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Dots, lines, music, pictures and words

Immo Mihkelson (1/2019)

Immo Mihkelson noted down his impressions of Joonas Sildre’s graphic novel on Arvo Pärt’s music.


I was asked to record my impressions concerning the graphic novel about Arvo Pärt written by Joonas Sildre. I don't think I could approach it in any other way because in an unexpected way I am more connected to the book than would be suitable for the writing of a review. Namely, Sildre says that he was greatly influenced by my radio series at Klassikaraadio in 2005, in which we discussed Arvo Pärt, his music and the circumstances around it over 14 episodes. The composer himself offered quite a few explanations and spoke about the details of both his life as well as his work, which had until then been hidden behind a veil.

A couple of years later, an unfamiliar young man phoned me and told me how he had listened to the programs and how the music and world of Arvo Pärt had captivated him. And that he would like to draw a book on the subject. We met. Everything interested him, every single detail, which I was able to share with him. Sometimes he'd call and ask something. Sometimes he'd send some photographs – for example, when he went and photographed the grey prefabricated building in Mustamäe where Arvo Pärt had lived with his wife Nora and their children and where tintinnabuli was born.

For years, I heard nothing from Joonas Sildre until last autumn I received an invitation to the presentation of the book at the recently completed Arvo Pärt Centre at Laulasmaa. For around ten years, he had been active, collecting material, sketching, drawing, meeting, listening to suggestions from the Pärts, weighing every word, allowing the music to carry him, measuring its space and depths on a human scale.

At the presentation of the book, Sildre spoke about it in an impressive manner. He drew the events of the creative process on a screen and spoke of his own story. The journey to the book was difficult and complicated, but he didn't complain, just explained. Not of that which takes place in his work, but what led to its creation.

It was evident that he had lived and worked for around ten years with his imagination of Arvo Pärt and his music. This had certainly formed him or somehow raised him, but usually people are reluctant to talk about this. Too much uncertainty and hesitation surrounds those that embark on such a journey to discover themselves and the world.

There are probably many such people among us. Many of them hold on tight to Arvo Pärt's music. There is an invitation within, the sound of which resonates enticingly. The Faith, Hope and Love are noticeable, which help a person throughout their path in life and seem to produce a common field, which connects everyone and everything in an inexplicable way.

Repeatedly, people have tried to find explanations for the broad appeal of Arvo Pärt's music. Many clever words have been uttered and written down, proud theoretical constructions have arisen, beautiful poetic exhalations have floated around. But there is still some secret that alludes explanation and logic that calls the seeker however far they have ventured along their path.

In my imagination, Joonas Sildre is also one of these journeymen, who shares singular understandings with people, which he has reached while looking for answers, without claiming that everything is clear to him.


The upward push

In Dorian Supin's film "Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes for a Fugue" (2002) there is clip where Arvo Pärt explains details concerning his musical work to a small group that has collected around him and, as always, his words have a wider dimension to them. For example, concerning the conductor, whose single hand gesture before the music has started may contain the essence of everything that is to come. This prelude, a small motion before the awaiting eyes of the musicians, is of decisive importance because the level of its potency determines, not only the beginning of the music, but also the path of its progression and maybe even the point to which it must arrive. The film gives the impression that Arvo Pärt, who has often indicated the need to break down the algorithm of music and has thought therefore that the most important aspects would emerge, yearns for this musical prelude, which indeed encapsulates, in the blink of an eye, everything that will unfold gradually before the listener in the music that is to follow.

The prelude for Joonas Sildre's graphic novel "Kahe heli vahel" (Between Two Sounds, 2018) is on its cover. Essentially, it is a black and white depiction of a man jumping into the void. It can seem like this because the edge of the cover appears before it becomes clear where he is jumping or falling… and, in fact, whether he will fall or remain in flight. The bearded man is lanky with graceful movements and his position suggests quite a run up. His upward leap has taken place from the top of a steep angle, which would require a great effort to get a good enough leap. Turning the book over we see the silhouette of the same man marching up an incline shrouded in gloom. Anyway, it's considerably lighter and brighter at the point of the leap in addition to the impetus being greater. And if we move the book a little with lighting from the side, we notice an otherwise invisible ball moving energetically, which pirouetting, could meet the trajectory of the jumping man beyond the edge of the book and continue on together.

Such a jump is no longer desperate, but hopeful. It has the belief that there is something that can overcome gravity and the energy of which can propel a person upwards. Be it music or something even greater…

This is the artist's prelude which seems to attempt to create a precondition for anyone who picks up the book in order to get to know its contents. But for me it worked in a slightly different way. And it is possible that it may be so with other people as well. I started to see the cover of Sildre's book in the aforementioned way only after delving into the contents of the book. Only then did I get the impression that perhaps here is precisely such a preceding gesture that contains the whole of the following work. That it is something that has both the preceding effect as well as the after effect in one. Here is a person (a composer), his work (music) and there is a direction for movement and an aspiration and a flight – exactly what the book attempts to convey.


