Welcome to this personal diary of events and stories surrounding the preparations and performance of Sir John Tavener’s remarkable new work ‘Towards Silence’.
Because of recent serious illness both Sir John and I are unfortunatly unable to attend the premiere in New York’s wonderful Rubin Museum and instead I have invited my colleagues to contribute to this dialogue with their thoughts and observations.
We would also greatly appreciate hearing your reactions to the piece and any thouts you would like to share with John and me.
As I am new to ‘blogging’ I am only just now reordering the messages so that the more recent ones appear first. hope this helps!
To suggest a contribution, please press the ‘send blog message’ box above. Many Thanks.
IN REHEARSALS for the UK Performances, July 2009
June 27, 2009
As the sun shone over The Old Farmhouse gardens and the temperature rose steadily, members of the Medici, Harpham and Finzi quartets gathered for the first in a series of rehearsals leading to four July performances. Morning hours were dedicated to Vivaldi, with guest Malcolm Creese. As I have been following all the rehearsals, UK and NY, of Towards Silence, it was a treat to witness this particular intimate group of musicians engaging in new relationships with one another. Rather than four quartets, these were a collection of stringed instrument players organized in clusters of like-instruments, and ensembling their way through the music to fantastic effect. And following a lovely lawn lunch prepared by Paul and his hard-working, seemingly indefatiguable mother, the quartets spent the afternoon rehearsing Towards Silence, as the natural light shifted from soft grey to sharp yellow. Even the musically averse cat answered the summons into the room. At one moment, Paul commented on the power of the music to transform the garden view out the open barn doors. I wished I could slip into his vantage point.
Next rehearsal on Thursday. Meanwhile I have to delight of exploring the surrounding countryside.
PhD Fellow, Copenhagen Business School
NEW YORK CITY PREMIERE at the RUBIN MUSEUM OF ART, April 23, 2009
April 24, 2009
From Matthew Gurewitsch a regular reviewer for the New York Times writing here in Pundcity.com:
Lasting close to an hour, the piece is scored for four string quartets (here the Medici, the Attaca, the Corigliano, and the Jasper) and Tibetan singing bowl (here Raphael Mostel). As an invocation, eight speaking voices read passages from the Vedanta, beginning with the command, Awake!, closing with the injunction, Look towards, reach towards, go towards Silence, followed by a brief mantra on the blessing Shanti.
Then the musicians took over—unseen, per Sir John’s instructions—filling the space with richly textured, glowing sound, flowing broadly as the Ganges, yet sprinkled with brilliant flecks of pizzicato, ruffled by sudden currents. It was trance music in the noblest sense, sharpening one’s awareness even as it drew the mind deep into its center. Though divided into four movements and punctuated by chant-like calls from the singing bowl, the composition unfolded in one shining arc.
The listeners made up an unremarkable Manhattan cross section, like members of a midtown Equinox. Many closed their eyes; a man near me gathered his fingers into a prayerful mudra. Time passed slowly or quickly, no matter. Towards the end, a subtle harmonic shift sounded a subliminal signal to awaken. All around the room, people shifted in their chairs, and eyes fluttered open. After a final spell, the music drew to its conclusion. Then silence fell, the lights came up, and the musicians (still unseen) left their stands, quietly but quite audibly descending the great spiral staircase. After what seemed like a pleasant eternity, there was scattered applause, but not much. Silence was the greater tribute—silence that was as full, as peaceful, and as alive as the music. In no hurry, the audience rose and followed the musicians to the lobby, speaking in hushed tones or not at all. Some stayed for a reception. Fragrances wafting from the buffet table were tempting. But for me, this would have been no time to socialize.
While a recording is devoutly to be wished, the all-enveloping acoustic Sir John has imagined for Towards Silence may be impossible to duplicate in the private space of one’s home or one’s headphones. Given the logistical requirements, however, live performances may never be frequent. For now, there is word of just one more, on July 6 at Winchester Cathedral as part of the Winchester Festival of Art and Mind. Those who attend are in for a singular experience
(comment from Paul – Mr. Gurewitsch in my view you have beautifully captured the essence of this unique masterwork, thank you. I am also happy to tell you that we are fortunatly already receiving a lot of invitations for further performances and a CD recording – however as you correctly anticipate in your article there will be many challengings involved in successfully making such a recording.
April 24, 2009
Take a look at Matthew Gurewitsch’s blog commentary on his experience attending the NYC Premiere:
The performance was phenomenal, people packed in the galleries, all facing away from the musicians. I have never “heard” an audience sit so still throughout a piece. And they stayed sitting right until the musicians descended from on high and reached the base of the staircase. Paul, the conception of having the quartets on different levels worked. Each level of audience, and then each audience member, received piece differently throughout the three states – you might say received an imbalanced account of the piece. But then we do in life, we perceive subjectively, through our waking, dreaming and sleeping states. But when it came to Turiya, the sound distilled in a miraculous way, and it was what Schreker always strove for but never accomplished, his Ferne Klang. We, as an audience body, were able to reach towards something that we all had in common – but only when the piece disappeared did we recognize that the only thing that eradicates all distinction is nothingness, the silence the composer called for. I have never had an experience like it. I am very, very happy.
