When the mystical British composer John Tavener made a rare appearance in New York last year for a performance at Carnegie Hall of his cello concerto “The Protecting Veil,” a large and curious crowd attended. The recording on Virgin of the work had become an international bestseller and was an outright sensation in London, practically on the order of Henryk Gorecki’s Third Symphony.
The work, rapt and reverential in tone, is long, static, repetitious. Its elegiac melodies, written mainly in whole notes, are medieval sounding. Its intense, sweet sonorities evoke the strong incense of the Russian Orthodox Church to which Tavener is devoted. This can be interminable music to those not in the proper mystical mood, and a glance around the hall revealed many in audience squirming--a few walked out.
Yet when the lanky composer, with his serious tan and flowing blond hair, walked on stage to take a bow, the audience reacted with palpable awe to his Christlike presence. The standing ovation was nearly as rapt as the music, as if there were something about this man that can make people, whether they actually enjoy paying attention to his music or not, think him really important.
Tavener is part of the strangest phenomenon in music in years, one that is also strangely lucrative. Three seemingly like-minded composers with intensely spiritual concerns in their music have become incredibly popular, thanks mainly, in each case, to the recording of a single work--Arvo Part’s “Passio,” Gorecki’s Third Symphony and Tavener’s “The Protecting Veil"--each selling in the hundreds of thousands, far more than work by any other living classical composers except for the occasional Philip Glass hit or Michael Nyman soundtrack.
Whether or not theirs will be an enduring popularity remains, of course, to be seen. It appears likely, however, that three recent recordings of major liturgical works--Tavener’s “Akathist of Thanksgiving” (Sony), Part’s “Te Deum” (ECM) and Gorecki’s “Miserere” (Nonesuch)--all will maintain the enthusiastic response they initially have been given, as all these works are arguably more significant than those that made the composers famous.
Theories keep being put forth to explain the phenomenon of Tavener, Part and Gorecki, how it is that their reverent, uneventful music can attract a following among skeptical, skittish modern listeners, but no one really knows why. These are not, after all, the three tenors. They are not public men and have not courted fame, however much their record companies promote them (often with considerable difficulty, especially when it comes to enticing them to make the exceptional appearance). They neither form a compositional school nor appear to show competition between themselves (although there is plenty of that between their record companies). Rather they seem wrapped up in their own musical worlds and little else. No one even knows quite what to call them.
London music critic Andrew Porter, in a review in the Observer, has dubbed them the Holy Minimalists. Others have suggested calling their style Mystical Minimalism or the New Simplicity, and the catch-all New Age, of course, keeps cropping up. But Porter’s label, faintly derogatory though it is, has sort of stuck.
Clearly Tavener, Part and Gorecki represent something that needs a name. Their music seems to spring, at least superficially, from the same enigmatic source, and the works on the new recordings reveal great points of stylistic commonality as well.
This is a music that is largely based upon consonance and modal harmonies; it is a music that appears to have no need for conflict, although it takes great advantage of contrast. And while each composer can be identified through a very distinct sound, each bases his music on similarly striking, luminous sonorities of sensual color and beguiling character.
Simplicity and spirituality are, of course, great attractions these days, as is anarchism. But so, too, is complexity, which happens to be the latest fashion in science, and which has been made a return to post-Minimalist music. And so, too, is nihilism, as the Generation X keeps reminding us. As for archaism: that, for an increasing number of people, means the ‘50s.
Even repetition, which underpins popular music and Minimalist music, doesn’t adequately explain the attraction to the Holy Minimalists, because in pop music repetition is allied to a beat, a fast beat that is the heart of the music (and often functions to deaden the senses), whereas the Holy Minimalists use slower, more surprising repetition to heighten awareness. Concentration time, too, tends to be down these days, yet the Holy Minimalists favor a very slow, often barely discernible pulse, and ask for concentration on very little stimulus.
What most likely makes this music so mesmerizing is the sheer sensuality of the sound. Although each composer has a distinct, immediately recognizable sound, all three tend to use voices and instruments in similarly evocative ways that tend to record exceptionally well, which may be the ultimate key to the music’s great success.
