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

Contact Me © Samantha Muir 2017