This is just a brief summation, more to follow. But just know that it was a thorough success.
And I have plans to come to Winchester if I arrange my travel plans from Australia in time. I can’t wait to hear the work again.
Save me a seat or two, ok?
From the Rubin Museum concert:
This is Melia Watras, violist of the Corigliano Quartet. Last night, we had the pleasure of being part of the premiere of Sir John Tavener’s Towards Silence. Knowing how much you put into the creation of the piece, and having your wonderful colleagues in the Medici Quartet there to guide the project, it really felt like your presence was there with us.
Sir John Tavener’s piece is stunning in its beauty and power. The experience as a performer was very special. Though the configuration of the four quartets on different floors made it challenging, by the performance, you could feel a genuine connection between all of the groups. Hearing the far off, floating lines and colors of the quartets and the Tibetan bowl above us sounded like music from heaven. It was a moving evening, for performers and audience members alike.
Thank you for having us be a part of this very special project, and best wishes for successful performances in the UK.
comment from Paul R:
Melia, thank you so much for this very generous message. I can only assure you how terribly sorry I was not to be able to meet and play with you all xxx P
From Gene Biringer:
I flew in from Wisconsin for the premiere of Towards Silence, so interested was I in Sir John’s exploration of sound, space, and consciousness. Indeed, in the performance the distinction between sound and space sometimes seemed to dissolve, so perfectly did the music and the museum complement one another. I was also much taken by the echoes, reverberations, quiverings, and intimations among the four quartets on the four floors, which suggested to me that the four states of consciousness are interactive aspects of one another, rather than separate and distinct entities.
One curiosity: at the end of the piece I heard the Tibetan bell form a perfect fifth with a lower tone which I thought at first was being played by one of the instruments on a lower floor (I was seated on the fourth floor near the quartet). As I listened more closely, the lower tone seemed too constant and uniform to be humanly produced, so I was not too surprised when it persisted even after the bell tone ended and the performers left their seats. This in turn made me realize that the tone must be emanating from the building itself (the lights perhaps, as I think it was around a B). It made me wonder whether Sir John had intended, in the perfect 5th it formed with the bell, a final harmonization between sound and space, matter and spirit. In any case, my gratitude to Sir John, to Professor Robertson, to the performers, and to all others who made this marvellous experience possible.
comment from Paul Robertson;
Gene, thank you very much for this very interesting and lovely message which I hope John is also able to read when he is a little stronger. I am told that it is characteristic of Tibetan ‘singing’ bowls that they will often pick up the sonoroties of a particular accoustic and resonate sympathetically with them. Could this be what you experienced?
I attended the premier at the Rubin Museum. I’m a big fan of Sir John Tavener’s work, having been at the fabulous ‘Veil of the Temple’ experience in New York.
I do have a couple of comments about the performance. I loved the three levels and the immersion in the experience. The readings were powerful and I found the words very stilling. I think it would have been even more powerful for there to have been silence between each of the readings. I just wanted to rest deeply in the state I found myself in after each reading. But the readings started immediately and I found it very jarring.
Also, for the unitiated (all of us) it would be helpful, if at the beginning, people were instructed that due to the meditative nature of the piece, which is leading to a state of silence, that at the end there is to be no applause. And people are asked to depart quietly. People were uncertain of what to do, and then someone began clapping enthusiastically, others joined also …and it didn’t feel quite right.
Just my 2cents. I would love to experience/hear it again, so hope it will return to New York.
Would love to hear other comments on this inspiring work.
J A N E
jcomment from Paul R.
Jane, with the wisdom of hindsight, what you say about how best to finish the performance does seem entirely appropriate and I think we shall invite people to remain silent from now on. Thank you. P
p.s. I also feel convinced that John would be very pleased by such a quietness.
From Cathy Thompson – leading the Medici in NY
Paul, … Today we played through the whole piece, nearly, with the jasper quartet and the coriglianos and it was amazing ….. What a piece… Quite beautifully crafted and so other worldly with in its structure. By ‘w’ – towards the final furlong, when we all start homogenising and the sound starts to still it really is quite spectacular .. A bit like that bit in the cavatina from beethoven late…. Any way , it felt quite emotional , and there was a real connection between the 3 quartets.. Lovely. They are all different but superb and really on top of it… taking it as life and death , and all play so beautifully together..
From Cathy Thompson – leading the Medici in NY
Paul, a quick note to say , we are all set to go I think …. we are playing much softer and are more confident of the music , so hearing things better. Every one is happy with the result and the wonderful music that john has given to us .. Big thank you. All quartets have come to a happy understanding over what could have been tricky and it has resolved well I think.
