How John Tavener Changed My Life
Updated: Jul 27
When I was 13, I discovered the avant-garde: avant-garde metal, avant-garde jazz, and indeed, 20th century avant-garde classical music, amongst so much else.
Having already sought more 'interesting' sounds via prog rock/metal (Rush, King Crimson, Yes, Dream Theater etc.), I was intoxicated.
I was already impressed enough that people were using odd time signatures in the 1960s, but to see that people were writing atonally and with infinitely more rarefied rhythms as far back as the 1910s- it blew my mind!
I thought to myself "how did this happen?", "why isn't everyone making avant-garde art?", "everything should be avant-garde!"
And I thoroughly internalised the avant-garde aims of complexifying every musical parameter: all harmony must be chromatic, and certainly not tonal (I once declared that I would never, ever write a perfect cadence in my ouevre); and rhythms should never be in 4/4! Et cetera.
But there was a catch: my need to maximise the complexity of every parameter in a composition seriously stifled my output; I was never satisfied that I had sufficiently transformed every element enough to defy convention, so as a consequence many viable pieces were simply abandoned.
And what's more, it wasn't as if I had stopped engaging with more familiar-sounding music and other media; after all, 2011 was the same year that I became a brony! I no longer am one, but it was a real curiosity; perhaps it was a sort of yin and yang; the sheer obscurity of the avant-garde art that I was engaging with needed to be offset by the hyper-familiarity of the show, and in particular the camaraderie of the brony fandom. Perhaps I'll write more on this unlikely episode of my life in a future post.
With that in mind, it's clear to see that these familiar interests were still there in the background, affecting my mood, but I had simply marginalised them in my thought-process, seeing the experimental alien stuff as the core of my artistic fulfillment.
Considering the unrealistic composing criteria I set for myself, I saw my most successful early pieces (2014-2017) as simply being flukes; the inspiration just happened to be right.
But the variable that caused that success was well within my control; I had to let go of my presuppositions, and let myself write without too many worries as to the happenstance of convention within my work.
Nevertheless, I was always able to rationalise to myself that I had transformed the musical elements of my piece (via clever-sounding compositional techniques) sufficiently enough to 'offset' the more familiar material; somehow, I found and maintained a justification for my work as the product of a Serious Composer™.
But this neat equation of balancing the unconventional with the conventional was itself insufficient in accounting for my experience with music; for a long time, I was baffled as to why I was so affected by Renaissance polyphonic music, folk music, certain pieces of popular music, and certain classical works within the 'holy minimalist' and 'new simplicity' vein.
I thought "how does this music work? It's so simple and diatonic, it should be boring by my account of music, but it is utterly transformative and moving!"
I had one such experience in January 2018 when I heard Vladimir Martynov's The Beatitudes (as performed by the Kronos quartet). It is principally diatonic with only a hint of chromaticism in the latter half, and it truly brings me consolation!
I only started to find some account of this phenomenon when I began to (properly) investigate John Tavener's work (I knew about him beforehand, but only superficially up to this point).
My epiphany came in September 2019, when I watched several videos of John Tavener discussing his perspective on music.
I partly did this out of curiosity; I knew that he considered Beethoven to not be sacred, and that his late quartets, to the extent that they affirmed humanism, commenced an aesthetic trajectory which continued with Wagner, then to Mahler, then to Schoenberg and to Berg. And then to Tracy Emin. And he saw this "all as one downward path."
While I was somewhat sympathetic, I could have easily dismissed his viewpoint out of hand - for being old-hat, or for invoking a slippery slope argument. But I wanted to know why he thought that way, and what lead him there.
This interview in particular elucidates some of those reasons, and clearly encapsulates those points which marked a shift in my perspective:
Disclaimer: in this post, I am not trying to make a full and accurate biographical account of Tavener's entire worldview (which shifted at different stages in his life). Rather, I am simply highlighting aspects of his viewpoint which happened to have a great affect on me personally.
What's interesting to note is that Tavener's early compositional output was highly experimental, as evidenced by ambitious works such as The Whale, which features eight percussionists, electronic tape and a multi-media movement structure, to list a just a few of its characteristics!
