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William Edgar


Maximal Minimalism

Arvo Pärt converted to Russian Orthodoxy and brought depth to his music.

The music of Arvo Part (the ar is pronounced like "heir," so it's "Peirt") bids us enter an unhurried world. More precisely, it takes us into the realm where "deep calls forth unto deep," and time is a faculty of life in the Spirit. His De Profundis, a setting of Psalm 130 (129 in the Vulgate), is a musical metaphor of the composer's challenge to the uncontrolled clamor of our age. This psalm is one of the psalms most frequently set to music by Western composers. In Part's version the texture is elemental, consisting of open chords and punctuated only by the most subtle changes. Like a Japanese vase, it has a simple consistency that yet draws its admirer slowly into its rich grain. Scored for a choir of male voices, organ, and chimes, it moves slowly, very slowly, from the haunting plea, "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord," to the climactic confidence of "Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy," and finally it returns to the quiet confidence that "He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities." Besides articulating the psalmist's experience with the power of sparse language, it is a quintessential countercultural statement.

We live in an overarticulated world, full of signs, symbols, sounds, images: an environment where noise pollution is so pervasive that we are largely unconscious of it. Some artists, it is true, celebrate the noise. Stuart Davis declared that art should not fight for contemplation, but should reflect a Public View of Satisfaction of Impulse, incorporating taxicabs, electric signs, and fast travel as its main images. But many others invite us to leave modernity, at least in its more secular temper, for another world, a simpler, more profound sphere. The way to get there is by the austere language of minimalism.

It would be unjust to label Part a minimalist without a word of explanation. The minimalist movement is arguably one of the most compelling trends in the arts in recent times, though it has not been well ...

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