I went into Patelson’s Music in New York the other day, one of my favorite places to while away time. Aside from the 200 most solidly canonical pieces of classical repertoire, musical scores are difficult to find, and it’s always fun to see what odd things happen to spring up at Patelson’s. This time, I came across a relatively modern piano piece that I didn’t expect. It was just a few dozen noteheads, no specific rhythms notated, on two pages. There was a key signature of two sharps, and one dynamic marking at the beginning: p. If I showed it to you, you’d think it was by some radical Downtown composer. If you submitted this piece for a grant or award, it would be laughed off the table as being amateurish, ridiculously simple. There is nothing at all about this score, in fact, that would make 90 percent of American composers take it seriously except for the name at the top: Arvo Pärt.
It was, of course, the piano piece Für Alina, published by Universal and recorded on ECM. It’s a lovely piece, or, one might say, a potentially lovely piece: there’s not much about the notation that would constrain one to play it with the devotional calm that makes it soulful. You kind of have to know Pärt’s reputation as a “Holy Minimalist” in order to know what atmosphere to play it with; the notation doesn’t tell you much, which is a bad thing if you’re a Downtown composer, but apparently fine if you’re Estonian. I bought the sheet music for $9.95, which also included a 1977 Pärt piece called Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka, a four-page piece of which the first half is in A minor, the second in A major, with no accidentals in either half. The melody is a quarter-quarter-half rhythm not varied until the final measure.
Lots of American composers have written music this simple, even this spiritual in intent: Peter Garland, Beth Anderson, Elodie Lauten, Mary Jane Leach, Daniel Goode, Jim Fox, William Duckworth, myself. But of course, we’re not Estonian, we don’t have reputations as Holy Men, and so our scores, neither published by Universal nor recorded on ECM, are neglected and ignored as the overly simple, notationally incomplete, amateurish screeds that they apparently must be.