To a greater or lesser extent, all genuinely creative experiences express the presence of a world of infinite potential within the finite world of our everyday experiences. The poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) once referred to music (and by extension, all artistic endeavors) as a kind of revelation, “a sort of nebulous mediator” between spirit and matter. However, it is important to note that the mediation involved here is not between two different worlds (spirit and matter). Rather, it is a kind of opening up our awareness to the profound unity of life, the indistinguishability between things we perceive in a material way (such as sounds, sights, and movements) and the largely unfathomable reality from which these things emerge and into which they return (which can be symbolized by silence). This confluence of the finite and infinite aspects of our lives is beautifully illustrated by a compositional technique known as tinntinnabuli, developed by Estonian composer, Arvo Part (b. 1935).
For Part, the word “tinntinnabuli” evokes the nature of ringing bells. When a bell is struck, its sound continues indefinitely, in the sense that our ears cannot detect the point at which it ceases. So, the sound of a bell provides a compelling image of something material merging into infinity, returning to the mysterious wholeness of reality, symbolized by silence. Part’s compositional method, which evolved after many years of experimentation with other techniques, is a concrete expression of this idea of experiencing sound in the context of its immersion in infinity.
Briefly, the tinntinnabuli style involves an interplay between two musical voices. One voice is derived from a simple consonant musical triad and reflects the infinite, universal “ground” or context for all sound. The other voice is based on a distinctive musical element, such as a specific type of scale, and reflects the world within which we conduct our lives. The relationship between these two voices is expressed in some specific way throughout a composition, and it is this specific and constant relationship that gives each piece of music its unique character.
In various interviews and writings about this compositional technique, Part has made it clear that he considers the two voices are in reality one voice. In fact, he uses the short formula 1+1=1 as a succinct description of everything involved with creating a piece of music in the tinntinnabuli style. Included in the word “everything” are states of mind that Part says he “wanders into” when he is searching for answers about his life and work and how intimately they are entwined. These remarks reflect the composer’s deeply spiritual, even mystical, orientation towards life, and to my mind provide as fine a glimpse as one is likely to find of a life that integrates one’s chosen field of activity with one’s deepest personal beliefs.
Clearly, for Arvo Part, his tinntinnabuli music is a manifestation of his way-of-being in our world. And whenever I hear one of his pieces composed in this style—such as Fur Alina (1976) or Spiegel im Spiegel (1978)—I am reminded of the profound serenity that accompanies life-experiences that are genuinely spiritual in the sense of being grounded in the unity of all things. Such serenity is possible, I believe, because, when we can sense the presence of infinite life in the midst of whatever we are doing, we can also accept the limitations of being involved with finite things and events.
“We have minds that are “at home” in the unfathomableness of our world:
minds that can be inspired by the infinite variety of our universe simply by
looking at a star-filled sky, or a tiny insect traveling across a leaf, or by listening
to the sound of water splashing against a shore, or someone performing a
beautiful piece of music.”
P. D. Crawford, from At Home in Infinity (p. 90)
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