The Biggest Fish

Arvo Pärt (left) and me (right)

Since coming here to Estonia I’ve had an odd recurring feeling that people in the US are looking at me and holding their breaths for me to dish out some Arvo Pärt stories and content. This thought turns out to be surprisingly justified. When I was applying for the Fulbright Grant that allowed me to come here to Estonia, I reached out to a number of previous Fulbrighter composers who did their grant in Estonia. The two I actually got to have conversations with were boastful about the fact that they had one or two interactions with Pärt at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theater. I believe I am accurate in saying boastfully, but I should note that that might stem from the fact that they both adamantly told me I would almost certainly not get the grant and therefore the act of them relaying their experiences to me took on a bragging tone. Additionally, I’ve had numerous conversations with people from back home who have referred to EMTA as “the place where Arvo Pärt studied,” indicating that there really are a lot of people whom I am good friends with back home who would like to hear about my interactions with him (I can only imagine this is strengthened by me now being a resident composer at his centre).

I honestly did not think that I would run into Pärt very much over the course of my time in Laulasmaa, but as of right now I’ve seen him quite a lot every day. As I mentioned in my last post, it was really amazing when I first arrived and he so avidly shook my hand and told me he was happy I was there. He’s visited me while I’ve composed, said hi to me a lot in the halls, and just generally been a really amazing person to be around. Furthermore, without being prompted, each of the staff members at the centre will talk nonstop for hours about how much they love him, about how Pärt makes them want to be the best version of themselves, and how just his presence in a room can brighten everyone’s day. I suppose this is just a very American thought, but it’s really pleasing to meet someone so esteemed that is genuinely really lovely to be around (and also legitimately amazing to hear people say “my boss makes me want to be a better person;” don’t hear that a lot in the US).

Not to get too vulnerable or sappy, but I have been in so many instances over the course of my time composing where I’ve met quite harsh discouragement either from peers who were much more skillful than me, or from really big figures whom I looked up to. Those words really affected me in negative ways. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think that one could reasonably argue that the trajectory of people’s careers has a profound effect on their mental well-being and therefore on the energy that they exude. People who are further down the ladder therefore are probably in a worse mood, but just about everyone is in a pretty bad mood because everyone is looking up. Everyone always wishes they had a better career, and everyone enviously looks up to someone for inspiration. There’s always a bigger fish, and it’s tempting to think…well, maybe I simply met the biggest fish? For most of the 2010’s, Pärt was the most played living composer on earth. It would be completely reasonable to think that level of success comes with a profound peace of mind.

Well, I don’t actually think that’s right at all. My hypothesis about this is that negative personalities in the arts stem from being jaded, and then the subsequent moving up into stardom (if it happens) causes them to weaponize their negative relationship and history with their art against those below them. At any point in this process, they could attempt to be nice, but they aren’t because there are genuinely powerfully corrupting forces working against them. This makes a lot of sense given the variety of biggest fish. For instance, James Levine was probably one of the most skilled conductors ever and he was a horrifyingly evil person. Wagner was a profoundly prolific composer and became one of the most influential artists of all time (and if you don’t believe me, read Alex Ross’ new book) despite a slurry of awful behaviors.

The other side of the coin (which Pärt occupies) is that of the good person. I honestly don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it takes an enlightened-level of kindness to be as nice as Pärt. To be the most played living composer in the world, attending classical music concerts….CLASSICAL MUSIC CONCERTS where people (no joke, this has happened a lot apparently) scream that they love you and not let it go to your head, that takes work. It’s actually a kind of emotional labor that you have to expend in order to be so humble in those circumstances. Fame, even the niche academic kind that is enjoyed by a lot of composers, is actually really powerful in how it effects your mind. It takes a lot of energy to not simply be subsumed into the corrupting forces that could so easily make you bitter. I won’t go into specifics about what Arvo Pärt does with his time that allows him to be so wonderfully easy to be around. I don’t actually know, but now having spent a good amount of time around him, I have some guesses that aren’t particularly groundbreaking. Still I want to respect his privacy so I won’t even make an attempt, but there’s really no secret formula for taking care of yourself, it’s actually (at this point, at least in American consciousness) a public formula of physical and mental well being that will not just help you, but all of the fish around you as well.

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