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Sunday, June 27, 2004

Music That'll Knock You Out - Part 2

Arvo Part - Alina 1999 ECM

The Estonian composer has kept my attention and leveled some lousy moods with such works as Arbos (1987, ECM), the Biblically-themed De Profundis (1996, Harmonia Mundi), and a collection from the mid-'90s on the Naxos label (that are so bless-'em cheap) that contains his acknowledged 1967 masterwork Tabula Rasa . Part's music has a certain serration in its' harmonic edges that ensures it rarely sounds like easy-listening music. The effect Part has on a listener's nervous system shares some affinities with a stormy evening inside a darkened house, or watching a snowfall: it relaxes not through a sapping of stress but by overtaking you with its' understatement. Sober - not somber.

The very, very widely praised Alina is different, though. It's certainly pretty, and simple enough: on Spiegel Im Spiegel (Mirror On Mirror), violinist Vladimir Spivakov slowly threads a repetitive melody in A through piano chords that Sergej Bezrodny spaces widely enough to accomodate...to accomdate...well, a lot more piano chords. With each repeat of this melody, another note in A is added. Included are several reworkings of another early composition, the brief Fur Alina, featuring Alexander Malta's piano work as he gradually bevels the harmonic movement of the music for a effect that might be best illustrated by one of Dali's melting watches.

What differs Alina from my other listening experiences with Part's work is that I can't shake the feeling that some kind of joke is being played during Spiegel Im Spiegel. The sobriety that gives Part's choral and orchestral works much of their power plays against the spareness of the melody and (ahem) harmonies in this composition. It's a good thing Spivakov got to play an additional note per repeat because at the bureaucratic pace of the tempo I'd imagine he felt some considerable tension building up. A desire to stray from home key to some wild, faraway place in B# perhaps, or to swing away like Stephane Grappelli. And for his part, maybe the composer chuckled over the earning of much praise in inverse proportions to the music's complexity. Alina was a top-ten critic's album all over the place in early 2000.

Mystery for another post: why would I get this impression from Part and not from some of Brian Eno's self-generating musical ideas, such as the ones that made up The Drop? Wait - I do get that impression sometimes, from The Shutov Assembly for example. But why doesn't this feeling of jokiness happen more often with 'ambient' music? After all, I can never prove that there really is a gag that is intended.

The title of the album has been corrected since original post.
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