July 16th 2016

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COVER STORY 2016 election: Malcolm makes allies malcontents

CANBERRA OBSERVED Electorate shock: PM touches reality's live wire

WA BUSHFIRE INQUIRY Ferguson report a beauty, but now the fight begins

AGRICULTURE Sweet success for farmers in Queensland sugar market


ECONOMICS Ignore scaremongers; Britannia rules apply

PUBLIC POLICY WA Meth Strategy 2016 a most welcome first step

EUTHANASIA Measure of success of Dutch tests will be death

HIGHER EDUCATION Trigger warnings: an infantile tyranny

FREE SPEECH From disagreement to discrimination: section 18C, Part 2

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY Middle Kingdom brings eternal Now down under

MUSIC Weighing up sounds and silence in John Tavener

CINEMA Memory, self and family: Finding Dory

BOOK REVIEW Mao Maoing a culture

ERICH VON MANSTEIN: Hitler's Master Strategist

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Weighing up sounds and silence in John Tavener

by David James

News Weekly, July 16, 2016

One of the best questions that can be asked of any composer is, what is their approach to balance? For perhaps the same reason that there is so much symmetry in nature – two sides of the human face, for example, or the two halves of most animals’ bodies – balance is key to effect in music.


John Tavener

It is perhaps the most prominent feature of Mozart, for example. His ability to achieve extraordinary balance in his melodies and counterpoint elevates his music into a sublimity that no other composer can match. The Olympian expositions of Bach would not be possible without the Baroque techniques of balancing multiple lines of music.


Balance can be expressed in many forms. It can be harmonic: a balance between dissonance and consonance. It can be structural. It can be expressive, such as the contrasting emotions in Brahms, the competing excesses of Wagner, or the vacillation between the plaintiveness of Miles Davis’ muted trumpet and the angry cry of his upper registers. It can be rhythmic. It can be derived from orchestration.

One gets the impression when hearing the compositions of British 20th-century composer John Tavener that finding a new type of balance was at the heart of his aesthetic. It is little surprise, for example, to read that Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, was the first piece of music that deeply impressed him and to which he often returned. There is no better example of sublime balance in the Western canon.

Tavener’s style relies heavily on Orthodox liturgical traditions, and other religious compositional practices. The contrary motion and harmonies in his Funeral Canticle, for example, is typical of much religious choral music. But there are many features that are very far from conventional liturgical music.

First, there is a distinctive approach to silence. The pauses – they do not arise out of cadences, usually the music just stops – are often long. This draws attention to the decay in the sound of the last notes that were sung or played. It creates an aural impression of space; the sonic equivalent of a vaulted cathedral ceiling.

The effect is further amplified by the great sonority of Tavener’s choral textures. We would not notice the silences so much if the part song were not so rich. Indeed, when he does become busy, such as in the bustling, somewhat declamatory and repetitive orchestral opening of Tears of the Angels, the ensuing silences are especially pronounced. The more the music rises, the more it subsequently falls.

This means that Tavener’s compositional aesthetic has a balance emerge between sound and silence: a pulsing, throbbing effect. Rather than the “beat” being the rhythm, the beat becomes the slow unfolding of sound and silence. The implied tempo is thus extremely slow moving, evoking the beating of the mind as it contemplates God.

Tavener’s composition is in one sense extremely restrained. Not only is there no showing off, there is little sense of the personal. His music is rather a reaching for something beyond the self. It is not just because of the use of choirs and the liturgical formats that the music seems unambiguously spiritual and devotional. The sense of reflection is so deep there is a blurring between the inner world of contemplation and the outer world of nature.

The musical implication is that both can be transformed by the otherness of the divine. The idea is especially pronounced in We Shall See Him as He Is. The use of sound to exemplify vision nicely suggests another kind of balance: the paradox of the impossibility of reaching beyond limits, yet the need to do so to achieve greater realisation.

Tavener’s melodic developments are subtle and sometimes remarkably beautiful, such as the solo voice theme in Tears of Angels. They are well shaped and create a strong sense of momentum. Yet often they never seem to reach completion, falling away into minor keys that do not resolve. It is an approach especially evident in Song for Athene, for instance, where the dissolution of the melody is underpinned by the drone effects in the strings.

It is not sufficient for a composer to achieve balance. What also matters is where it is taken. In Tavener’s case the destination is the silences beyond the grave; the place where the bustle of human life is balanced by its opposite.

David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.

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