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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?
Richard Taruskin

The ethical sensibility that informs Andriessen's intentions (as, to a more or less declared extent, it does the music of all the minimalists) is the link between his openly declared political activism and its seeming antithesis, exemplified by a group of composers who use minimalist techniques to evoke or induce a state of passive spiritual contemplation. The pioneer figure here is the Estonian-born Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), whose turn toward spirituality was especially self-conscious, since it took place in a country that, as a consequence of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, had been incorporated into the militantly atheistic Soviet Union. (Estonia regained its independence in 1991, but by then Pärt had been living abroad for more than a decade.)

Educated to compose first in a neo-Romantic, then a neoclassic manner, Pärt (like a number of other young Soviet composers) rebelled against Socialist Realism in the 1960s by embracing serialism, its cold-war antithesis. Not finding in serialism a congenial alternative, he experienced a prolonged creative block which he managed to overcome thanks in part to his discovery of medieval and Renaissance music, to which he was exposed as a result of the belated spread into the Soviet Union of the “early music” movement, long established in the concert life of Western Europe and America.

Early music performers revived ancient repertoires, and also experimented with “period” performance of the more standard eighteenth- and nineteenth-century repertoire. Many impulses fed the movement. Besides the historicist emphasis on “authenticity” that the movement advertised and actively propagated, there was always a seemingly contradictory tendency to look for novelty—as well as refuge—in the more or less distant past. For Soviet musicians of the 1960s, early music offered a back door to religious experience, since so many ancient musical repertoires were associated with ancient rituals and liturgies. One could treat religious themes in code (or, to use the Russian term, in “Aesopian” language) by making stylistic reference to those repertoires.

Pärt's Symphony no. 3 (1971), the only composition he finished between 1968 and 1976, is full of echoes of the medieval music he was discovering together with his friend Andres Mustonen, who the next year founded Hortus Musicus, Estonia's first professional early-music ensemble. Ex. 8-11 shows a couple of themes from that work. The first embodies a fourteenth-century double-leading-tone cadence decorated with a “Landini sixth.” The other is a plainchant-derived melody treated as a cantus firmus against a pure diatonic “discant.”

Closing the Spiritual Circle

ex. 8-11 Two themes from Arvo Pärt, Symphony no. 3: “Doubled leading-tone” cadence, and chantlike cantus firmus

By 1976, Pärt had managed to excrete obvious archaisms like these from his style while retaining the pure diatonic idiom of Ex. 8-11b. Thus he had found an independent route to the austerely reduced tonal vocabulary then being adopted, unbeknownst to him, by Reich and Glass. His next step, paradoxically, was one that could have occurred only to a composer brought up with the creative precepts of socialist realism and its principle of obraznost’ or “imagery,” which encouraged composers to convey specific ideas in music by imitating and adapting the sounds (including the music) of surrounding reality. Applying this highly materialistic stylistic principle to the task of conveying impressions of spirituality and sublimity, Pärt fastened on the sound of bells—a sonic component of religious rituals in many traditions, but particularly in that of the Russian Orthodox Church. The evocation of bell sounds became for Pärt the sonic equivalent of an icon: a holy image that embodied mystical belief in material form.

Pärt's bell-imagery ranged from obvious onomatopoeia—bell imitations, often achieved by using a prepared piano (already freighted with “countercultural” associations courtesy of John Cage)—to a unique harmonic idiom that Pärt worked out during the early 1970s and that he called his “tintinnabular” style. A pitch produced by a tuned bell is an exceptionally rich composite of overtones, in which the fundamental can be all but overwhelmed by dissonant partials. To achieve a comparable sonic aura, Pärt accompanied the notes of a diatonic melody with “overtones” produced by the notes of an arpeggiated tonic triad in some fixed relationship to the melody notes. The English early-music singer and choral director Paul Hillier, who has become Pärt's most devoted exponent both in performance and in print, has attempted a theoretical elucidation, based in part on extensive interviews with the composer, of Pärt's tintinnabular style.70 The analytical examples that follow are his.

In each of them, an ascending A-minor scale is harmonized according to a particular application of the method. In Ex. 8-12a, the scale or melody-voice (M-voice) is harmonized by a “tintinnabuli”-voice (T-voice) that consists of the next higher pitch in the A-minor triad. Hillier calls this “1st position, superior.” Ex. 8-12b shows the “1st position, inferior,” in which the notes of the M-voice are accompanied by the next lower pitch of the triad. Exx. 8-12c and 8-12d show the “2nd position,” in which the T-voice pitch is the next but one in the triad. In Ex. 8-12e, the T-voice from Ex. 8-12b is transposed up an octave, so that all the intervals are inverted: fourths become fifths, thirds become sixths, seconds become sevenths. Such transpositions can be applied to any of the other positions. Finally, Ex. 8-12f shows the M-voice accompanied by an “alternating” T-voice in which the 1st position superior alternates with the 1st position inferior. This technique, too, can be applied to any position.

