Since I’ve been rocking the house the last couple of days, let’s do serenity instead. Specifically, Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, for string orchestra and bell, by Arvo Pärt, one of my musical heroes. Here’s how good this is: It just about got me killed, the first time I heard it. Which was on a rented car’s radio in England, heading up the M3, where they drive fast; I was jet-lagged and I caught myself closing my eyes at 85mph to savor the fading tones of the church bell.
Arvo Pärt is an Estonian, elderly but still active. He Believes In God, big-time, and knowing this may help you enjoy his music. I find that Not Believing In God Or The Easter Bunny doesn’t get in the way of enjoying it. But it’s mostly all-serenity-all-the-time; except when it isn’t, and Pärt gets good musical mileage out of the shock value on those occasions. But the Cantus, Pärt’s biggest hit, stays in Calmsville. On first listen, it’s an endless sweet-sounding descending line that gets lower and loader for six-ish minutes, with a churchy-sounding bell floating its chimes softly over the descent.
But listen closely. There’s plenty happening under the surface of that phat descending line. A visit to this YouTube is recommended for those who can read an orchestral but you can hear it if you listen; Pärt is going to a lot of work to paint a simple picture. I’m pretty sure that listening to this is a good investment for six minutes of your life.
There’s a lot of musical mileage in that descending line; Bach used it all the time, and so did a guy I bet you haven’t heard of named Jake Holmes, who wrote a song called Dazed and Confused, which I bet you have.
Pärt is an interesting guy; there have been any number of documentaries, all good, and some intermittently available on YouTube. There’s also an interview by Bjork that’s worth hearing - starts a couple minutes into the clip. In Estonia, there’s an Arvo Pärt Centre, with concert listings and an interesting Twitter feed.
Links · iTunes, Amazon, Spotiry. As for live video, it seems like every orchestra in the world has posted one to YouTube. As a service to you, dear reader, I watched lots of them, and these stuck in my memory: Järvi with the Orchestre de Paris (watch the conductor’s arms shaking as he tries to pull more and more out of the violin section) and the Baltic Sea Orchestra, whose string players are almost all women.