In a rare instance of pedagogical insight, my A-level music teacher once declared, “You can’t put composers into boxes; they have a tendency to get out”. It’s true, yet to some extent we all tend to do it, in our efforts to try and make sense of the musical landscape in front of us. In the case of composers Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, they tend to get that treatment from both directions, those who have striven to market every last pound out of them as well as those who think every last note they write is nothing but the most sanctimonious drivel. Two concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival this week featured large doses of both composers’ music. The first, at Tewkesbury Abbey, was given by the Hilliard Ensemble with the BBC Singers, the Carducci String Quartet and a collection of instrumentalists; it was followed two days later with a late evening concert at Gloucester Cathedral, featuring four string quartets: Cavaleri, Celan, Gildas and Hermes. Together, they provided a fresh opportunity for consideration and appraisal of both composers’ work.
Of course, Pärt and Tavener (Tavener especially) have consciously contributed to their own aesthetic ‘boxification’; anyone who’s ever seen a CD cover of Tavener’s music will understand this, the composer poised amidst a cluster of ikons and candles adopting an expression of long-faced piety straight out of an El Greco painting. This kind of thing doesn’t do the music any favours whatsoever, and neither does a remark like this:
I often wonder why the sacred music of any age should sound very differently. The answer is that it should not. […] People talk about composers finding their own voice. This is another utterly misleading concept. (Tavener, The Sacred in Art)
Tavener qualifies this with the caveat that it doesn’t apply when a composer “does not believe in divine realities”, but the damage, i think, has already been done; arrogant comments such as these litter Tavener’s verbal and written output, and in light of them it’s easy to understand why he fills so many with angry disdain (i don’t claim immunity from this kind of reaction: ahem). While Tavener’s remarks have often fanned the flames of both disciples’ and detractors’ feelings, Pärt’s comments are invariably more measured; here he is speaking of the outlook that led to the development of his ‘tintinnabuli’ style:
For example: I’m not content – with myself or something I’ve done – but I can’t explain what I’m feeling. I don’t have the words to do so. Yet if I simply lift up my hands like this, then you understand because I’ve shown you with my hands, even though I can’t find the words to say it. My body makes a movement and you can’t say what it says in words – it’s a different language. This is also how I want to write music, and at that time I couldn’t express what I had to say in any other way. I only knew that my head distorted things and so I felt I needed to write quickly when a line came, since it came from somewhere within, or from other channels, not from the head. Otherwise it can be all heady, simply mathematical and computerised – one has no real connection to it. … I wanted to free myself from all that. (Jamie McCarthy, An interview with Arvo Pärt)
All Pärt is doing here is expressing something of the difficulty that inevitably surrounds the composition of music that is consciously setting out to be sacred. As such, it wouldn’t be untrue to claim both Pärt’s and Tavener’s music to be a document resulting from an act of composition that is also an act of religious self-expression. The mistake is to perceive the music as a religious experience in and of itself. It isn’t. Sounds, words, images, all of these can act as signifiers, portals and gateways to whichever brand of ‘beyond’ one is seeking access to. This is, after all, the essence of any ritual or liturgy, and to this end Pärt’s and Tavener’s music can (and is often explicitly designed to) serve a functional role to a spiritual end. But that’s all it is, and to go further is to make a fundamental error:
The paradox of all spirituality and revelation is the role of the speech we use to convey or interpret them. We cannot do without words, but we must constantly remember their provisional and revisable character. Words are symbols that put us in touch with the realities they point to. In religious discourse, their function is to refer to the divine mystery, to help us describe our experience of God. They are not provided to be experienced for their own sake. The vehicle that conveys the revelation is not itself the mystery that is revealed, though it is a means to its apprehension. The sign that points to something is a symbol, not the thing itself. Religious symbols are unavoidable but dangerous realities. The constant human temptation […] is to make them significant in their own right. This danger is endemic to human experience. We turn the symbols that convey the meaning we are searching for, however obliquely, into substitutes for the meaning itself. […] The important thing is the experience that lies behind the words we have used to describe it. (Richard Holloway, Dancing on the Edge)
To approach the music of Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, then, involves a fair amount of negotiation and navigation through the combined weight of tradition, sentiment, religiosity and hype. One of the most interesting and immediate observations one made through these concerts was how their music is often surprisingly uncomfortable. The term ‘holy minimalism’, regularly applied to these composers, was obviously conceived by a fool, but just how foolish it is became overwhelmingly apparent. Take Tavener’s Ikon of Light, performed by the BBC Singers, which is in many ways a kind of primer for Tavener’s entire output. It uses the jump-cut episodic approach that permeates many of his compositions—an approach that rather undermines its supposed connection to a changeless divinity—and it’s something that, no matter how often you hear it, takes a long time to get used to. Coupled to repeated use of Tavener’s favoured melodic inversion ‘organum’ and the regular retreats to a far-off string trio offering circular tonal noodlings, and you’ve got a very strange concoction indeed, certainly not something that’s easy on the ear or the mind. It was good to hear the piece in live performance, yet time has done little in the 30 years since it was composed to soften its idiosyncracies. Tavener always felt that by mirroring the approach found in Orthodox architecture, he could present music that was a kind of deific fait accompli—but in a context like this the divine feels very crowded out indeed.
