Arvo Part Passio

It truly has been a long time since I last posted (all the way from January to April….. Ouch), for that I am sorry! I have had a few pretty huge changes going on in my life: One, I moved to Minneapolis, MN (choral center of the world), Two, I started working a new job (a long term substitute position at a high school in North Metro), Three, I took a job back in Iowa for next school year at a small high school north of Ames. All BIG things, and things that I have been enjoying/looking forward too.

My time at this new job has taught me so much about my work as a conductor/teacher (I can’t wait to go back to grad school and dig into things a little deeper). I has very quickly shown me what about my rehearsal/planning/ teaching skills needs to be improved and what is already strong. There is one aspect of this whole teaching thing that was unbeknownst to be, up until this past month or so…….. the knowledge of the human voice that every choir director must have and must be able to put into words. We as vocal music educators are truly voice teachers, that is what we do at the most basic level. We teach many other things through music, but above all students flat out learn to sing. Why didn’t I realize this until now? Because as a director in undergrad and as a part time church musician, I never truly had to teach voice! It’s true! Everyone in my ensembles had a good concept of how their voice worked, I was just simply a guide that used a couple quick fixes to bring the product together, unify, and sculpt the sound. High school students, on the other hand, need more instruction than just, “taller vowels!” or “more consonants”; they need to learn the inner workings of the human voice DURING the rehearsal……… But I have rambled enough for now.


This week is holy week and last night I attended a performance of Arvo Part’s Passio. This piece is considered by many scholars to be one of the finest pieces of 20th century repertoire. I should say that Part wrote this piece while he whilst in a deep deep artistic struggle; the kind that makes you question every single detail about every note put down on staff paper (I have had feelings similar to this, on a very small scale). Serious “writer’s block” can do one of two things, destroy an artist, or define an artist. In Arvo’s case, his tempestuous artistic event was a defining one, in that he birthed an entirely new compositional style in tintinnabulation. For those of you who are not familiar with tintinnabuli it is simply a minimalist style of composition (rooted in the music of the renaissance), where all things are irrelevant except the text. In tintinnabuli, Part seeks to make each word, phrase, sentence, syllable as important as the next. How does he do this? two words, dissonance, and oscillation. Voice parts simply oscillate from chord tone to chord tone while one voice moves step-wise, usually resulting in dissonance. In Part’s mind, removing all the wonderful delicacies of romantic music (lush phrases, wonderful melodic lines, free and open vocal production) results in a presentation of music that’s true purpose is to be sacred. We are not meant to receive any of the pleasures that normally come with the act of singing, for that would intrude upon the real message that these holy, sacred words are sending. 


Anyway……… the Passio….. is wonderful. I’ve never had the privilege of hearing it in it’s entirety before. Even if this music sounds like something you may not like, I highly recommend you at least go and experience it (then we’ll see if you don’t get teary eyed when the chorus enters for the final time on those glorious D major chords). I will try to keep my perception of this work very brief, if you are looking for a thrashing, intense, vengeful passion setting, you’ve come to the wrong place. Due to the minimalist nature of Part’s writing, the Passion is very clam, mournful, and meditative. Although there are moments when tensions rise and tessituras are strenuous, his setting more often than not remains in a very slowing revolving A minor state of matter. There are a few important things you should know before listening to this work. Part has a specific method for assigning note length to all phrases in the piece. The stress of the text, and punctuation are key factors (more so in Part’s case than in standard composition). The crowd is represented by the whole chorus, the evangelist is represented by a double soli quartet that is often split in different contrasting ways, Pilot is a tenor, and Jesus is the bass (who sings the lowest of all voices, and has much lengthier passages). Every time that the crowd enters with accusations against christ, they come in on a major chord (I believe E Major, contrary to the A Minor key center). Lastly, this work is very difficult to sing, in that Arvo Part writes lines that very seldom consider the ability of the human voice. Therefore the poor sopranos find themselves leaping, and leaping, and leaping; sometimes on difficult vowels shapes, sometimes on the shortest note of the phrase, sometimes to notes as high as an A5 (I think it is 5). Therefore, the performance I heard was very mediocre and the fatigue of not only the sopranos, but the whole ensemble was evident after about 30 minutes of singing (not to mention there are some VERY difficult key shifts that occur that were often unclear at the performance). 


I want to leave you with this thought though. Minimalist composition can be done in several different ways, but Part’s tintinnabulation results in a feeling of numbness over the listener. I felt as though the notes that were sung and played were physically coming off the stage and hitting my body, over and over and over. HOWEVER, the way in which Jesus’ part was written provided us listeners with an escape from the constant musical undulation that was occurring in the parts of the Chorus, Evangelist, Organ, and Pilot. Obviously, after an hour of having A Minor hurled into the audience, the feeling of emptiness and despair starts to set in. Seeing as Arvo Part is one of the greatest composers in the history of western music, there is a moment when the true reason and meaning of Good Friday is made known. Jesus is crucified, and the full ensemble enters with a truly glorious D Major chord proclaiming, “You who have suffered for us, have mercy on you. Amen.” I was moved from a deranged emotional state, to that of tears and humbleness; simply by the striking of one D Major chord. 


Now do you get why they call it Minimalism?