There is, in all the works, an emphasis on polarities--high and low pitches, male and female voices, extremes of loud and soft, soaring melodies or none at all. This is minimalism, not in the pulsating sense of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but rather in the sense of allowing the listener a certain space. To make an analogy with the visual arts, this is less like the slick formal minimalism of the late ‘60s and more like the earlier all-white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg which could serve, as John Cage once suggested, as airports for dust mites.
Likewise the open, Holy Minimalism of Tavener, Part and Gorecki can provide the illusion of very vast, enveloping musical and physical space, allowing the ear to fill in the middle itself, making the music seem simultaneously very grand and yet intimate and personal. It is music where affection and overpowering magnificence can be part of the same gesture.
All three pieces, maybe not coincidentally, begin with awe-inspiring mystery in the low basses. In Tavener’s “Akathist"--a setting of the hymn of thanks-giving in the Orthodox Church for chorus, organ, orchestra and a pair of countertenors that lasts nearly 80 minutes--each of the 10 sections begins with the same praising the glory of God, rising from low basses up to high sopranos, but each time in a different, usually higher key.
Tavener, who is 51, is the most theatrical of the Holy Minimalists, and he is also the one with the most polished public persona, this being his second run-in with fame. The first came in the late ‘60s due to the patronage of the Beatles. Impressed with Tavener’s early dramatic cantata, “The Whale,” John Lennon had it released on the Beatles’ label, Apple.
But Tavener never capitalized on his early celebrity, and once he joined the Orthodox Church in the ‘70s, his music became exclusively devotional. Although trained as a modernist in the 12-tone method, his own musical devotions turned to Byzantine chant and the music of Eastern cultures.
“Akathist"--with its golden bells, shimmering strings and ornate, intertwining countertenor lines--radiates that transcendental East, with maybe just a hint of our own ornamental Baroque religious art. But it is the massive sonorities, dramatically engineered to take the listener by maximum surprise, that give the score its true theatrical feeling of astonishment.
The Estonian, Part, who trucks more in gentle wonderment than aggressive astonishment, once had a theatrical side to him as well, but it hardly shows anymore. The first Estonian composer to write 12-tone music, and a composer who once had to earn his living scoring bombastic Soviet films with appropriate music, he changed radically in the late ‘60s with his interest in ancient liturgical Russian music and became particularly influenced by the sound of ringing church bells. Since then he has written music that glows.
In his “Te Deum,” the 59-year-old Part, who now lives in Berlin, quickly cushions his opening low basses with the warmest, softest of sopranos. It is an effect of exquisite beauty, one that seems to reverberate throughout the whole half-hour work--indeed there is probably no more genuinely beautiful music, in the traditional sense, being written today than Part’s.
Gorecki’s “Miserere” is much more somber music, and unlike Part’s “Te Deum” its sad bass entrance begins an upward canon that doesn’t reach the soprano for 25 minutes. Written as a response to a violent 1981 government attack on Solidarity protesters in Poland, Gorecki pointedly sets only the words “Lord, our God, have mercy on us,” for unaccompanied chorus.
If such a political statement would be unthinkable in the music of Tavener and Part, both of whom have removed themselves in their work from worldly matters, Gorecki’s background is much different from that of either of the other two. A one-time Polish avant-gardist who wrote music of abrasive dissonance in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Gorecki, born in 1933, greatly simplified his music, in part as a reaction to political oppression in Poland in the early ‘70s. He sought not only a musical expression for the spiritual crisis in Poland at the time, but he also turned to Polish folk music as a way of maintaining contact with his heritage.
In the “Miserere,” as he had done five years earlier in his Third Symphony, with its sorrowful laments, Gorecki reveals spiritual transformation as a slow and painful, but ultimately resplendent, process. Through repetitive accumulation of counterpoints, and through the applications of sudden, surprising brightening of texture just when one is convinced of the inevitability of bleakness, he overpowers with stubborn, insistent choral climaxes.
That sound, as unforgettable as the climactic exuberances of Tavener and Part, is surely the most important element in snaring so many listeners. It is the pure sound, indescribable but unmistakable, of certain spiritual revelation.
And it is such certainty in all three composers--a certainty arriving at the end of a century of unstable music, of questioning and questing music--that has stopped an awful lot of listeners cold.