Ikon of Light may be weird but new music can hardly be penalised for that—or we’re all in trouble. However, Scatter Roses Over My Tears, receiving its UK première by the Cavaleri Quartet, presented less trivial problems. It operates within the same structural framework, obsessive-compulsive episodes bearing no obvious connection to one another apart from sharing the same wan palette. Here, though, the episodes ventured no further than the most bland, basic melodic and harmonic writing, like taking the sentiments from so many Hallmark sympathy cards and sticking them together. Only the conclusion was worth hearing, where conventional harmony became smudged as though stained with tears; the rest was somewhere between egregiously boring and nauseating, depending on the threshold of your gag reflex. Tavener sometimes gets it really right, though, and this was demonstrated to quietly exhilarating effect in the four-quartet performance of Towards Silence, a work explored on 5:4 a couple of years ago. The concert had opened with Jonathan Harvey’s timeless Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, and in some ways Towards Silence gently echoes its quadrophonic soundstage. Lines meandered around the cathedral between the quartets, positioned at the four corners of the space, in a more sedate kind of surround sound, forming a singular body of sonic warmth around the audience. The work is no less episodic than everything else we’d heard, but its overwhelming sense of direction permeates every facet of the structure. The resulting slow decline, punctuated and ordered by strikes from the Tibetan singing bowl, simultaneously creates an air of isolation and tranquillity; if this is dying, there’s surely no better way to go.
A work like Towards Silence, more concerned with the steady exploration of a single mood or idea, brings Tavener’s music closest to that of Arvo Pärt. The Hilliard Ensemble, retiring in 2014 after 40 years’ singing, are intimately associated with Pärt’s music, and their performances of the Stabat Mater and Miserere had a stamp of authority that made the occasion feel slightly more formal (enhanced further by Pärt’s presence at the concert). The latter work is an excellent example of the kind of uncomfortable soundworld i alluded to above, which Pärt often favours. Not a short text by any means, the words are set in a halting manner that has little to do with conventions of drama or timing. Texts don’t come much more wretchedly penitential than the Miserere, and the tightly-wound nature of Pärt’s setting became even more so following the relatively early explosion of sound triggered by the ‘Dies irae’ sequence, the BBC Singers and accompanying players joining the Hilliards in a fortissimo blast that one really doesn’t see coming. In the wake of this, the (usually solo) fragmented vocal delivery feels justifyingly fragile, flooding the work’s stark, formal nature with palpable human emotion. The Stabat Mater, for three voices and string trio, does this to an even greater extent, positively aching throughout. Pärt’s setting utilises his ‘tintinnabuli’ style over a single harmonic scheme, which together with the omnipresent shuffling triple metre establishes an obsessive soundworld. Slowly emerging from overlapping downward lines, the voices pick their way through a seemingly endless collection of superficially identical episodes, each one employing new variations within the narrow scope of the harmony, emphasising different sentiments, clashing and resolving in a unique way. Frantic outbursts from the string trio feel necessary but do nothing to assuage the music’s overt sense of immovability; this is grief in extremis, and it’s going nowhere fast.
These concerts brought useful and necessary clarity to the ways in which Pärt and Tavener set out towards ostensibly similar goals. Both are obviously concerned to some degree with the idea of abnegation of self, with the importance of the divine, with the avoidance of artifice and/or unnecessary decisions that impede expression. But the performances highlighted what to me seemed a very stark contrast: Tavener is determined to say things correctly; Pärt is determined to say them honestly. For myself, i much prefer Arvo Pärt’s approach.