Now this is a strange little film – a film about Estonian compose Arvo Pärt, that has really little to say about the man himself. There is a lot of talk from conductors and other experts, who use lots of abstract adjectives which leave more questions than answers about how these words help to describe Pärt’s music. Yet somehow, the film seems to work.
Part of this is down to the music. We see lots of performances of Pärt’s music – by orchestras and choirs, but also by octets and individual pianists. Now I’m no great expert on Pärt’s work, but there’s enough here to make you think that this is something worth listening to. The music is quite sacred, and has an intensity which belies description, but sounds great.
One of the talking heads tries to explain the problem: with Elgar, for example, you get an immediate feeling of the rolling hills of England. With Pärt, you feel that he’s come from another planet. Now, there’s a lot in this comment, but it highlights one of the big problems for this film. If there is nothing really with which you can compare this music, what are you able to say?
Maybe the best part comes when a French-African film maker shows part of a film that he made, which liberally uses Pärt’s music. This is followed by a great performance by a Congolese choir. There is much more in this than in the dozens of talking heads who came before telling us how great Pärt’s music is. Here we can just sit back and watch and understand how great this music is at setting a mood.
Also interesting is a young Dutch octet who rehearse one of Pärt’s pieces, while the great man listens and gives quiet feedback. They seem to have found a common language of German. Pärt appears to be a very unassuming type, with long greying hair and a beard. One of the talking heads mentions the frugality of his lifestyle – living in a basic flat with no great airs. He comes across as a normal, decent, bloke.
This way of filming is both a strength and weakness. Pärt is never really asked to comment on anything – neither on his musical work, nor on his life. The most that we hear is genuine but humble praise for the young musicians playing his work. On the positive side, this allows the music to speak for itself. On the negative, there is so much interesting stuff that is left unsaid.
Now I’m no Pärt expert, but I know that he grew up in Estonia when it was still effectively a Russian protectorate. He had problems with the authorities for the religious nature of his music, and ended up defecting. But he also seems to have been one of the good guys who just carried on making his music and didn’t let himself become instrumentalised for Cold War politics.
There is none of this in this film, nor should there have to be, but you do leave thinking that there’s another documentary which is just as interesting, which has yet to be made. Maybe Pärt doesn’t like talking about himself, maybe it would be intrusive to ask him to explain, but there’s a whole history here which would be interesting to hear.
Having said that, let’s deal with what we have. As an introduction to Pärt’s work, this works likes a dream. As an introduction to Pärt himself, it works less well, but this is partly because he seems to have absolutely no interest in having a media profile. Let the man to himself, and give him the time and space to do the things that he enjoys.
Pärt is still alive and is, apparently the most performed living composer. And yet, he seems to have escaped too much undue media attention. Fair play to him for this. And in this sense, I think that this film shows the required respect that recognises a great artist, but doesn’t intrude more than it has to.
There is maybe less information here than we may like, but if we want to respect Pärt’s privacy, we shouldn’t expect any more. Let’s just be happy with what we’ve got here.