A great recluse

"Between Two Sounds" is a large format book – a couple of hundred pages of series of drawings on thick paper, more than two centimetres of pages between a hardcover. This contains Arvo Pärt's story until 1980, when he left Soviet Estonia. It has his childhood in Paide and school years in Rakvere, military service at Keila-Joa and studying to become a composer in Tallinn. Work at the radio, well-mannered concert halls and youthful shenanigans. It has the stormy 1960s and ground-breaking 1970s, friends and enemies, moments of great inspiration and rejection.

The narrative itself consists of shorter stories, which are like pieces of a mosaic; that is, pieces of the whole. Some of them carry the story, have many characters and describe relationships. But there are also some, where the action takes place in the internal world of the protagonist (e.g., pages 136–148) or which convey the musical experience in a visually enthralling way (pages 67–71, 164–169 and 177–183). This is the reason for the classification of the genre of the book as "a novel", which gives the writer and his imagination more freedom at the points where it is not possible to rely on the accounts of witnesses, documented sources or the memories of the protagonist himself. On the back cover of the book, Joonas Sildre has formulated the work as "the story of Arvo Pärt's musical pursuits".

Words and pictures are together here. But there is a considerably less of the word than the picture. It is the series of pictures rather than the text that conveys the narrative. Having carefully enquired here and there, from one or the other, I have received confirmation of my opinion that many are unaccustomed to this form of storytelling. This form of expression doesn't really have roots here. And when we hear the word "comics", something inherently American, an association with something entertaining and comical appears from the far corner of our subconscious.

I remember from my childhood the satirical picture books by Herluf Bidstrup, the Pioneer magazine with an ideological tone meant for young Soviet teenagers offered stories in a similar style in the back pages, which were rather drawn out serials because the magazine was published only once a month. Therefore, my generation should have an awareness of the possibility and appeal of such a storytelling. When the circumstances changed, picture books with Disney characters were printed for children, and then came video and then the internet. The moving picture pushed everything else aside.

Not knowing the precise situation, I would posit the assumption that Joonas Sildre with his series of pictures is out on his own in the local cultural space. He lacks the local tradition, on which to base himself and which to belong. He probably aligns himself with some phenomena that are located far away and has had to invent many things himself.

For this reason, his form of expression could match the phenomenon of Arvo Pärt because Pärt also reached out to a tradition further afield in his early pursuits, when he couldn't find around him what he longed to experience. In the closed circumstances of the Soviet era, he couldn't have direct contact with the sources and had to come up with quite a lot himself, to imagine it. Perhaps this was necessary for the birth of his tintinnabuli system.


Towards illusive beauty

In their own way, Joonas Sildre's drawings don't describe Pärt himself, but rather the situation in which the explorations of the protagonist took place. That said, due to his age, Sildre has had to make up and imagine much that is connected to that time. But this is just a backdrop. Striving towards illusive beauty is at the core, a desire to understand meanings larger than life, a search for God (Sildre is very discreet when it comes to this) in everything, even music.

Anyone looking at the book should take the time to stop at a few incidental pages to see how the artist has drawn the gestural body language of the bearded male figure. Their resonance is remarkable. Sildre has probably gone through the whole process himself, taken it in, tried to undertake the path of experience, attempted to strive towards apprehending the unattainable.

This is how art is born. The artist tries to convey a picture of that which they have themselves felt. It doesn't matter if this is expressed in pictures, words or sounds.

Here, the starting point is certainly in music. Joonas Sildre is one of the many people with whom Arvo Pärt's music has done something special. If this emotion directs people to continue searching and maybe directs their gaze in the same direction that Pärt is looking, then actions follow. "Between Two Sounds" is one of those stories that (I hope I am not wrong in this statement) attempts to share a very beautiful great feeling with everyone instead of exploiting a widely known subject.

The story of this book has certainly not come to an end. It would be strange if it were not translated into many of the larger languages and then many people in faraway countries would examine Joonas Sildre's picture stories. Only time will show how people (many people) will accept Joonas Sildre's story about Arvo Pärt.

And also – this story is left unfinished. Since the 1980s, where Joonas Sildre leaves three dots and lays his pencil on the table, Pärt has produced such a number of works that could be considered the more substantial part of his creative work. This act is not in a book yet, this section on the timeline is as yet undrawn…


Immo Mihkelson is a music journalist, radio show presenter and editor at Klassikaraadio.



Joonas Sildre (b. 1980) is an illustrator, graphic designer, caricaturist and comic book artist living in Tallinn. In addition to Estonia, his comics have also been published in the USA, Germany and Slovenia.


Joonas Sildre Arvo Pärt

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