Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Remembering John Tavener, without tears: Does the music have anything to say if you're not in his camp?

To the Worshipful Company of Taven(idolat)ers:

I respect your impulse to mourn the passing of John Tavener.  So, out of respect to musicians I admire who are currently honoring his memory,  I have been listening again to the tiny part of my CD collection devoted to his music.

John Tavener (1944-2013)
And I am coming up empty.  I find it nearly impossible to listen to a Tavener piece without my mind wandering.  An honest music-lover would admit to that happening from time to time even when hearing music one enjoys.  But the challenge of Tavener's compositions is to train your attention on his procedure and keep it there:  its non-developmental nature, its devotional import, its silences and stasis, its simple-minded phrasing.  I wonder how long such training takes, and whether it is worth it, and whether it has anything to do with music.

Any worthwhile music asks the listener to meet the composer halfway. That's a cliche, and to say "halfway" is an arbitrary way of stating the listener's need to extend himself and set aside prejudices and premonitions about unfamiliar music. But the deal Tavener offers seems deceptive: It's as if an apartment-seeker were looking among "furnished apartments" only to get to Landlord Tavener's place to find the rooms devoid of furniture.  "Well, there is a ceiling light," the rental agent might say.

The "furnished apartment" analogy, with music one comes to love, means there is an attractive "package" involving the view, the painted walls, a functional kitchen and other amenities, a few apt places to sit, etc. If you move in (i.e., come to love and revisit the music), you can put your personal stamp on the place: rearrange the furniture, add a new piece or two, complement the environment with plants or pictures. That is comparable to what each music-lover brings to the experience so that a previously unfamiliar work speaks to him and finds a place in his storehouse of treasurable music.

With Tavener, the flat stays empty.  There continues to be nothing there; the tenant is welcome to stretch out on the floor, staring up at that ceiling light, perhaps, until sleep overcomes him.

What Tavener's music seems to require in order to stay awake to it is training yourself to achieve the meditative state — preferably with appropriate Orthodox theology and liturgy to support it — necessary to find the music enthralling.  It's true there is variety as an expansive Tavener piece unfolds, but it's probably beyond the reach of anyone but adepts to integrate such shifts in timbre and volume into a musical, rather than meditative, wholeness.

I'll readily acknowledge there's more "incident" in "The Hidden Treasure" (Tavener's 1989 string quartet, which lasts more than a half-hour) than in such a monument of minimalism as, say, Steve Reich's "Four Organs."  Yet I find "Four Organs" more interesting than "The Hidden Treasure," or "The Last Sleep of the Virgin" (add hand bells to the string quartet) or any number of Tavener's choral works.

I suspect that Tavener, led by his personal spiritual journey, became so keen on erecting monuments to it that his compositions had to demand the listener replicate the journey to some degree. And I'm uncomfortable being under the watchful  gaze of a spiritual sergeant-at-arms.

That brings up the question: If I'm to get to the mental state of focusing on holy matters with the intensity Tavener seems to insist upon, do I still need music at all? At that point, music should fall away, along with all other worldly pleasures, if the atmosphere implied by Tavener's music is to be fully breathed in and out.

Some years ago, another British composer, Thomas Ades, was taken to task for a brutal quip about Tavener's art, calling it "totally bogus" and "akin to dog psychiatry." As funny as that is, it comes close to saying Tavener was an insincere composer.  I won't go there; I hate to question the sincerity of creative artists — as creative artists, that is.  They may be insincere in other matters, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that they really mean what they appear to mean.  But then, I also remember Oscar Wilde's dictum: "All bad poetry is sincere."