The conductor, rehearsing "The Beatitudes" by composer Arvo Pärt, looked skeptical. He sought a rational analysis. "Exactly how many beats long is it?" he demanded. "What do you do during the silence?"
"You don't do anything," the musician explained, "you wait. God does it."
The slightly perplexed looks on the faces of the performers reflected the feeling many people have on first hearing of a new style revolutionizing the classical music world. Called "holy minimalism" for lack of a better description, the music of three composers - John Tavener of England, Arvo Pärt of Estonia, and Henryk Górecki of Poland - has found an enormously receptive audience, filling concert halls and generating best-selling CDs by reuniting classical music with, of all things, contemplative spirituality.
This music, including popular works like Górecki's Symphony No. 3, Pärt's Tabula Rasa, and Tavener's The Protecting Veil, resonates even with people who never before listened to classical music. Górecki is the first living classical music composer whose music topped the Billboard charts; his Symphony No. 3 has sold over a million copies. A health worker cited the cult status of Pärt's Tabula Rasa among terminally ill patients who called it "angel music" and asked to hear it as they died. John Tavener, already beloved by choirs worldwide for his beautiful, meditative music, burst into international public awareness in 1997, when the ecstatically soaring Song for Athene was performed at the funeral of Princess Diana as her coffin was carried from Westminster Abbey. Awestruck, thousands of people asked, "What was that song?" and Tavener CDs began flying off shelves. Tavener's "Lamentation and Praises" (read a review or hear an audio clip) just won the 2003 Grammy award in the category of Classical Contemporary Composition.
Lengthy silences also are characteristic of "holy minimalism," confusing traditional musicians for whom silence is just an absence of music. Górecki, asked to comment on the phenomenal success of his Symphony No. 3, responded, "Let's be quiet." Arvo Pärt, who spent eight years in contemplative silence before discovering this new way of composing, says, "The most important things that happen between people who are very close to each other are not stated, are not even possible to express. One doesn't need to and shouldn't say anything." Conductor Paul Hillier, a prime interpreter of Pärt's work explains further. "All music emerges from silence, to which sooner or later it must return," he writes. "How we live depends on our relationship with death; how we make music depends on our relationship with silence." Robert Reilly says, "Some of their compositions emerge from the very edge of audibility... conveying the impression that there is something in the silence that is now being revealed before once again slipping out of range. The deep underlying silence slowly surfaces and lets itself be heard. For those precious moments one hears what the silence has to say."
The three "holy minimalists" reject complexity in favor of simplicity. Their music is transparent, austere, and serene. Although deeply human, it is not theatrically emotional; Tavener compares his music to the icons of the Orthodox tradition, which do not impose their own emotions on the viewer, but open, through prayer, as spiritual windows to the Holy. In the same way, Tavener, Pärt and Górecki do not preach, they do not impose their own experience on the listener; instead, in their transparency, they seek only to open a window, allowing the listener to connect with the Holy.
The music of the "holy minimalists" challenges 400 years of musical tradition. Since the 17th century, composers have approached sacred music intellectually, by combining essentially secular musical forms with religious texts. The study of music history tends to narrow its focus to music composed after 1600, so the values of the Enlightenment - humanism and rational analysis - are the filter through which classical musicians have been trained to think. Musical techniques change, but most modern composers take an analytical approach.
By contrast, the "holy minimalists" are convinced that humanity lost something vital in the Enlightenment; they believe that "humanism" and "reason," taken to extremes, have blinded us to the sacred.
Tavener, Pärt and Górecki sought to rediscover a sacred nature to music, deeper than intellectual understanding. Although they did not know one another until recently, their biographies are curiously parallel. Each of them initially began composing in accepted modern idioms, in the style of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Despite initial critical acclaim, all of them felt something essential was missing; all turned to spirituality for answers. Tavener and Pärt experienced a spiritual reawakening through the Russian Orthodox church, Górecki in the Catholic church in Poland. Within this spiritual context, each composer then turned for inspiration to ancient, pre-Enlightenment sacred music forms: Gregorian and Byzantine chant, medieval polyphony, and sacred music of non-European cultures.
The music that resulted from these three spiritual journeys, though inspired by ancient sounds, has a captivating freshness that strikes a resonant chord in audiences weary of the harsh dissonance of most contemporary classical music. "The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every lively feeling," said Pärt, echoing the sentiments of many listeners. Tavener, Pärt and Górecki breathe new life into a beleaguered art form, as for Ezekiel God breathed life into the dry bones.
The depth of meaning in this music, for musicians, is challenging and radically new. Yet while those who approach the works of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki in a prayerful context are rewarded with spiritual depth, it is not necessary to understand classical music or think about deeper metaphysical meaning to enjoy the music. Some of their works definitely demand the attentive cooperation of the listener, but much of it appeals to those who are simply drawn to the serenity and relaxation of the meditative, ethereal sound.
Listeners' reaction to the music of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki seems to depend partly on temperament. If praying in receptive silence for an hour sounds good to you, you will probably be drawn to this music. If, on the other hand, an hour of stillness sounds like an hour of torture, the music of the "holy minimalists" may leave you bored or at best perplexed. "Nothing happens!" cry some critics who, seeing through the filter of Western musical values, call Tavener, Pärt and Górecki reactionary and archaic - just as some Western viewers find Russian icon painting, compared to Western art, unsettlingly stark and lacking in expression.
Yet stories abound of people who weep inexplicably upon hearing the music of Tavener, Pärt and Górecki, for whom its poignant beauty and simplicity touches a deep inner reservoir of joy and sorrow. The continually growing popularity of these three composers, sold-out concerts and ever-increasing CD sales, testify that more and more people are being drawn to classical music through this new spirituality.