AMN Reviews: Arvo Pärt – Adam´s Lament (ECM New Series); Jocelyn Pook – Desh (Pook Music)

Holy minimalist and holy hedonist.

With “Tabula Rasa” (1984) and “Arbos” three years later, Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) freed himself from the Soviet conservatory influence that made him so dissatisfied with his early work – he had already freed himself from the Soviet Union itself by stealthily emigrating in 1980 – and became a smash hit throughout the West in the process. There is perhaps no living composer so beloved by his audience; his so-called “holy minimalism” so impressed ECM that it launched its New Series just for him, and new music by Pärt appears exclusively on that imprint.

“Adam´s Lament” does not waver from the path of Eastern Church influenced choral music and the tintinnabulist compositional technique with which he has become so closely identified. The pieces are performed in various combinations by an Estonian choir and orchestra, the Latvian Radio Choir and Sinfonietta Riga, all under the direction of Tönu Kaljuste. From the unheeded plea of “Adam´s Lament” – the “total Adam”, Pärt explains, thousands of years of suffering mankind – to what he characterizes as a sonic funnel, “large circles, slowly turning and becoming more and more concentrated and grave until it reaches the deepest point” in praise of the Virgin Mary, and the seasonally timely and immediately timeless “Christmas Lullaby”, Pärt´s collection heads straight for the heart, after which it takes up long-term residence in the mind.

Jocelyn Pook (b. 1960) has written a lot for dance, that most sinful of the lively arts, but it was the movies that gave her her big international break. The album “Flood” contained several pieces chosen by Stanley Kubrick for his “Eyes Wide Shut”, including the esbat of “Backwards Priests”, used to soundtrack the choreographed masked ball orgy. With “Desh”, she launches her own eponymous imprint. “Desh” (Bengali for “homeland”) is a dance piece by Akram Khan, the English choreographer´s attempt to understand his parents’ country by weaving its texture and history into those of other cultures affecting him. It might just be a dance counterpart to Salman Rushdie´s magic-realist whack at Pakistani history in “Midnight´s Children”.

Whereas Pärt´s choral works, with texts covering millennia and sung in many languages, are inspired by the liturgies of a single faith, Pook is a humanist who enthusiastically filches rituals and histories from multiple cultures and traditions. Both albums feature a hallelujah. Pärt´s is utterly weightless voices borne on a phalanx of cellos, while Pook´s opens with cantorial Hebrew joined by frequent collaborator Melanie Pappenheim and Macedonian singer Tanja Tzarovska, turning round and round with a small string ensemble and becoming increasingly concentrated, like in Pärt´s funnel.

With a base of field recordings captured in Dhaka, “Desh” features a Bulgarian orchestra, the five-stringed Bangladeshi dotara, cellist Sophie Harris, Pook´s own violin, viola and piano, metal shop percussion by Dragan Aleksic, and eight vocalists. Perhaps the most impressive evidence of the ease with which she fuses impulses is her “Ave Maria”, co-written and -sung by Natacha Atlas to a soaring string accompaniment and featuring a sampled Persian song. Whipping up a street whirlwind, she swings best when Labik Kamal lets loose on his dotara and Leesa Gazi spits “Remembering Noor” from the eye of a seething crowd. But her true forte are the elegant, deceptively simple pieces for just voice and strings. Pook exercises perfect control over her many, exotic elements, making “Desh” is a melismatic mosaic.

These new albums by Pärt and Pook should no doubt both bring a hush to the same hearts.

Stephen Fruitman