Festina lente

Arvo Pärt

Festina lente

About this work

Composed in an era fascinated with finding secret patterns of holism amidst chaos, one could go so far as to call a work like Pärt's Festina Lente "holographic" or "fractal" music. When a piece of holographic film is broken, each of the shards produces not part of the image but the image in its entirety. Pribram's neurological experiments suggest that a memory acquired by the human brain doesn't get filed away somewhere in the mind like a piece of paper, it becomes part of the everywhere of the mind, a kind of pervasive ether that somehow materializes into a thought or recollection. "The complex and many-faceted only confuses me" says Pärt; "I must search for unity."

Perhaps that is why we seem to have a natural fascination with systems in which parts resemble wholes, in which the surface at magnification X is the same as the landscape of magnification X to the nth power. Nineteenth-century composers like Beethoven and Weber turned motives or chords into overarching bass lines or harmonic progressions. Cage pursued this path further, composing pieces whose micro- and macro-structures prescribed the same general forms. In Festina Lente, a work for strings and harp ad libitum composed in 1988 and revised in 1990, Pärt extrapolates a single melodic line so that the same series of notes comprises just about every level of the texture from foreground to background. "Fast slow," as the title could be read in English, describes how the same line is made to function in different capacities within the string ensemble: played in long, sustained notes by the basses, at double the speed by the viola, and at that speed doubled again in the violins. Though the artifice isn't immediately apparent to the listener, a sense of cohesion characterizes the piece from the beginning. As the ear gradually begins to recognize the same figures occurring at different speeds, lines are drawn along new planes; it becomes impossible to conceive of the piece in the chronologically linear way in which we are forced to listen to it. Pärt has built a musical hologram.

Still, to use buzzwords like "holographic" or "fractal" would perhaps be misleading, since this kind of musical idea-the mensuration (or metrical) canon-has actually been around for centuries. In fact, after some early works heavily influenced by Prokofiev and Shostakovitch, and subsequent periods of exploration in both serialist and collage techniques, Pärt spent several years studying the works of medieval and renaissance masters like Machaut, Ockeghem, and Josquin. The process at work in Festina Lente resembles in many ways that of Ockeghem's Missa Prolationem, in which multiple performers have to look at the very same line of music on the page, each of them singing according to different rhythmic proportions and thus producing different note lengths.

Aside from the structural finesse with which this piece is composed, however, one must not overlook the content of that structure. It is the way in which the lines are crafted and compounded that makes the musical moments striking, and that creates a kind of autonomous universe full of modal, textural, and harmonic variety, despite its rigid laws of construction.