Tabula Rasa

Or, what music do we die to?

Last night I attended the opening of a new co-production by the theatre company Vanishing Point and Scottish Ensemble. Being a hybrid of more than one medium, it’s hard to quickly explain what the piece is all about. Here’s what they themselves say:

Two of Scotland’s foremost performing groups present a co-production that sets Arvo Pärt’s spiritual and mesmeric Tabula Rasa (as well as Spiegel im Spiegel and Fratres) in a theatrical context, exploring the recognised role of the piece in the care of patients during their final days.

I’m guessing someone worked very hard to manage that fair summary of the work in a single sentence. But of course, there’s much more to it than that.

Writer and director Matthew Lenton was moved by a piece in The New Yorker in which Alex Ross wrote about a phenomenon he’d noticed in those in palliative care, how they would reach out to find the right music to listen to in their final days. Often, he said the dying would ask for music they sometime referred to as the ‘angel music’, not knowing that what they were specifically requesting was the work of Arvo Pärt.

‘Several people have told me essentially this same story about the still, sad music of Pärt – how it became, for them or for others, a vehicle of solace. One or two such anecdotes seem sentimental; a series of them begins to suggest a slightly uncanny phenomenon.’ Alex Ross, The New Yorker, 2002.

Pärt’s Tabula Rasa, the blank slate, is foremost amongst those choices; Death raises hard questions, and likewise what Tabula Rasa the show seeks to do is pose hard questions to its audience. For me, like the best pieces of art, it doesn’t provide simple answers. Speaking to Matthew about this point, he told me that it’s a production that requires the audience to do some work, to fill in the blanks. And blanks there are many… There is a story here, but you make it complete yourself from the handful of short monologues delivered both movingly and comically by Pauline Goldsmith. Pauline plays an unnamed friend of Peter, who has recently died from a brain tumour. Through her we learn a little about Peter and her view of how to care for and then how to grieve for the dying. But there are many, many gaps that the audience can explore.

Likewise, the apparent, well-known emptiness of Pärt’s music leaves sometimes terrifying room for the listener to interpolate their own emotions. It’s music that constantly threatens to fall apart, but which never quite does. Its haunting qualities are what see it used in so many films and TV shows; it’s music that reaches our far beyond the classical concert hall, and this despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that its beauty, at times, is frightening. And I really do mean those words.

There’s a third element in the show, being the reason I made the trip to see it; Matthew decided to include a few readings from my book Snow (Little Toller). As I say in the book, snow is not an element but it is certainly elemental, and Matthew saw this elemental force something many of us respond to, as the final thing he required to bridge the gap between the ephemerality of the music and the everyday comedy and brutality of Peter’s story. The Tabula Rasa is of course a synonym for the empty page, the writer’s white nightmare, something else I speak about in Snow.

In an after-show discussion, the question was raised as to what links these three things: Pärt’s music, care for the dying, and snow. For me, the answer can be given in one word: fragility.

But some things are harder to answer and do not offer quick, one-word explanations. Tabula Rasa is such a thing. When Matthew says the work “requires” its audience to do some work, I recognize that impulse, to speak cautiously about what you’ve made. But there’s a more generous verb we might use: for me the piece allows the audience to work. The difference is great and I guess that Matthew only chose the verb required out of modesty. For him, the room left by the creator permits the reader or viewer or listener to bring their own imagination out of a darkened room and set it to work. I couldn’t agree more. The results are of course infinitely more powerful for an audience because each person has brought their own life and emotion into the story, achieving something that is simply impossible for the artwork that just wants to show and tell. One size will not fit all and a book or play or film that thinks it can is always going to be weaker than one that allows each person to find their own satisfaction in it.

I was going to conclude by urging you to see the piece if you can but it’s sold out on its opening week here in Scotland. I know that talks are underway to see it happen elsewhere, and I very much hope it does, but for now, it remains as ephemeral as snow itself.

Here’s the trailer from the Vanishing Point site.

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