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ex. 8-12a Arvo Pärt, “tintinnabulation,” 1st position, superior

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ex. 8-12b Arvo Pärt, “tintinnabulation,” 1st position, inferior

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ex. 8-12c Arvo Pärt, “tintinnabulation,” 2nd position, superior

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ex. 8-12d Arvo Pärt, “tintinnabulation,” 2nd position, inferior

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ex. 8-12e Arvo Pärt, “tintinnabulation,” T-voice from Ex. 67-12b transposed up an octave

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ex. 8-12f Arvo Pärt, “tintinnabulation,” M-voice accompanied by “alternating” T-voice

The product is a sort of oblique organum, comparable (but far from identical) to the kinds of chant-harmonizations that were practiced as early as the ninth century. When two or more M-voices are treated in counterpoint, each will carry a T-voice (or, alternatively, a single T-voice can be shadowed both above and below by M-voices moving in parallel). The point is that an M-voice plus a T-voice is conceived as an indissoluble unit. In compound textures, the result is a modern harmonic idiom, not by any means free of dissonance (unless the second and seventh are conceived, as Pärt's quasi-Pythagorean usage suggests, as consonances). Its relationship to medieval harmonic idioms is demonstrable, but it is not in itself a historical pastiche.

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ex. 8-13 Arvo Pärt, St. John Passion, Conclusio

Since 1982, Pärt has employed the tintinnabular style almost exclusively in vocal works with Latin sacred texts. They are concert works rather than works meant for actual liturgical use; but their purpose, as the composer envisions it, is sacred. The tintinnabular style is frankly meant, by virtue of the constant presence (thanks to the T-voice) of the major or minor triad, as a manifestation of the eternal presence of God. “Such a sacralizing view of music,” Hillier comments, “is neither unique nor eccentric; it has correspondences thoughout music history, and is found in abundance in non-Western musics—moreover, without the self-consciousness forced upon it by a secular and materialistic society.”71 A good practical example is the conclusion of Pärt's setting of the St. John Passion (1982), composed shortly after the composer's emigration from the Soviet Union. Each four-note chord sung by the chorus consists of two M-voices (alto and bass) moving in parallel sixths, accompanied by T-voices in 1st position, superior (Ex. 8-13).

Pärt's best-known works are a trio of instrumental compositions written in Estonia in 1977. Fratres (“Brethren”), a sort of wordless chorale in irregular meter accompanied by a steady drone fifth and interspersed with a rhythmic percussion, exists in numerous arrangements: for violin and piano, for string quartet, for twelve cellos, for large chamber ensemble, and so on. Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, for string orchestra and bell, is strikingly “minimal” in conception. It consists of a repetitively descending A-minor scale that gradually unfolds by the progressive addition of a note to each repetition (A, A-G, A-G-F, A-G-F-E, A-G-F-E-D, etc.). The scale is treated as a mensuration canon for five composite voices (each an M plus a T) entering one by one, each in a lower octave than the last, and moving at a rate twice as slow. When the process has played itself out, the last and slowest voice completing the scale, the piece ends.

The most extended work of Pärt's early tintinnabular period, and perhaps the most representative, is a two-movement concerto grosso for two violins, string orchestra, and prepared piano, emblematically titled Tabula rasa (“clean slate”) to celebrate the composer's fresh start. The first movement, called Ludus (“game,” or “play”) is marked “con moto,” and consists of progressively lengthening and loudening bouts of fiddling activity. The second movement is called Silentium (“silence”) and is marked “Senza moto.” Its beats, at M.M.= 60, conform to the ticking seconds on the clock. Its musical substance consists of a three-part lengthening mensuration canon for the cellos playing halves and quarters, the tutti first violins playing wholes and halves, and the solo violin playing breves and wholes. Ex. 8-14a shows the beginning.

The other string instruments, except the basses, are occupied with shadowing the canonic voices with tintinnabuli derived from the D-minor triad. The violas accompany the cellos at the second position above; the second violins of the tutti accompany the first at the second position below; and the second soloist surrounds the notes played by the first soloist with quarter-notes in alternating first position, the rests on each first-violin attack ensuring that each note of the solo line is accompanied by a tintinnabulation that reverses the order of the preceding one (first low-high, then high-low). Whenever the first soloist returns to the starting D, the prepared piano and the pizzicato basses reinforce it with an evocation of a tolling bell.

