Ten minutes. The time it takes to water the plants, do the dishes or read the daily news. At least in the conventional sense of “time.” Because there exists another, parallel dimension where time can be suspended indefinitely and a single moment can signify an eternity. In this dimension, which is no other than the realm of abstract music, ten minutes of “normal” time assume a new importance and are long enough to open a portal to a radically different perception of reality and the cosmos.
Ten minutes is approximately the duration of Spiegel im Spiegel (“mirror in the mirror”), a piece by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) written in 1978 for piano and violin. If there was ever a musical synonym for absorbed meditation and contemplative stillness, this would have to be it.
Spiegel im Spiegel is written in the compositional style of tintinnabuli (from the Latin tintinnabulum = bell), a technique invented by Pärt himself and influenced by his mystical experiences with religious music. Although his early works are characterized by a variety of styles ranging from neoclassicism to serialism, his preoccupation and study of choral music, Gregorian chant and the polyphonic music of the Renaissance eventually led Pärt to develop an idiomatic style characterized by simple harmonic structure and rhythmic patterns, alluding to the ringing of bells.
“Tintinnabulation”, says Pärt, “is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. 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.” Of this type of music, Spiegel im Spiegel is one of the earliest and finest illustrations. It is also one of his most popular works and has been repeatedly used in films, as in Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001) and Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away (2002).
That a work by Pärt such as Spiegel im Spiegel has been so well-received is a bit of a contradiction. One can hardly think of more introspective, detached and unfashionable music than this. And yet it contains a certain quality that defies time and space, speaking directly to one’s heart and inner self. As Steve Reich, one of the founding fathers of minimalism, once put it: “[Pärt’s] music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.”
It is not just the ten sublime minutes of Spiegel im Spiegel. Much of Pärt’s music is of profound expressivity and unfathomable beauty (his Tabula Rasa is another case in point). The composer once compared his music to “white light which contains all colors”, its division being possible only through a prism, which could be “the spirit of the listener.” At its best, this music indeed offers that which only divine light could ever promise to reveal: a glimpse of the eternal.