Brian Gillikin

Brian Gillikin is a composer, hitchhiker, and occasional poet who works for an international education program in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he lives with his exotic Georgian wife. He tweets about music and life from @briangillikin, and writes about hitchhiking and the human condition at

The Complete Beauty of Arvo Pärt’s “Für Alina”

To hazard being hackneyed, I don’t remember the first time I heard Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina with my ears. I knew it as the piece that woke the composer from his creative slumber, as the world’s introduction to his tintinnabuli (‘bell-like’) style, and other such bits that are important to musicians and to no one else. But I do remember the first time I heard it with my eyes.

It was a Sunday evening in April, and I felt numb afterwards, like after a good cry.

The two-page score of Für Alina is an artifact of human perfectionism. Visually, it lacks the shoulder-shrugged, pianistic flair of Rachmaninoff, the rococo loop-di-loop satisfaction of Bach, or the palm-on-forehead-“So-that’s-how-he-did-it!” of reading through Beethoven or Wagner. This work is Pärt at his most naked minimalism. The notes don’t even have stems. There are no time signatures, and the tempo marking – Ruhig, erhaben, in sich hineinhorchend (“peacefully, in an elevated and introspective manner”) – seems to imply a slow tempo while politely declining to say how slow. Easy enough for a child to play, yet so delicate that performing it well requires a very skilled touch, ear, and the patience of age. Somehow, when fully beheld, Für Alina is one of the most complete and arm-tingling-ly beautiful pieces of music ever.

The work’s perfection begins with and returns to its typography; that is, how Pärt arranges the ink on the page. The stemless notes and predilection for white space are not accidental. The sonic realization of the piece is entirely informed by these typographical decisions. Pärt implies everything through the typography, except indication for how difficult simplicity can be, like an unmarked doorway into the sublime. Realizing the score at the piano enters one into the world of music where words of course no longer matter, a place of ineffable beauty.

The work’s opening notes – a pair of quixotic B-naturals two octaves apart on the lower end of the piano – resonate through the instrument and the listener’s mind. They receive one measure before the bottom stave vanishes, implied by the note ties leading into the white space that follows. These pedaled notes fade through most of the piece, disappearing first from the piano, and then from memory. As the background, they reshape the sonorities of the simple parallel lines of the foreground as it augments in length from two notes per measure to eight before diminishing back down to two, resting finally on a three-note cadencial gesture. These first two enigmatic notes are the climax of the piece, the rest a symmetrical song of denouement.

Space lies between every molecule of Für Alina. White space on the score, musical space between the note voicings, space lingering in the time between each note and measure, acoustic space resonating within the piano body, physical space between the piano and listener, and so on, like a pebble dropped in a puddle, rippling out from notation to piano to ear to mind, all instances of space analogous to one another. As each note decays, the mind tries to catch some elusive thought escaping between the ripples. Like all that is beautiful, this is a progression towards infinity, holistic, inward, and upward. Musically, Für Alina is not defined by its sequences of sound in time, but by the careful placement of sound in space. It is physical motion within eternity.

To some extent the piece is utterly infuriating. It is straightforward yet allusive, childish yet genius. As a feat of human craft, Für Alina removes all but the minimum from the page to activate the potential of natural acoustics. As a work of art, it pushes deeper into the human relationship with the mystical and the divine than some very intentional sounds and typographical decisions should be able to push. But it does, and without wasting further words, take a look and take a listen




“May Flights of Angels Sing Thee to Thy Rest”

The composer John Tavener is dead. Known for his strikingly gaunt physical features – which resulted from the same genetic condition that eventually killed him – and strong Orthodox Christian faith, Tavener stands among the greatest British composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, and is one of the few recent composers whose works have become part of the contemporary discourse. He was only sixty-nine.

When we talk about Tavener, we usually mean the latter version. In the 1960s, the young Tavener was the British Invasion of classical music. A friend of the Beatles and on their record label, his early music was chaotic, eclectic, and hyper-modernistic. Tavener’s conversion, from weakly Presbyterian to zealously Eastern Orthodox, brought him into his second phase as a composer, in which he emphasized space, simplicity, even silence – a stark contrast to his earlier works – and the minimalist style for which he is best known today.

Tavener’s Orthodoxy was almost too Orthodox, as he flung himself fully into its mysticism and the Eastern liturgy, both of which became the primary source of all the music he wrote up to his death. His detractors point both to Tavener’s inability to compose far away from his beloved Church and to his ‘failing away’ in recent years when he began integrating other religious traditions into his music, especially Hindu and Buddhist. And rightfully so, but wrongly judged: Tavener wrote music, much like Olivier Messiaen and Arvo Pärt, with the understanding that Christian truth can be found in all things, seeing no contradiction in simultaneously holding tightly to his Church and freely exploring the world.

Being a composer (and I commit this fallacy willingly as I myself am a composer), Tavener was likely unable or unwilling to separate his inner and outer worlds, or even see them as separable. His image was reflected in his musical creations, putting him at risk of being misunderstood or too understood, and he seemed unhindered by this and kept writing music until near his death. All that is left of Tavener is memory and music. Through listening we can get glimpses of who he was and, if we listen closely and well enough, a glimpse of the truths that Tavener hoped for in life and now has in death.

I first heard Tavener’s ‘Song for Athene’ two years ago at a Compline service at Christ Church in Rochester, NY. This piece came to him while he was attending the funeral of Athene, a young half-Greek girl who had died in a cycling accident. Tavener’s spiritual guide, Mother Thekla, arranged the text – a combination of excerpts from Hamlet and the Orthodox funeral liturgy. The work is most famous for being performed at Princess Diana’s funeral.

That evening in Rochester, as the soprano section – a group that walked across the street from the Eastman School of Music each Sunday evening to sing the service – soared through the candle-lit sanctuary to the top of the work’s climactic chord, I felt emptied. And then, as the drone began again in the basses, free to be filled. Free to live in this chaotic, eclectic world. Free to have peace in life and in death. I was sung to a temporary rest as Tavener recently was sung to his eternal rest. Alleluia.

Listen to ‘Song for Athene’ by John Tavener.




Here and here and here

A few scratches of petroleum-based
ink; swift motions of being and becoming –
the weight, the thrust, on the shoulders sisyphean,
of a name. 3Xs. Father, Son, H. Ghost.

Top and middle and bottom
and the date: the xx/xx/20xx to remember
a blink of death and the ‘Let there be…’
creation ex bureaucratus motion of ego, pen
fetishism and submission –

There and there and there
With each – F & S & HG – a threefold
thank you, thank you, thank you.
3Xs mouthed, as sincerely, as
humanly, as crowning with truth & glory
as those three, dry black swirls of petroleum.

photo by: quinn.anya