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ex. 8-14a Arvo Pärt, Tabula rasa , II (Silentium), mm. 1–8

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ex. 62-14b Arvo Pärt, Tabula rasa, II (Silentium), end

The main canonic theme describes a series of widening gyres, making the soloist's returns to the tonic pitch increasingly infrequent (hence increasingly significant in effect). The final arc goes out of the cello range, and the double basses join in to complete the last phrase (Ex. 8-14b). They stop one note short of completion, as they must (E being their lowest note). But that failure to complete dramatically emphasizes the ensuing silence, to which the whole movement is cast retrospectively as an elaborate prelude. Wholly without chromaticism, infused with a steady pulse and a single omnipresent harmony, and played at a single subdued dynamic, the movement is a startlingly successful evocation of stillness, very easily (some would say all too easily) read as religious quietism.

The relationship between radical reduction of means and wholeness of spirit is an ancient religious truth (the basis, to begin with, of monasticism), and also the basis of twentieth-century neoprimitivism. Pärt has knowingly drawn on both of these traditions in conversation with Hillier, describing his gradual arrival at tintinnabular music as a spiritual quest:

In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises—and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this…. I work with very few elements—with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials—with the triad, with one specific tonality.72

It is noteworthy that every one of the composers associated with radically reductive styles in the 1960s and 1970s (save only Andriessen, who has committed himself to another sort of faith) has found his way to religious belief, and has regarded his musical and spiritual quests as dual manifestations of a single impulse. Young, Riley, and Glass have all embraced some version of Asian religion: Young and Riley practice Yogic meditation and Glass has been a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism since the mid-sixties. Reich, brought up in an agnostic household, found his way back to orthodox Judaism in the 1970s.

In addition to Pärt, several other European composers have associated reductive musical styles with resurgent Christianity in the 1970s. Henryk Gorecki (b. 1933), who first achieved recognition as a member of the Polish “sonorist” avant-garde alongside Penderecki, reembraced the Roman Catholic faith (partly, as with Pärt, as an act of political resistance) and also reembraced a simple, consonant style of writing that might otherwise have been taken as evidence of cooperation with the Soviet-dominated cultural politics of his homeland—where he was in fact, as director of the Conservatory in the industrial city of Katowice, a musical politician; he resigned the post in 1979, after composing a number of Latin choral pieces in honor of the newly elected Polish pope, John Paul II.

One of the early fruits of his new style, the Third Symphony (1976), consists of three movements, each a slow threnody, or song of lamentation, for soprano soloist and orchestra. The second movement, a setting of a prayer scrawled on the wall of a cell at one of the Gestapo's detention headquarters in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the third, a setting of a folk song, were the kind of composition expected of a Polish adherent of socialist realism. The first movement, however, longer than the other two combined, was a setting of the Lament of the Holy Cross, a fifteenth-century Polish prayer.

Strictly diatonic and highly repetitive, Gorecki's setting was indeed akin to the music then being composed by Pärt and the western minimalists. The composer did not know their work at the time, nor did anyone seem to draw the connection in the years that followed. But in 1991, fifteen years after its first performance in Katowice, a New York record executive heard a Polish recording of the work and realized its potential for capitalizing on the popularity that Pärt's “holy minimalism” was generating, partly on the coattails of the “New Age” style of soothing popular music, marketed to people experimenting with relaxation techniques like the “transcendental meditation” popularized by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had become famous as the Beatles’ guru in the late 1960s.

The new recording, issued in 1992 and heavily plugged on radio stations normally devoted to pop music, sold over a million copies within three years’ time, making it one of the best-selling classical albums ever, and Gorecki was assimilated retroactively to the ranks of the “holy” or “mystical” minimalists—a marketing term eagerly appropriated in derision by modernist skeptics, wary as ever of the affinities between minimalism and pop, and eager to write the new phenomenon off as a fad manipulated by the record industry.

But it has continued to make inroads among serious professionals as well as consumers. The English composer John Tavener (b. 1944) is one. He had a conventional academic education in music, which left him a fluent serialist with expert electronic studio skills. The Whale, a dramatic cantata on the biblical story of Jonah, scored such a sensational success after its premiere in 1968 that it was noticed by John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono and recorded in 1970 by Apple Records, the company formed by the Beatles to issue their own work. For a while, Tavener was the poster boy for the much-touted convergence of the classical and pop avant-gardes.

