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Category: reviews

“That Pärt Feeling”: a beautiful film celebrating Arvo Pärt’s music

A beautiful documentary film That Pärt Feeling: The Universe of Arvo Pärt (2019, Paul Hegeman – Vimeo) brings together musicians, conductors and collaborators to celebrate Arvo Pärt’s musical life. Viewers are taken behind the scenes of several rehearsals and performances, and given insights from people whose work has been entwined with Pärt’s. The Estonian composer is the world’s most-performed classical music composer alive.

Arvo Pärt

Each musician commenting on the impact of Pärt’s music speaks with awe, enthusiasm and even love. Estonian conductor Tõnu Kaljuste describes the journey Pärt has been on across decades of creative work together. This is seen best in the changes that occur across the four symphonies. For Kaljuste, Pärt’s music has “distance, which at the same time touches you”.

Tõnu Kaljuste

Classically trained electronic musician Kara-Lis Coverdale credits the composer with returning her to “fundamentals in music”. She points to Pärt’s use of triad chords: they “somehow sound so full, you don’t really need anything else”. Coverdale describes the angles and form in the music as architectural and almost mathematical. Whether listening or playing, she sees clear lines, not images, nor a romantic vision.

Kara-Lis Coverdale

Alain Gomis created a film, Félicité, where Orchestre Kimbanguiste de Kinshasa perfomed “Arvo Pärt digested by the Congo”. They play Antiphones which “represents a kind of beauty that can exist in your heart.” Gomis observes that “[Pärt’s] music influences the way you look… it takes you to a place you don’t know, but which you recognise as a human being.” Indeed, Pärt’s works affirm the significance of our daily experiences. 

Raoul Boesten of the Chamber Choir Kwintessens comments that Pärt’s music “puts you at ease, it relaxes you, it brings you closer to yourself. It’s confrontational, but at the same time comforting.” Boesten retells one of Pärt’s stories of having attended a concert where a dog was present. The music was played beautifully, and at each climax, the dog would howl. “Arvo Pärt loved that the dog was so ecstatic.”

Raoul Boesten

Pärt invites musicians and listeners alike to take a risk and allow his music to impact us. One collaborator comments that playing Pärt’s compositions involves “walking on thin ice – very beautiful but always with some danger.” A story is told of a person in Wales who approached the musicians to describe an emotional catharsis experienced during a concert, where now they want to do life differently. So it is “you have to take his music seriously. He intends something great with his music.”

The composer appears in the film to give guidance to the Cello Octet Amsterdam as they play his music. Pärt moves his body in step with the musical phrases, backwards and forwards, mouth open, and clicking to draw the music to a pause. He affirms that such music, as a communal enterprise, is not about virtuosic individuals, but a union of voices.

The spiritual commitment of Pärt to Christian faith fills his music with scriptural inspiration and a sense of mystery at the centre of things. Take Fratres, for instance, which is “about fraternity and unity” while not shying away from naming “the rupture between people”. The music becomes a prayer for those listening. “What he has to say is so extraordinary – his music takes you on a spiritual journey.”

The attentiveness and care Pärt offers to the cello ensemble inspires them to unite in creating something beautiful. The last lines in the film are Pärt’s: “One always has to dust off the old sounds. It is also important for me when I listen or when I work together with others, to have a creative access. We have to come together and then give new life to work. That’s how it is.”

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Reading Charles Taylor on Augustine on the self

In Sources of the Self, philosopher Charles Taylor traces the Western sense of the self as it evolved from Plato to Augustine and on to today. Taylor’s chapter on Augustine moved me deeply; I read it three times.

For Plato, the centre for moral growth is attention. Taylor writes: “Facing the right field is what is decisive. We may have to struggle to rise to this, but the struggle is over the direction of our gaze.” For Augustine, growth occurs through love: “Everyone becomes like what s/he loves.” For both Plato and Augustine, the direction of our attention and love is very important. For Augustine, however, “it is love and not attention which is the ultimately deciding factor.”

In a significant development for Western thought, Augustine connects Plato’s light metaphors with John’s Gospel. “The light of God is not just ‘out there’, illuminating the order of being, as it is for Plato; it is also an ‘inner’ light. It is the light ‘which gives light to everyone that comes into the world’ (John 1:9).” This inner light is in being present to oneself, where we discover the freedom to experience and love. In this inner light we meet God who is truth. Taylor’s humour proves helpful: “We don’t have to jostle each other to get a good look or shove people aside to touch it, truth can be enjoyed by all together.”

According to Taylor, Augustine makes “the language of inwardness” compelling. Inwardness is the primary site of relationship between human beings and God. “In [our] inner self-presence, self-love … and self-affirmation” we reveal ourselves as the image of God. Augustine’s doctrine on “the intimacy of self-presence” as hallowed has “far-reaching consequences for the whole of Western culture.”

We are healed from self-centredness when we acknowledge our dependence on God the creator “in the intimacy of our own presence to ourselves.” Augustine writes: “Do not go outward; return within yourself. In the inward [human] dwells truth.” Taylor notes that “the stress on … the inward path, is not only for the benefit of intellectuals trying to prove the existence of God; the very essence of Christian piety is to sense this dependence of my inmost being on God … Augustine is always calling us within [because] inward lies the road to God.”

Reading Charles Taylor on Augustine on the self, I pause to reflect. Throughout my life in the Christian, Catholic and Ignatian traditions, we have often stressed seeking God in others. Indeed, at our most other-focused, Christian people have promoted a “forget about self, think of others” attitude. This approach can carve out a smaller place for our personal agency. It can confine our freedom as persons.

