In his new book, Sounds Beyond: Arvo Pärt and the 1970s Soviet Underground, writer and musicologist Kevin C. Karnes considers several entwined histories within the avant-garde scene of the pre-perestroika USSR. While Pärt’s music has enjoyed a wide audience in the West since the 1980s, this book focuses on a time before his breakthrough popularity, when he was still solidifying his style in his homeland of Estonia.
As the title indicates, the work is centered on Pärt’s development as a composer during the 1970s, particularly his embrace of the Eastern Orthodox faith and resultant tintinnabuli-style, a method of composition for two voices where the harmony is arpeggiated in the bass as a tonal melody moves above it in small steps. Tintinnabuli is a minimalist style that is often slow and meditative.
But as much, if not more, time is spent with other characters of the underground, who—working together—succeeded in creating a network of communications and concerts based around the Baltic region of Estonia, Latvia, and Western Russia. Two questions then are posed; that of how to create a truly devotional music, and how to build a subculture wherein such music could be encouraged and propagated.
For Pärt, the desire to express his faith through music in a devotional sense became a necessity that was hindered by a lack of a compositional framework and the state’s unwillingness to endorse explicitly religious works. In this dilemma he was joined by Vladimir Martynov, a Muscovite composer who also came to the Orthodox Christian faith as an adult. Both sought to remove themselves and their egos from their compositions, a desire recalling the Orthodox tradition of hesychasm in which a religious devotee withdraws from secular life to an inward practice of ascetic prayer.
The techniques developed for achieving this, which Karnes wonderfully explains, yielded a type of music that, on listening, seems simultaneously avant-garde and accessible, and are responsible for the mostly secular embrace of Pärt’s music worldwide over the past 40 years. Indeed, most of his and Martynov’s audience at home in the ’70s weren’t overwhelmingly religious either, yet the music was celebrated at that time as a turn from a modernist aesthetic, following a perceived overabundance of works created under the influence of theorists like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Cage.
Yet, the pieces were undoubtedly religious works, bearing titles with Biblical references and drawing on scripture as both choral text and even as an element to generate melodic patterns. Such overt religiosity stood little chance of being accepted in an official capacity. In fact, the premiere of Pärt’s first devotional piece, Credo, in 1968 attracted such scrutiny from cultural officials that it led to a period of several years when he mostly only composed for film.
Luckily, while there was no official place for Martynov and Pärt’s new compositions, a subcultural space opened by the new popularity of discotheques in the USSR afforded a space where the work could be presented in concert and, although fleetingly, away from the gaze of state censure. This connection was orchestrated by the third main figure in the book, the young Latvian DJ and architecture student Hardijs Lediņ.
Karnes justly devotes a large portion of his writing to Lediņ, casting him as a main organizer of new music in the Baltic region via his hugely influential DJ position at a student discotheque in Riga. The DJs at the time followed a format where seated listening sessions and lectures comprised a first part of the program, to be followed by dancing. This instructional portion might include works by progressive rock bands like King Crimson or Pink Floyd along with pieces of medieval music and mid-century serialist works—a range of styles presented to suggest a sense of historical development and to outline a musical precipice upon which the young attendees of the discotheque were poised. Through various conceits, Lediņ used his platform to present the new works of Pärt and Martynov to wide audiences while avoiding the ire of the state’s cultural institutions.
The spirit Karnes invokes is that of an exciting connection to the creation and sharing of new music, attendant with the belief that experimental or avant-garde music and art can serve as a catalyst for new social systems or, more aptly, new devotional methods. Musicologist Benjamin Piekut is cited by Karnes for his ideas on musical experimentalism as a form of “searching for an otherwise,” an idea that is equally appropriate on both a sociopolitical and religious level. The “otherwises” present in Sounds Beyond … therefore call to mind the intersection of new art and new spaces—or rather the necessity of the creation of new spaces to accompany the creation of new forms in art.