Towards Silence – a performance of music by Sir John Tavener

O Do Not Move
Funeral Ikos
The Lamb
Song for Athene
Mother of God, here I stand
What God is, we do not know
O Do Not Move (reprise)

Mandukya Upanishad – Invocation [“sounded” by Reverand Dr Stephen Thompson]

Towards Silence

Bruce Ramell

Medici, Finzi, Cavaleri & Fifth Quadrant String Quartets with David Ward (Tibetan Singing Bowl)

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 24 November, 2010
Venue: St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London

In what was less of concert and more a celebration of peace and silence, the irony was a protest right outside the church together with a chorus of police sirens and megaphones made this event far from the serene tranquillity that was intended by the organisers. Nevertheless, for all the furore outside, a certain stillness becalmed the audience inside. The vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Reverand Nicholas Holtam introduced the event as a part of the inter-faith week – a concept that John Tavener has indefatigably championed for the last decade. The concert itself was the culmination of a day of prayer, music and services at the church under the all encompassing title of “Just This Day”.

With the emphasis clearly on introspection and a spiritual centre, criticism of the individual performances seems irrelevant, though with ticket prices of £20 one should expect a reasonable standard. Discantvs started events with a selection of Tavener’s choral works spanning 1981 to 2004. This choral section was framed by Tavener’s ikon to the nativity “Oh do Not Move” with its wholly appropriate (and complete text) being “Oh do not move, listen, to the gentle beginning”. Despite its shortness, the seven-part divided choir makes the piece far from simple. Discantvs appeared to have a firm grasp of what was needed and, singing without music, perfectly set the tranquil mood.

The other choral pieces were performed in chronological order which showed the composer’s style developing from the verse-chorus of “Funeral Ikos” to the more ethereal “Song for Athene”, made most famous through its performance at the funeral of the Princess of Wales in 1997. The two best-known works were given passable, but not polished performances with intonation problems in “Song for Athene” and the misreading of note-lengths in “The Lamb”. The two anthems from “The Veil of the Temple” (2004) were given much surer performances at the end the first half of the concert.

Without interval (the concert was only an hour long) there followed sung and spoken invocations from “Mandukya Upanisad”, which is one of the scriptures from the Hindu Vedanta. The prose expounds the mystic syllable Aum, the four states of consciousness upon which Tavener’s Towards Silence is based. Completed at the end of 2007, this was scheduled to be performed in the summer of 2008 but, due to the almost fatal illness of both the composer and Paul Robertson, leader of the Medici Quartet for whom it the piece was written, the first performance was in April 2009 at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York. The museum, together with the Music Mind Spirit Trust (Robertson is a trustee) jointly commissioned the work.

Towards Silence explores consciousness and its connection to near-death experiences. It is written for four string quartets and large Tibetan bowl all of which are to remain unseen so only sound is heard. The quartets were originally envisioned as being placed high up in a cathedral dome in the shape of a cross, bringing together the Christian, Buddhist and Hindu religions. Logistically this can be quite difficult to achieve, especially as the bowl is meant to be even higher than the string-players. Here the four quartets were placed at the four corners of the upper balcony with the audience seated below. The bowl was on the same level as the musicians on one of the sides of the rectangle formed by the quartets.

Acoustically the hall is very dry which prevented the music from engulfing the audience. The overall effect was a feeling of isolation from the music, as if one was listening to it from another room. Secondly, the position where the listener is seated in the hall makes a huge difference to the aural experience. I was seated at the front right of the hall and missed much of the antiphonal writing that is inherent to the piece.

Towards Silence is in four sections that are played without a break. The composer explains his vision of the piece as follows:
From an exoteric sense ‘Towards Silence’ can 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 the world of manifestation for its province [Manduka Upanishad 1-3]
2] Taijasa: The Dream State, which has knowledge of inward objects, which has nineteen mouths and whose domain is the world of subtle manifestation. [Manduka Upanished 1-4]
3] Prajna: The condition of Deep Sleep, When the individual who is asleep, experiences no desire and is not the subject of any dreams, he has become Atma, and is filled with Beatitude. [Ananda]
4] Turiya: That which is beyond. The greatest state (Mahattara) is the fourth, totally free from any mode of existence whatever, with fullness of Peace and Beatitude without duality.

While this may have been the stimulus for Tavener’s writing the above could in no way be considered a programme for the music which although detailed does not appear at first hearing to be highly structured. The four string-quartets that constituted the ensemble were quite in sync with one another as well as with Tavener’s music. Unfortunately the issues of balance makes it difficult to comment further as sometimes the playing was too distant to be heard clearly enough.

The meditative state to which Tavener alludes was achieved by many in the audience: some bowed their heads; some closed their eyes; some stared into space; for many this was the culmination of a religious day. The audience was requested not to applaud during the concert and to “take the conversation outside” meaning to allow the sound to ring on in the head outside. For this listener the conversation went as far as the steps of the church. Outside the protest was continuing, police in large numbers were present and helicopters whirled overhead.

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