2016-06-30
Sir John Tavener is famous for the eclectic musical influences he brings to his compositions, whose themes are unwaveringly Christian. His most recent work, "Lamentations and Praises," on the death of Christ, uses instruments as diverse as bass trombone, Byzantine monastery bell, and Tibetan temple bowl. But as he explains in this Beliefnet interview, he looks to other religious traditions for more than just new sounds.

Which composers and musicians of the past do you feel communicate religious truths most beautifully in their music?

I think one has to go back quite a long way, if one's talking about communicating religious truths. One has to go right back to chant. Hildegard von Bingen conveys spiritual ecstasy, if we're talking of Western music. What bothers me about Western music is that it doesn't have an esoteric dimension, in the way the music of the East has, whether it be Byzantine chant, the music of the Sufis, or Hindu music.

Even when the musicians are writing Masses--like Beethoven?

I don't think Beethoven expresses religious truth. He expresses a human truth. I mean, something like the Agnus Dei of the Missa Solemnis--I can't take all the raging and the dramatic titanism of it: Agnus Dei, qui tollis, qui tollis, qui tollis peccata mundi--and then the kettledrums rolling. That kind of humanism for me doesn't convey any sort of religious truth at all.

Of course, there are moments in Bach that I think do. Probably less so in the specifically religious music, but in the unaccompanied cello suites, or the opening of the St. Matthew passion, which is absolutely wonderful, the most extraordinary, mysterious sound.

Which Bible passages resonate most with you?

Obviously, St. John, because it is in a sense the most esoteric. Some people say you can't use esoteric as applied to Christianity, but I think you can. St. John is the most extraordinary, the most mysterious, the most mystical. I love particularly the last discourse Jesus has with his disciples: "In my father's house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you." And "I am the true vine, my father is the husband."

How about icons?

I actually adore the Coptic icons because they have a childlike mentality. I don't mean a sentimental childlike. I mean a childlike simplicity.

As in "you must become like a child"?

Exactly. And that's why I have problems with Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. You can't storm the Kingdom by dramatic titanism. You have to be a child. You mentioned once that you hoped to reinstate prelapsarian innocence with your music. Did I get that right?

Yes, it sounds rather godlike of me to say that, doesn't it? I think that's a very important thing, somehow.

Could you expand on this idea of restoring innocence through art, through music?

Quite a good question. Hmm.

Perhaps we can get to that through other means. You've quoted Blake. Which Blake works are most meaningful to you?

I do love the "Songs of Innocence" in particular. I've written a very long piece of music recently, the Veil of the Temple, which lasts about seven hours. It's really a kind of vigil. It takes place during the night, waiting for the resurrection of Christ. When it gets so near to the resurrection, there's a burst of children singing the text "It was early in the morning of the first day of the week," which of course refers to the raising of Christ.

When I talk of primordial innocence, I hear it in Sufi music with the nay flute. I see it in Coptic icons, in most traditional art, particularly art of the American Indian. I find the texts extraordinarily beautiful and very childlike and very simple. I've been particularly interested in American Indian texts.

When you set out to write music, do you first find a text? Or do you hear a melody in your head?

Usually I have something like a metaphysical concept. Then with the concept I go searching for texts, and then the texts usually produce music. I think one gets a kind of music from the original language that one doesn't get once it comes into English--it becomes flat.

For instance, I'm writing a huge "Lament for Jerusalem" that uses Islamic, Christian, and Jewish texts. I do feel that music cannot be exclusive, neither can religion be exclusive anymore. You're very interested in Hindu and Sufi music.

In a way, that's the music I listen to most nowadays. I listen to a great deal of the music of the Sufis played on the nay flute. I listen to a tradition of Indian music called the samavedic chants, and the Indian music called druphad. It possesses this esoteric dimension, which I don't hear in so much in Western music. And the spirit of spiritual ecstasy. It sounds very crude, universalism must come through love in all its manifestations.

Maybe the world is like it is because everybody only sees what is a dogma and reacts with hate instead of love. I'm thinking of the situation in the world at the moment. Nothing is seen on an esoteric dimension.

What 'dangers' face composers of sacred music today?

If they try to write it in the language of modernism, it's not going to work. I also wonder if a composer can stick entirely to one religion. You have to belong to a tradition, that's true. But Yeats in his late poetry was clearly exposed to the Upanishads. And Blake apparently knew the texts of Indian religions.

Composers have to have a high level of intellection. And I don't mean just the human mind. I mean the true, primal intellect. They have to comprehend other [traditions] if they're going to really communicate.

You spoke of the current situation in the world. What do you think the proper response is, for individuals?

Blake talks about how the world can only be saved through the divine imagination. I think it has something to do with that. A good example of the divine imagination is in Plato's Greece, where the right notes had to be found before parliament could be opened. So music was operating on a cosmic level. You couldn't have a child before the right notes were found, you couldn't die until the right notes were found. This is what he says in the Republic.

I remember I wrote to the [London] Times or the [Daily] Telegraph after the disaster in New York and I said that the world's leaders really need to read Rumi, who says "sell cleverness and buy wonder." I think both sides are operating on cleverness gone all totally perverted. They really think they know something. I think man has to realize that the only way of knowing something is to leave yourself open as a divine channel. Your tradition is Russian Orthodoxy. Why Russian Orthodoxy in particular?

The fact that I converted through the Russian arm is not really important. I think that's a fault of Orthodoxy--they get terribly tied up with their own branch. If they can't even embrace their brothers, how on earth will they embrace other religions? I think that's a modern fault of Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox liturgy is so beautiful, and in a way all of a piece, but are there parts of it that resurface in your mind, in your work? Prayers from the liturgy that return to you as you're composing?

Maybe the Cherubic Hymn, especially the passage that says: "Let us now lay aside all cares of this life."

I find incredibly moving all the Holy Week services--such as the ones the refer to Christ as the bridegroom. There's a text in particular that I find incredibly beautiful: "Thy bridal chamber, O Lord, I see, but I have no fitting garment that I may enter therein. Do thou shine, shine on the garment of my soul, O thou lover of mankind."

Which writings of the Fathers are most meaningful to you? Which do you turn to most?

Dionysius the Areopagite, and St. Isaac the Syrian, because his Treatise on Love is absolute extraordinary. People like Gregory of Nyssa.

Any lines that stand out?

Well, I suppose there's one...I can't think who wrote it: "God became man because of us. Let us become God because of him." I think if the whole world did that we'd be in a better state than we are.