It was hard thinking of a work to feature today; in the wider scope of Lent & Holy Week, Holy Saturday is a strange day, & in some ways listening to John Cage’s 4’33″ on repeat would seem to be the most appropriate thing to do. However, i’ve opted instead for a work from a composer whose music usually leaves me spluttering & fending off expletives. John Tavener‘s Towards Silence was composed in 2007, & is probably the only piece ever written for four string quartets & a large Tibetan singing bowl. To an extent, the title says it all, & put simply, the piece is (in Tavener’s words) “a meditation on the different states of dying”, but Tavener’s deeper inspiration comes from the four states of the self as conceived by a particular school of Hinduism: a waking state, a dream state, a condition of deep sleep, & “that which is beyond” (Tavener’s extensive programme note can be read here).
Tavener structures the work in four seamless movements of increasing length. The first three display considerable activity & counterpoint, although—bearing the title in mind again—the overall direction is one of decline. The work uses five basic ideas that shift between the quartets: rapid semiquaver tremolos, accented quintuplets, undulating quaver trills, heavy but quick repeated note passages & slow, drawn-out melodies that employ various ragas (but which for the most part sound like conventional modes). From the second movement on, Tavener progressively thins out the texture as well as introducing a sixth idea, a melody with mobile pitch order & unspecified rhythms. The conclusion of each of the first three movements is marked with a short episode that requires the players also to chant as they play; the word ‘soham’ is used twice, while the third movement closes to ‘om’.
Throughout these movements, the Tibetan singing bowl is struck every nineteen beats (for symbolic reasons), but in the fourth movement it finally gets to sing, becoming a pulsing omnipresence in the midst of the four quartets. The previous ideas are now jettisoned in favour of a chorale that moves with all the momentum of a glacier. Both its concept—the beyond—& soundworld instantly bring Messiaen’s ‘ecstatic’ music to mind (although harmonically there’s no real similarity), but unlike Messiaen, Tavener’s music has an ambiguity of mood that’s very effective in this context. Ecstasy is definitely a part of it—a prominent recurring instruction in the score is “In a state of bliss”, & the fourth movement is labelled, “A fullness of peace and Beatitude, changeless and incomprehensible”—but there’s a melancholy at the fringes, a disquiet that only enhances the work’s atmosphere & renders it more inscrutable. The conclusion of the work, all four quartets having faded out of existence, falls to the singing bowl, which continues as if into eternity.
& with that, my Lent series is ended.
This recording is of the European première of the work, which took place in July 2009 at Winchester Cathedral, & was broadcast in the autumn of that year. The Medici Quartet, the Court Lane Quartet, the Finzi Quartet & the Harpham Quartet take part, with Louisa Golden playing the singing bowl. The broadcast includes an interview with Tavener by Donald Macleod.
John Tavener – Towards Silence (European Première)
A lot more information about the work, including details of its first CD release, can be found here.