Arvo Pärt: Orient & Occident (ECM New Series 1795)



Arvo Pärt
Orient & Occident

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Swedish Radio Choir
Helena Olsson soprano
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded May 28 – June 1 2001, Berwaldhallen, Swedish Radio, Stockholm
Engineers: Jan B. Larsson, Anders Hägglöf, and Rune Sundvall
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The name of Arvo Pärt has become something of an institution in the consumer culture of classical music. The “New Spiritualism” heralded by such seminal recordings as his Tabula rasa and Te Deum crystallized a sentiment that listeners were craving in the ruins of a postmodern malaise. Yet with this music came a host of expectations: it was supposed to heal us, guide us to an inner light, and provide an inexpensive and convenient means of achieving (temporary) peace. It was something to rely upon, a sonic friend that would never leave us. In believing this, however, we began to lose sight of our own powers and the tremendous dependence we were placing upon recorded media to wrestle with moral dilemmas in our stead. Beautiful and, yes, spiritual though these media are, they can never be a substitute for the enlightenment we read into them.

The frame of Orient & Occident captures the dark side of Pärt’s compositional moon. Stand too close to it, and its darkness overwhelms; too far and it becomes a mere block of shadow. Wallfahrtslied (Pilgrim’s Song), a German setting of Psalm 121, positions us at a median distance and allows us to appreciate the best of both worlds. Composed in 1984 in memory of the composer’s close friend, Estonian director Grigori Kromanov, and since revised for men’s choir and strings, it is a harrowing slice of emotion. The music seems to grit its teeth in a slow, seething discontinuation as voices lay themselves at the orchestral altar. Strings try to remain passive, yet cannot help but break free from their subordinate position with cries of supplication. Before long, they stretch themselves into the thinnest of layers, through which one may see the translucence of the “self” and the “other” and acknowledge that the same light passes through and gives both substance.

The seven-minute title composition, penned in 2000, is for strings only and continues the path that Pärt first began laying with Psalom and Trisagion. It is a grand statement, to be sure, but works its effect through tiny sonic miracles and primes us for the sojourn that awaits us in Como cierva sedienta (1998), a Spanish setting of Psalms 42-43 for women’s choir and orchestra. Exquisite winds recall 1989’s Miserere and rock like a cradle for soprano soloist Helena Olsson’s spiraling invocations. This is music firmly entrenched in its surroundings, while also content to break free from its compulsory resolutions. Strictly choral passages add pastoral unrest. Words tumble out of their own volition, filled with outbursts and infectious proclamations. Like the soul in this final Psalm, downcast even in the light of salvation, I realize that I fall into traps only of my own making. Every time I pull myself out of one, I am reminded that sounds like these are more than incidental to that struggle. Rather, they embody it to the fullest, a collective reminder of the physicality of living experience and the lessons it provides.

The title of Pärt’s eighth ECM album makes me think of colonialism and its feeble justifications for subversion. That being said, I don’t think this is what the music is about. It deals instead with the gap that links these two words and the sacrifices that fill it with song. It is the blood flowing through that emptiness, and we the plunger pulling back to suction out the contagion of enslavement that prevents us all from staring into the face of love.

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