"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, May 4, 2015

Peter Bouteneff on Arvo Part

I have had a chance to interview Peter Bouteneff about his recent book to which I drew attention earlier. Bouteneff, a professor at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood, New York, is the author of such works as Sweeter Than Honey: Orthodox Thinking on Dogma And Truth and Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives. Here are his thoughts on his latest work.

AD: Tell us about your background
My first degree was in music – I studied jazz and ethnomusicology at New England Conservatory in the early 80’s. After travels far and wide, including a 2-year sojourn in Japan, I ended up at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, and then at Oxford for further theological studies. I spent five years in Geneva with the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC, and I’ve been teaching at St. Vladimir’s since 2000.

AD: What led to the writing of this book, Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence?

I first met the composer in 1990 and have been smitten by his music ever since. In 2011, my colleague Nicholas Reeves and I conceived of what would become The Arvo Pärt Project at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. That was a massive, all-consuming undertaking that led to concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to the composer’s first New York appearance in 30 years. But the Project had always had a more reflective and theological dimension in mind as well. Once the concerts were over, I could devote attention to the book, which I’d been thinking about for the better part of a year. I also had several important conversations with Arvo and Nora Pärt that fed the book at crucial moments.

AD: For those not familiar with Pärt, give us a brief sketch of the man

Owing to at least three factors (his shyness and love of quiet, his beard, and commentators’ apparent need to Orientalize and exoticize him) he has this reputation for being “a monkish recluse.” He is indeed shy, but can be very animated, witty, whimsical, fun, and quite serious too. And comfortable with silence. As the world’s most-performed living composer, he is resigned to his fame, and to the effect of his music on people. Somehow he remains completely humble.

AD: You mention your first exposure to his music while you were a doctoral student at Oxford. Tell us about his Passio and your reaction to it. 

Well, I kind of describe that experience at the outset of the book, but that concert represented a turning point of my life. The book also concludes with a walk-through of that same composition, as a way of summarizing several of my recurring themes.

AD: In your introduction, you quote Pärt himself as saying that to understand his musical philosophy, one needs to turn to the Church Fathers. Are there specifically “patristic” influences on his music that you have detected, or was this a short-hand way of referring more generally to the influence of Orthodoxy on his music and life? 

The latter, for sure. But much of my book is concerned with proposing connections between Pärt’s music and certain scriptural, patristic, liturgical, and ascetical themes in the Orthodox tradition. I never claim that the composer drew on these very same sources, or consciously constructed his music on the themes as I construe them. I’m “just putting it out there,” as it were. I’ll be interested to see if my proposed connections resonate with other listeners. And with Pärt himself.

AD: In your “methodology” section, you take considerable pains to differentiate between causation and correlation when assessing the relationship between Orthodoxy and Pärt’s music. Why is it important to make these distinctions? 

Ah yes – I was just making that point, and I’m glad you notice it! It’s partly because Pärt himself is never explicit about the direct theological/spiritual sources of his music’s inner life. In fact I’m not at all sure that he has pondered the theological connections very fully. It’s more an organic, intuitive process for him. So it would be crazy-pretentious of me to presume that I’d unlocked the hidden key to his work.

AD: I confess that, as my late grandmother used to say, I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. For musical innocents such as myself, where should we start in seeking to appreciate Pärt’s music? If you were stranded on the proverbial island and could only have 3 of his compositions with you, which would you choose and why? 

You’re forcing me to choose from a treasury of riches, but let me try. The first might be Für Alina, the short, unassuming but haunting piano work with which he emerged from his eight-year compositional deadlock into his tintinnabuli style.

The second might be his Passio (the St. John Passion). This is a 70-minute immersive experience that is best experienced with close attention, following the text.

Third, Adam's Lament, to witness what he does with the text of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, setting it within a widely ranging palette of tonalities.

AD: You reflect a great deal—as your title suggests—on the role of silence in Pärt’s music. If you were to speculate a bit, do you think the huge interest in Pärt today has to do precisely with how little silence we have in our world of endless twittering and texting?

Absolutely. A great many listeners speak about his music as a refuge, giving them space to create or think.

AD: The third and final section of your book uses a phrase I first read in Schmemann many years ago: “bright sadness.” How does that notion help us to understand Pärt’s music?

It’s become a common feature of stories about Pärt – people notice this strangely “dual” quality to his music, describing it in terms of “loss and hope,” “suffering and consolation,” “zero and one,” “frailty and stability.” Pärt even adds “human and divine,” as well as “sin and forgiveness.” It’s something that listeners simply intuit, with remarkable consistency. But there is a technical feature in his music, a rule that he consistently deploys, that is at the root of that binary. Read the book to learn more…

AD: Sum up your hopes for this book, and tell us who especially should read it

My hopes: to reach a broad audience, a-religious, religious, and in-between. To bring any listener into a deeper engagement with Pärt’s music. To explore the relationship between the music’s broad, near-universal reach, and its particular roots in Orthodoxy. To yield insights into the relationship between theology and art.

AD: Having finished the book, what are you at work on now—what is the next project?

After a few long-promised essays on theological topics, I’m planning a short book on how to understand oneself as “a sinner” without going crazy with either pride or self-hatred.

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