A Pärt Pilgrimage

On a rural road in Estonia, a University of Oregon music student meets a contemporary music master

by JUSTIN GRAFF 

Editor’s note:  While casually listening to Pandora Radio one day in 2013,  University of Oregon freshman Justin Graff was stunned by the powerful dialogue between organ and choir in a piece that popped up on his playlist. “Part of me was glued to the chair while some other part of me shot through the roof,” he remembered. The composition turned out to be Arvo Part’s Statuit ei Dominus. “I was immediately excited by Pärt’s music and soon sought every .mp3 of his work I could find. I was blown away by the plethora of emotions in his music: ecstasy, joy, sadness, peace, tragedy, and nostalgia, to name a few. I was obsessed and I drove my friends mad with my rants about his music,” Graff admits. “I even had a poster of him above my apartment desk.” 

Justin Graff performs his music and that of Arvo Pärt. Credit: Arvo Pärt Centre.

Justin Graff performs his music and that of Arvo Pärt. Credit: Arvo Pärt Centre.

Estonian-born Arvo Pärt , known for combining the ancient tradition of sacred music with modern techniques, is greatly admired by many young composers. Backtrack, an online service that keeps record of classical music events, placed him number one on its 2014 list of top ten contemporary composers performed today. His choral music has been extremely popular and programmed around the world and locally as well. At last summer’s Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Grammy award winning conductor Craig Hella Johnson led the Berwick Chorus, guest vocalists, and the OBF Orchestra in a performance of Pärt’s Passio (a concert which Graff eagerly attended).

In 1994 the OBF, for its 25th anniversary, commissioned Pärt to compose Litany, a piece for orchestra and vocal ensemble based on the 24 prayers of St. John Chrysostom. This Friday and Saturday in Portland and Eugene, the Portland vocal group The Ensemble will perform a wide ranging program of Pärt’s music.

For Graff, Pärt’s compositions aren‘t just a collection of stunning sounds with emotional capacity, but also thoughtfully crafted reflections on spirituality, achieved through his “tintinnabuli” (from the Latin for “bell”) method of composition, which Graff says “can be understood as humanity and the divine, as suffering and consolation, or as the present moment and eternity, among other things. The important thing, I think, is that the music is very complex yet does not require the listener to have a deep mystical or technical understanding for it to be powerful.” 

Graff, now a junior in music composition, began studying music in Vienna this past fall. For the Thanksgiving holiday, he decided to take a solo trip. He glanced over a map of Europe and weighed his options. “In a sudden flash of insight, I knew where I wanted to go, needed to go: Tallinn, Estonia, the homeland of my favorite composer and musical hero.” — Gary Ferrington.

On Friday, November 27, 2015, I woke up at the Red Emperor Hostel in downtown Tallinn. I helped myself to the complimentary coffee in the lobby and asked at the front desk how I might get to Laulasmaa, a nearby village and home to the Arvo Pärt centre. My first negligent choice of the day was not asking her to print out the directions. My second was opting to skip breakfast when I realized I only had a few minutes to catch the next bus to Laulasmaa.

The “bus” turned out to be a plain white van with ten seats and a plastic money-drawer attached to the dashboard. After half an hour of chatting with a young couple headed to a spa, I dismounted at the bus stop called Tornimäe. I remembered vaguely, from what I saw on the computer screen at the hostel, how close the centre was to the bus stop, but I had no real sense of where I needed to go. I had assumed that I might see some signage that would point me in the right direction, but there was no such help. I spent the next two and a half hours wandering the long and lonely road that had been my route out there, taking small detours to look for any promising hints of the centre, which I never found. However, I did enjoy some serene little walks through the Estonian woods that surrounded the road.

Eventually, I saw someone standing at a bus stop and asked her if she could help me find an address. She frowned and said that I wasn’t even in Laulasmaa anymore and that I would have to turn back. Dismayed, tired, hungry, and thirsty, I trekked back toward Tornimäe while listening on my iPhone to Pärt’s setting of the latin Te Deum. Along the way, I remembered that I had a jar of Sea-Buckthorn Jam in my backpack that I had bought the previous day at a Christmas market in Helsinki, a short ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland from Estonia.   Having found some small comfort in the sweetness of the jam, I continued onward.

Photo 2: Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa, Estonia. Photo: Justin Graff.

Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa, Estonia. Photo: Justin Graff.

When arriving at Tornimäe, I realized that I had yet an hour to wait for the next bus, so I made a last-ditch effort to find the centre. On a nearby residential road, I came across a young woman, Anna-Mäe, who was very kind and walked me all the way to the street where I could find the centre. When I eventually found the two brick buildings, I was surprised at how little and quaint the centre was.  I didn’t realize that the center was not yet open to the public and with the lack of any visible activity around the buildings, I thought that I ought to leave. After snapping a few pictures, I started walking back, and then through a window I noticed a woman working at a desk in one of the buildings. Emboldened, I rang the doorbell.

I was greeted by a different woman. Still a little embarrassed about getting lost, I finally divulged the truth about my arrival: that I’m a student-composer from the U.S., that Arvo Pärt is my hero, and that I came all the way to Estonia just to see his homeland. She seemed amused by my sincerity and offered to take me to the other building where I could get a look at the archive where his manuscripts are kept. I was in awe as I scanned the room full of binders labeled with titles of which I am so fond and familiar like Miserere and Berliner Messe.