Tibetan bowl is present and adds a mystical encompassing hum that comes and goes in our ears , over the floors. I can look down in the long notes at the end and watch quartet 4 playing and feel some connection . Nods and smiles a cross the spaces and down continue…. Silence reigns at the end . Om.
Wish us luck for tomorrow . Love cathyx
from Shannon O’Donnell, PhD Fellow
Department of Management, Politics & Philosophy and the Centre for Art and Leadership, Copenhagen Business School – who is following the project as part of her research into Crea\tive Collaberation
I’ve got some fantastic photos of the quartets on the spiral stair balconies I’m eager to share with you, for the blog. But I can’t get my new camera to work with my mac, so I’ll have to send them to you this weekend from a PC.
All continues to go well. The young quartets are terrific. Ivo has probably told you. Each quartet is diagonally 17 feet from the quartet across, and 23 feet from the quartet below, and 36.2 feet from Medici at the top to Q4 at the bottom. Tonight is dress rehearsal. Wish you and John could be here to hear the sound wafting through the tunnel of the stair case, then curving around the odd corners and mingling with the peacefully displayed art of the Himalayas.
much love S
From Ivo Jan van der Werffe – viola player in the Medici
We had a really good run through last night. The actors were there, managing to coordinate reading of the vedantas on 3 different levels.
Raphael was there with the Tibetan bowl.
We are now actually much freer to create the wonderful sound world of this piece. It feels much more translucent and we can project the longer lines better without having to play so quietly in order to hear the rhythmical parts. It is going to be a very moving experience for everyone tonight. I’m particularly pleased with the way the younger quartets have responded to the challenge of the piece and their enthusiasm for the music and the whole thing now seems like a performance of equals. The tibetan bowl adds the wonderful ‘other worldliness’ with its resonant striking and slightly indeterminate pitch.
Sent 23rd April (before the 1st Performance)
Tim McHenry – Producer, Rubin Museum of Art
Dear Sir John,
I had the extraordinary privilege of listening to your transcendent new work Towards Silence for the first time last night. We finally had all the players together for our dress rehearsal and from the tentative strings at the beginning through to the unearthly rubbing of the Tibetan singing bowl, the few of us who were able to listen were transfixed as we were guided through states of being which, only now, through your music, seemed tangible and possible. It has been the most satisfying project I have undertaken in my six years at the Rubin Museum of Art, and with Paul Robertson guiding us from afar, I feel we are about to give our audience an experience unlike any other.
The piece has a delicate urgency (“This is Turiya. This is Atman. And it has to be realized”) that allows the message of the Vedanta to live in us in ways that words and intellectual sense alone cannot. And that is a profound contribution. Thank you for giving us this work, Sir John.
I look forward to tonight’s premiere just as I hope you are looking forward to Winchester in July.
Yours, Tim McHenry
Comments from the Premiere:
my name is Nicole Ansari. i had the great honor and delight to direct the prelude to the world premiere of “Towards Silence” at the Rubin Museum in New York City. I just wanted to share with you that the piece had a real transformational effect on all of us participants and as i spoke to a lot of people from the Audience- them as well. We read from the scriptures about the four stages of Consciousness, 8 actors on four levels. In order to get us into a state of pure receptivity, I made the actors meditate and chant. the energy shifted immediately.
The actual reading, in which we walked around the audience, felt more like an offering of a possibility of grace and Bliss, than a performance.Everyone was deeply moved by the Music. You could have heard a Needle drop. The Silence took place in the Music and in the Listener, a true genius achievement in composition.
I want to thank you in the name of my actors and which you great Success for the UK Premiere, but most of all Good Health and contentment,
Sent 24th April
Caroline Phillips who is managing ‘Towards Silence’ performances from Autumn 2009 onwards
A great success last night. I think some people had a rather extraordinary experience. You can’t really compare it to a performance as such as it requires great concentration and peace to connect with it.
The museum is beautifully done with a spiral staircase up the middle and architecturally the unseen theme meant that the seating was arranged looking away from the performers, I had a wall right in front of me, which had the effect of promoting one’s own personal meditation.
…I was actually quite suprised by how disturbing parts of the piece are. After the serene opening which had an almost out of body effect on me the atmosphere wa shattered by the more agitated writing. In the pre concert discussion the neuroscientist interviewed had outlined how the brain jumbles up disparate events whilst dreaming and this seemed very accurately reflected by the composition.. You are yearning for some sense of equilbrium and order which arrives with the chorale sections. I was very struck by the impression of the ‘chaos’ passages and the strong resonances they had with your piece about the dreams you had in the darkest moments of your illness. Had John written this before or after his heart episode? ( Paul comments-just before)
The performance opened with about 8 actors declaiming a text which was drawn from the vedanta. Thematically this was an ideal preable.
All the best, Caroline.