The famous final proposition of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus reads, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” By this, he meant that certain concepts are inherently beyond the limits of our language: the transcendent, the metaphysical, the ethical, and the aesthetic. Our attempts to pin down these ineffable concepts in words result in literal nonsense. Nothing truly sensible can be said about them. We can only gesture in their direction.
What is it about the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt that makes it feel transcendent? A key component is in the way Pärt incorporates silence. In describing the role of silence in Pärt’s music, conductor Tõnu Kaljuste has said, “Silence is important, but silence comes after a musical idea. Then silence becomes part of the musical language.”
By incorporating silence into his musical language, Pärt reminds us that, as Wittgenstein said, the transcendent cannot be expressed. The interplay between sound and silence in his music creates an opening for us to contemplate what lies beyond the world of language, a signpost pointing towards the ineffable.
Perhaps the feeling of transcendence in these compositions comes, then, from the feeling that we are being pointed towards something noumenal, something beyond ourselves, beyond language, beyond music, beyond even silence. Art has the power to remind us that there is something inexpressibly awe-inspiring about the very fact of existence, something indescribable at the core of being, something which can only be felt on a profound level. What more can be said? Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.