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Arvo Pärt Centre open to everyone

Arvo Pärt is the most performed living composer in the world. The Centre is a unique individual archive in a pine forest.

13 min read
© Atko Januson

  © Kaupo Kikkas

Arvo Pärt is Estonian composer, born on the 11th of September 1935 in Paide.

Pärt is one of those composers whose works have had a real impact on our understanding of music. Today Pärt is first and foremost known for his original tintinnabuli-style. His earlier modernist works are perhaps less known by the wider audience, but he has broadened our understanding of music with his entire musical contribution.

Tintinnabuli (ld tintinnabulum – a bell, chime) is a unique musical style and compositional technique, created by Pärt, which melds together two single-voice structural lines – melody and the sound of the triad – into a whole.  As a result, one main tonic triad can be heard and sensed throughout the music which is rich in overtones.

The timeless beauty and deep spiritual message in Arvo Pärt’s music has touched and influenced many listeners regardless of their nationality, cultural background or age. Pärt’s compositions are not only played in concert halls but have been widely used in films, dance- and theatre performances and multimedia texts in the recent decades.

For the seventh year running, Arvo Pärt is the most performed living composer in the world.

Laulasmaa is a village located forty kilometres from Tallinn, by the Lahepere Bay.  Its name calls to mind the sand of that area, so white and clean that it seems to sing when you walk on it. It borders a village called Heliküla (village of sounds – ed.), where summer cottages were built in the 1950s and 1960s for Estonian composers and other members of the cultural elite.

Back in the day, this area, beloved by Estonian composer Heino Eller, used to attract regular visitors – his students and colleagues, including Arvo Pärt. The picturesque sandy beach and tranquil pine forest have since offered inspiration to Pärt, who is the most performed living composer in the world for the seventh year running. As a young man, Pärt used to ride there on his motorbike. Together with his tutor Heino Eller, they hiked through the forest, sat on the large stones at the beach and exchanged views on life.

Now that the composer has reached the age of his beloved professor, he still goes for walks in the area and ponders about another cycle coming to an end. No wonder then that this beautiful setting, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, in the natural environment that supports his music, was chosen as the site for the Arvo Pärt Centre – a personal archive containing the entire creative heritage of the composer.

It was Arvo Pärt himself who laid the cornerstone more than a year ago. The ‘flowing’ house, without any right angles, will be opened to visitors on the 17th of October, 2018.

The birth story

Fifteen years ago, Arvo Pärt and his family asked what would happen to the composer’s substantial musical heritage in the future. Something needed to be done. The first and the easiest solution would have been to give the collection to the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, which has hundreds of years of experience in archival work.

‘They would have collected all the existing material themselves and systematised it later. But this did not seem like the right solution to my parents,’ recalls the composer’s son Michael Pärt, who is Chairman of the Council of the Arvo Pärt Centre, adding ‘hence the decision to do something ourselves, although we had no clue about archiving.’

  © Atko Januson

The family rented a small room at Laulasmaa Spa and work began. The priority was to systematize and digitize the archive. Arvo Pärt’s wife Nora Pärt was the first archiver who collected material according to years and themes; this was later taken over by professionals more or less intact.

‘The first major step was to organise Arvo Pärt’s music diaries which, in addition to notation, also included texts that had inspired the composer that he had either copied from books or noted down based on ideas he had thought or heard,’ explains Michael Pärt.

Some years later the archive was moved to the house in Laulasmaa, which was named Aliina. Until then the activities were funded by private supporters, but in 2011 the state stepped in with support. This enabled a larger team to be put together. A lot of preparatory work was necessary in order to clarify the direction. The archive needed to be made public but the location – the small house – did not facilitate that. They researched what had been done in other countries, archives and larger music centres.

‘At this point only a few years remained until the 100th birthday of the state of Estonia and everyone agreed that by then the Centre should have a public function,’ explains Anu Kivilo, Managing Director of  the Arvo Pärt Centre.

The people involved had to take a risk and answer the question of whether they were on the right path and whether it would still be so in five years’ time.

‘The physical side of the house is one thing – we can hire help from architects, designers and various organisations. But the content is much more complex and this is what we needed to decide upon ourselves,’ adds Kivilo. ‘We received credit; otherwise we would not have been so bold in the beginning.’

Inspired by ‘tabula rasa’

Both Tallinn and Tartu were considered potential locations for the future centre, but it became clear quite quickly that the right location had already been found – Laulasmaa. The public architecture competition was won by Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano from the Spanish architectural bureau Nieto Sobejano Arquitectos with their work ‘Tabula’.

Both Michael Pärt and Anu Kivilo agree that the solution by the Spaniards was the best and the simplest. Their space solution – that centre staff have the opportunity to interact but that the office is not an open space with huge corridors – was the most suitable. Whereas at first there were concerns that a building with windows from the floor to the ceiling would create a greenhouse effect, cooperation with the architecture bureau Luhse & Tuhal adapted the project to the Estonian climate.

‘As construction work began I was afraid that Dad would come here and start to meddle,’ laughs Michael Pärt. ‘That’s exactly what happened, but in the best sense of the word. He was very interested in what we were doing and how he could be of assistance.’

People involved also recall the humour of the moment when the composer whilst walking in the forest had the idea to move the building by ten metres. A simple idea indeed, but a nightmare for architects. But the creative environment made it possible.

