It’s hard to write about music when you don’t know much about music. I played trombone from the sixth through the twelfth grade and was a decent player, but I’ve done nothing with music since, and I know nothing worth mentioning about music theory or official music appreciation. I can never remember the difference between light and heavy classical, for example, if those are even the proper terms (I think they are). I can read simple music (bass clef, though I could probably pick up treble pretty easily if held at gunpoint) and I can pick out melodies on a piano without much trouble, but that’s as far as it goes. I can’t name a sung pitch, and I’d be hard pressed to tap out any rhythm with any sort of dot in the notation accompanying anything of lesser value than a quarter note. And I sure can’t talk intelligently about why certain combinations of notes or rhythms provoke particular responses in us. In spite of all my deficiencies on this front, I wanted to tell you about some near-transcendental music I’ve been turned on to for a couple of years now.
It’s not often, I think, that the non-musical among us take time to sit and listen to music for its own sake. It’s something to dance to with our daughters, or something to play as background noise while we work, something to distract us from maddening traffic or, on longer trips, to help keep us awake. It’s very seldom that I, in any case, have the opportunity or inclination to listen to music as an end in itself. M had a rough night with the baby the other night (woke up at 4:00 unable to sleep) and so went to bed early the following night. Lennie crashed prematurely as well. So I had a surplus of time. I could have caught up on some work, or I could have read from one of my pile of pending books, or I could have worked on writing the great American novel, but I’ve been wanting to write about this near-transcendental music, and writing about it necessitated listening to it. And it’s long music — the piece I had particularly in mind is 26+ minutes.
For almost a half hour that night, I sat still in my big comfy chair with the iPod churning, white ear buds plugged into my head, rain and wind roaring outside the open window, my head often cradled in my hands, fingers pressing my tired eyes. The song is Tabula Rasa, by Estonian composer Arvo Part. He was born in 1935 and wrote experimental music through the 1960s. Then he went on a little hiatus and came back writing in a style he called tintinnabulation (which means the sound of ringing bells). Of this style, he said the following: “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me.” I don’t have a firm handle on what the style means or how it can be described from a music theory vantage, but I can say that Tabula Rasa is characterized by tones that either sweep back and forth on top of the melody or that subsist dully behind the melody, and I think these are probably the bells in his songs.
Here are some things I wrote down during my first listening of Tabula Rasa the other night:
first movement: tension and resolution, as of something being unraveled and frantically wound back up; mental picture of many things falling, an image out of Panic Room of stolen money bursting out of a bag into the air and falling down around the man ruined by the crime of necessity that led him to steal it. It is a movement of cascades.
second movement: long tones with shorter smooth tones oscillating between high and low pitches underneath. clarity; whereas there’s a sort of call and response in the first movement, this one is one of solitary contemplation; as the pitches ascend, it is the sound of someone coming to peace with something; it may be the sound of grace or forgiveness, then of regret, and then of peace and resolution again. It’s ethereal, conjuring images of white flowing figures, in comparison to the very earthy, tangible feel of the first movement.
Did I mention already how hard it is to write about music when you don’t know much about music? Some of the things I wrote down seemed fitting at the time and still do, but they sound pretentious or just silly after the fact. And I’m not trying to sound pretentious or silly, and in fact, I’m disclaiming any knowledge of the field, and I’m telling you honestly that I’m not capable of communicating very well about the music. But I want to tell you about it anyway because it is beautiful music, the most beautiful and stirring I know of.
I listen to Part’s music often when I’m on trips out to San Francisco. When I can, I’ll walk down to the strip at Stanford and look at the shops and the people. These walks make me feel alone (because I am alone) and nostalgic for school life and a little sad, but they’re also very peaceful and reflective and good for me. I feel very clear headed on these walks. Part’s music, and Tabula Rasa in particular, has for me a clarity and a reflectiveness that captures this mood for me. It’s more resonant than cathartic in the old Aristotelian sense. It doesn’t make me weep or emote in any direct or especially meaningful way, but it latches onto something in me and fills me with a sort of awe.
I don’t know what the music critics and theorists would have to say about his music, but it seems to me to be (at least on this album) simultaneously profoundly peaceful and sad. It makes me think of loss but it somehow redeems that sense of loss with its own crushing beauty. Even though I’m not usually a music-for-music’s sake kind of guy, and even though I can’t appreciate music from any technical vantage, I have to say that Part’s music is one of my favorite things.