There is great art; and there is popular art. Many people believe that there is a stark difference between the two. Great art is the stuff of transcendence; it demands our attention and takes us to a higher plain. Popular art is the stuff of commercialism.
Very few artists are taken seriously in both realms. One of them is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
Pärt, 78, who is coming to the East Coast for the first time in 30 years. In his native land, he has the status of a rock star. In the West, his popularity also extends beyond the traditional classical music world. His music has been performed by major orchestras, from the Los Angeles Philharmonic to the National Symphony Orchestra, but it is also beloved of musicians from Björk to R.E.M. to Radiohead. His free concert in Washington on Tuesday — presented by the Estonian Embassy as part of an initiative called The Arvo Pärt Project— will be held not in a small space but in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, which seats 2,400.
The popular imagination embraces the holy men of music: the singing Benedictine monks and nuns whose recordings burst onto the pop charts. Pärt touches this chord. Bearded, gentle and monkish in appearance, he writes music of direct, unabashed and often openly religious spirituality.
In Washington, this music — a cross-section of Pärt’s major works from the past three-plus decades — will be performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the Talinn Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Tonu Kaljuste, one of the foremost interpreters of Pärt’s work. (The Phillips Collection presents a chamber concert of Pärt’s music on Thursday.)
“These are musicians who understand the essence of my music without words,” Pärt said in an e-mail from Estonia.
Sacred and serious, yes. But Pärt is not unworldly. And his work has found a perfect popular vehicle: the concept album. In 1984, Manfred Eicher, the music producer who founded the jazz label ECM, launched his New Series imprint with Pärt’s album “Tabula Rasa,” bringing together, among other artists, the classical violinist Gidon Kremer and the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett. The release, and the enduring association with ECM, put and kept Pärt on the international map.
“From the very beginning,” Eicher says, “it was important for Arvo and me to find a dramatic line from beginning to end” of an album. He adds, “I think people who follow the music of Arvo Pärt still listen conceptually, as album listeners.”
They don’t just listen. They steep in it. Pärt’s music is startling in its distinctive, meditative originality. He’s sometimes called a “minimalist,” but this is a descriptive term rather than a categorization. In most of his music, he uses a technique he calls tintinnabulation, which juxtaposes a melody, generally moving from one adjacent note to another without big interval leaps, and its associated triad, the three notes of a chord (do-mi-sol). “One line is who we are,” the composer said in a 2010 interview with the New York Times, “and the other line is who is holding and takes care of us.”
There’s a trippy inexorability to this technique’s forward motion, which balances a sense of fragility against a sense of purpose, a focus on minutiae against an eye to the whole. “I recall things that he said about a beautifully played note, and getting down to the original note,” says David Harrington, the violinist and founder of the Kronos Quartet, the contemporary string quartet-cum-band, which has performed and recorded several of Pärt’s works. Pärt himself speaks, in Dorian Supin’s documentary “24 Preludes for a Fugue,” of “a need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.”
To some classical musicians, the approach thus described is simplistic; to many listeners, the result is inspiring, yielding a shimmering and deeply felt beauty.
“The purity and the intensity, the drama of the quiet in his music has been evident from the first time I heard his work,” says Eicher, who encountered Pärt’s music while driving one night from Stuttgart to Zurich, and had to pull the car over so he could focus on listening. “To me, it was important to be close [to that.] It was a kind of magnetic field.”
“His music is not improvised,” he adds, “but the spirit of his music invites people who make improvised music, jazz, to listen. [It’s] very inviting music. [It’s] almost like a cathartic experience, listening to Arvo Part’s music” for the first time.
The story of Arvo Pärt’s creative life makes a satisfying parable, embodying the popular and often inaccurate narrative of an artist withdrawing from the world and searching for years before finding his own creative voice. Born in Estonia to a nonmusical family, he learned to play piano on an instrument that lacked several keys; as a child, he would whistle to fill in the missing notes. He became a rising star of the Soviet avant-garde in the 1960s; the first Estonian to embrace the 12-tone system, he subsequently explored a collage technique that alternated 12-tone segments with quotes from Bach and other composers to introduce an element of gentleness. In 1968, he caused a scandal with “Credo,” which juxtaposed Bach themes with manic, ferocious outbursts, though the scandal concerned less the music than its use of religious texts, taboo in the Soviet Union. After that, Pärt fell silent.
For the bulk of the next eight years, he immersed himself in music of a single line: Gregorian plainchant, a liturgical tradition centuries old, filling his notebooks with rising and falling lines of small individual dots. There were a few visible developments. A Third Symphony in 1971 marked a bridge from the intense complexity of his dodecaphonic works to the intense simplicity of what was to follow. In 1972, he married his second wife, Nora, a trained conductor who has become a musical partner, conferring with him about every aspect of his work. They both converted to Orthodoxy soon thereafter. And the plainchant continued.
“Holy men have left behind all their wealth and are heading for the desert,” he was quoted as saying in “The Cambridge Companion to Arvo Pärt.” “Similarly, the composer wishes to leave behind the entire modern arsenal and save himself through naked monophony carrying only that which is crucial — the triad.”
And it was with the triad that he emerged from his inner exile in 1976 with “Für Alina,” a piano piece that introduced tintinnabulation to the world with the slightly unsteady gait of a newborn lamb. The piece remains one of his best-known, and marked the start of a period of prolific creation that has continued pretty much steadily ever since.
The Kennedy Center program ranges from “Fratres,” written in 1977, the vehicle of the Jarrett-Kremer pairing on the “Tabula Rasa” album, to “Adam’s Lament” from 2009, the centerpiece of Pärt’s most recent ECM recording. It includes the homage Pärt wrote to a perhaps unlikely musical influence, Benjamin Britten, and the larger-scale, explicitly liturgical “Te Deum.” The choral works, wedding to a text, are less mutable than the purely instrumental pieces, some of which, like “Fratres,” exist in many different forms. “It’s possible to find new formats to a lot of his pieces,” says Harrington, who long kept a quartet version of “Fratres” in the Kronos repertoire. (He describes the piece as “someone coming closer and closer and closer to a source and then basically turning around and leaving that source.”)
In Eicher, Pärt found a producer who shared his aesthetic, if not his religious sensibilities. Neither places much importance on the opinions of the world. Both strive for spareness and clarity — qualities that has led Pärt to be criticized for his facility, and Eicher for the coolness of his recordings. Eicher doesn’t necessarily take this as a criticism. Working with Pärt, he says, “led me to question the number of notes I’m recording, to be pure and aesthetically clear and transparent. There’s a good phrase by [the poet Paul] Valéry: What is more mysterious than clarity?”
“We have to experience listening again,” Eicher concludes, “and learn how to listen. If you want to experience the art of listening, or the gesture of listening, then you should try to listen to Pärt’s music from the beginning to “Adam’s Lament,” and you will learn how to listen to things and what is important: Hear the silence and the space and the transparency, and find out about the mystery through listening.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the composer was coming to the United States for the first time in 30 years. He is coming to the East Coast for the first time in 30 years.
Estonia in Concert: The Music of Arvo Pärt Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall; tickets are free. www.estoniainconcert.com. 202-588-0101. On Thursday, the Phillips Collection presents a concert of Pärt’s chamber music at 6:30 p.m.; tickets are sold out. A panel discussion co-sponsored by St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y., and the Arvo Pärt Project, will take place Wednesday afternoon at 3 at George Washington University’s Jack Morton Auditorium. music.columbian.gwu. 202-994-6245.