Sunday, 28 September 2008
John Tavener: nipson anomemata, me monan opsin
On the subject of music, some witterings are in order now on the subject of the composer John Tavener, whom I mentioned in the post below on Lisa Gerrard. A great hero of mine, this man, and splendidly bonkers in the best English manner. Tavener is probably the most popular British classical composer of our times, although popularity is of course a dubious index of artistic quality. He's often lazily grouped together with Arvo Pärt and Henryk Gorecki, all three being so-called 'Holy Minimalists', which is something of a feeble categorisation, and one which Tavener angrily rejects.
Tavener's goal is to put the Sacred back into music. His work is underpinned by a complex set of theological aesthetics, which require explanation; however the effect of his music is anything but complex, with many pieces having an extraordinary, pellucid beauty that goes straight to the heart.
Tavener's aesthetics grow from the idea of the Primordial. He harks back to the idea of Sacred Tradition - the so-called 'Perennial Philosophy' common the all the world's religions, as understood by such modern thinkers as Réné Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, who are often accused of being dubiously reactionary, with some justification. Tradition here does not mean the exoteric canons of any Church, still less ossified dogma. Rather it indicates an unchanging, mystical understanding of Humanity's relationship with God, the purification of the soul and its eventual reunion with the Divine Source. It is panentheist - seeing God in all things - but not pantheistic, identifying God solely with the Universe. The Sufis, Plato (and Plotinus' Neoplatonism), the Upanishads and Vedas, the insights of Buddhist sages, the extraodinary 'apophatic' theology of the Eastern Church, the wisdom of First Peoples throughout the world: all have their part in the Perennialist point of view.
Tavener is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, which he joined in 1977. Since then a torrent of liturgical music has poured from him, invariably (in the past) based in the Tradition of Orthodoxy. 'Tradition' is a vital concept in the Eastern Church; the saying goes that Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit within the Church. In musical form, this consists of an immensely complicated system of church music, organised around tones, or modes. These are difficult to explain, but consist of a body of melodies, with many variations, that have significance in and of themselves, beyond their mere emotional effect. Patterns of melody are themselves meaningful and symbolic, and are used to bind the liturgy together, underpinning the words with their sacred meanings. Byzantine (Orthodox) music is always monotonal, i.e. it has no polyphony, no interweaving of different vocal lines. This is because oneness is seen as the essential attribute of the Divine - not disunity or competition. The melodic line will however be sung over an ison, or 'eternity note' - a vocal drone that represents the unchanging radiance of Heaven glowing behind the music. The background of gold-leaf on an Orthodox ikon signifies the same idea visually. With its strange intervals, rapt introspection, and complex, sinuous spirals of half and quarter-notes, Orthodox Church music sounds extremely unwestern. It is radiantly beautiful without being in the least sensual. Tavener has utterly integrated Byzantine musicology into his work. He tries to rid himself of ego when making music, he says - it is not creativity in the usual Western sense of self-expression. Rather it is an attempt, through a mystical self-emptying, to recapture the primordial music before the Fall.
Recent years have seen Tavener's spiritual perspective deepen and expand. He no longer sees there being one way to God, but rather sees mystical truth in all religions. (This sadly led to a rift between him and his erstwhile librettist, the formidable elderly Orthodox Abbess, Mother Thekla.) Works as yet unrecorded include 'Majnun and Leila', which promises us a female God, and a piece called 'The Beautiful Names', a setting of the ninety-nine mystical names of Allah in Islam. His work is sheerly, rapturously, beautiful. It often features spatially arranged choirs, eastern melismas and semitones, glowing drones and radiant, gauzy strings. he has a particular penchant for the counter-tenor voice, for which he writes exquisitely. Very often he is inspired by a liturgical or mystical text - the Hymns of Ephrem the Syrian, the Akathistos Hymn of the Orthodox Church, or a haiku by Seferis. Or indeed the Byzantine palindrome that heads this post: found on the rim of a fountain, it reads 'clease the sins, not only the face' in both directions.
The thread of the Divine Feminine that runs through his work has come nearer to the fore. It has always been there, even as early as his operas 'Thérèse' (on the deathbed atheism and reconversion of St. Thérèse of Lisieux) and 'Mary of Egypt'. (The latter aspired to be 'an ikon in sound' about the ancient prostitute turned saint and Desert Mother. Profoundly 'feminine', it featured the deep, eastern-inflected voice of Chloe Goodchild placelessly emanating throughout the opera house as the voice of Sophia, Divine Wisdom.) A man who has had passionate relationships with several muses in the past, including - bizarrely - Mia Farrow, Tavener would surely agree with Goethe that 'the Eternal Feminine leads us upwards.' The climax of this tendency was his extraordinary 'Veil of the Temple' - an all-night vigil featuring Hindu, Sufi and Christian texts, ending at dawn.
For me, Tavener is something of an inner guide. I've only met him once in the flesh (very tall) but he has appeared in my dreams several times. I'm not daft enough to think that those dreams were Sir John himself astrally projecting, but nevertheless my unconscious chose to clothe the archetype of the Wise Old Man in his form. For all his eccentricities - the fast cars, the friendship with the Prince of Wales and the Beatles, the wafty 'I had a vision once while lying in the bath' pronouncements - he is someone whom I revere, truly. As the Russians say on birthdays - Mnogaya Leta! Many Years!