With respect to its experimentalism, I see within this formative oeuvre a spiritual parallel to my own previous work; in my piece That Which Is Unknown for eight solo voices, I instruct the singers to perform three-semitone stacked harmonies in an interwoven counterpoint - both sung and whistled! And what's more - true to the multi-media sensibility of the early Tavener - the text, which I wrote myself, is variably spoken, sung and unspoken (via wordless singing), emphasising and de-emphasising the role of semantics (the literary element) within the vocal medium for which I was writing.
There are other parallels, but I plan to write at greater length about my vocal piece (and other compositions) in future posts. In essence, I was 'pushing the boat out' with as many parameters as I could account for, to see just how far I could go. And it was far enough for Exaudi, that's for certain!
But Tavener came to distance himself from his early experimental style, when in 1977 he converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, whose musical tradition, icon painting and mysticism came to define his musical style (and his viewpoint in large part) thereafter.
It was after this point that he came to describe his earlier music as being 'exoteric'. Tavener explains the meaning of this retrospection in the aforementioned interview (at 1:33 in the video, emphasis mine):
I think I mean that it's music which doesn't have a meaning beyond the notes; it's a music which almost is- I think a great curse of our times. It's art for art's sake, and I hate that kind of thing altogether; I think people tend to worship 'the artist', they worship the notes or the brushstrokes, etc. etc., but when you look at truly traditional art, like Egyptian wall paintings, or the great art of ancient Greece, one is not aware so much of the person who has created it as one would be with someone like Beethoven; one's very aware of the ego.
This was so jarring for me! For as long as I have been practising music, I have predicated my compositional teleology on finding new sounds; finding an 'individual' sound which was distinct from what had previously been made and heard.
While I'm obviously indebted to that thrust towards distinctiveness for having propelled me towards the compositional goals I have achieved, there were times when I was so hell-bent on attaining that 'individual' sound that I lost all perspective.
I remember in December 2013 when I met a prospective composition tutor (this was at the point when I was transferring from guitar studies to composition studies). During the session, I showed him some of my compositions (all unfinished). One of them, the most developed, was a piano piece called Continuo, which consisted of octave pedal C notes in the left hand, and a quartally harmonised melody/motif in the right hand, maintaining a steady locus of chromaticism against the pedal C.
When he heard my piece, he said it reminded him of Messiaen.
One half of me reacted with pleasant surprise; I was surprised in that I had managed to emulate Messiaen's harmonic sound despite only vaguely knowing his oeuvre in passing; and also surprised in that I had unwittingly achieved something worthy of comparison to Messiaen!
But there was another half to my reaction, which I concealed from my prospective composition tutor, but about which I confided with my mother: I felt a mixture of anger and disappointment. But why? Because it had a noticeable influence; it was not purely individual in that someone else (even remotely) had a part in it; by my ideal standards, I was a fraud of letting this be the case.
In the end, he wasn't my composition tutor (but for reasons unrelated to my predicament, though).
There was obviously something missing in my evaluation. Indeed, this aim towards pure originality was the thing that hampered my compositional output for such a long time. To the extent that there was always something outside of myself having some sway in my musical identity, I could not clearly claim that 'I' was the originator of 'my' music.
But my acknowledgement of that 'thing-outside-myself', rather than being the condemnation of my artistic practice, could in fact be the very thing that would save me from my compositional bind, so much so that to embrace this external thing would mean that I would not only stop struggling to find the right inspiration, but that I would not have enough time in the day to give expression to all of that inspiration!
Tavener seemed to have tapped into this wellspring; he composed his setting of William Blake's The Lamb in just 15 minutes!
In the interview (at 5:25), Tavener explains how he managed to achieve this:
I think the short pieces come to me very quickly. Blake used to say that everything he wrote was divinely dictated; I've no idea whether that is the case with me, but it appears to come from somewhere I don't know...
I've definitely experienced this mysterious phenomenon myself; in March 2018, to commemorate the centenary of Debussy's death, I wrote a piano piece called 'Eternity', which focused on voicings and modulations of a single chord. It was a meditative piece, and was perhaps closer to the aesthetic of Messiaen than that of Debussy (which is not an unreasonable corollary).