Afterward, she introduced me to the centre’s musicologist Kristina Kõrver, the woman I had earlier seen through the window, who showed me copies of Pärt’s musical journals from the 1970s, the years in which he was first developing his tintinnabuli theory of composition. She said that even scholars didn’t have access to these journals yet, which made it all the more exciting. The number of pages that he filled per day, according to the dates written in the journals, was staggering — and a testament to the discipline that fueled Pärt’s innovation.

Graff and Pärt at the Arvo Pärt Centre. Photo: Arvo Pärt Centre.

Graff and Pärt at the Arvo Pärt Centre. Photo: Arvo Pärt Centre.

While Kristina was telling me more about Pärt’s music, I noticed some motion out of the corner of my eye. Through a window I saw the composer himself walking up to the building with his wife Nora! I felt faint and completely disoriented, but tried to look as cool as possible as I listened to Kristina talk. When she finished, I said “I’m sorry, but I didn’t hear a thing you just said because I just saw Arvo Pärt.” She laughed and explained that he had come to receive an award that day, then asked if I would like to meet him. Wide-eyed and utterly bewildered, I sputtered for a few moments and finally blurted out “Yes!”

She walked down the hall and greeted him, and then brought him back to the office to meet me. At 80 years old, Arvo Pärt carries himself with the pep and lucidity of a man 40 years his junior. She introduced me to him in Estonian and he smiled, extending his hand. While we shook hands, Kristina said, referring to me, “He’s very nervous.” A sort of kind sadness flashed across his face and he put his hand on my shoulder, saying in his charming accent, “Oh! This is not necessary.” He gestured to Kristina, “Perhaps some hot tea or something for him?” She nodded. “If you have time,” Pärt told me, “I come after and we talk.”

While he met with the officials presenting him an award, Kristina brought me tea and biscuits and we continued to chat. We discussed the evolution of Pärt’s style, some books that have been written about his music, and we also discussed my music and my influences. At one point, piano music drifted in from the meeting room and we peeked around the corner to watch the composer gracefully performing a piece from one of his film scores. I was grateful for the hour that she and I spent talking because if I hadn’t taken that time to calm down, I would have been too star-struck to have a lucid interaction with my hero.

Arvo Pärt Autographed CD. Photo: Justin Graff.

Arvo Pärt Autographed CD. Photo: Justin Graff.

After the meeting ended, Pärt started walking down the hall toward the office, but when our eyes met he stopped, put his finger in the air, gave an excited “Oh!” and turned around. He came back, running, with a box of chocolates in hand. I was still too dumbfounded to choose a chocolate, so he pointed to one and looked at me with an expectant grin. My hands fumbled with the chocolate for an uncomfortable amount of time before I finally got a grasp on it. Then, he set the box down, took a seat at the chair next to me and said, “So… what about composing?” I had no clue how to respond to such a question, but finally let out a stupefied “Uhhhhhh…. I like it!”

When I mentioned that I would soon be performing a piece of his, Trivium, he assumed a distant gaze (presumably traveling back to 1988, the year of the piece’s completion) and said, “Trivium… ahh, there is just one problem.…” He grabbed a score from the shelf behind him and wrote on it to show me some places where pauses should be added. After this mini-lesson, he inquired about my music and asked if I would play for him. I ended up playing three pieces for him, and the only comment he gave was “Hmm, this is interesting,” which certainly made me more sheepish.



Video: Justin Graff, organ, performs Arvo Pärt’s Trivium at St. Joseph Kirche, Vienna on December 7, 2015 in the first of two final student concerts.

Kristina took photos of us together and then Pärt signed a CD of his for me, as well as one of my notebooks. We chatted a little bit as we prepared to part ways and he became noticeably brighter (than usual) when he learned that I was studying in Vienna, and could speak some German: back in the day, he had once lived there and had Austrian citizenship. After exchanging a “dankeschön” and a “bitteschön,” he and his wife left and one of the Pärt centre employees kindly drove me back to Tallinn.

The night after we met, I only slept for two hours; I was just too exhilarated. For the next few days, I frequently had ‘oh my god’ moments where I would remember what had happened and just grin or even laugh out loud. It hardly seemed real. Reflecting on it now, it seems unreal in a completely different way. The magic has dwindled, but regardless, my encounter with Pärt has emboldened me – not just because he is such an inspirational figure in my life, but also because our meeting was the result of persistence in the face of uncertainty, which is something that every aspiring artist needs.

The Ensemble performs Arvo Pärt’s music at 7 pm March 19 at Eugene’s Central Lutheran Church,
1857 Potter Street, and at 4 pm March 20 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Recital Hall, 1620 SW Park Avenue. Tickets are available online.

Justin Graff is a junior in music composition in the UO School of Music and Dance and is a member of the Oregon Composers Forum. He is a student of Drs. Robert Kyr, David Crumb, and Terry McQuilkin. His music is available on Justin Graff SoundCloud Music. Follow him on Facebook. Read Graff’s ArtsWatch preview of The Ensemble’s concert.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch

One Response.

  1. Keith says:

    Thanks for this great story. Pärt has surely heard the angels singing and is doing his best to let us know what they sound like.

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