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Cantus in memoriam of Benjamin Britten


Pärt’s new musical language fuses an austere minimalistic diatonic tonal vocabulary with imitations and adaptations of the evocative tolling of bells—the quintessential sound of religious ritual, particularly in the Russian Orthodox Church which Pärt joined in the 1970s. Striving to create a musically notated imitation of the rich composite of overtones produced by bells, Pärt worked out what he called his ‘tintinnabular’ style (from the Latin tintinnabulum, meaning ‘bell’).

One of the purest examples of this mode of writing, in the sense that its effect is achieved with a bare minimum of material, is Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten. The chiming of a pianissimo bell (campana) breaks the silence and opens up a sacred space rich in liturgical overtones. What follows is essentially a mensuration canon on a descending A minor scale (Aeolian rather than melodic or harmonic minor) and its attendant tintinnabular pitches—notes belonging to the A minor triad below and above the scalar movement. It has five layers of tempo, each entering in turn, and each one an octave lower and twice as slow as the one before. The double basses enter last, sixteen times slower than the first violins.

The tintinnabular style and the canonic technique question the temporal-spatial nature of music. The vast majority of music we listen to is tonal, and the triad is part of the complex hierarchy of chordal relations that form the musical language we know as tonality. In the context of these relationships the triad is employed to do this and that, to lead here and there, and to resolve the resulting tensions. By contrast, triads in the tintinnabular style are divested of dynamic agency; more specifically, the dissonances that would usually be heard working against the chordal framework do not create friction. Liberated from the constraints of voice-leading and the need to guide us towards the stable tonic, the shifting chords eschew the potential energy of dissonance. Rather than straining to achieve resolution, they exist in and for themselves—statically, as it were—simply creating an envelope, or womb, of sound. As listeners we are persuaded not to hear the sonic present as a point to which and from which the music drives in fulfilment of a tonal teleology, but as the point at which all exists in the fullness of its sounding: there is no past and no future, just the eternal present. The temporally directed motion of tonal hierarchies becomes a spatial hypostatization of the sounding moment.

In a similar vein, Pärt sets in motion a scalar canon that could theoretically continue ad infinitum, once again ingeniously avoiding any teleological closure. It is only the limitations of the instruments’ ranges that set a limit to the spatial voyaging and bring the work to a close. If we leave behind the emotional drive of time and allow our awareness of the reverberating space to be the primary mode of perception, the music becomes, as mentioned above, a vehicle of sustained presentness.

from notes by Hugo Ticciati © 2018


White Light - the space between
Studio Master: SIGCD532Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD532 disc 2 track 6

Recording date
20 August 2017
Recording venue
Petruskyrkan, Stocksund, Stockholm, Sweden
Recording producer
Thore Brinkmann
Recording engineer
Thore Brinkmann
Hyperion usage
  1. White Light - the space between (SIGCD532)
    Disc 2 Track 6
    Release date: April 2018
    Download only
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