Page 7, 15th June 2007

15th June 2007
Page 7
Page 7, 15th June 2007 — 'I blame Beethoven for Tracey Emin...'

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Locations: Berlin


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'I blame Beethoven for Tracey Emin...'

Igor Toronyi is charmed by the forceful but forgetful John Tavener /find Sir John Tavener on his garden trampoline, lying on his back, his shirt half undone and flapping in the breeze. After the nausea of a long windy drive it's a welcoming sight, untroubling, his presence calming and sort of amusing. He's extremely tall and gangly and wears a benign look like Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant.

Things are all a bit of a daze for him as he staggers into his house. He has just come back from Berlin where there was a performance of his all-nighter The Veil of the Temple. The work is a whopping seven hours long and there was a rehearsal the night before so its understandable that he's almost completely out of it.

With the received pronunciation, the white linen clothes, the long hair, the bumbling chat (with plenty of "sort ofsand "you knows" and "wells") and the short-term memory loss ("where did I put the tea I just poured?"), he triggers off memories of potsmoking teenage boys from Stowe.

It's all very charming and in keeping with a style of music that, in its attempt to fuse various religious and spiritual ideas, many consider to be rather New Age. It isn't as simple as that, however. His long and intense works are far more original and rigorously spiritual than this sloppy appellation would imply.

His latest project, The Beautiful Names, is a vast portrait of God, a setting of the 99 names of Allah to music, written not for a specific commission but as a labour of love, the result of a vision.

It was his friend, the Prince of Wales, who found him the sponsor at Westminster Cathedral.

He was thrilled. He knew the place well from his early twenties when he had flirted with Catholicism. And he might well have converted had it not been for the Second Vatican Council.

"It was something I couldn't cope with," he tells me. "It seemed to be like a sort of, if one can see these things in a symbolic way, like the third betrayal of Christ, if you know what I mean. There was so much that was being thrown out."

From then on, Tavener concentrated on the eastern Christian churches.

He has a wonderfully modest way of speaking, hedging statements and equivocating, and always asking if I know what he means or enquiring whether he made sense. It is a reality that is at odds with the standard picture of the composer: a fierce and dogmatic traditionalist standing against the tide of modernism.

Even on this subject — modernist dissonance versus his own spiritually guided consonance — he is gracious, making his own stance quite plain while no longer taking the hard-line position he once did when he used to say things like "There are no decent composers since Bach".

Beethoven, he now accepts, is sublime, even though he still cannot quite forgive him for introducing personal suffering into art, which, he believes, led ultimately to TraceyEmin. And this in spite of being taught the piano by one of the greatest proponents of Beethoven's piano music, Solomon — "a very sweet man", rendered almost speechless by a stroke.

In fact, by all accounts, Tavener wasn't at all bad at the piano. At the end of a performance of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto, Solomon cried out "wonderful!" (His catty cleaning lady added: "Well, that's one of the very few words that Solomon can speak, so don't take too much notice of it.") The two also shared a dislike of atonal music. During a performance of Stravinsky 's severe ballet Agon, Solomon leant forward and added a "y" to the title in Tavener's programme.

A similar way of thinking led Tavener into direct conflict with his "po-faced" modernist contemporaries who, he says, were enforcing "a kind of secular musical terrorism". His detachment in the 1970s from the fashionable classical musical styles of the day — he chose to combine elements of avant-garde composition with far more accessible language — meant he became rather isolated. This had an up side: his music became hugely popular in comparison to that of his peers and it brought him into contact with the Beatles.

He met John Lennon at a posh hippie dinner in Chelsea where they sat on the floor. ate macrobiotic food and played each others' tapes.

"I liked that world because contemporary classical music was so deeply unglamorous. It was all part of my angry young man thing again."

His anger, however, has now dissipated.

"There's no use saying, well, 'it's ghastly this music', because that's the way the world is. If you believe the Hindu concept that one is reaching the end of a cycle then there's not very much point in moaning about it any more. So I hope I've stopped. This Hindu idea of the last days keeps on cropping up in our conversation. It is his explanation for all sorts of disparate things: his spiritually guided work, the emergence of fundamentalism and, rather contrarily. our ability to gain access to other religions so freely.

This syncretistic, pick 'a' mix attitude to his beliefs led him to fall out with his closest Russian Orthodox spiritual guide, Mother Teicla.

"We didn't really split," he corrects me. "Well, actually, we did a bit.

"She had this rather unpleasant American nun who influenced her very much — said she mustn't have any contact with the outside world whatsoever."

Despite being friends again, he thinks she's now too old to be able to cope with his universalist views so he doesn't inflict them on her.

None of his own religious or musical ideas is put out piously or rigidly. He seems still to be working things out, trying to under stand things a little better.

Unlike some of his fellow Orthodox, Tavener is even welldisposed to the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict.

"His love of music makes me like him enormously," he tells me, though he admits this amicable feeling is not shared by all within Orthodoxy.

C remembers that there was a rumour that the monks on Mount Athos wanted to shoot down John Paul H's plane when he flew over to see the Patriarch of Constantinople.

It is the kind of fundamentalism that he has no sympathy for. In fact, he tells me, the older he gets the less he is interested in any literalist interpretation of the scriptures, whatever they are.

So, while he meditated on each individual meaning for all 99 names for his new work, it was actually the sonic beauty of the Arabic words that provided the inspiration. He starts to reel them off in a convincingly guttural sound. "As-Rahman, Ar-Rahirri..."

His wife butts in, looking friendly and efficient. She gives him a list of things to do and possible things to cook for his dinner.

A quick look around at the quiet chaos that fills the room — the dogs and toys and loose books and paper and scores and hundreds of baby-related things — and something tells me he's not going to remember to do anything his wife has just told him.

And yet, at 63. he's just had another child, his third. I can't quite imagine him and his otherworldly mind being able to cope.

"He's started crawling," Tavener tells me with an exhausted smile on his face.

"He crawls around and pulls out plugs."

Time, perhaps, for another quick lie down on that trampoline.

John Tavener's 'The Beautiful Names' will be performed at Westminster Cathedral at 7.30 pm on June 19

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