Arvo Pärt's White Light: An Interview with Dr. Laura Dolp

March 22, 2018
White Light
Arvo Pärt is renowned for the creation of the tintinnabuli technique, which popularized the composing style of "holy minimalism".

On March 26, Dr. Laura Dolp of Montclair State University will participate in a panel discussion with Dr. Andrew Shenton of Boston University, Dr. Charles Stang, Director of the CSWR, and Kythe Heller, PhD candidate at Harvard University, regarding the work of renowned Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Below, Dr. Dolp spoke about the intersection of religion and spirituality in Pärt's work, and how his music and influence extends to other fields:

CSWR: As a scholar of music and spirituality, what do you think makes Arvo Pärt’s compositions, and holy minimalism more generally, so popular with such a broad audience?

LD: "Holy minimalism" is a term that was largely invented by journalistic reception of Pärt's music, for the purposes of drawing his music together commercially with other composers like Henryk Górecki and John Taverner. From a formal, cultural, and ideological standpoint, the parallels between these composers break down pretty quickly so in my opinion, it's more useful to consider Pärt from the standpoint of his entire output and the crucial professional relationships that he has cultivated over the years. His music is more diverse than people generally acknowledge but if you're referring to his early tintinnabuli compositions, film has been a tremendously important means of dissemination to a broader audience. Film directors are repeatedly drawn to his music because it seems to be expressive without being sentimental. It has the capacity to hold up to intense emotion or violence, without being swept away by it. And it provides a powerful foil to stories of human dignity and morality.

CSWR: Pärt is renowned for his creation of the tintinnabuli compositional technique. How much of his music’s sense of “the sacred” can be attributed to that? Is there a sense of “the sacred” without the incorporation of tintinnabuli?

LD: The easy answer to that is: engendering the sacred is not tied to a particular formal technique. Tintinnabuli simply refers to music whose fabric is divided between melodic lines and triadic lines. As tinntinabuli music progresses, every single note of the melodic voice gets assigned a note of a triad. The triad establishes a tonal center and the melodic voice moves in and out of dissonance and consonance against this triadic line. It is a deceptively simple approach but in practice, it has a rich number of possibilities. More to your point, he has used this technique for music that is both sacred and non-sacred in its orientation.

The answer to your question gets a bit more complicated when we consider what Pärt says about tintinnabuli. His explanations of his music rarely address how it is made. Rather he speaks through analogies, weaving the personal and theological. For example, he has described the melody as “representative of my sins and my imperfect being… [the melody] is who we are” and the triadic voice as “the forgiveness that is granted to me… [the triad] is who is holding and takes care of us.” In other words for Pärt, it is a world where subjective errors are corrected, and based in Orthodox terms of sin and forgiveness. So it really depends on who is asking the question. We could say that the relationship between tintinnabuli and the sacred is ultimately a matter of assertion.

CSWR: Where do you see Pärt’s influence reaching, in music or other fields?

LD: Where do I begin? Since the early 1990s, a whole range of working artists, including choreographers, visual artists, and film directors, have incorporated his music into collaborative modes of expression. His work has made a notable impact in contemporary music but I'm particularly interested in the ways that his music will be repurposed, and embedded, into contexts for which it was not necessarily designed. Already there is a whole body of artistic work that engages Pärt's music in gorgeous and unexpected ways.