In the Summer of 2007 I was invited by the Scientific Medical Network to interview the composer Sir John Tavener as part of their annual conference.

Paul Robertson

John was known to me from my life* in the Medici Quartet as he had composed a quartet entitled ‘The Hidden Treasure’ for us back in the late 70’s. This very lovely work was written by him at almost exactly the period as he was composing the ‘cello work ‘The Protective Veil’ for Stephen Isserlis and which rightly made such a huge impact at the Proms.

It was very much in the same vein musically with the composer’s unique stamp with its haunting combination of static dynamism and developing stillness.

John’s mature works are all unashamedly spiritual in intention and quality – unusually so when one considers the vast mass of intellectually constructed and unappetisingly dissonant music that has been the exhausting and finally clichéd language of most post war classical modernism.

However John had the rare courage to ‘stick to his guns’ and as can occasionally be the happy fate of the inspired mystic his quiet certainty has gradually shifted the world in his favour.

We played ‘The Hidden Treasure’ a lot and it always tended to divide listeners into one of two different reactions. The habitually hyperactive and ‘cognitively critical’ members of the audience would find the piece unbearably tedious and lacking in ‘content’ whilst a much larger group would find themselves brought to a state of restful bliss or delicious wellbeing.

I well remember programming it for a concert for members of the Royal family of Brunei (together with the 1st Janacek quartet ‘The Kreutzer Quartet’).

On the morning of the concert I was whisked off to give a ‘live’ TV interview about that evening’s concert.

In the car the embassy representative gave me a few vital last minute injunctions.

‘Of course you realise that the Brunei media is strictly subject to Muslin religious law although it’s actually very liberal in practise and you’re fine as long as you absolutely avoid discussing Sex, Politics or Religion – but then you wouldn’t would you? because you’re only talking about music!’

I was completely nonplussed. The Janacek quartet (which is programmatically modelled upon Tolstoy’s novel of that name) tells the dramatic story of a murder justified by sexual jealousy whilst in his life, at that time the composer had just embarked on the life changing affair which dominated his later life and all mature compositions.

And how could I possibly discuss John Tavener’s inspiration without making any religious reference?

In some desperation on camera I improvised floridly upon the themes of Music and Relationship, Meaning and Stillness. Music I suggested is all about exploring rare and fine emotion – exploring feelings which we may all experience from time to time but which we typically do not have the personal or cultural language to capture or describe. As a result of this ‘ineffability’ of the musical experience it is only too easy to deny the validity of what are essentially non-verifiable and overwhelmingly ‘subjective’, personal experiences.

When Mendelssohn made his wonderful observation that ‘music is too precise to express in words’ it is surely something akin to this ‘ineffable’ emotion that he was suggesting as the natural precision of music.

If so then it is also not too fanciful to suggest that the act of listening (which is both highly ‘active’ in attention yet disengaged in terms of crude internal commentary and analysis) is close at this level to ‘reflection’ or some other form of inner communion and so on….

This unexpected demand to transcend the more obviously ‘programmatic’ elements in music in favour of a more subtle or psychological motivation proved quite valuable and insightful and played a small part in moving forward my thinking about musical creativity.

In the conversations John and I had in preparation of the interview he mentioned more than once his interest in near death experience and so just prior to the interview itself I introduced him to my friend Dr. Peter Fenwick. John was clearly fascinated by the late stages of dying and its possible relevance to the creative act and naturally Peter was able to give all sorts of highly informed background to how this beguiling territory has been understood by different religious traditions.

The public interview itself proved to be altogether beguiling and insightful. John showed himself to be at once, highly intelligent, psychologically complex, self engrossed yet charming and childlike.

I felt as if I was in conversation with a truly inspired mystic like William Blake and relished every moment.

Although he knew that I was no longer playing in my quartet (I had left the group some 5 years before and briefly rejoined them only to lead their final few performances) he kept referring to his intense desire to compose a work for quartet (actually 4 quartets) and made it abundantly clear that he would like us to play this new work!

