Was the music press of New York too busy celebrating Shakespeare's birthday? Delayed for a year on medical grounds, Sir John Tavener's "Towards Silence: A Meditation on the Four States of Atma" received its world premiere last night at the Rubin Museum of Art, home to an ravishing collection of objects from the Himalayas. Though cordially invited, not one critic attended. Nor had any print medium listed the event in advance. How could this be? As composer of the oratorio The Whale (recorded by the Beatles on the Apple label), the choral Song for Athene (performed at the funeral of Princess Diana), and masterpieces like The Protecting Veil (a cello concerto in all but name), Sir John stands in the top tier of serious contemporary composers and has pop cachet besides. Unconscionable as the indifference of the papers seems, perhaps it was just as well. Seating on four levels of the museum's soaring atrium was limited to perhaps 200, and at showtime, there was not a ticket to be had.
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.
"Towards Silence" was commissioned by the Rubin Museum of Art and the MusicMindSpirit Trust. The commision was made possible in part by a grant from the Carlo and Micol Schejola Foundation.