I wrote this piece - a five-minute piece - in a day! I came to arrange it for large ensemble in May 2018, but the essential pitch and rhythmic elements of the original piano score were largely retained; that's how potent the initial inspiration was.
And I was baffled as to how I had even apprehended this inspiration in the first place!
Continuing his answer on the origins of his inspiration (5:38), Tavener goes on to roll out another doozy:
...it appears to come from somewhere I don't know, and it seems to be totally fresh- not in this modern concept of being innovatory or [having] novelty. Novelty and innovation means absolutely nothing to me at all; the only person who is the creator is God, and the only person who can make anything new is Christ; he said 'behold, I make all things new'.
Novelty and innovation: I completely took these qualities for granted as being widely coveted by composers (certainly in my case, anyway), and yet they meant 'absolutely nothing' to John Tavener.
While I was once again baffled, I puzzled over this proposition to see what I could glean from it.
And I did glean something: I realised that, in the act of composition, a lot less of what I was engaging in (than I previously thought) was actually new, or at least, what seemed to be novel in the music was not within my control.
Let's take harmony for example: I could make - and have made - chords with an unusual configuration of notes, and which achieve a unique resonance by virtue of their simultaneity.
But I don't get to decide how those intervals resonate with each other; that is determined by the nature of acoustics; I can't will a minor 2nd to vibrate at anything other than a 16/15 ratio (or roughly 1.059463/1 if you're in 12-tone equal temperament), and neither can I will it to be as consonant (i.e. as simple a ratio in its resonance) as a major 3rd; I have to be in the service of the acoustic properties of these simultaneities in order to determine the role that interrelation of intervals plays in the tension and release of my composition.
But Tavener would probably object to my appeal to the physical facts of acoustics, as it signifies an attempt to provide a material account for the subjective - and thus immaterial - discipline of music (with music being an art, after all!)
Alternatively, Tavener might have entirely respected my position (even if he ultimately wasn't in accord with it) due to his universalism. He believed that "God shows himself in everything that lives", citing Mozart, who (considering his personal flaws) was not "fully spiritually developed", as the pinnacle example whereby "God reveals himself through his theophanies".
Nevertheless, the problem of my compositional philosophy still stands; since I have hitherto approached music from a logically positivistic angle, which came out of my desire to rationalise and explain everything I wrote, the study of acoustics was a starting point that came naturally to me.
As it happens, my musical idiom emphasises the acoustic properties of harmonies as a core part of its teleology, so it wasn't an unreasonable first step on my metaphysical journey (insofar as I was finding what resided outside of myself) to start with what I knew.
So how do we come to terms with this, if music is not merely contingent on its material components?
The philosophy of aesthetics does not merely concern things that 'look pretty' or 'sound pretty'; David Bentley Hart, an American philosopher and theologian who works within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, brilliantly articulates this point in a 2013 talk on beauty, being and kenosis (10:50 in the video):
Whatever the beautiful is, it is not simply harmony, or symmetry, or consonance, or ordonnance, or brightness, all of which can become anodyne or vacuous of themselves. The beautiful can be encountered - sometimes shatteringly - precisely where all of these things are deficient or largely absent. Beauty is something other than the visible, or audible, or conceptual agreement of parts, and the experience of beauty can never be reduced - never intelligibly reduced, that is - without a significant unexplained remainder to any set of visible or audible material constituents. It is something mysterious, prodigal, often unanticipated, even capricious. We can find ourselves suddenly amazed by some strange and indefinable glory in a barren field, an urban ruin, a splendid disarray of a storm-wrecked forest, and so on.
I recommend watching more of the talk yourself, as it goes way beyond the scope of this post in its subject matter!
Hart's point might seem to contradict what I have stated beforehand (about writing without fear of simplicity).
However, the principle behind my shift in perspective wasn't solely conditional to the act of writing simply as such. In fact, Tavener, especially later in his life, greatly admired Elliott Carter because of how he "transformed all notions of modernism by writing music that seemed to erupt from his very being".
