@RebelYellJSWGC: Going Beyond Pärt’s Divide to the Roots of Rebellion

This blog's last two posts, Rules Meant to be Broken and Arvo Pärt Deux: When Silence Shouts Loudest, led us to the following affirmations:

  1. So-called classical music can be a Rebel Yell depending on its context;
  2. A Rebel Yell’s ability to maintain and even transform its energy across time and context is what makes it, not classical, but classic;
  3. Therefore “classic” is one of the prerequisites for a piece of music to be a Rebel Yell;
  4. And when context becomes unbearable, a composer can create his or her own context by allowing their last Rebel Yell to resonate in self-imposed silence.

It is just such a period of silence – the shocked aftermath of Arvo Pärt genuflecting the middle finger at Soviet officials attending the premiere of his 1968 Credo – that marks one of the great divides in contemporary classical music. Pärt entered that silence having been a composer of twelve-tone works whose last piece “overlaid the chords of Bach’s first prelude as a prelude to cacophony. The music [coming] apart serially, in slashing orchestral strokes.” He came out a minimalist whose compositions were studies in serenity, strongly rooted in his own intervening studies of Gregorian and Eastern Orthodox Chant. And yet he was still an artist, first in an occupied state, and then – because of the inherent threat that state perceived in his superficially peaceful artistry – in exile.

What was the power Pärt had discovered in these traditions of sacred music? What is it that makes them sacred, makes them sound sacred, even outside of the context of liturgical performance?

Intimate insights from a contemporary master of these traditions suggest that – in the context of the ways of the world – the profoundly peaceful may actually be the most disruptive force of all.

A few years ago I had the privilege to spend a week at St. Vladimir’s, an Eastern Orthodox seminary just outside of New York City, auditing a class with Maestro Vladimir Gorbik: composer, conductor, and director of liturgical music at the Krutitskoye Podvorye, a monastery that has stood on the banks of Russia’s Moscow River since the thirteenth century.  There were about a dozen of us from as far away as Japan auditing the class, held for an auditioned choir of thirty equally international members and another four or five student conductors. 

The lessons I learned analyzing the musical scores as those students and the Maestro rehearsed—over two hundred fifty pages for what would be performed, not as a concert, but as a Mass service, the vigil feast for Saints Peter and Paul—was diminished only by the larger lessons I learned about what it means to worship, and from that, insight into how a choir might actually be our best approximation of Heaven, a revelation of what it means to be in the presence of one another and, as a consequence, in the presence of God.

In the context of the world as we know it, that is a disruptive statement, a quiet yet confident Rebel Yell.

Consider some of the anecdotes Maestro Gorbik imparted:

Someone who is not prayerful, for whom singing is not a prayer, may be a wonderful singer, but will ultimately hit a ceiling in their performance, in their contribution to the choir. A lesser singer can be taught to sing; someone uninterested in prayer cannot be forced to pray.

Re-read that passage, but substitute for ‘singing’ and all its derivations the word ‘living’:  when living is not prayerful, someone may have a wonderful life, but will ultimately hit a ceiling in its performance and thereby their contribution to The Life—in their and our realization of The Whole of Humanity, and within humanity, the Kingdom of God.

However, we should not become self-satisfied with that insight. For those who are predisposed to prayer—to a prayerful predisposition, who appear to seek after spiritual substance, to take a sacramental view of the world—consider the following cautionary aphorism drawn from Maestro Gorbik’s decades of conducting:

Each choir member must pray, but without pride in their prayer, if the choir is to attain a holy sound.

Indeed, in a later session Maestro Gorbik seemed to expand on this admonition to be humble by sharing the following story:

A choir member came to me—a good voice, singing in a professional choir—and asked for advice, saying that when he sang with the group he could not hear himself. But if you are singing out, and you are part of a professional choir in which everyone sings out, your voice should blend—you should not be able to hear yourself. Rather, in order to blend, in order to be part of a choir, you should be listening to the voices around you. If you can’t hear the person standing four people away from you, you shouldn’t be in the choir.

