Thursday, April 10, 2008

Björk and Arvo Pärt

There is something about this clip that makes me incredibly happy. It's not just that I like both Björk and Arvo Pärt very much. It is that two such fiercely uncompromising artists can seem so comfortable and lacking in pretensions in the company of one another. The way that Björk, without any evident embarrassment, makes the analogy to Pinocchio, and the cerebral aesthete Pärt listens, charmed, and agrees, says much about the honesty of both of them: it suggests that, however deeply idiosyncratic each may be, their strangeness is not motivated by affectation, but by a striving for artistic expression that is free from the temptation of trying to meet the expectations of others.

Of course, each pays the price for this in a certain resistance to their work from some listeners. In general, the resistance is understandable, I think, because the work demands certain kinds of attention that not everyone is prepared to offer at any given moment: to each his own. However, I find myself less comfortable when I hear outright dismissals of either of these two, because there often has been a sneering present in such dismissals which I actually find morally distasteful. I have come to believe that those who don't want to even try to take Björk seriously, citing her elfin appearance and manner, may be blinded to their own patriarchal prejudices; and that those, especially among classical music aficionados, who look down their noses at Pärt because his work is "too simple," have become deafened by the fanfare of their own pomposity. I emphasize that this is not to say that everyone should like what I like. However, disliking artists' work is quite different from disparaging the authenticity of their vocations; and these two have shown enough integrity in their different ways to deserve at least our respect, if not our enthusiasm.

As much as part of the pleasure of seeing and hearing this conversation lies in watching two musicians who are so unlike one another have a meaningful encounter, I am also interested by the idea that behind their work there stands a similar attitude towards the place of music in the modern world, which I think is manifested in two quotations that I recalled while watching the video. I read each of these quotations some time ago, and I can't remember where now, so I will have to paraphrase. Arvo Pärt once said that the ultimate purpose of all music was to return our ears to silence. Björk once said that people should either listen carefully to the music they liked at a decent volume, or shut it off and "just skip it," because the idea of filling the air with bland muzak was deplorable. In both cases, then, there is a sense that it is in the relationship to the absence of music that their work defines its purpose. I'm not sure I wholly agree with either of them (to Pärt, I would say that I sometimes I play a song to whip up my enthusiasm; and to Björk, I would say that sometimes a soft musical background can be, as Bob Dylan sang, "nothing, really nothing to turn off"). But in any case, I find both ideas stimulating, and one would have to admit that this is certainly not the way music is regarded by most of the commercial entertainment industry, with its frantic efforts to pry our attention away from competitors.

Anyway, with that, I give you the video.

I think the only thing that would make me happier about that would be if Arvo Pärt also interviewed Björk about her work. Oh well, maybe next time.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I have been in France all winter, but I'll be leaving soon, and it seemed a good time to break my blog silence. Last week, a few of my graduating students asked me to contribute something to their final celebration, notwithstanding that I am still in Paris until later this month. This is what I sent them.