appears to signify the work's end, but Pärt, ever the mischievous mystic, has the organ launch into an epic toccata, decreasing in volume while ascending in arpeggiated pitches, all coming to rest on the opening F minor harmony.
While it's been said that Schubert's pen was fifty per cent ink, fifty per cent tears, the writing implement of Minimalism's reigning godmother, Meredith Monk, must be one hundred percent originality. Indeed, last month the 63-year old playwright/choreographer/filmmaker/singer/dancer celebrated 40 years in the arts with a four-hour bash at Carnegie Hall. And thus is it music that remains the center of her work. Beginning with “Fields, Clouds” from her “Book of Days,” Monk, with two members of her ensemble, makes her long-awaited Chorale debut. Creating music of ritualistic incantations that seem to harken back to a time before notation, Monk also performs “Invisible Light,” the third act from her 1991 opera Atlas. Loosely based on the travel writings of Victorian adventurer Alexandra David-Néel, with travel a metaphor for spiritual quest and commitment to inner vision, the 25-minute segment features 40 voices with virtually no text. Essentially an a cappella improvisation on vocal sounds or phonemes, the opus requires feats of technical prowess that cover the laryngeal waterfront. From graceful burbles, breathless tremolos and repeating phrases to overtone singing, chic squeaks and wistful wails (think contemporary pop songstress Fiona Apple), the music, like that of Pärt, transcends the notion of a time-space continuum. Embracing a theme that deals with resonance and sheer energy, the sound sorceress says she was thinking of “a timeless radiant space and how a place or space could ring.” As Monk's work is passed down from voice to voice, person to person - “like the wind going through a kind of hocket” - the performers also hold hands while passing musical tones from one voice to another. Creating a shimmering world of inner harmonies, this aural tapestry also becomes visual, as we, the audience, allow the music to soak through our skins into our very beings. Monk, the eternal mythmaker, finds answers in the tendernesses of the moment, as Alexandra returns to Earth, older and wiser, sitting serenely, drinking coffee. The voyage, vastly about each one of us, has also become an inner trek of the heart.
In contrast to Monk's ecstatic wordless vocal pirouettes, Wisconsin-born Michael Torke creates huge splashes of color with the orchestra. A synaesthete (like Messiaen before him), this 44-year old sees color in response to sound. Erupting onto the scene in the early 80s while still a student at Yale, Torke made high-octane, rock-tinged music that was inspired from the harmonic and melodic repetitions of minimalism (shades of Philip Glass), and today can be heard in the Black Eyed Peas, constructed, as they are, with the rhythmic vibrancies of house music. Shot through, as well, with sweeping melodies as if channeled from classic films (think Train's Pat Monahan fused with the torchy beauty of David Raksin's “Laura”), this is an appealing combination. In his 1992 Book of Proverbs, Torke has devised an ingenious use of fortune-cookie maxims as a way into short, recognizable musical phrases. “I don't stop at a mere correspondence,” says Torke, “but I develop a one-to-one attachment of musical notes and words - almost as if permanent, unyielding knots were tied.” When Torke manipulates the notes, the words of the text become differently sequenced, as well. Composed in eight movements, the 35-minute piece features full chorus (in different combinations and expanding throughout), and orchestra, with the addition of a phat, jiving saxophone quartet. After a fanfare-like opening for orchestra, “The Door Turns” (altos, tenors and basses), begins in a straightforward manner before fragmenting and turning back on itself. Funkified with saxes, the effect is similar to that produced by a DJ scratching vinyl. Sung only by the women, “Better a Dry Crust,” by keeping its rhythm but arranging the notes from low to high, delivers a popish song quality, while “The Whip for the Horse” features men alone, their heavy syncopation reminiscent of a grooving Nelly. The use of soprano and baritone soloists in the fifth and sixth parts, “The Way of an Eagle” and “Drink our Fill of Love,” respectively provides aural bling, the saxes in the latter approaching Sondheim harmonic territory. “Like the Man who Seizes,” a Bach-like chorale setting, is augmented by filigreed orchestral textures. Finally, with the full chorus singing “Boast Not of Tomorrow,” a big-band energy provides a brilliant bravura finish. Nurturing, invigorating and healing, the singular and sumptuous music of Pärt, Monk and Torke make living in the moment a magnificent experience.
Victoria Looseleaf is a freelance arts writer and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Reuters and Performances Magazine. In addition, she is the producer and host of the long-running cable access television show on the arts, “The Looseleaf Report.” Next month Ms. Looseleaf will be honored with a special achievement Lester Horton award, “Furthering the Visibility of Dance.”