John Tavener – Towards Silence (European Première)

by 5:4

It was hard thinking of a work to feature today; in the wider scope of Lent and Holy Week, Holy Saturday is a strange day, and 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 and fending off expletives. John Tavener‘s Towards Silence was composed in 2007, and is probably the only piece ever written for four string quartets and a large Tibetan singing bowl. To an extent, the title says it all, and 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, and “that which is beyond”.

Tavener structures the work in four seamless movements of increasing length. The first three display considerable activity and 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 and 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 and 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—and 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”, and 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 and 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.

And with that, my Lent series is ended.

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.

Programme Note

Towards Silence was inspired by reading Rene Guenon’s book ‘Man and His Becoming according to the Vedanta’. From an exoteric sense the work may be seen as a meditation on the different states of dying, but from an esoteric sense it is a meditation on the four States of Atma:

1 Vaishvanara: the Waking State, which has knowledge of external objects, and which has nineteen mouths, and is the world of gross manifestation. (Mandukya Upanishad 1-3)

11 Taijasa: the Dream State, which has knowledge of inward objects, which has nineteen mouths, and whose domain is the world of subtle manifestation. (Mandukya Upanishad 1-4)

111 Prajna: the Condition of Deep Sleep. When the being who is asleep experiences no desire and is not the subject of any dream, he has become Atma, and is filled with Beatitude (Ananda).

1V Tunya: That which is Beyond. The greatest State (Manhattara) is the fourth, totally free from any mode of existence whatever, with fullness of Peace and Beatitude without duality.

Musically I have tried to express these States of Atma by using four string quartets sounding unseen from high galleries, with a large Tibetan temple bowl sounding every nineteen beats (symbolising the nineteen mouths) in the first three States, and then pulsing ‘eternally’ in the last, unconditioned State. I have used five revolving ideas which start in the first State as the shortest, the most complex and the most manifest. In the second, ‘Dream State’ the length is increased mathematically and is twice the length of the first State, as the sound is less complex and less manifest. The third State (Deep Sleep) is a kind of ‘halo’ of still sound, and is mathematically three times the length of the first State. The final State is the longest, the quietest and the most full statement of the five revolving ideas, and it is played muted, at the very threshold of audibility, which finally leads to silence.

In a sense this is not music that should be heard as concert music, but rather meditated on as a form of ‘liquid’ metaphysics. I offer this musical experiement as a poor man’s mite, and dedicate it to the memory of that great man, Rene Guenon, who died virtually unknown in Cairo in 1951, and who brought my attention to the Vedanta.

—John Tavener

Towards Silence should be performed in a resonant building, with the Tibetan temple bowl placed in the dome (if available) or highest gallery. The positioning of the quartets will vary with the building, but as far as possible they should play from raised galleries equidistant from each other, sounding from above the audience.

Full score

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thanks a lot!
seems to be interesting from the first and very brief listening done in a great hurry.
good enough after the serious disappointment with Tavener’s Improperia.

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and yet, dear Simon, don’t you consider this rare fruit, i.e. Sir John Tavener, as a banal spiritual charlatan? should we reject the “spiritual,” “orthodox,” oriental, “vedantic” and any other non-musical component, we should be faced to the poverty of musical ideas, or absence thereof.
after having spent some time for listening of a new tavenerish whimsy, i’ve immediately passed over to Messiaen (Quatuor pour la fin du temps) and traditional Oriental music genre (2 ragas sung by the late pandit Omkarnath Thakur). it was enough. I had no need in 4 string quartets with Tibetan bowl.
this recent taveneriade reminded me of labours lost by my friend on staging here in Kiev Terry Johnson’s “Hysteria”. there also were the Tibetan singing bowls there, a lot of actors’ fuss, but no clear director’s idea except the ambitious stage design and pretentious musical background.
how similar it was…

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