Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: The Fullness of Emptiness: Riffing on Arvo Pärt

18 October 2007

The Fullness of Emptiness: Riffing on Arvo Pärt

With this entry, I'll be commenting on the sage wisdom of visionary composer Arvo Pärt. Pärt's minimalist soundscapes are a major feature of the Twentieth Century's musical terrain; his is a particularly windblown and barren, starkly beautiful land, with grand vistas and time-carved expanses. It's rare that an artist evokes such obvious and linear geographic metaphors for me, but I love Pärt's music for the exact same reason that I love the badlands of Wyoming. Both are vast and open and take ages to cross. Both are dotted by the miniature embellishments of dry and rugged plants or the occasional orchestral flourish, and are riven by the traces of scarce water's seasonal flow or a change of key, equally sudden and embraced.

The hugeness of the American West has inspired countless poets and cowboy philosophers, and I count myself among them. So it is little wonder that I experience the same hugeness in Pärt's symphonies as a giant sky, into which my attention spills and spills, a beckoning horizon just faint enough to yield to my conjectures. He demonstrates in human craft what being in such a place will tell you: that emptiness makes room for form. Absence is suggestive. All sound arises from silence.

What follows are quotes from Pärt I found in the liner notes to a collection of his recordings (Pärt: Tabula rasa/Fratres/Symphony No. 3a, 1999 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg) - and, in the tradition of the commentators on Sun Tzu's Art of War or Lao Tzu's Book of Changes, my own embellishments on what he has to say. I think his musings and those of the Eastern sages are equally profound. Hopefully some of you will find my contributions worthwhile, as well.

(Arvo Pärt - Tabula Rasa: I. Ludus, Tabula Rasa: II. Silentium)

"I need to withdraw in order to depict something objective. The greater our ability to stand back and feel the wing-beat of time, the more powerful will be the impact of the work of art. Time's beating wing affects us in two ways: on the one hand creating uncertainty, endless complications, chaos; on the other hand, order. It is the simultaneity of life and death." (p.3)

Creativity requires a balance between detachment and immersion - the forest and the trees. In the moment of inspiration, the composer is not separate from the composition. Improvisation requires one to be completely within the music, but this is balanced with a period of revision, of review. If you are to make a transparent offering with your music, you cannot criticize yourself while you are writing, but neither can you be open to every idea that comes to you when the time comes to redraft your work. Great creativity is a balance between the art and the craft (or the science). We as limited creatures are usually incapable of both at once, so these are taken in turn, serially.

This is one way in which "the wing-beat of time" appears in music. The finished piece is like the channel of a river, starting with a blanket of rain and gathering into the sweeping curve of the earth, summer after summer, one storm after another. Discernment and discrimination determine the final artifact left by a wash of emotion. The clarity of our messages are determined by our ability to ride the ebb and flow of growth and paring, intimacy and perspective, passion and choice, as these things arise naturally. The feminine provides and the masculine decides.

A more complex environment - a rich imagination, or a diverse ecosystem - provides more raw material with which to sculpt new meaning. Consequently, the most complicated music in the world is written in response to the most complicated times. The more chaos there is in the system, the more structure appears to make sense of it.

Add enough heat to wood and you get the living crystal of flame - directionality, current, and contour. Ilya Prigogine called this a "dissipative structure": a pattern that forms to best bear the strain of additional energy in a system. Add a thousand things for people to talk about, and mere words no longer suffice. Sooner or later, you get syntactic language; "it's how the cookie crumbles." Water forms hexagonal cells right before it boils. Force people into chains and you get rhythm and blues. Force infinity into people and you get musicians.

And for the record, randomness is defined by mathematicians as our inability to discern the order in a pattern. Neither exists without the other; neither is more foundational. They are reciprocal, and great musicians are aware of this. Mature creativity is walking the shoreline of an island of reality that rises from a sea of potential. The shore is always being redrawn, both by the waves and by our footsteps. On our next pass, we'll have to draw a different map. Life and death are in love with each other, and together they conceive each new moment as a variation on the theme of the last - even in the tiniest gesture, in some improvised flourish, or the serendipitous recording of studio banter.

"You have to limit yourself and cut back a lot, both within yourself and in terms of what is around you. And this is also reflected in the music. If I know nothing about something, it is not right that I should say anything about it either. But if I have discovered something, even if it is very little, I say so: very briefly and as directly and as concentratedly as I can, since I, too, am concentrating on the thing in question. That's why the notes that I write may be no more than cues." (p.5)

First, a musician must have an idea. But then, as Ken Wilber said, "Part of being a good writer is selecting words that have a minimum number of alternative meanings, so you can communicate a coherent message." We can not be honest with ourselves and expect our music to fully describe our inner experience. The first-person world and the third-person world are lovers, but they are ultimately incommensurable. There is no valid way to measure one in the language of another. Magritte said, "Every painting starts as a romance and ends as a rape." We can succumb to this cynicism, or we can accept that no quantity will ever replace a quality. All of our words are "no more than cues."

In embracing this, however, we can be playful with our language. Knowing that no single song will ever satisfy, I am liberated from the burden of writing the perfect song. The song I am now writing shows something beautiful and unique, and anyway, there will be more. I know there is no such thing as the Great American Novel, so I can get on with writing my story. I am free to write about the "very little," because I am no longer chained to the task of capturing Everything in Something. And the less I try to do so, the more space I leave for the listener to notice that indeed, every thing does lead home to Everything.

"I have discovered that it is enough if a single note is played beautifully. This single note, the sense of peace or silence have a calming effect on me." (p.4)

One word suggests more than two ever could. Candlelights will always be sexier than floodlights. Emptiness yields. The blank page tells every story, which is why writer's block is so overwhelming: we tremble before the mystery of our own omnipotence. Lao Tzu: "The Master says nothing, and leaves nothing unsaid."

"My music was always written after I had long been silent in the most literal sense of the word. When I speak of silence, I mean the 'nothingness' out of which God created the world. That is why, ideally, musical silence is sacred. Silence is not simply given to us, but in order that we may draw sustenance from it. This sustenance is no less valuable to me than the air I breathe. There's an expression: to live on air and love. I'd like to rephrase this: if you approach silence with love, music may result. A composer often has to wait a long time for this music. It is this reverent sense of expectation that constitutes the brief silence of which I am so fond." (p.5)

I have studied a little bit of neuroscience, enough to know that we do not experience things, but the differences between things. We see boundaries, and our brains conserve resources by assuming the rest. So when I say that no sound exists without silence, I mean it in the least metaphysical, most flesh-and-blood way possible. To experience is to compare. We owe all of our music to silence, even if we never stop to thank it. The single piece of advice common to every musician, no matter the instrument, is to play the rests. Play the rests.

There is also, however, a silence beneath silence. The rests emerge in this openness, the deeper silence in which we make our comparisons. Needless to say, you cannot hear it. But maybe you should try.

(Written for iggli.com)