Sir John Tavener died last month. I was lucky enough to have met him in April.
My father sings in the City Choir of Washington, led by Robert Shafer. These pictures were taken at a reception following the world premier of "Three Hymns by George Herbert". The City Choir partnered with Legatum (some oddball think tank, I don't know) to commission and perform music ostensibly as part of a trans-atlantic celebration of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012. Here's a rare shot of the both of us together - me and my Dad, not me and the Queen. Don't be distracted by the awesome Lincoln chin strap I was sporting.
Sir John had been quite ill for quite some time, and the trip must have wiped him out. But he was generous with all of us in the handshake line and I tell everyone that when we met, he spoke of angels and ecstasy. The reality is prosaic, more to do with ambient background noise and misunderstanding where Pittsburgh is. But there you go, worked for me.
Anne Midgette wrote a good review for the Washington Post, describing the music
"The “Three Hymns,” though, were the main focus. The first, “Heaven,” made some simply ravishing sounds; each line was sung out in a shining arc and left suspended in the air, punctuated by an echo from the chorus in the balcony and then nudged by the gentle plosive chimes of bells. The final hymn, “Life,” was touched with a bittersweet hint of dissonance, like frost petals. It ended with a postlude in which instruments tangled, slightly chaotically, at a distance, perhaps to evoke the withered bouquet of flowers the poem describes — though again, that comparison is more facile than the music sounded."
She makes the point throughout her review that the simplicity of Tavener's writing - especially these later pieces - shouldn't let the listener of the hook for attending to some pretty rigorous composition.
Shortly after Tavener died, Bob Shafer sent out a note to the choir members with a link to a recent radio broadcast by Andrew Marr on the works of George Herbert. Sir John appears in the interview.
Andrew Marr, who I always confuse with Johnny Marr. In the same way I confuse Lord Bragg (Melvyn) with Bragg (Billy). And I suppose other inexcusable conflations.
So let's listen to some music. Check out The Whale, Tavener's first big piece, which was famously picked up by John Lennon and published on the Apple label. Even is this early, angrier music, there's a spaciousness created by select textures (voice, bell, breathy drone).
A lifetime later, Tavener's music is distilled to an essence. The Protecting Veil is good to start with, but check out some of his more orthodox pieces as well.
I can't say that I'm influenced as a composer by Tavener his music. I have too much twitchiness in my fingers. But I am powerfully motivated by his thoughts on sound as a religious mechanism
In notes on The Moon Ikon, I wrote that the piece was the poetry of the moon exposed by sound. This is heavily influenced by what Tavener has written elsewhere:
"To me, [the icon] is the most transcendent form of art that exists in the west - that is, if you call it art in the conventional sense. Whether you can write music that is truly like an ikon, whether you can prostrate in front of a piece of music, I simply do not know. I suppose the closest you get to it is in the chant that goes with the ikonography of the church. I might also say that an ikon dissects us, and I think truly sacred music should do the same."