Mirror images

When the SDG office alerted Facebook users a couple of weeks ago to a fascinating BBC Radio 4 broadcast entitled ‘Soul Music’ focusing on the striking impact of Arvo Pärt’s disarmingly simple and apparently straightforward piece for violin and piano Spiegel im Spiegel (which in translation roughly equates to ‘Mirror in the Mirror’), I immediately flagged this as a ‘must-listen’. I have written before on this blog on the striking therapeutic effect of the music of Pärt and Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki in the lives of people with no prior awareness of the identity of these ‘spiritual minimalists’ nor especial interest in contemporary ‘classical’ music. Reports of the use of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa in cancer wards. Personal testimonies of the rôle played by his Kanon Pokojanen in dealing with depression or Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs in providing life-sustaining comfort to a burns victim undergoing long-term hospitalization. So I was in some respects already expecting to hear confirmation of the healing power of Pärt’s music in the BBC broadcast. What I heard followed a general pattern with which I was familiar, yet whose particularities nonetheless struck me as remarkable.

Spiegel-im-spiegel-cover-210x300The ‘Soul Music’ broadcast opened my eyes to the existence of the truly ground-breaking work of an organization named Drake Music Scotland, thanks to which people with severe disabilities are enabled to study, play and compose music with the aid of new technology . Astonishingly, at the tenth anniversary concert of Drake Music Scotland in the prestigious Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, a woman with cerebral palsy named Rhona Smith, after 2 years of using NOTION software (virtual instrument technology capable of responding to alpha and beta brain waves) was able to perform the violin part of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel before an audience understandably moved to tears.

This choice of music could in my opinion not have been more appropriate. It is not merely that the radical simplicity of Pärt’s idiom makes it technically accessible to the disabled,[1] but that this event seems a perfect embodiment of the underlying spiritual logic of Pärt’s music on every level. I can hardly think of a more powerful instantiation of the idea of empowering the disempowered, with music being taken beyond the exclusive preserve of an elite and offering it as a means of expression to those who have been ‘imprisoned’ by their handicap and traditionally excluded from society. Whether or not Pärt himself was aware of the concert was not mentioned in the BBC broadcast, but in my mind there is a striking commonality between the physical and artistic liberation it proclaims and the composer’s own recent campaigning for the freeing of Russian political prisoners deprived of their legal rights. In both cases what is being made apparent is the dynamic of the Kingdom which is the guiding inspiration behind Pärt’s music, a dynamic announced by the Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah 61) as quoted by Christ in Nazareth in which spiritual and physical liberation are the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ sides of the same new reality[2]:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour (Luke 4:18)

It is perhaps no coincidence the enrichment of the life of the newly-enabled violinist is facilitated by music which owes its existence to the composer’s embrace of a musical style of ‘voluntary poverty’, the result of a stripping of his musical language to the bare essentials, in which the composer has divested himself of ego (and in which, as violinist Tasmin Little remarked when interviewed about Spiegel im Spiegel, the performer is called upon to do the same). This is music become poor so that people such as Rhona Smith might become rich. There is also a strikingly redemptive note in which Drake Music Scotland’s work demonstrates how the power of technology, so often a force for de-humanization, can be restored to its rightful calling of re-humanization. Not only of the disabled, but also of the able-bodied and mentally fully-equipped, who are restored to their own humanity precisely through the encounter with disability.

In the ‘Soul Music’ broadcast, Rhona Smith’s mother attested to how her daughter, like many other admirers of Arvo Pärt’s music, loved the calmness and tranquillity of Spiegel im Spiegel, characteristics which were at the forefront of the second example on which I would like to comment. In 1998, the town of Omagh in Northern Ireland was struck by a horrific bombing perpetrated by the ‘Real Irish Republican Army’ (a splinter group of the Provisional Irish Republican Army opposed to the signing of the 1998 Belfast or ‘Good Friday’ Agreement) in which 29 people lost their lives. One was the 17 year-old schoolgirl Samantha McFarland, whose mother was interviewed during the BBC Radio documentary on Spiegel; shortly before her daughter was killed, she had been introduced by her to her favourite piece of music – Pärt’ violin and piano work -, and it was this which was played at the memorial service as Samantha’s coffin left the church. She recalled how two men outside commented on the fact that the service had been free of all bitterness and anger, saying ‘listen to the music’ in acknowledgement that this was precisely the mood conveyed by Spiegel im Spiegel.

These words resonated in my mind when considering the ten years since 9/11 and the question of where, if anywhere, an adequate response to terror is to be found that does not merely consist of knee-jerk reactions which merely perpetuate cycles of blood-letting. It seems that the Northern Irish mourners found the intimation of just such a response in Pärt’s music and its quality of ‘letting-go’; faced with the attempt of those opposed to the reconciliation brokered by the Good Friday agreement to set the wheels of revenge spinning once more, they refused to succumb to the desire for retaliation. History seems to have justified their intuition; the endurance of the 1998 agreement in bringing a sometimes fragile but very real peace to Northern Ireland has been one of the few success stories of the post 9/11 decade in dealing constructively with terrorism.

In the tragic circumstances of the Omagh funeral it is in some respects both curious and instructive that Pärt’s tranquil, radiant music should not have struck those grieving as an evasion from reality or a glib, sentimental affirmation of a fictional peace offering nothing but false consolation. I may be speculating here, but my guess is that the fact that Spiegel im Spiegel did not create such an impression is at least partially due to an element of distance to it. Somewhat akin to the movement for violin and piano entitled Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus that concludes Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Spiegel im Spiegel seems to whisper the promise of peace from afar, its repeated triads conveying a quiet assurance of reconciliation which is nonetheless anything but a triumphal proclamation. The music does not cancel out present reality but offers a glimpse of what lies beyond it, an ultimate peace which deconstructs the apparent ultimacy of human violence. Pärt has always spoken of the two part texture of his post-1976 works in terms of the interaction of a wandering melodic voice which ‘always signifies the subjective world, the daily egoistic life of sin and suffering’ with a triadic arpeggiation signifying the ‘objective realm of forgiveness”, a description which captures the bittersweet flavour of the music. These two voices cannot be considered in separation but constitute a unity, the intertwining of despair and hope which so many seem to recognize in Pärt’s music as an authentic reflection of human experience this side of eternity. To those currently seeking ways out of seemingly intractable situations of conflict, there may be worse pieces of advice to give than to ‘listen to this music’.


Omagh Memorial Garden (photo: Kenneth Allen)

More information on Drake Music Scotland can be found at http://www.drakemusicscotland.org



[1] Rhona Smith has since been studying the celebrated Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs and is evaluated by her mother as capable of performing at British ‘Grade 5’ level, the equivalent of 5 years of musical tuition.

[2] Here I am alluding to the pioneering work on the New Testament concept of ‘the powers’ by theologian and Biblical scholar Walter Wink, who powerfully demonstrates the connection between spiritual dynamics and their material manifestations, building on Teilhard de Chardin’s view of spirit as the ‘inside’ of matter (see, for example, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium (New York: Doubleday, 1998), ch. 1).


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