Arvo Pärt - In Principio / by Doyle Armbrust

“Arvo Pärt’s music is a house on fire and an infinite calm,” posits R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. The magnificent opening of ECM New Series’ In Principio is the blaze of creation, not immolation. Voices cry out into the darkness, “In the beginning was the Word,” as Zarathustra-like timpani thunder the universe into existence.

This is not the goatee-wearing Christianity of the purpose-driven variety. This is an ancient, timeless spirituality that Pärt accesses so profoundly, one that causes the holy minimalist to be mischaracterized by many as “monkish.” (Granted, his beard puts him on set with Charlton Heston, circa 1956.)

Most of the Estonian’s recent compositions have been set to sacred texts, and this album, with its pathos and introspection, is no departure. Despite the recent popularity of the 73-year-old’s contributions to soundtracks for moody, desert-set films (There Will Be Blood, Gerry), this music is not meant to be in the background. Transfixed while listening to the composer’s memorial to the victims of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, “Da Pacem Domine,” we had to pull the car to the shoulder of the Eisenhower after two near-misses.

The recording process for In Principio can only be called ideal, with ECM president-producer Manfred Eicher, Pärt-preferred conductor Tõnu Kaljuste and the composer himself present for each session. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, National Symphony Orchestra and Tallinn Chamber Orchestra are expert here, dramatic catalysts in pieces such as “Cecilia, Vergine Romana” and the Glass-like pulsations of “Mein Weg.”

In her 1997 interview of Pärt for the BBC (available on YouTube), Björk fumbles, adorably of course, for a way to articulate the inner turmoil and melancholy that suffuse his compositions, arriving finally at an analogy to Pinocchio. It’s a good try, but it only proves that the music of Arvo Pärt is better heard than explained.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in Time Out Chicago on June 22nd, 2009