About this Piece
Length: 26 minutes
Orchestration: strings, prepared piano, and 2 solo violins
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 12, 1991, Eri Klas conducting, with violinists Gidon Kremer and Tatyana Grindenko (Ludus only)
For most of the 1960s, Pärt was composing in a serial idiom. A growing interest in Bach and the use of collage began to subvert the serialism, and after the composition of Credo in 1968 - the piece was also officially condemned for its explicit religious statement - Pärt devoted himself to the study of plainsong and early music, writing little else besides counterpoint exercises.
By the mid-'70s he arrived at a new style he called "tintinnabulation," a style influenced by those studies and the experience of Steve Reich's music. "Pärt I've met, and he did tell me he'd heard my music in the Soviet Union," Reich told an interviewer in 1987. "I was very pleased to hear that. But there is no question in my mind but that Arvo Pärt is his own voice…."
"Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers - in my life, my music, my work," Pärt has said. "In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity. What is it, this one thing, and how do I find my way to it? Traces of this perfect thing appear in many guises - and everything that is unimportant falls away. Tintinnabulation is like this. Here I am alone with silence.... I work with very few elements - with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I called it tintinnabulation."
Tabula Rasa was composed in 1977, on a suggestion by violinist Gidon Kremer, and scored for an ensemble similar to that of a piece by Alfred Schnittke which was to be performed with it. It is cast in two large movements. Ludus (Game) finds the two solo violins at play in fields of A minor, softly at first (after their fortissimo statement of the tonal center) and frequently interrupted with silences. The game grows in volume and rhythmic activity until it bursts into a climactic cadenza, a maelstrom of arpeggios for the soloists and the prepared piano (the preparation consists of inserting metal screws and felts between the piano strings, producing "an alienated tone color effect"). Silentium (Silence) is pure tintinnabulation, soft triadic oscillations over scales in the bass. At the end, the instruments gradually drop out as the music subsides into the depths.
- John Henken