The “turn to the self” pursued by Augustine demonstrates a “radical reflexivity” in Taylor’s view. We go to the roots of human life when we meet our very self and reflect. Understanding personal feelings, reactions, motives and actions opens an encounter with this self as deep, present and active. In seeking the truths within, we encounter God.

In reflecting on all this, our first task becomes clear: to meet, reverence and love God’s presence within oneself. As Jesus announces, “the kingdom of God is within/among you” (Luke 17:21). Within me, within you, among us.

Next, we can love God, other persons and the entire creation. Taylor editorialises on Augustine’s invitation: “When it comes to God, the right measure is to love without measure …”

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Bonobo’s ‘No Reason’ featuring Nick Murphy: years of listening

For three years now I have listened to No Reason featuring Nick Murphy by Bonobo. I listen whenever I seek the peace of the familiar. The 2017 track from the Bonobo album Migration features an uplifting rolling beat and ethereal vocals. The track accompanies me in joy and sorrow, laughter and fear.

I feel the lyrics from the opening ‘it’s beautiful’ through the long ‘sunrise’ and to the final ‘we’ve got the time of our lives now’. I am always moved by Murphy’s words ‘when music’s around, stay warm’. This music moves my heart. I emerge buoyant and more aware of hope.

Each play hits me again. I associate the track with a deepening sense of consolation over the years. My experience is of being enveloped in delight.

No Reason gives me a thrill of joy
deep in my bones, as I connect
my spirit soars into the sky.
Nick Murphy's vocals speak to my
life, 'we've got the time ... now' he
sings, calling me to fullness.
Bonobo's melodic beat and big reverb
invite my mind to relish the experience
of this moment, the call of now.
I am staying warm near this track
it fills my life with good tidings
it draws forth hope like water from a spring.
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Piano music of Bach played by Ólaffson: drama, reverence, awe

As Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólaffson’s hands glide their way over the piano, Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4 emerges as if out of a dream. The music moves with desire and intent, drawn as if by love, unto completion. We experience great glory in the union of instrument and musician.

Master violinist and Australian Chamber Orchestra Musical Director Richard Tognetti declared last year that “Bach is God to musicians“:

“We’re all disciples of Bach, as cringeworthy as that might sound. You can’t help it. Study any piece of his – and, unlike with anyone else, every piece, every damn piece, is the work of the hands and brains of a genius.”

Richard Tognetti

If Bach is God, Ólafsson here is reverently caring for the creation. The sounds the Icelandic virtuoso draws forth from his piano evoke a calming sense of peace all while telling an evolving drama of the spirit.

The notes tumble as if a stream of water could rise upstream and flow downstream on the direction of the musical master. We feel the intensity and enjoy the revolutions and resolutions entwined in each phrase. This experience is an unfolding and a binding together:

These notes are a discovering
musical phrases tumbling
over the piano like an ever-flowing
stream — sourced from above.
These revolutions are an unfolding
drama with constant movement
and liveliness capturing listeners;
we hang on every resolution.
These sounds are delight for the senses
a reaching toward completion,
a gathering together of the scattered,
a going out and a coming home.
These melodies are a retrieval
the intentions of Bach interpreted for today
like memories gratefully received
like stories heard with reverent awe.
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Savouring Emily Wilson’s translation of ‘The Odyssey’

‘Tell me about a complicated man.’ So begins Emily Wilson’s luminous translation of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey.

As I quickened my way into reading this poem, I felt consumed by and drawn into its ocean-world of light and dark. Odysseus is a bold adventurer, a passionate and courageous warrior of the seas. Now far from home, he yearns to return and so to be with his loved ones. Many obstacles come his way. The route is curcuitous and takes him to the edge of death. His every misfortune calls him to lean on the hospitality of strangers and to seek the favour of the intervening gods and goddesses.

Odysseus is a ‘big’ and complex character. He will succumb to his own weakness, even when forewarned. He can say outrageous things. But within a context of his bravado and ‘heroism’, the world of the text seems to welcome (and then challenge) his ego. The gods care deeply about his journey, wondering what to do with him. Their various interventions often come disguised (Athena’s especially). His ship’s crew are skilled on the high seas and independently-minded on land. I often wanted to hear more from them.

Much had been said in reviews about Wilson’s skilful and sensitive rendering of the scene when Odysseus hears ‘the otherworldly Sirens’ singing to him from their island. Having anticipated this part of the text so much, when I read these lines I gasped in appreciation. Much of the text was like this, moving me to pause to savour and lather in the word pictures crafted by Wilson’s translation.

Book Cover: The Odyssey
Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey sings on every page.

A prompt for self-reflection

Significantly, Odysseus’ journey took me deep into reflecting on my own. The poem’s language, image and metaphor speak to some of my experience. I too have crossed unknown seas to strange shores. There have been times I have felt far from home and longingly sought return. Looking back, I recognise that I have experienced the restorative power of providential journeying, cast forward by a grace I can only attribute to divinity. I have also experienced the upheaval brought about by spirits of unease and distress here attributed to lesser gods.

The experience of reading this poem gave me a generous feast for the senses, a magnificent meal for the imagination. I often paused to appreciate the beauty of the translation which sings like a top choir hitting all the notes of their renaissance polyphony. This is a gorgeous, big-hearted, uplifting, and transformative experience of Homer’s epic. I felt invited to enter a larger world.