Looking back at the mirror

Four years ago I wrote a post about preparing Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel with a pianist friend. I was intrigued with the idea of infinity in its mirror imagery, and every time we studied the score we found more and more of these images.

I never imagined that my next performance of Spiegel im Spiegel would be in honour of that same friend’s memory after he was tragically taken from us aged 37 after a short illness.

My friend dedicated his life to the service of music and young people, and it was in the service of music and young people that he lost his life.

He was an admirable person. I admired him.

*

You could be forgiven for thinking Spiegel is an easy piece. It contains no virtuoso techniques, no double stops, no fast sections, no high-pitched sections. It’s deceptively simple. And yet, understanding it comes not only from what it contains, but from what it doesn’t. There aren’t modulations, significant rhythmic contrasts, dynamics, or tempo changes. What the performers have to do — sustain resonance at an almost painfully slow tempo — demands a level of control that isn’t easy to learn.

When there are so many rewards in our society for musical performances that are out of control, it can be hard to maintain the ruthless equilibrium Spiegel asks of us. Even if Pärt alludes to those lovely piano pieces of Bach and Beethoven (pieces that my friend taught to so many young students in his short and generous life), he doesn’t allow us the expected conclusion of a final cadence. The cello stops on the third degree of the F major triad, as if eternally balanced in the middle. The piano finishes on an ascending arpeggiated 6/4 triad — an inversion of the chord usually used before a final cadence — and we never get the cadence that’s expected.

Is it unfinished, or endless?

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.

— William Faulkner

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