In a vain attempt to keep some ‘reality’ in this fantastic notion I kept trying to find graceful ways of explaining that, delightful though the idea was, I was simply not in a position to accept.

John however continued to describe his vision of the work (which was clearly already totally internally conceived) and even went so far as to suggest that if I really wanted to do it – I could!

With a compelling energy he went on to describe what this piece was about and how it would work. The underlying musical inspiration he said, was an exploration of musical inspiration itself, how this might relate to non-being, in the sense of being at the very edge of life itself and also that he wanted to somehow describe in sound the very moment at which music comes from Silence – or may perhaps revert back into it.

The four quartets would be spaced apart from each other (and invisible to the audience) within some great ‘spiritual space’. The sound would then as it were ‘float’ down and mix together from an entirely ethereal realm.

With a typically practical musician’s reflex I suggested that this would have to involve us working as mentors with 3 talented young ensembles (I was clearly here already being seduced by the vision!). This was entirely pragmatic as I know (from being one) it is notoriously impossible to bring together different professional quartets as the first violinists are notoriously temperamental prima donnas who cannot or will not collaborate

The delightful evening drew to an end at last and we all said our farewells.

The next morning when I got home an e-mail was waiting. It was from a Buddhist museum in New York (The Rubin Museum) which I didn’t know asking me to give a talk about Music and Spirituality.

I spoke to the Museum’s Director that afternoon by phone and almost despite myself heard myself talking about John’s new work. By the end of the conversation the piece was in principle commissioned and programmed!

I called John who sounded absolutely thrilled and I promised to discuss the commissioning fee and other details with his publishers.

A few days later John announced he was off to Greece to compose the piece and I had the overwhelming impression that he simply couldn’t wait.

Whilst he was away I made a few calls (including to the Study Society) to discover who else would like to be associated with this new work. To my great pleasure each call received an enthusiastic response and it was clear that the whole idea was a ‘goer’.

Sure enough a couple of weeks later John called to tell me that he was returned from Greece and that the piece was entirely complete in conception – and that he had actually begun to write the actual score. We discussed and agreed that the work would be ready for a US World Premiere in the Spring of 2008. On this basis I began to firm up a series of concerts around the UK and elsewhere in Europe.

Just before Christmas ’08 we received the devastating news that John had been taken suddenly and grievously ill at a concert in Switzerland and was seriously ill in hospital. Further details were impossible to discover as he and his family were now incommunicado. After a difficult hiatus of some weeks I had a call form his publisher to say that the seemingly completed score had just been discovered on John’s desk at home and that his editor was travelling down to decipher whether the piece was finished. A few weeks later again we were told that the editor felt that the work was probably complete but, in any case, sufficiently finished to perform.

A short time after this I was also struck down with a devastating illness and, like John following massive cardiac surgery found myself desperately fighting for life in an intensive care unit.

For many months, although unconnected we seem to have followed similarly grim paths, balancing tenuously between life and death in the horrors of unconsciousness and clinical trauma.

At this terrible place (not at all similar in experience to the beautiful consolations of the near death experiences so graphically descried by Peter Fenwick in his research) the meeting place of being and non-being take on grotesque and dreadful forms and (at least for me) the inky black solace of deep unconsciousness seemed an altogether preferable alternative to the struggle for life. However fate had other plans for both of us and after months of hospitalisation we were each finally allowed home to recuperate.

Although John must speak for himself in this I can personally endorse the strange nouminal significance of how it is that physical manifestation springs from nothingness in extreme illness has altered my world view. Somehow and at every living moment it seems that nothingness ‘speaks’ into being. Although we all ‘know’ this theoretically, it is probably too overwhelming a concept for most of us to remain constantly awake to.

I recall a very lovely introduction made some years ago by an eminent physicist about his work and interests. He began by pointing out that modern science has now proven that everything in the material world is more full of ‘nothing’ than it is of ‘anything’. Just as space is made up of infinities of emptiness punctuated by the occasional tiny knots of energy we call stars and planets, so matter is constructed of emptiness with occasional knots of energy called molecules and these molecules are in turn constructed overwhelmingly of nothingness with occasional knots of energy we call atoms and so on. Because of this infinite emptiness the physicist told us, he had concluded that the study of nothing was the honest path of enquiry for a person of his persuasion. Since the only tradition, organised upon the disciplined contemplation into the nature of nothing is Buddhism – the physicist had become a Buddhist !

