When Björk Met Arvo Pärt

On a BBC documentary from 1997 called Modern Minimalists Björk talks with musicians who represent to her the movement from complexity to simplicity in the late 20th century. “It’s very brave these days to look complex things straight in the eye and just say: calm down, you know you can do all these things with only one note”, says Björk to Mika Vainio, a Finnish composer of minimal avant-garde techno. With her funny accent and almost naive choice of words, Björk approaches the huge topic of complexity versus minimalism with ears open to a surprising group of musicians. The documentary begins with her introduction:

“The last few hundred years in European music people moved very slowly but very surely towards complexities and cleverness and in the end, my opinion, was generally creating music like food for thought – for the brain. Then in the middle of the century from completely opposite angles, from folk music or pop music, whatever you decide to call it, and on the other angle serious music or classical music, decided both to shake off all that armour of the brain and start very simple, with minimal things”.

She is far from delivering an accurate historical point of view: the changes she is talking about are an important phenomenon, which probably requires a much more academic discussion. But the beauty of this documentary is exactly that of Björk herself: it is the beauty of an artist who never falls into pretentious complexity, whose accuracy is achieved through pure honesty. This is how she composes and this is the exact way in which she sings – she tells the facts she knows and no more, as these are enough for her to deliver deepest ideas.

Most interesting to me is the part where Björk talks to Arvo Pärt:

I am not sure what would be more shocking than Björk interviewing Arvo Pärt. Perhaps if he would interview her. A meeting between these two figures should have been a meeting between two rather distant worlds. But as usual the rules don’t apply to creative minds.

They both have funny accents – Arvo Pärt with an Estonian melody in his voice; Björk with an Icelandic roll of the tongue. I watch this astonishing acquaintance with a sense of embarrassment, even slight fear – it’s like watching the first meeting of two people you love but who come from very different circles of your life: will it work?

In this case it works magically. Björk tells Pärt that she loves his music because it leaves space for the listener to live within it; he answers that this is because he himself needs this space. He tells her that music can kill and therefore it can also do the opposite (not saying what is the opposite) – an extreme thought but somehow simple at the same time; she smiles in absolute empathy. It is a conversation between two people who do not share a mother tongue, yet obviously speak the same language. With very few words and with the help of Jiminy Cricket as an analogy which probably only they fully understand, they talk about some of the deepest questions one can be occupied with. To me they sound like two children who only mention to each other some secret deep thoughts – no explanations: a private vocabulary of only few basic words, for this is all you need in order to go much further into thoughts. What a wonderful way to express the qualities of simplicity.