Surreality – Arvo Part

Music has always been an integral part of my writing process, whether it’s selecting music to listen to while working, or choosing pieces to specifically reference in the book. Surreality actually depicts several musical pieces including a Massive Attack song for one of Ms. Klein’s performances, but my personal favorite is the choral piece that Keenan hears at the Palace Theater, Arvo Pärt’s Kanon Pokajanen.

ArvoPart_KanonPokajanen

The Kanon is a modern classical masterpiece, but its origins lie in centuries old tradition. The text is taken from the Eastern Orthodox Canon which consists of nine odes centered around repentance (thanks Wikipedia). The second ode, Moses’ rebuke of the Israelites, is often omitted from recitations and is not present in Pärt’s composition (a fact my characters discuss in context with the events of the book).

My first encounter with the work was accidental. I didn’t even learn to pronounce Pärt’s name correctly for many years. It’s ‘Pear+t’ like the fruit plus a ‘T’, not ‘part’ like the widget, or ‘par’ which incorrectly assumes that the ‘T’ is silent. A two-disc copy of the CD was in the library book sale when I worked there my senior year of high-school. I had no idea what the CD was, and it smelled heavily of cigarettes, but for a dollar I sated my curiosity. The first nine seconds of the disc are silent, and I remembering wondering if there was something wrong with it. I probably turned my boom-box (yes I was still using one of those in the early 2000’s) to its maximum setting, only to met with the full blast of an SATB chorus a few moments later.

Pärt’s style is very spare, borrowing a lot from Gregorian chant, and mixing one or two of the parts together in different combinations. Large sections are sung in recitative fashion (meaning one part sings and another repeats). It’s ethereal and reflective. The piece gets your attention, retreats to the heavens, builds to an midway climax, then lets you go gently.

Pärt uses silence to set tone. The initial silence emphasizes the contrast of the entrance, and further silences throughout allow the notes to fill the cathedral space in which it was recorded. I’ve sung in old churches only a few times, the most memorable being a trip to San Francisco in 2004. Notes can carry on for seconds, long after the people have stopped singing. It’s a particular treat to study how harmonies blend and produce all the overtones and magical things that can happen when voices come together perfectly. It’s spiritual, not just to listen to, but to experience when singing.

My character’s not as fascinated by choral music as I am, but I hope that the moment is a nice space to reflect on what’s happened in the book so far, and what’s coming next. It’s still one of my favorite scenes to read, and has been present in the book in one form or another since the first draft (though Pärt’s specific selection came later I think).

My latest book, Surreality, is available on Amazon and Smashwords or wherever eBooks are sold.

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