Does the whole always have to equal more than the sum of its Pärt?
There was some fine mind-teasing out of England yesterday, including BBC Radio classical presenter Tom Service blogging about his visit with Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (who left him with a riddle to understanding his music -- "one plus one equals one"), and Wigmore Hall managing director John Gilhooly looking in the Guardian at the success in his attempt to broadening the hallowed venue's programming.
It was Pärt's riddle that affected me most.
Photo: No. 12 by Mark Rothko (1903-1970), courtesy of The Garage Centre for Contemporary Culture, Moscow.
We live in a world where we take it for granted that a satisfying, well-executed work of art or performance is greater than the sum of its parts. This is a criterion I bring to every aesthetic experience.
Learned scholars, talented interpreters and fecund composers also value this additive experience, through complex musical architecture, greater technical challenges and a desire to explore uncharted (or unscored) territory. Many of them scoff at the various forms of minimalism, accusing it of being dull and simplistic. Although it's not intended that way, pop music is dismissed the same way.
But what if we turn our additive experiences on their heads, for a change? Of seeing how art can become less than the sum of its parts -- not in negative way, but in an essential way, of distilling the experience down to near-nothingness, or to a mirror of the rhythms of our bodies and our natural environment.
I think that could be the answer to Pärt's riddle.
Most listeners wouldn't want to have this kind of experience every day. But it might make a great, periodic aural fast, cleansing our overstimulated senses. It is one thing to listen to broad silence versus listening to very simple sounds, which compel a particular sort of focus that is not that different from meditation.
I can think of a better way to ponder the power of "one plus one equals one" than listening to Toronto pianist Eve Egoyan play Simple Lines of Enquiry by the late Ann Southam. You can stream it via San Francisco radio station KALW's Music From Other Minds archive (Egoyan's performance starts just pas the 2-minute mark).