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The Journey Towards Silence

copyright Josie Elias

Chant is the only work for solo guitar by Sir John Tavener - one of the most successful and celebrated composers of our time. A composer favoured by celebrities, pop icons and royals. Loved by the general public, often derided by the musical establishment as a “holy minimalist,” few can deny John Tavener had a genius for connecting with his audience. His music is described as uplifting, other-worldly, the umbilical which connects heaven and earth. 

We rarely hear the inner music, but we are dancing to it nevertheless….Rumi

So why has Tavener’s only piece for solo classical guitar remained in the musical shadows? 

Composed in 1984 there have been just 5 recordings in 31 years, and only one this century. The score is listed as special edition (meaning out of print). Chant is not on any exam syllabus. This piece is rarely heard. So rarely heard that even guitarists are surprised to learn that Tavener wrote a piece for solo guitar. 

In March 2014 I presented a lecture/recital called The Journey Towards Silence: Chant for Solo Guitar by John Tavener at the Inaugural Symposium of the Guitar Research Centre at the University of Surrey. Directed by Professor Steve Goss, with John Williams as the Honorary President, the centre aims to establish an international hub for guitar-based research. Since then I have presented the lecture/recital at the Sherborne Abbey Music Festival and, in August 2015, will present it at the annual conference of the European Guitar Teacher’s Association. In October I will present the lecture at the Soul Voyager’s Annual Retreat. My mission is simple. I want to make guitarists and non-guitarists alike more aware of this little known but beautiful, fascinating and enigmatic piece of music. Here are a few thoughts to share from the lecture.

Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. Cleverness is mere opinion, bewilderment is intuition…Rumi

The young classical musicians of today are increasingly encouraged to compete, to win, to show-off, to “shred”. Audiences expect virtuosic displays. Chant does not fit into our modernist view of the world in which composers strive to produce works of ever greater technical and musical complexity and performers strive for ever great technical and musical prowess. Chant relies on a simple, pure, melodic line. The piece is long, it’s repetitious and it doesn’t seem to go anywhere. 

Chant and icons reduce this wordly sophistication to a nullity…John Tavener

In the hurly-burly of our modern world Tavener has gifted us an oasis of simple, musical beauty. The music takes us to the very edge of silence. It is like a meditation, a prayer or mantra, taking us deeper and deeper within ourselves.

I don’t see the point in writing a silent piece of music but I do see the point in the journey towards it…John Tavener.

When we play Chant we are being asked to create a musical icon. Icons are sacred objects - they have a feeling of tenderness, serenity and “unreality.” They are a window to heaven. We have to give up our role of performers and become part of an ancient and sacred ritual. And this is not something you learn about in music college. 

Here’s what Tavener said about Chant...

As I began to work on Chant with Elethferia Kotzia, it became apparent that the piece was a meditation on the ancient Byzantine hymn Phos Hilaron. I had the image of a young girl sitting by the sea on a Greek island remembering the church services of her childhood - so I asked Eleftheria to hum in certain places part of the ancient Vespers hymn.

The ancient Byzantine hymn Tavener is referring to, Phos Hilaron, means O Joyous Light.

Harry Christophers, the conductor of The Sixteen, says that in order to play Tavener’s music we have to enter into the composer’s soul, into the composer’s way of thinking. We have to understand where the composer is coming from and where he is trying to take us. With Tavener we have to believe in a sense of joy and wonderment, we have to be able to transcend the physical. Like Plato, Tavener is telling us to “go higher.” It may not be as concrete as understanding the structure of a fugue or the rhythm of a fandango; it may be as illusive and undefinable as the Spanish poet Garcia Lorca’s “duende” but that is what separates music, art and poetry from science. 

Don’t worry about saving these songs! And if one of our instruments breaks, it doesn’t matter. We have fallen into the place where everything is music. The strumming and the flute notes rise into the atmosphere, and even if the whole world’s harps should burn up, there will still be hidden instruments playing…Rumi

In 1951 the American composer John Cage went into the Anachoic Chamber at Harvard University expecting to experience true silence. The anachoic chamber is a sound proof room designed to absorb sound. Afterwards Cage said, "I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation." 

Chant begins with the lowest note on the guitar - the bass E - and ends with the highest notes - the artificial harmonics. We begin with God and we end with the celestial choir. The music mirroring the only two sounds that can be heard in an absolutely silent sound-proofed chamber, the sounds of blood circulating and of the nervous system in operation. The human body defies silence - it resonates with its own “hidden instruments”. Perhaps this is the “inward music” of Rumi and Tavener, the music of our humanity which flows into the eternal. 

When I play Chant I feel like I am setting out for the Greek poet Cavafy's Ithaka, the “marvelous journey....full of adventure....full of discovery”.

Please contact me if you would like to have the full lecture/recital at an event. The lecture is for guitarists and non-guitarists alike. 

If you do a YouTube search on Chant for solo guitar by John Tavener you will only find one result… 

All photos copyright Josie Elias Photography

Grant Us Peace!

Happy August! 

We all need a little more peace in our busy lives so here is a FREE solo version of the beautiful Dona Nobis Pacem. Let the music speak for us!

About the arrangement:

The notation is just the melody. The tab combines melody with an arpeggio accompaniment. I have also done this as an ensemble arrangement - but that one isn’t free.  CLICK HERE for more information about that.