  © Atko Januson

‘The pine forest was like a miracle for the architects and this is perhaps why the building has a very sensitive relationship with the surrounding nature – the house reaches the forest and the forest reaches the house and the light penetrates it,’ explains music researcher Kristina Kõrver who works at the Centre. ‘The building is also in a strong relationship with Arvo Pärt’s music. Before designing the building, the architects were already admirers of Pärt’s music and the building was designed whilst listening to his music. The project in its patterns and pillars was inspired by “Tabula rasa”.’

Strangely enough, even the building designs fit the manuscript of the piece. ‘The pillars are like bar lines and rhythmical images, but of course this is more of a feeling than based on analysis,’ adds Kõrver.

According to the architects, the tower located next to the building has also been inspired by the rhythm and structure of ‘Tabula rasa’.

  © Atko Januson

‘The tower was something that made Arvo Pärt’s heart beat faster. Inspired by the wish to rise up towards the sky, to be up there and to see the sea. This thinking tower or viewing tower really does offer a magnificent view,’ says Kõrver. ‘In addition, the house has another “idiosyncrasy” – the chapel, a clearly sacral building that is not common for a modern music centre. However, considering Pärt’s music, the chapel, which was a real challenge for the builders, is not strange or surprising. It offers the joy of discovery for our visitors.’

The archive as the heart

At the heart of the Arvo Pärt Centre is the archive, which brings together the composer’s musical heritage and related information and documents both in physical and digital form.  It is a truly unique enterprise in the world as the composer’s fingerprints are all over the place. He is creating, his music is being performed daily and therefore the archive is always changing and growing rapidly. Pärt himself is an active user of the archive.

‘For example, he will want to see a music diary, to improve something or to change manuscripts, which then of course means that our latest item is not really the latest one,’ smiles Michael Pärt and adds: ‘Arvo may just rip out a page from a manuscript and, of course, he is the only one who is allowed to do so. But just imagine what our archiver has to say…’

Kõrver brings out Arvo Pärt’s ability to become enthused, to be infected with an idea, to go deep and not to focus on problems.

‘Children have such skills and, unfortunately, at a certain age they disappear. But Arvo Pärt has retained these qualities and his enthusiasm sets an example for us all.’

One of the important tasks and opportunities of the Centre is to collaborate with Arvo and Nora Pärt. Those two are able to answer the many questions of the Centre staff; in collaboration, the content develops and context is created. After all, such an archive has never been created in the world before and it is therefore a special challenge and a daily learning process for everyone involved.

‘At first you need to know generally about archiving, only then can you learn why it doesn’t work,’ says Michael Pärt. “You cannot just follow rules; you have to adjust them.”

Doors open wide

Arvo Pärt is a world-famous composer whose music brings forth serious themes that require concentration, yet it would be hard to find a warmer and simpler human being.  The Centre too is not an elitist establishment, but meant for everyone. One has to want to come here. In order to come here and to spend time here you need to take time. There are activities for everyone. The activities are not restricted – each visitor decides for themselves what they want to do.

The Centre has a 140-seat chamber hall, which will serve as the venue for concerts and film evenings, talks and discussions on various subjects. It is possible to book a guided tour in the building or to investigate on one’s own. One can rent earphones and go listen to the music in the forest or find a spot inside the building to enjoy the music. The Centre welcomes visitors who want to find out more about Arvo Pärt’s music and have never heard it, as well as those who know and love it already.

The house also includes a flowing and dispersing exhibition space. It was not an easy task to create the exhibit, because Arvo Pärt has no desire to be in the centre of attention. Therefore, the terms of reference for the exhibit were a challenge artistically, visually and in terms of content, and putting the exhibition together was a very time-consuming task.

‘It quickly became clear that we cannot tell the story of Arvo Pärt as a living legend. This is why there is no traditional approach to his life story and his creations. Also, we did not want to act as curators commenting on Pärt’s music and his nature,’ explains Kõrver. ‘In the end we realised we have to give the word to Arvo Pärt as we presume that the visitors to the centre want to meet him.  Through the music diaries of the composer one is kind of able to talk to Arvo Pärt, to listen to his ponderings and to become nearer to the music through his own words. Sometimes it can help to tune one into his music, sometimes they give answers to questions that a person might have whilst listening to the music.’  What exactly Kõrver means by that can be discovered by visitors to the Centre themselves.

  © Atko Januson

The Centre also contracted filmmakers Jaak Kilmi and Jaan Tootsen whose new short documentary about Arvo Pärt can be seen. The exhibit includes a photograph wall of musicians – the composer’s tribute to his closest musicians, without whom he says his own music would not exist.

Even children have been catered for. In the play area, it is possible to watch cartoons with music Arvo Pärt has composed; to participate in a quiz or just to play. The Arvo Pärt Centre also places emphasis on education and wishes to reach school children of all ages as well as adults. Of course, visitors and researches can access the digital archive of the composer.

According to initial estimations, the Arvo Pärt Centre will be able to receive 20 000 visitors annually.

‘This figure is linked to the location and the size of the Centre. We hope it is in balance with the soul and activities of our building,’ explains Michael Pärt. ‘If we grow too large, we lose the main idea. The Centre is sufficiently small and compact to be preserved as a whole.’

‘We are now taking our first steps and learning and growing together with the building. We are able to offer many interesting things but we want to trust our visitors that they will come here wanting to discover and to give their own input,’ says Kõrver. ‘The creative aesthetic of Arvo Pärt has no place for being forced. It leaves space, just like our Centre does. Ideally, we will be a space where one has the space to meet oneself and not just Arvo Pärt.’

Source: Life in Estonia.

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