Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



March 2015

“When a musical piece is too simple we tend not to like it, finding it trivial. When it is too complex, we tend not to like it, finding it unpredictable – we don’t perceive it to be grounded in anything familiar. Music, or any other art form for that matter, has to strike the right balance between simplicity and complexity in order for us to like it." Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession. New York: Penguin Group, 2006, page 235.



Taking Pärt in Music

Dear Reader,

“Ebb Tide.” That’s the name of the first recording I ever bought. It was 1953, and I was ten years old. Having fallen in love with the song from its frequent radio play, I inched toward purchasing it with babysitting money. I remember knowing that only the instrumental version would do. Even then, I had strong preferences. Money was scarce, and buying it felt as if I were making an investment. I was: in my obsession with music. Once again, I give thanks to my mother, who never censored either my reading or music choices.

Classical. Opera. Jazz. Rock and Roll. New Age. I love it all, except for County, although I will admit Patsy Cline’s voice feels as if liquid gold is being poured into my ear.

Music is fuel for making art (and also for driving alone in the car). A selection of CD’s is the first thing that happens when studio time is scheduled. Even with my formidable collection, THE most thrilling thing is to hear a piece of music somewhere that results in a search. Symptoms of obsession: hearing a passage from the piece and having the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Experiencing a deep-rooted tangling of the gut. Consciously slowing your breath so each note can be fully absorbed.

Daniel J. Levitin’s book is a must-read if you are in the market for the complete scientific explanation of music and its effects. If only science could better explain a deeply emotional response. It’s like knowing the history and construction of a Ferrari and trying to make someone understand the feeling of being behind the wheel.

This is how Arvo Pärt’s music came into my life. It began, or so I thought, with a film and the Internet, specifically, YouTube. Both played a part in my search for Pärt’s “Fratres.” The 2013 film, Violette, earned a full 5 of my stars on Netflix. The story is about French novelist Violette Leduc and her journey as a writer. A variety of music is woven into the film, but Violette’s challenges are underwritten by one haunting melody. From the first moment, I was overtaken by all three symptoms described earlier. There was also something familiar about the music.

Next stop: an Internet search for Violette’s soundtrack. YouTube provided a film clip, accompanied by Pärt’s “Fratres.” There was also a list of several versions! After listening to many of them, I chose one for my Favorites bar. That meant I could listen to “Fratres” anytime I was online! And I do.

But where did that vaguely familiar feeling come from? The answer came to me while standing at the kitchen sink. The piece was in the studio CD rack, in a set named The 50 Darkest Pieces of Classical Music. “Fratres” had stopped me cold before, and I had replayed it obsessively. But it was mislabeled on the CD disc 4 list: “Schubert: “Fratres.” I won’t go into how much Schubert I listened to before I realized how different “Fratres” was from anything he had composed. Schubert, it wasn’t.

Next stop: purchasing Arvo Pärt’s Sanctuary, with its 10 minute plus version of “Fratres,” played by The London Philharmonic. I felt that 1953 “Ebb Tide” sensation once again, having just added fuel to my creative tank.