After long struggling with Soviet censorship and mandated state aesthetics, Arvo Pärt immigrated to the West in 1980, but he returned to his native Estonia after the fall of Communism. He is widely considered to be the living composer most frequently performed in live concert and is arguably the most important (with all due respect to Adams and Glass). His compositions are not traditional crowd pleasers, but they have a distinctive power that is immediately audible. Receptive audiences can hear it for themselves when Paul Hegeman’s insightful documentary That Pärt Feeling: The Universe of Arvo Pärt releases today on DVD.
Pärt’s compositions are much more harmonically advanced than many pop listeners will be accustomed to, but that does not mean his music is inaccessible. Instead of hummable melodies, his compositions are more about the totality of the listening experience and the transportive and transformative effect they have on listeners. Several musicians eloquently describe the challenges of playing Pärt. It is not the notes are prohibitively difficult. The trick is finding the right rhythms and timbres. That is what they say, but the stormy violin passage we hear from Tabula Rasa: I. Ludus certainly looks and sounds like quite a test of the musicians’ dexterity and endurance.
Although Hegeman only includes about a thimble full of biography, he clearly establishes how Pärt’s music was forged during the period of Communist oppression and continues to be inspired by his profound Christian Orthodox faith. Pärt has a reputation for being something of an ascetic recluse, but the man we see in Hegeman’s film is very much engaged in the world and has a knack for working with musicians.
That is interesting to watch, but the really valuable aspect of Feeling are the keys Hegeman’s interview subject provide into Pärt’s music. They really help unlock his work for new listeners. Those with an open mind and open ears should be inspired to dive into Pärt’s oeuvre after viewing. Of course, some will just find it too far removed from pre-packaged disposable music from the likes of the Jonas Brothers and Cardi B, but that’s fine if you’re okay being an uncultured philistine.