Another work issued on the Apple label, Nomine Jesu (1970), was the first of Tavener's to show a minimalist tendency. The name of Jesus is chorally intoned throughout on a single harmony (a half-diminished seventh, a.k.a. the “Tristan chord”) as a background for a collage of singing and speaking solo voices and atonal passages for a pair of alto flutes, harpsichord, and organ. An increasingly reductive tendency in his musical style accompanied an increasing preoccupation with mystical subject matter until, having previously inclined from the Presbyterian church of his upbringing toward Roman Catholicism, Tavener formally converted in 1977 to the Russian Orthodox faith—an unusual choice for an Englishman, but already associated, through Pärt, with austerely religious minimalism. (Tavener was actually introduced to Eastern Orthodox Christianity by his first wife, a Greek ballerina.)

Tavener has echoed Pärt's devotion to the concept of a musical artifact that can function as a “sounding icon.” That meant ridding his work of any sense of development: “Any idea that is worked out in a human way does not exist,”73 he tells interviewers. Above all, there must be no sense of structural dualism or opposition (hence no “functional harmony”). Instead there should be a sense of “habitation,” a listening environment evoked by sounds, particularly drones, that do not change over the course of the work, as in performances of Byzantine chant, which is always accompanied by a steady bass drone on the final of the mode known as the ison. Like Pärt, Tavener uses bells (in his case English handbells) to evoke an appropriately iconic atmosphere, and composes in a manner inspired by Byzantine hymnody, which uses a system of eight modes, distinguished from one another not by scales or finals but by a repertoire of characteristic melodic turns.

Tavener's Ikon of Light (1983), a setting of a tenth-century Greek hymn for chorus and string trio, can furnish a useful test of the composer's unusually explicit claim (one that is more or less implicit in the work of other minimalists as well) that his work is founded on a rejection of the “Western tradition” in which he was brought up, and which in the name of humanism had driven the spiritual out of art. “The whole western idea of man-made techniques, like sonata form, fugue, canon,” he insists, has been rendered “useless” by the catastrophic history of the twentieth century: “I don't see what purpose it has in the world today.”74 Instead, his hymn celebrates what is eternal and indestructible.

The opening section, the text of which consists entirely of repetitions of the single word phos (light), projects a “sonic icon” in a manner quite similar to Pärt's. It pits the chorus, which sings a single unchanging chord, against the strings, which play a series of six dyads (thirds and tritones) that together exhaust the twelve pitch-classes of the chromatic scale (Ex. 8-15). The juxtaposition of constancy and flux is a fairly transparent metaphor for the opposition of the human and divine, while the eventually (and intentionally) predictable sequence of events turns the musical unfolding into a ritual game (ludus).

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ex. 8-15 John Tavener, Ikon of Light, opening section in analytical reduction

Constructing a four-minute span of music out of twelve chords, six of them identical, takes reduction to a La Monte Youngian extreme, an impression made all the more vivid by the coincidental use of a string trio drawing its sonorities out to extraordinary lengths (to represent, as Tavener puts it, “the soul yearning for God”). The rest of the setting proceeds as a palindrome. Its seven sections are disposed symmetrically around the fourth and longest one, at the center. This central section is itself a palindrome in which the last part is a rough retrograde inversion of the first (thus reversed in two dimensions). Palindromes achieve completion by returning to their starting point: here to here, rather than here to there. For “Western” teleology they substitute a circular temporality, and have been a metaphor of timelessness in music at least since the fourteenth century, as Tavener has recognized by titling a choral work of 1972, Ma fin est mon commencement (“My end is my beginning”), after the famous palindromic rondeau by Guillaume de Machaut.

But of course Machaut, palindromes and all, is just as much a part of the “Western” tradition as sonata form, fugue, and canon. Tavener's acceptance (and exploitation) of the tempered chromatic scale for purposes of metaphor and imagery also puts him within, rather than outside, the body of “man-made techniques” that he regards with suspicion. Perhaps, then, the minimalist impulse, despite its compelling affinity for everything remote in time and place, and despite its angry negation of some conspicuous features of the immediate musical past, is (like so many other avant-gardes) an outgrowth of tendencies inherent within the capacious tradition it has claimed, one-sidedly, to reject.


(70) Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

(71) Hillier, Arvo Pärt, p. 92.

(72) Liner note to ECM Records New Series 1275 (1984).

(73) “John Tavener and Paul Goodwin talk to Martin Anderson,” Fanfare XXII, no. 4 (March/April 1999): 28.

(74) Ibid.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2019. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 8 A Harmonious Avant-Garde?." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 22 Feb. 2019, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-008013.xml