Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It is enough: tintinnabuli

It is a choral piece I've been working on — my first — and so I am listening to and studying the choral works of Arvo Pärt.

This is interesting. After a particular period of self-imposed silence and contemplation, Pärt emerged with a new approach to composition he calls "tintinnabuli" (little bells) and this epiphany:  "I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played."

It is enough, it is enough, it is enough. I do think that one of the hardest things for me when writing music is trusting that simplicity is enough. It is enough to be singing a simple note, possibly repeating it or repeating the phrase, playing a simple chord, a simple melody, with a simple harmonization. It can be hard to sit with just one word or phrase. It takes enormous amounts of patience and confidence to let it have itself, without quickly distracting the listener with the next phrase just in case this one isn't good enough.

The piece I'm working on hasn't figured out what it is yet. On the one hand, it's tugging to be an old-time American call and response hymn like I'll Fly Away or In the Sweet By and By yet it's also pulling to be a modern choral piece through-composed, working in fragments and phrases rather than ABABAB repetition. I feel the tug in these two directions every time I sit down to work on it. I haven't found the answer yet so I'm listening, listening, listening. To Ives, to Pärt, then Bach and Billings.

I already know Fanny Crosby, Isaac Watts, Philip P. Bliss, Lowell Mason, and William Bradbury by heart. I have been singing them all my life. Maybe I should just follow the obvious and see where it leads me.

Here are two samples from each side of the spectrum:

American call and response hymns:

Arvo Pärt's "O Morgenstern" from Sieben Magnificat-Antiphonen:

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