You probably don’t know the title of the piece, and maybe you’ve never before heard the name of the composer. But at a moment like this, it might be just the music you need to hear.
Whatever screen screaming with electoral statistics you’ve just come from, arriving in the sound-world of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel means instant balm. From its very first bar, it’s an escape in sound.
The pianist plays a repeated outline of a major chord. A cellist builds a spare, simple melody upon it. The piano hits a grounding low note once in a while. And that’s pretty much the shape of it. For 10 or 11 minutes in your life, all is well. Nothing else exists.
The piece, whose title translates as Mirror (or Mirrors) in the Mirror, will sound familiar to many. Written by the Estonian composer in 1978, the music has been used in dozens of films, including the Errol Morris short The Umbrella Man, and in a couch scene from The Simpsons.
Stylistically, some of Pärt’s music is influenced by minimalism, but the composer, now 85, has always gone his own way. Spiegel im Spiegel — which exists in various instrumental versions — is among his most popular works. Recordings of it on YouTube have been listened to millions of times. You really can’t hear it without asking, “What is that?”
“Every time I play it, it gets a huge response,” says Debra Lew Harder, the WRTI (90.1-FM) classical on-air host and producer. “I’ve had people write in and say when they heard it they stopped what they were doing, laid on the floor, and put some candles on to decompress. We’ve heard from a lot of people that it brings a sense of peace and calm.”
(After the inquiry from this reporter, WRTI decided to schedule the piece for air Friday at 11 a.m. on Harder’s daily “Morning Meditation” feature.)
The source of this calm? There is something reassuring about those three repeated bell-tones in the upper voice of the piano chiming like a slowly turning clock. The cello melody follows a predictable stepwise journey up and down the register. A child could do it — or so it seems — and that’s the point. Immersing yourself in the piece is like experiencing art stripped down to its most basic building blocks. It feels elemental and comfortable. Like home.
“It sort of takes you on a journey that feels very real,” says Harder. “And even though it is slow, you are going someplace, and it seems to shed light into the experience of being human — maybe our innermost, deepest part of being human. Not the face or mask we present to the world, but what is in our hearts.”