Sharps & Flats

In the mid-'80s, people with AIDS lived and died to Arvo Po?=rt's "Tabula Rasa." A new recording reprises music "like the motion of angels' wings."

By Patrick Giles
Published November 18, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I was a crisis worker at an AIDS organization in the mid-'80s, a time when that plague knocked down swaths of people I knew and the future didn't seem to hold much hope. In terms of daily life, this translated into frequent dashes to one hospital or another to help see a client, friend or stranger with no one else through the end of his life. In those despondent months, when even AZT was still an experimental drug, some of us discovered not a treatment, but at least a balm: a 1977 album of music by an Estonian classical composer with the peculiar name Arvo Pdrt.

The most powerful cut on the record was the second movement of the title piece, "Tabula Rasa." It was a concerto for two violins, string orchestra and "prepared piano" (meaning the works of the instrument have been treated or altered to affect its sound). Titled after the Latin for the "blank slate" of a mind untouched by experience, "Tabula Rasa's" relentlessly severe, repetitive and deeply inspiring sound had a powerful impact on my dying friends and their attendants. "It sounds like the motion of angels' wings," a client whom I had a secret crush on once said.

The music brought comfort to many of us after we'd given up on the very possibility of it. People played it at night, during meditation and, especially, when they were in the hospital and feared they were dying. We had learned that even patients in comas were still capable of hearing, and several people with AIDS requested Pdrt on their death beds. "He keeps asking for 'angel music,'" said the baffled mother of my crush on the phone one winter night. "What the hell is that?"

The release of a second recording of Pdrt's masterpiece is not a trivial matter. It gives new listeners a fresh opportunity to meet this composer's hushed yet formidable aesthetic. It is also an opportunity for new players to test their own potential against the work's challenge and to confirm that the music does validate its increasingly above-ground reputation.

People with AIDS and their attendants were not the only admirers of Pdrt -- pronounced "Pear" with a "t" at the end -- in the 1980s. ECM released a number of his recordings to a growing audience of partisans, not all of them standard devotees of classical music, especially contemporary classical. Some critics championed the composer, and he attracted several dedicated, worthy interpreters. ("Tabula Rasa" was performed on that initial ECM recording by one of them, the violinist Gidon Kremer.)

It can take hundreds of years for a piece of music to finally be recognized as precious by performers and listeners; Pdrt did not have to wait. American composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich had introduced a generation of listeners to minimalism in the early '70s, but the effect of Pdrt's 23-minute meditation on the constant yet often barely perceptible progress of time -- and, by extension, of life itself -- was different. Insistently listenable and lyrical, never didactic or thinly inspired (unlike Glass), rich in philosophical and spiritual inspiration (unlike Reich), the gravity of time's passing in "Tabula Rasa," the sense of an ending definite but not to be feared, is a principal reason so many of my sick friends and their loved ones found solace in the work.

To be fair, this devotion quickly attracted the attention of detractors. Pdrt's music is dismissed as "New Age" (shorthand for "mindless") and some of the people who turned me on to him a decade ago have gone back to pop and show tunes and opera. The best way to discover if Pdrt's aesthetic is for you is to give yourself time alone with it -- you can't play it while doing something else; it's the kind of music that will never settle for background.

This new recording, also entitled "Tabula Rasa," contains that piece as performed by the Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham, born in 1971, six years before "Tabula Rasa" was composed. He and second violin Adela Anthony wind and unwind the insistent melody of the composition in a manner different from Gidon Kremer and his colleagues. Whereas the first recording seemed almost beyond temporality, Shaham's is almost driven. His music is getting somewhere, not hovering in an astonishingly prolonged suspension. The different approach -- which passes several minutes quicker than the first recording -- gives "Tabula Rasa" a darker, even more fateful cast. If Kremer's original reading is transcendent, Shaham's is existential.

There is more valuable music on this album. It concludes with Pdrt's "Symphony No. 3," written the same year that Shaham was born. At the time, the composer hadn't quite discovered how to fully deploy his gift. There are minutes of acute, almost inspired music, but they contend with conventions and assumptions Pdrt hadn't relinquished yet. At least here it's conducted with sympathetic understanding by Neeme Jdrvi, a fellow Estonian and longtime champion of this composer's vision.

While it in no way replaces the original ECM recording, this "Tabula Rasa" is a worthy addition to the collections of Pdrt's admirers, and will hopefully be sampled by listeners curious about his work. A common problem with contemporary pieces is the second-version syndrome. Whether admired or deplored at the premieres, good and bad new works often suffer the same fate: They are abandoned by performers, programmers and recording companies. Keeping a newer composition in the public's ear is one of the only ways to know its real artistic value. And "Tabula Rasa" needs to find a second generation of listeners, for many of its first fans, who realized the beauty and worth of the composition, are no longer around to appreciate the sound of angels' wings.

Patrick Giles

Patrick Giles writes about music, literature, politics and baseball, and is the author of "Derek Jeter: Pride of the Yankees." He lives in New York.

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Aids Music