Tavener’s Cliché-ridden Travesty

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 3

Sound Quality: 9

If I were God, I’d be insulted. Blasphemous, you say? Perhaps. But this statement doesn’t even begin to plumb the depths of cliché-ridden triviality that constitute the befuddled aesthetic on display here, courtesy of that dime-store evangelist of the classical music world, John Tavener. Total Eclipse is a total disgrace. It begins with a hideous wailing on the saxophone over roiling percussion, after which the choir screams “crucified” in Greek (it’s all in Greek, the text compiled by one Mother Thekla, but it might as well have been Mother Goose). This, we are told by the composer, has nothing to do with Western Passion settings, because unlike them “…it is metaphysical,” with the choir’s falling dominant sevenths “taking us into the hellish realm.” Then comes a distant dialogue between Saul and Christ, Saul’s ritual blinding, his ultimate conversion, and a vision of the Second Coming. It’s all very hieratic; the use of period instruments makes it even more so–at least that’s what Tavener claims.

There are several problems with this. First, Tavener keeps insisting on his music’s non-Western qualities, as if spirituality, transcendence, and religious ecstasy are elements unique to the East. Hey! Johnny boy! Ever hear Bach’s Passions or B minor Mass? The Magic Flute? Haydn’s Seven Last Words? Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis? Any Bruckner symphony? Mahler’s Second Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde? Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia or Fifth Symphony? Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms? Messiaen’s From the Canyons to the Stars? Enescu’s Oedipe? Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage or The Vision of St. Augustine? Kokkonen’s The Last Temptations? Crumb’s Black Angels? Ives’ Fourth Symphony? In fact, there’s hardly a trace of Eastern music anywhere in these two works, save for an occasional plonk or thud from the percussion section. The saxophone, countertenors, and even The Academy of Ancient Music are all about as modern and “Western” as they come. Tavener uses no traditional Eastern rhythms, such as those found in Messiaen, nor any exotic scales or harmonic formulae, such as those in Debussy, Hovhaness, Roussel, Rimsky-Korsakov, Lou Harrison, George Crumb, and countless other composers both new and old. In short, the “Eastern-ness” that Tavener keeps yapping about isn’t a musical quality at all, and if Western music can surely be every bit as “spiritual” as Eastern, then what on earth is he talking about?

You see, no matter how hard Tavener tries to impress us with his music’s holier-than-thou program, he can’t get around the fact that there is absolutely no inherent relationship whatsoever between what Tavener says his music represents and what it actually sounds like. He can blather all he wants about dominant sevenths representing hell, or a screeching saxophone standing in for the pre-conversion Paul, but what we’re left with is an autistic musical language in which the seventh chords could just as easily evoke the klutzy fumbling of a cocktail party pianist, while the saxophone might mean anything from John Coltrane on acid, to wailing sirens at a 15-car pileup on the New Jersey Turnpike. Eastern music, however differently organized, isorganized. All great music, wherever it’s from and whatever it claims to illustrate (if anything), makes sense first and foremost as music, and not metaphysics. The more Tavener insists on the “otherness” of his music, the more it sounds as though he’s rationalizing its emptiness, pomposity, poverty of invention, and sheer vulgarity of conception.

Take Agraphon, for example, a setting of a poem that finds Christ & Co. hanging out at the Athens town dump looking at the dead carcass of a dog. “How can you stand the stench?” Jesus’ disciples ask. “Look beyond the decaying flesh and rotting teeth to the promise of divine redemption and justice!” comes the answer. (I’m paraphrasing here, but this does put it in a nutshell.) Kurt Weill might have made something of this–the poem’s bitterness, the irony inherent in its identification of 1941 German-occupied Athens with the biblical Zion, or its desperate attempt to find something beyond a vision of destruction. What does Tavener give us? “The music contains two symbolic ideas–the first being the opening series of intervals, which appear to be inexhaustible in their multifaceted symbolism, representing the music of the spheres…. And then there is the apparent evil of the endless series of spiraling sixths and sevenths, falling without apparent hope of redemption…into a hellish realm…”

Sound familiar? Are you already perhaps experiencing that “Here we go again!” feeling? Note the repeated words: “symbolic” and “apparent”. What does any of this tedious harping on extra-musical, spiritual concerns have to do with the task of setting this particular text? Nothing, of course. Tavener’s music expresses nothing, the emotional ambivalence and rich imagery of the poem least of all. In fact, he has largely abdicated his responsibilities as composer and musician, preferring instead to dress his music in an ostentatiously sacred garb so that he, like the clever tailor in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, might persuade a few timid souls that there’s actually something precious covering its naked form. You think I’m kidding? Try playing these two works for a friend totally cold, simply as music, without telling him or her anything about what they represent, and ask for an honest opinion. Make sure to pick a good friend. You’ll be putting your relationship to the test.

So where does this leave us? What we have here is a guy, possibly sincere in his religious faith, with exactly two, count ’em, two musical modes: the “heavenly” and the “hellish”. The “heavenly” uses all of the clichés of WESTERN music appropriated for such purposes since the dawn of time: angelic “halos” from the strings, countertenors and children’s voices, distance effects, consonant, static harmony. The “hellish” music employs dissonance, noise, banging percussion, and all the other standard occidental stuff. Problem is, Tavener’s means are more limited, his expressive range more restricted, than anyone else on the planet in his line of work. No matter how well played and recorded (and this disc is both), no matter how much he emphasizes the extra-musical symbolism that it all represents, he can’t avoid the simple fact that at no point does he ever begin to do justice in tones to his philosophical pretensions. If you want to hear a genuine musical opposition of heaven and hell, of order versus chaos, check out the opening of Haydn’s The Creation, or the last few numbers in Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust. Musically speaking, Tavener is the false messiah of the new millennium. “Forgive him, Father, he knows not what he does!”

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None

JOHN TAVENER - Total Eclipse; Agraphon

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