In fact, Maestro Gorbik warned us that when we—as an individual choir member—sing too loudly, it is because we think that we’re the savior of the choir. He answered that presumption simply and categorically: No, you’re not, nor ever could be. It didn’t seem to matter to him who asked that question or in what context—how good the singer, how bad the choir—his answer would always be the same: no individual singer can ever be the savior of any choir.

As I reflect on that, considering our cliché of the choir of angels, who could stand in the presence of God and Heaven surrounded by all the great souls in the history of humanity and consider him or herself the savior of that assembly?  How silly—how insulting!—and if we were to each sing in such a fashion, how could our choir continue?  We would sound like a gaggle of preening soloists, a cacophony of competing voices no matter how good any one of us actually are or think we might actually be, our collective sound in fact made worse with each additional member. A society of souls made worse of its own accord with each added member—that metaphor literally sounds like hell.

And so again, perhaps our cliché is true and a choir—a true choir, a choir that functions as such—is somehow an apt analogy, imitative of Heaven: humbled by God’s presence and all the assembled souls who came before us, we each strive to listen as much, if not more, than we strive to be heard. We consider ourselves blessed to be in such a choir—saved even, from what literally sounds like hell—and therefore to a person find it impossible to believe our self the center or savior of that ensemble. Thus, rather than sing too loudly, Maestro Gorbik reminded us that, in Eastern Orthodox liturgical music, when a solo, duo or trio finishes its passage and the rest of the choir enters the hymn, there should be no sudden change in volume: the other twenty, thirty, forty, or even one hundred voices come in adding richness and fullness, the music’s inherent harmonies no longer tacit, but explicitly realized, yet are still no louder than the solo voice that preceded them—one hundred voices just as soft as that one voice alone.

You cannot do this without listening closely to one another, listening with full attention, hearing the other’s presence, feeling the choir’s intention even before its mouths are opened, even before a sound is born. When you listen that closely to one another—sharing and hiding your breathing, the Eastern Orthodox choir weaving a seamless, uninterrupted tapestry of sound—and thereby know that your neighbor, even four people away, is listening just as closely to you, it is then that you realize the depth of your interdependence and discover the heights of your willingness to support and sacrifice for one another, your joy in the success of your neighbor. For in such a choir your neighbor cannot falter—cannot lose his or her pitch or rhythm, or pronounce the words with sloppy diction—without your own performance being dimmed; you as an individual singer do not sound better by comparison, but you each individually sound less good as a whole. We therefore take no glory in the struggles of others, but lend them our support; however, although lending that support is more important than our own individual success, we attend to our individual success as well, for it is precisely being confident in our own part that enables us to support our neighbors. 

Perhaps that is why Maestro Gorbik told us:

I have often noticed that singing in unison, as well as the general desire to sing cleanly, listening to one another, is the audible manifestation of love for one’s neighbor.

Suddenly our image of a heavenly choir seems less like a cliché than our hope—both for this world and the next. “We cannot sing crudely,” Maestro Gorbik commended the choir as they prepared for the Vigil Mass, “for we are merely joining our voices to those who are already with God.”

Again, substitute the verb ‘live’ and noun ‘lives’ for ‘sing’ and ‘voices’ and we discover the hidden analogy; we pull back the veil to reveal a sacramental view of the world:

We cannot live crudely, for we are merely joining our lives to those who are already with God.

Perhaps this is the power Arvo Pärt discovered in the silence of his studies, something classic that can constitute a Rebel Yell in the context of the officially atheist Soviet state in which he lived during the 1960s and 70s, yet still maintains and even transforms its counter-cultural power to still constitute a Rebel Yell in the context of the capitalist West. 

As critic Alex Ross hypothesized at the end of his book, The Rest is Noise:

“It is not hard to guess why Pärt and several like-minded composers—notably Henryk Górecki and John Tavener—achieved a degree of mass appeal during the global economic booms of the eighties and nineties; they provided oases of repose in a technologically oversaturated culture. For some, Pärt’s strange spiritual purity filled a more desperate need; a nurse in a hospital ward in New York regularly played Tabula Rasa for young men who were dying of AIDS, and in their last days they asked to hear it again and again.”

In some contexts, the profoundly peaceful—a sense of the sacred, a rooting ourselves in the earth of tradition—may actually be the most disruptive force of all.


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