For a musician much the same becomes evident in the relationship of Music to Silence. Moment by moment most music is made up of silence. Even the sounds made by instruments are largely created by the breath and space between the notes they make rather than the moments of actual sonic activation. Similarly, we might consider that scores are really maps of silence punctuated by the spots and waves of energy we call ‘music’. Furthermore the special ritual of the concert is largely predicated upon the creation and sustaining of a large prevailing silence into which these energized episodes of sound we call ‘music’ can be played.

More subtle again are the infinite gradations that lie on the very cusp of silence and sound. This is something delicious and terrifying for the performer as nothing exposes the true nature of the performer more than the gesture by which he evokes sound from the abiding silence that surrounds it. (Incidentally there is now quite a body of scientific research which shows that performers experience far higher levels of arousal and tension when playing very quietly than when in full flight dynamically) This is perhaps why a fragile single voice can often evoke so much more emotion than a bold brassy ensemble crashing in (although this can also be pretty good in the right hands at the right moment!)

Over the years various distinguished players have attempted to capture this quality into ‘schools’ or ‘ethos’ of technique and teaching. In his incomparable teaching Pablo Casals made almost a cult (or at least a prevailing culture) of this idea. According to him the most resonant ‘singing’ sound that could be achieved on a bowed stringed instrument was the result of each note being lightly ‘struck’ (with either the right or left hand) in such a way that it rang like a bell. From that moment the art of bowing was solely to extend the resulting resonance as one might draw out a thread or skein of wool into an endless ‘bel canto’ melodic line.

In common parlance much of this might broadly described as ‘touch’.

We all recognise that some players have a finer and more lovely ‘touch’ than others. Fritz Kreisler was a violinist who’s unique touch was somehow more moving to me than most others. Indeed just as the touch of a loved one is imbued with gentleness and meaning whilst a stranger’s contact may be more intrusive and apparently intimate yet remain empty so it is with a player’s touch upon the instrument. It’s surely no accident that we describe finding certain music ‘touching’ – the connection between the touch of sound and that of the finger tips is clear. What remains mysterious is how and why we can interpret the intention of both with such certainty.

A friend who sat next to Jascha Heifitz when he was making his wonderful and virtuoso recording of Bruch’s ‘Scottish Fantasy’ said that what continually impressed him was that as he played Heifitz held the violin and bow so lightly that it seemed a breath could blow them out of his hands.

Interestingly, recent research in Hannover (by my friend Dr. Altenmuller) has shown that the fingers of highly skilled pianists press the piano keys increasingly lightly as the music increases in complexity. By contrast, when the music becomes increasingly difficult, amateurs become more and more heavy and incisive in their action (and correspondingly clumsy in execution).

In other words for the truly talented player the ultimate ‘efficiency’ of performance is that as it becomes more virtuoso music becomes increasingly abstract and an act of imagination.

John’s score is a tour de force of such fragile boundaries. Sometimes full of energy and Rajas but more often tenuously hovering at the very edge of perception and audibility. I am convinced that all great art inhabits the edge, paradox and ambivalence of existence and is only then truly fulfilling its potential as a ‘Soundtrack of the Soul’.


My very first meeting with John Tavener was when I was a teenager at the Dartington Summer School of Music where there was a memorable performance one evening of what was probably his first notable work ‘The Whale’ – based upon Jonah’s adventures.

It had been a particularly hot and sultry summer’s day and that evening as the piece reached its climax (depicting a great storm) a massive crash of thunder thundered and ripped just above the hall. A tremendous storm then broke and continued to rage through the rest of the performance which was all the more memorable because of it.

After the concert I found the immensely long spindly composer backstage calmly folded up inside a large wickerwork waste paper basket. He looked blissfully happy and I rather think was waving a bottle of red wine!