Dona Nobis Pacen Solo

Here’s me playing it…. Please subscribe to my channel :)

The Plastic Fantasic

Photos © Josie Elias

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This summer’s holiday in Spain provided me with the perfect excuse to buy the new Makala Waterman ukulele. For those who haven’t yet met the “plastic fantastic” the Waterman is a plastic soprano sized ukulele modelled on Mario Maccaferri’s 1950 Islander ukulele. 

As I was planning on spending a good deal of time relaxing by the pool I thought a plastic ukulele would be ideal. As you can see from the pictures the Waterman has enabled me to practise while working on the sun tan.

Row, row, row your boat…. 

It also doubles as a good oar... 

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…and has attracted an interesting new student. Meet Weeping Willie…He certainly doesn’t seem to be feeling the love and peace spirit of the ukulele. Isn’t the ukulele meant to be the happiest instrument in the world? Read on to find out what is making Willie weep...

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When not playing or paddling my way around the pool (or trying to cheer up Weeping Willie) I have been reading about the history of the ukulele. The Ukulele: A History by Jim Tranquada and John King is a fascinating book for any ukulele enthusiast. While doing some searching on the internet I also found Dan Scanlan’s website, Cool Hand Luke. When Portuguese immigrants went from Madeira to Hawaii in 1879 they took their instruments with them. These instruments included the machete, or braguinha, and the rajão. Amongst these early immigrants were three gentleman who were cabinet makers and instrument makers - Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Joao Fernandes. These three men would be the first makers of the ukulele. Here is a quote from Dan Scanlan’s Ukulele History which explains how the ukulele developed.


"Ethnomusicologist Jaehnichen says Nunes realized Hawaiians needed an easy-to-play instrument to accompany their short, structured songs. The complicated sound of a typical Madeiran ensemble that included rajão and braguinha didn’t fit the musical styles of Hawaiian players. Nunes worked with Dias and Santos to develop a mini- rajão, something appropriate to Hawaiian music. They took the GCEA strings from the rajão and put them on the body of a braguinha. The tuning was reentrant: the G string was an octave higher than one would normally expect it to be. The tuning gave the sound of the mnemonic “My Dog Has Fleas”.

The new instrument could be played using the same fingering geometry for making chords on the guitar, but with no bass. Like the rajão, it could be used for melody and rhythm, ensemble or solo. (The rajão was tuned DGCEA, with the D and G strings reentrant. On the new four-string instrument, tuned GCEA, only the G was reentrant.)

To market their new instrument, they took it directly to King Kalakaua, an accomplished musician. Paniolos, Mexican cowboys, brought the guitar to Hawaii earlier. Kalakaua could play the mini-rajão immediately, loved it and it quickly became the favorite musical instrument of the islands — as well as the first conscious souvenir of any place.

Dan also says...

"The braguinha is the father of the ukulele and gave it its size, but the rajão is the mother that gave it its heart and voice.Dan Scanlan  

Fascinating stuff! Do check out Dan’s website where you can download his full version of Ukulele History for free and find other useful ukulele stuff. 

The popularity of Hawaiian music quickly spread to mainland America and spawned a ukulele craze. The myth that the ukulele was a traditional Hawaiian instrument became a successful marketing ploy. Some sources claim the machete is a distant relative of the Renaissance 4 course guitar of Spain. I have not been able to verify this but it does rather challenge the sterotypical image of hula girls, hibiscus flowers and Hawaiian shirts!

So, this quintessentially Hawaiian instrument has a pedigree. The ukulele is, however, still struggling to assert itself as a serious instrument. Mention a ukulele and many people find it difficult to see beyond George Formby, Tiny Tim and, yes, the hula girls and grass skirts. But perhaps things are changing. Sales of ukulele have reached 250 000 a year in the UK and over 1 000 000 in the USA. Will Grove White of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain reckons that the ukulele is taking over from the recorder as the chosen instrument of the class room. The ukulele is a small instrument making a big splash. It is the perfect way to introduce children to music. Much more accessible than the guitar, small children can quickly learn to play chords and simple tunes. Grasping the rudiments of melody and harmony at an early age provides an excellent background for learning other instruments.

This brings me back to Weeping Willie and the “plastic fantastic”. The original 1950 Islander plastic ukulele by Mario Maccaferri sold millions. Jim Tranquada and John King say that 80% to 90% of those ukuleles were bought for children. The plastic ukuleles sold like hot cakes. But the ukulele soon gained the image of being little more than a child’s toy. As someone who takes the ukulele seriously - as a teacher and performer - this is both good and bad news. 

How does the new Makala Waterman all plastic ukulele shape up? Well, it is cheap. Mine cost £35. This is an affordable instrument for most parents. It is also durable and comes in a variety of colours. It is likely to appeal to children. The sound is surprisingly good. These are the positives. But, the action is high, making it potentially difficult to play. The intonation is also poor and mine seems to have developed a buzz on the 3rd string. From experience, children are soon frustrated if they find it too difficult for their left hand fingers to hold down the strings. When they do manage to hold down a note they also notice if it sounds “bad”. A lot of effort for a bad result is not a good way to encourage children to persevere. 

This is why poor Willie is still weeping. As much as we want to love the “plastic fantastic” we are both disappointed. Willie is struggling with high action and poor intonation. I am disappointed that Makala couldn’t make the action more suitable for children. As a teacher it is sad to see an initially enthusiastic child struggling to play an unwieldy instrument. Hopefully, Makala will be able to do something about the high action. I fear their affordable instrument is in danger of becoming a rather expensive toy. 

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Photos © Josie Elias

Contact Me © Samantha Muir 2017