ARVO PÄRT, ARVO PÄRT. Mr. Arvo Pärt. I’ve encountered you here and there and again and again. Such as that time at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport at the cafe counter where you were surveying some Karelian carrot pies and trying to determine which would sate your mystical appetite. You brushed by me and I turned to my eldest daughter and whispered, “There goes Arvo Pärt,” and she whispered back, with a bit more volume, “Who the heck is Arvo Pärt?” You turned around and looked at us and we pretended that we hadn’t said anything. Then you went through the rest of the day thinking you were hearing voices.
And yet at last we met in the flesh on the second floor of Carnegie Hall. “We’ve shared about five plane rides together,” I told you, shaking your composer’s hand. “Have we?” you answered, staring out into a crowd of bearded Orthodox priests. “Yes,” I said. “Oh, wow.” “So, I guess it’s time I finally introduced myself. I’m a writer and journalist…” “Oh, really.” Yes. But a writer of what? Funny tales about your homeland Estonia? Consumer genomics? No matter. If you are in Carnegie Hall, you are somebody, even if nobody knows who you are. The two hands continued to shake and then they were released and you were free of me. Mr. Pärt does not have a firm grip, but it’s not a fishy one either. There is something different about the frame, the movement of the ligaments that makes me wonder if he really is all human. How could he be? For I have shared much of the same human existence as him and have not produced anything as eternal or profound. How does it happen? Two babies. One matures into a wannabe Tintin, the other crystallizes into Arvo Pärt and invents his own minimalist style called Tintinnabuli.
It’s a miracle though that we met at all. In the weeks leading up the idea of attending the concert and special reception danced about us like light gusts of late spring wind. Then I heard that celebrities were coming in from the West Coast and that the Icelandic pop singer Björk would be there. My resolve was instantly stiffened. Two tickets were reserved, one for me and her, but what of our third party, a gently slumbering sometimes rumbling gnome. “Can you bring a two year old to Carnegie Hall?” The query went out to friends who had been there before. The cryptic answer came back, “Are you joking?” Were we? She was sleeping now but what if the child’s shriek would pierce the sublime sonic of Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten?”
We’d never be let into another Arvo Pärt concert at Carnegie Hall again.
It was settled. They would head back to the hotel to recline and leaf through the books harvested from the booths of Book Expo America. I would remain to mingle and co-mingle. But to whom should we give our extra ticket? An older gentleman stood on the street corner with a handmade cardboard sign. “Need 1 Ticket for Arvo Pärt Concert.” Problem solved. “But the thing is,” he confessed to us with his somber urban humility. “I can’t afford to pay you for it.” “That’s fine,” we told him. “Today, we are your angels. You seem like you deserve it. ” “Oh, thank you, thank you, ” he gushed. “I have always loved Arvo Pärt’s music. Always. I can’t believe this is really coming true.”
In the back row of the orchestra, he told me his story. A nuclear physicist well acquainted with the strategic placement of ICBMs. Names were dropped. Henry Kissinger. Zbigniew Brzezinski. The more I looked at him and his white beard, the more I thought of Walt Whitman. And yet our conversation was pure Dr. Strangelove. He said he planned to go to Estonia in the summer, to visit the provenance of that little country’s greatest living national treasure. I imagined him strolling the cobblestone ways of the Old Town humming his music. And even when he dozed off beside me half way through the concert, I knew that Mr. Pärt had no truer a fan.
All the while I scouted the audience for famous heads. They said it was a historic event. Björk was supposedly there. Maybe Mike D from the Beastie Boys would also put in an appearance, fresh off the plane from Los Angeles. Then my life would be complete. And I wasn’t so different. Even as my physicist comrade recounted Cold War tensions in his Brooklyn brogue, he too scanned the rows until fixing on a person of importance. “Do you know who that is?” he whispered, gesturing to a middle-aged man with a black turtle neck and sports jacket in the row behind us. “No,” I said. “That’s Peter So-and-so from the New York Who’s-it, what’s-it.” Later, when the man asked me politely to lean to the right so that he could watch the concert from the left, the physicist took out his program and scribbled me a note. “Peter So-and-so just spoke to you!!!” I nodded yes. He had just spoken to me. It’s true that I didn’t know who he was, but he didn’t know me either. But what did it matter? On that night we were just the audience.
The thing about Arvo Pärt’s music is that it has been so embraced by the intelligentsia that you cannot really say anything intelligent about it anymore. Which is good in a way, because words can never do justice to sound. Words can become sound within someone’s mind, so that literature becomes its own kind of music, but to try and describe someone else’s music, especially a minimalist composer’s, becomes a ridiculous task. And I was ridiculed when I used the word “mystical” to describe it at the reception.
“It reminded me of the incense smoke that comes out of the thurible during mass,” I said, downing another free white wine. “The what?” A lady asked. “The thurible,” this former altar servant continued. “The priests burn incense in them and swing them from chains as they walk down the aisle. The music reminded me of that smoke. It was all quite mystical.” Several puzzled looks. “Well,” an Estonian lady interrupted, “I heard Arvo Pärt on NPR and he said that he hates it when people say his music is mystical.” “Really?” “Yes, he hates that word ‘mystical’ in particular. He absolutely despises it.” “Oh, he does. I see. Well, excuse me, but I am going to get another drink.”
As the evening wore on, I spoke with others and drank with others and circled the frivolity. I even encountered the Icelandic singer whose poster used to hang on my dorm room wall and about whom I have written several embarrassing columns. But that’s another story. For this story belongs to Arvo Pärt.