Review Summary: further proof of the familiar adage ‘music is the silence between notes’.“It was beautiful; it was quiet and beautiful”.
- Arvo Pärt
By its literal translation, 'Tabula rasa' is the theory that individuals are born without built-in mental content (a blank slate, if you will - knowledge that is derived from experience and perception). This concept can be traced back to writings as early as the Western philosopher, Aristotle, in what could very well be the first book on psychology in the Western Canon, titled “De Anima”. Sadly, the notion of the mind being a blank slate languished and went nearly unspoken for over a thousand years after its conception. Despite many proponents favoring tabula rasa’s paradigm, the concept wasn’t really popularized in social sciences until the 20th century. As political ideologies have divided individuals, the idea of the mind being a ‘blank slate’ has always been met with polarizing opinions. On one end of the spectrum tabula rasa, by implication, shows that innate differences in the mind cannot exist, making controversial topics like racism seem completely illogical. The other side of the spectrum is that differences in people are inherited through genetics. Arvo Pärt’s masterpiece, Tabula Rasa, helps contextualize its central thesis by favoring the former to feel as though it were approached as an erased slate - free of preconceived notions and open to explore.
Pärt went through quite the journey to reach this pivotal point in his career, dubbed ‘holy minimalism’. His musical oeuvre is comprised mainly of two distinct periods in his life. His early works, dabbling in serialism, are akin to music from composers such as Arnold Schoenberg and were met with such ire by the soviet union that they were banned by censors, sending Pärt into a creative slump. Later works came after years of silence when Pärt, having studied various styles of music, emerged with a new sound that he coined “tintinnabuli,” which is essentially characterized as compositions having a slow and meditative tempo. These works - “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten” in particular - were heavily influenced by artists such as Henryk Górecki. All of this historical context is key to fully understanding and appreciating Pärt’s approach to his masterpiece, Tabula Rasa
. It’s fascinating to hear the atmosphere Pärt is able to create by using so little.
Take the title track “Tabula Rasa” for instance: it was written for two violins, a small string orchestra, and prepared piano, yet it wields the power to reduce its listeners to tears by fulfilling this deep human need for emotional release. The first movement, “Ludas,” is an absolutely menacing, sinister string ensemble driven by tension and chaos that exudes character -- thanks to its theatricality -- so well that it feels undeniably human in its expression. Several times throughout the former half of “Tabula Rasa” it feels as though the song is trying to break away from its revolving motif to achieve some kind of emotional catharsis that it’s ultimately never granted. Instead of building and settling, the song collapses in on itself with sharp staccato instruments racing alongside thudding piano. After the first movement’s elaborate build comes to an abrupt end, there is nothing but silence for all of 5 seconds before the second movement, “Silentium,” starts. Taking a radical shift from “Ludas’” grandiose nature, “Silentium” is somber and inexpressibly stirring, slipping in with prepared piano chords interspersed with two violins. Slowly, the instruments play in tandem, gradually thinning out as they go until they fade into nothing but silence.
It’s somewhat bewildering as to how something so basic in theory can sound so achingly beautiful in practice. It's the minimalism in Pärt’s music - the frantic chords that draw from a simpler motif to create something more grandiose in “Tabula Rasa” and the descending of A minor chords by two violins to create something as 'whole' sounding as “Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten” that make Arvo Part's Tabula Rasa
feel as though it were approached without preconceived notions as to how it would sound when executed, which is why it looked so ridiculous on paper. At a point, his violinists and pianist looked at the sheet and literally asked “where is the music?” but it came together (much to everyone's surprise) beautifully in the end. Tabula Rasa
reveals itself, in a short time, to be a deeply intimate, raw album that helps show us the heights that can be reached by utilizing so little to do so, and the power unoccupied space can have. This is an absolute classic, and a keystone of Pärt’s repertoire.
“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.