MISIC / No end in sight: Indian Music / The Apocalypse, The Proms

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The Independent Culture
It's not often that the Proms offer two endurance tests in one weekend. That's how both the Friday late night and Sunday evening Proms looked on paper. In practice however, only one was. Friday's Indian music concert started at 10pm and ran till way after 2.00am. Some of the 'pieces' were relatively short, but the Misra family's Khyal (Fantasy) took a leisurely 45 minutes to lift itself out of its slow, meditative introduction into something closer to dance mode. All the singing and playing took place over a completely static drone, and there was little that resembled harmonic movement in the Western sense - just the prevailing mode / melody, or raga.

So how does this music achieve its extraordinary hold? Even when the mind wandered, there was a feeling that on some level the ear was still engaged. The astonishing rhythms, bursting with life, are one reason; the other is the sheer 'open' expressiveness of the singing and playing. The deep, guttural noises produced by the two Mallik family singers set a few of the more brainless Westerners in the audience giggling at first, but before long the elemental dignity and pathos of this ancient devotional style (dhrupad) seem to have reached most parts of the surprisingly large Albert Hall audience.

Would John Tavener's Apocalypse have made a more positive impression if it had been performed with that same open intensity? Perhaps not: however much he may model his modal cantilations on Eastern modes and religious rituals, there's an element that remains deeply Anglican.

Yet there have been Tavener pieces in which he has achieved a kind of radiant, even sensuous simplicity - parts of The Protecting Veil, Ikon of Light, one could go on. With Apocalypse, though, his self-denying tendency has reached a new stage. Here was a work of about 140 minutes, with virtually no rhythmic interest, next to no harmonic interest, and in which the only melodic interest was in the slow - sometimes agonisingly slow - melismas, mostly in his favourite quasi-Mediterranean mode (basically a major scale with a flattened second and sixth).

Emptying the mind of all distractions in order to attain the Divine is, of course, an ancient requirement in Christian meditative tradition, Western and Eastern. And yet surely there has to be some hint of what it is one is supposed to reach out for? Tavener himself admits that setting the whole of the 'New Jerusalem' section as a sustained, pulsating D - nothing else - is 'a kind of opting out'. Despite the rapt singing and playing of the City of London Sinfonia and Chorus, the New London Children's Choir, and the cast - especially Thomas Randle's St John - it was hard not to agree.

At the long-awaited end of it all, I searched my memory for a single idea that wasn't already familiar from other recent Tavener productions - the rustling locust- sounds, perhaps, and the dramatic alternation of distant gongs, contrabass trombones, and a deep chanted solo bass D for the voice of God, perhaps. But even these have an aura of familiarity. Has he simply written too much?

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