DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Arvo Part is one of the few living composers who found popularity beyond the borders of classical music. REM's Michael Stipe and the singer Bjork are among his fans. The 78-year-old composer is not known for craving attention. But right now he's attending a festival that celebrates his music. And he invited NPR's Tom Huizenga to chat with him about his music and bike riding and bells.
TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Arvo Part is a major composer, so I was a little nervous at the beginning of the interview. I brought a bell - (chimes bell).
ARVO PART: Oh, this is a good beginning. Thank you.
HUIZENGA: Arvo Part likes bells.
(SOUNDBITE OF "CANTUS IN MEMORIAM BRITTEN")
HUIZENGA: Part also likes space, and silence. Fans tend to use words like timeless to describe the music. But for Part, time has deep meaning. And, like his music, Part takes his time to unclutter his thoughts. They come out like poems.
PART: Time, for us, is like the time of our own lives. It is temporary. What is timeless is the time of eternal life. That is eternal.
HUIZENGA: These are all lofty thoughts, Part says. And just a little dangerous.
PART: Like the sun, we cannot really look at them directly, but my intuition tells me that the human soul is closely connected to both of them, time and eternity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANTUS IN MEMORIAM BRITTEN")
HUIZENGA: Arvo Part has gravitas to burn, but of course he didn't start out that way. As a kid in Soviet-era Estonia, he practiced on a battered old piano and rode his bike around the town, listening to Finnish radio broadcasts. I told him that I strapped a transistor radio to my bicycle when I was a kid.
PART: It's very interesting.
HUIZENGA: Early on, Part wrote thorny music in the style of the day. But in 1968, he hit a wall. He went silent for nearly eight years, and when he returned, it was with something completely different.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FUR ALINA")
STEPHEN LAYTON: If you had to give an aesthetic for his entire compositional output, less is more is absolutely it.
HUIZENGA: Conductor Stephen Layton has recorded two albums of Part's choral works. He says after the complicated music that dominated the mid-20th century, Part's new style, with nods to early music, wiped the slate clean.
(SOUNDBITE OF BERLIN MASS)
HUIZENGA: Conductor Stephen Layton says that part of Part's breakthrough came from hearing just three notes in a supermarket.
LAYTON: Over the public address system, one hears the sound (Singing) boo, doo, doo, could so-and-so please go to till number 25. Now that sound, it's called a triad in music, but it's actually the building block of all music in the Western world.
HUIZENGA: Arvo Part realized the beautiful simplicity of the triad and ran with it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPIEGEL IM SPIEGEL")
HUIZENGA: Another ingredient in the recipe, Part says, is silence.
PART: On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which awaits our creative act, our seed. But on the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe.
HUIZENGA: That combination of awe and silence caused one German record producer to pull off the highway when he heard this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TABULA RASA")
MANFRED EICHER: It was music that you discover and makes you speechless, breathless, and thoughtful. Yes, I wanted to be closer to this music and so I did make a visit to find it.
HUIZENGA: It took Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM Records, six months to track down Arvo Part. And a few more years before he released Part's first ECM album in 1984. It included "Tabula Rasa," the piece that forced Eicher off the autobahn. The album opened the door to the West for Part's music. Thirteen records have followed.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TABULA RASA")
HUIZENGA: Arvo Part's austere music and his penchant for religious texts, has lent him a certain reputation, says David James a member of the Hilliard Ensemble, who has sung a lot of Part's music.
DAVID JAMES: A lot of people have this impression that he's a bit of a recluse, sort of monk-like. In effect, yes, when you see him. But as soon as you speak to him and get to know him, I tell you, he has the most wonderful sense of humor, and he's got the most engaging personality.
HUIZENGA: I asked Part how he likes being thought of as a mystic.
PART: (Laughing) That is the last thing I want to be.
HUIZENGA: Arvo Part turned out to be exactly as David James described him, engaging and personal. And at the end of the interview, he even said that we had something in common. That's when he held up his hands, as though he was holding the handlebars of a bicycle. Tom Huizinga, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMA")
GREENE: And if you like the music you're hearing, you can watch a concert of Arvo Part's music from New York's Metropolitan Museum, tonight at our website nprmusic.org. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.