Radical in a quiet way: Satu Vanska will perform in Arvo Part: A Sacred Journey. Photo: Supplied
Satu Vanska, assistant principal violin with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, is meditating on Arvo Part, the Estonian composer whose music broke all the rules when it emerged, like a breath of fresh air, into the noisy music scene of the late 20th century.
''You can be radical in a very quiet way,'' she says.
It is the hardest thing to do to be simple like that. His music is so naked but he knows exactly what he's doing.
Part's works strip music back to its bare essentials, using slow, repeated chords, open harmonies and silence. Works like Fratres, Spiegl im speigl and Tabula Rasa popped up on film soundtracks and best-selling CDs, and suddenly ''holy minimalism'' was all the rage.
''It was a real fashion,'' says Vanska. ''I'm not undermining the performances; they are still amazing. But it somehow caught the zeitgeist. People loved that deep, sad music.''
One of Part's first works to take this style was Tabula Rasa, literally, ''clean slate'', written for violinist Gidon Kremer in 1977. ''When the musicians saw the score,'' Kremer recalled, ''they cried out: 'Where is the music?' But then they went on to play it very well. It was beautiful; it was quiet and beautiful.''
It was also very brave. In the 1930s Arnold Schoenberg had ripped classical music apart with his ''12 tone'' system, a randomising process which turned a good tune into the ultimate no-no for music snobs. No one in Europe had dared put the pieces back together. For decades, modern classical music was complex, angular and often inaccessible.
''And then came Part,'' says Vanska, ''with this incredible honesty and wisdom in music. It was so radical. Everybody else was writing squeaky music and he came in with this beautiful, simple music.''
''The voicing is unbelievably clever,'' she says. ''It is the hardest thing to do to be simple like that. His music is so naked but he knows exactly what he's doing.''
This weekend, Vanska will perform Part's violin and piano duo Speigl im Speigl with pianist Tamara Anna Cislowska in two concerts featuring his music at the Sydney Opera House.
Part is in his seventies now, and while he is still creating music in his home town of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, he prefers not to travel. In the absence of Part himself Sydney Opera House has managed to find the next best thing: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, under the baton of Estonian conductor and long-time Part collaborator, Tonu Kaljuste.
Kaljuste is something of a legend in Estonia. After a childhood steeped in the Estonian choral tradition he established the Estonian Philharmonic as a full-time ensemble and was a driving force on many of the recordings that fired the imagination of a listening public jaded by the jangling complexity of modern classical music. Throughout the '80s and '90s he and his choir worked alongside Arvo Part to capture his unique voice.
''If you live with the composer you are cooking not only with the score but with his comments and reactions and changes,'' says Kaljuste, speaking from his home in Tallinn, where he lives a few doors away from Part.
''You see how he changes and why he changes; you are together in the creative process, and over 20 years we have learnt some interesting lessons about how to perform his music.
The choir brings works by Part spanning 30 years, from the iconic Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977) to his latest major work, Adam's Lament, which had its world premiere in 2010. And alongside this powerhouse of authentic Estonian performance, a new generation of Australian musicians from the Sydney Youth Orchestra will be discovering his chamber music, with a performance at the Studio.
Vanska has no doubt that it will strike a chord: ''His music is balsam for the soul. It's so touching. There's always a place for it. It wasn't a whim or a fashion at all.''
The Composers: Arvo Part is at the Opera House April 6-7.