Review Summary: Music for every time.
In a way, Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa
has become a little lost over the years. The collection's cinematic nature makes it perfect for movies, car commercials, slideshows, montages; so in it goes. Rightfully so, however: each of the four pieces featured on this collection are eerily beautiful, bold, and move swiftly; just the kind of backdrop necessary for the final touch in a climactic film scene, or to sell your product as sophisticated, elegant, and hard-working, or to illustrate a troubled life biographically. Whatever the purpose, the entirety of Tabula Rasa
seems to document just about any moment of solemnity, despondency, and yes, hope, near-flawlessly. But what of an environment separate from the world of the visual aesthetics of commercials and film? Does Tabula Rasa
hold up when not being used as austere background music? Even if it will forever be linked to the newest brand of Lexus vehicles or grave drama movies (There Will Be Blood
used the first track, "Fratres"), can it support itself free of these subjects?
The answer is undoubtedly a resounding "yes". Starting with "Fratres" and ending with the titular "Tabula Rasa", these four tracks keep an enduring, beautiful sense of loss and longing that few other modern composers can attempt to match. Being a pioneer of the minimalist school, many of these pieces (especially the achingly beautiful "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten") are simple at their core, but upon further listening present the listener with sounds so intricate and deep that they come out with something new every time. "Fratres", the first track, sets an effective tension via a rapid violin line, which, about a minute in, is seemingly slammed down by a frighteningly deep piano chord. However, after a slow, reflective section where the piano and violin seemingly work together, the violin is off again, this time backed up by the piano, only to be obstructed again. There's a sense of persistent hopefulness here, as if the piece is trying again and again to accomplish an impossible task; its own Sisyphus and the stone. By the end, the piece ends on the piano in its lowest register, and whether or not the task was accomplished is left up to the listener.
In comparison to the 11-minute "Fratres", "Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten" (written for an English composer whom, surprisingly, Pärt never met) is considerably condensed, barely reaching over the 5-minute mark. Featuring a much fuller string ensemble than "Fratres", "Cantus" has a deceptively simple compositional motif (strings descend the A minor scale at different starting points), but has a sort of sonic richness to it that provides much more than its arrangement would suggest.
"Cantus" best represents what Arvo Pärt does best on Tabula Rasa
: make a lot out of seemingly little. Whether it be the decision to stay in a relative lull for the latter half of the 26-minute "Tabula Rasa", or to utilize his own tintinnabuli technique on "Cantus", Arvo Pärt realizes the importance of letting each and every musical motif and concept blossom, and Tabula Rasa
illustrates this realization in full. Does Tabula Rasa
deserve to be heard outside of its "normal" environment as a backdrop to film and visual media? Absolutely. But don't take my word for it. The proof is in the music.