But what is that underlying principle? Having nullified the material explanation of music, what does one do, if not to insert one's own ideas?
According to Tavener (7:25), what one has to do is...
...to unlearn what you've learnt about sonata form... canon... counterpoint... serialism, and every other -ism that exists, and actually to go into one's room- and I always regard my study as a kind of sanctuary because that's where my music seems to happen, and going into that room, and literally sitting in front of a piece of blank paper, and just- I don't cross my legs on the floor and meditate in that kind of way, but just emptying my mind of all preconceived ideas and seeing what remains. And I have been lucky enough, thanks to God, to find that something does remain, and I think it's that that remains, which is sacred.
It's that that remains, which is sacred.
This changed everything for me; I had finally broken the bind that stopped me from composing what came to mind. I thought to myself "wait, I can write in 4/4? I can write in key signatures? I can write conventional rhythms? And I can do all of this, all the while still considering myself to be a 'real' composer, if those ideas are what come naturally to me?"
While this revelation wasn't strictly about writing diatonically (thinking back to Hart's point), it just happened that for me personally, my realisation came in the form of writing simply: and not just to be unashamed of writing simply either, but to not require any sort of intellectual contingency (e.g. some impressive-sounding composition technique) to justify it!
I also realised in light of this that the key to composing spontaneously was to use what was already right in front of me, and not wait for some perfect system of harmony, some perfect pattern in accordance with the Fibonacci sequence, or some perfect technology, in order to realise some singular 'grand' vision.
For instance, I noted that I had a MIDI keyboard in front of me at my computer; I could have argued that there were only 61 keys as opposed to 88, and that the digital sound poorly reflected the sound of a real piano, so it would be insufficient for piano composition.
But I let go of such premonitions, and simply let myself write, even deliberately staying within the 61-key range; I accepted this medium of composition as it was, not as it should be.
Thanks to this new mentality, since September 2019 I have written tons and tons of composition sketches in what currently amounts to three manuscript books (I'm on my fourth one now), with the majority of those ideas arising from my MIDI keyboard improvisations.
This compositional and improvisatory mode of emmersion, if one hesitates to call it outright sacred, is as close to sacred as I could conceive. Indeed, Tavener would have simply called this thing, the ultimate external force that drives this creative energy, 'God'.
I know this opens up many, many more challenging questions (to which I barely even know a preliminary set of answers), and this post barely scratches the surface of my philosophical shift; I still haven't discussed the role of childhood innocence as an essential artistic trait (Tavener addresses it regarding Mozart), or what David Bentley Hart refers to as 'gratuity' within an artwork (watch his talk on beauty for his explanation).
And it's not as if to say that I agree with all or even most of what Tavener believed, either. Having personally identified as an atheist until May 2018, I'm still ambivalent towards religion.
It was by fully encountering the simply unaccountable nature of music that my non-belief caught up to me in the end. Nevertheless, I can't say that I don't believe, but nor can I say that I don't don't believe, either.
All I can say for certain is that Tavener's philosophy has had a life-altering affect on me and my music, which has enabled a new creative surge within me.
Whatever one calls this unaccoutnable thing (whether it be 'God' or some other label) I will simply end this post with what Tavener says in the final portion of his interview (8:18); to the extent that one seeks to remove one's ego and one's prejudices from the process of composition...
...it's a question of waiting and just being silent, and listening, because that music already exists; I believe when God created the world, he created everything, so therefore, he created music. And so that music is out there; that music does exist if one can be... humble enough to empty oneself of preconceived ideas of what music should be, then you will find, at least I have found, that music is there. And I don't know where it comes from; it seems unfamiliar very often, but it does exist.
'Charlotte Higgins Talks To Composer John Tavener'
'Sir John Tavener on Sacred Music'
'The Whale - The Essential John Tavener'
'Gallery of just intervals'
'Twelfth root of two'
'Sir John Tavener on Mozart'
'David Bentley Hart: Beauty, Being, and Kenosis: the Aesthetics of the Incarnation - Art Symposium'
'Elliott Carter remembered: 'Music seemed to erupt from his very being''