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TOM TYKWER'S 2002 film "Heaven," a thriller-turned-fairy-tale about two fugitive lovers, offers ravishing aerial views of Turin, Italy, and of the Tuscan countryside. As the camera passes over rooftops and, later, rolling hills, a tranquil feeling of distance sets in ; even the most frenetic motion, when viewed from above, becomes a peaceful study of lines and muted colors. In the final scene, the couple steal a helicopter and ascend straight toward the sky, simply dissolving into the blue.
The visuals are exquisite, but the floating, oceanic sensation they achieve owes just as much to the spare, luminous music chosen for the film. It is the 1976 work "Für Alina," by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
Feature films are rarely good places to search for the essence of a serious composer, but Mr. Pärt's music has a way of leaving listeners, including himself, grappling for ways to express its curious effect. Yes, all music floats on air (in the happy phrase of the composer Ferruccio Busoni), but Mr. Pärt's music does so differently. Its harmony hovers in one place ; its statements have a purity that is unique in contemporary music. Perhaps because the works are built from the most elemental materials, they have a peculiar way of burrowing deep into memory, hinting at what Nietzsche and the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik temptingly described as "the third ear." .........
........... Mr. Pärt turned 70 last month, and tributes have been streaming in, including two new portrait albums, the first recording of his recent "Lamentate" and a new home video about his life and music. Not that Mr. Pärt needed a birthday to attract notice. Even though he has for years shied away from public attention, his music has been generously recorded and performed, attracting a cultlike following among a surprisingly wide range of listeners. I have stumbled across his discs in the apartments of friends who own almost no other classical music, and certainly nothing else composed in the last 50 years.
But there is also a large camp of anti-Pärtians: those who hear the endlessly spinning canons as merely stupefying, the purposefully static harmonies as impoverished. "Yawn," wrote one contrarian on a festival Web site. "Less is more, but only up to a point. Slow scales are not profound."
There is not much room for compromise here. In its quiet way, Mr. Pärt's music presses on a divide between those open to a meditative, self-consciously ascetic art and those for whom this is just so much sonic gibberish.
Born in Paide, Estonia, in 1935 and reared in Rakvere, Mr. Pärt has followed a career path that both mirrors and departs from those of his contemporaries. He came of age musically during the post-World War II decade, when high modernism reigned supreme in the West and was banned in the Soviet Union, though tapes circulated behind the Iron Curtain as contraband. During the cultural thaw after Stalin's death, Mr. Pärt announced himself as a modernist provocateur with experimental works like his "Perpetuum Mobile," which churns with a sinister dissonance, or the frenetic "Pro et Contra." His Second Symphony boasted a mad chorus of children's squeak-toys.
But in 1968, after writing a wild collage piece called "Credo," Mr. Pärt hit a creative block, compounded by health problems. He spent the next several years in quiet retreat, reaching back to the origins of Western music and reveling in the premodern sounds of plainchant and Renaissance polyphony. He filled reams of notebooks with studies of chantlike monody, slowly internalizing what would become his new gospel: musical depth did not require surface complexity. Or as he later put it, there could be "hidden worlds behind two notes."
No doubt linked to this quasi-mystical period of discovery were his marriage to his second wife and his embrace of Russian Orthodoxy. Several years passed with no new works performed, and when Mr. Pärt resurfaced in 1976, his music was unrecognizable. He had invented a style at once ancient-sounding and contemporary. He called it tintinnabuli (after its bell-like resonance), and it has more or less guided him ever since.
It was a return to tonality, yes, but not like those of his Western colleagues who later embraced an unabashed Neo-Romanticism. Tintinnabuli works have two essential voices, one that cleaves to the tonic triad, and one that moves stepwise, up or down the scale. There is almost no chromatic motion, no traditional tension and release, but rather a centered stillness. Paul Hillier, a fine conductor of Mr. Pärt's vocal music and the author of a Pärt biography, describes the style aptly as "a single moment spread out in time."
Finding your way through Mr. Pärt's discography is no small task. For a one-stop overview, the most inclusive and affordable option is a new two-disc sampler from Naxos, "Arvo Pärt: A Portrait." It features both the impish avant-gardist Pärt and the meditative tintinnabuli Pärt, but be forewarned that these halves of his career do not sit easily together. (Mr. Pärt himself once cautioned against programming them in the same concert.)
Most of the Naxos performances are respectable, but some are starkly inferior to others in the catalog. The cello-piano rendition of "Fratres," for example, is light-years away from the performance of the violin-piano version by Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett on "Tabula Rasa," a landmark Pärt album that inaugurated the ECM New Series in 1984 and brought Mr. Pärt many of his first Western listeners. The title work on that disc is rendered as a celestial double-violin concerto, beginning with a halting sequence of quasi-Baroque gestures (punctuated by the composer Alfred Schnittke on prepared piano) and ending in a sublime movement of circular music that drifts off into silence.
ECM has remained devoted to Mr. Pärt, releasing 10 of his albums. Among those, "Alina" is another standout CD for those new to Mr. Pärt's work, capturing his early tintinnabuli style at its most pared down and essential.
The newest addition to the ECM Pärt catalog is "Lamentate," the first recording of a work written in response to Anish Kapoor's giant, hornlike sculpture "Marsyas" at the Tate Modern. The sculpture apparently provoked some apocalyptic thinking from Mr. Pärt, and this huge piece thunders and thwacks in ways reminiscent of his earlier self. Though a challenging ride, it rewards patient listening.
Vocal works, usually settings of sacred texts, have been another constant for Mr. Pärt. In that department, Harmonia Mundi France has released a convenient single-disc sampler featuring three different choirs under Mr. Hillier's direction. Back on ECM, Mr. Hillier has led the excellent Hilliard Ensemble in "Passio," among other arresting full-length vocal recordings.
And now we may add to this list the documentary film "Arvo Pärt : 24 Preludes for a Fugue," on a DVD from Idéale Audience International, directed by Dorian Supin and distributed by Naxos. Could it finally be a detailed look into Mr. Pärt's history and present-day life?
Not even close. The film will be supremely frustrating for anyone seeking straightforward biographical information or an orderly treatment of Mr. Pärt's composing career. It is instead a fragmentary, impressionistic portrait composed of many vignettes, more in the vein of François Girard's "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould." Still, a clear picture emerges of a gentle yet serious man. Mr. Pärt exerts a quiet charisma and cuts a striking figure on screen with his long face, his watchful eyes and his somber yet wildly thick beard.
There are fascinating scenes of him at work in Berlin, where he has lived since 1981, and two bonus films showing him in rehearsal with musicians. But the film is also intent on capturing his sensibility outside the concert hall and the composing studio : a noble but risky task that yields mixed results.
Some scenes border on the ponderous, as we accompany Mr. Pärt on walks in the woods or watch him pick berries. Elsewhere, he conjures charming images of his childhood in Estonia: bicycling endlessly around the local square so he could listen to broadcast symphony concerts ; or practicing on a piano whose damaged keys forced him to sing the missing notes.
Ultimately, rather than seeking to penetrate Mr. Pärt's veil of mystery, the film respects or even deepens it. Some will complain, but his fans will be grateful for this impulse. In one scene, Mr. Pärt sits at the keyboard with students gathered behind him. Discussing "Für Alina," he grasps for words to express his idea that, with so few notes, each one is absolutely essential. "I had a need," he says haltingly, "a need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower."