The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament

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9780571200887: The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament

One of today's leading composers reflects on the relationship of music to the spiritual dilemmas of our time

In the 1960s, John Tavener's music appeared on the Beatles' Apple label. "The Protecting Veil"--one of the bestselling classical recordings of all time--made him a household name in the eighties, and his "Song for Athene" was heard worldwide when it was played at Princess Diana's funeral in 1997.

Yet behind this enormous success is a spiritual dimension, which became explicit after Tavener was received into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977. With his wide intellectual curiosity and searching musical imagination it comes as no surprise that he possesses a profound and far-reaching musical "philosophy." The Music of Silence gives voice to this philosophy. Based on extensive conversations between the composer and his longtime friend Brian Keeble, it covers his early influences, his attitude and often controversial reactions to the music of his contemporaries, the sacred and religious underpinnings of his faith, as well as the technical aspects of composition.

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Review:

To the satisfaction of some observers and the astonishment of others, John Tavener has become one of the most popular and successful classical composers alive today. The marvelously simple and consoling "Song for Athene," which was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (and which nearly stole the show from "Candle in the Wind"), isn't the only instance. Tavener's 1987 cello concerto The Protecting Veil, for example, drew more large-scale audience interest and genuine excitement, especially in Britain, than had any new cello concerto for decades; the composer's a cappella choral works are sung in church services and concert halls all over the world. Many concertgoers and record buyers seem attracted to and even grateful for the simplicity and spirituality of much of Tavener's music. Others--and not only professional critics--find some characteristics of his music, and his persona, off-putting and even stupefying. Much of Tavener's writing is deliberately repetitive: "I hate progress, I hate development, and I hate evolution in most things; but in music particularly," he says. His public utterances are often unnecessarily inflammatory (such as suggesting that all opera houses and concert halls should be destroyed and that Western culture is dead and rotting). His spirituality and belief in Eastern Orthodoxy often appear ostentatious. (How many times has the man posed for photographs surrounded by ikons and candles?)

The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament has been assembled and edited by Brian Keeble from extensive interviews with Tavener at his Greek-island home. The second half of the book, which is largely in interview format, should be quite valuable for those who are moved by his music or just want to understand what the composer is up to. Tavener's explanations of his concept of his music as "ikons in sound," the crucial differences he sees between the Christianity of the Orthodox East and the Latin West, and his goals in writing particular works such as Mary of Egypt and Fall and Resurrection are enlightening and often fascinating.

But the first half of the book is insufferable. "In Retrospect" purports to review Tavener's life and compositional career more or less chronologically. Not only are both the prose and the material disjointed, rambling, and repetitive (for which Keeble shares blame) but overbearing self-regard and spiritual pretentiousness seem to ooze from every page like "liquid metaphysics" (a term Tavener uses to describe his music). It is, frankly, off-putting and stupefying. This reader alternated between bemused annoyance and an intense desire to see the composer parodied by a comic actor (as when he writes, "I had a vision in the bath one day").

One can't help wishing the composer would emulate his spiritual adviser and sometime librettist, the down-to-earth, no-nonsense Mother Thekla. He quotes her instructing him on how to approach Akathist of Thanksgiving: "Just get on with it, dear." May John Tavener take that advice well and truly to heart. --Matthew Westphal

About the Author:

John Tavener lives with his wife and two daughters on the Greek island of Evia and also in Hurtspierpoint, U.K. Brian Keeble is the publisher of Golganooza Press and the author of Art: For Whom and for What?

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Tavener, John/ Keeble, Brian (Editor)
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