Top composer Tavener turns to Islam for inspiration

The Orthodox faith inspired him for more than 25 years, but after a rift with his spiritual adviser, the composer has rejected its 'tyranny' in a major work based on the Koran. Anthony Barnes reports
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The Independent Culture

Sir John Tavener, the classical composer whose life and works have been guided by the principles of the Orthodox Church for more than two decades, has now turned to Islam for inspiration.

In 1997 his work found fame around the world when it was played at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The piece, Song for Athene, was written to the rules of the Orthodox Church, as almost all his work had been since he converted to the faith in 1977.

But Sir John says that working to these principles - using set melodic formulas - became a "tyranny" and that he no longer wishes to stick to a particular system. He attends church less regularly than in the past and finds it "trying" to deal with people who are overly Orthodox.

Last year Sir John had a falling-out with his spiritual muse, Mother Thekla, a Russian abbess who lives in a North Yorkshire monastery and whom he used to phone daily. She also provided the words to some of his works.

At the heart of their disagreement was Sir John's growing interest in Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism, and they stopped communicating last year. They have subsequently begun to exchange letters, but their relationship has been damaged.

Now he has composed a new choral work based on the 99 names for God in Islam, which are sung in Arabic. The work is expected to be premiered at Westminster Cathedral next year.

In an interview with BBC Music magazine, Sir John said: "Every name has different music to it. There is no repetition at all. I did want to record my spontaneous reaction to the Arabic sounds.

"I mean, when you say the names in English - the Vast, the All-Merciful, the Punisher - they seem ridiculous. In Arabic they have a resonance."

Asked whether he plans the piece to be a statement of solidarity with Muslims who have found themselves on the receiving end of public hostility, he said: "It's possible. I was appalled by what happened [on 11 September], but I am more appalled that Islam now has such a terrible name in some quarters.

"I love the Koran and I wanted to write something that was an affirmation of Islam rather than these terrible negations that one sees everywhere."

Although Sir John says he has not lost his faith in God, he admitted: "I like going to church less and less. It strikes me now that all religions are as senile as one another. But I do pray within my heart all the time."

A forthcoming work he is planning to write, as if to emphasise his new-found freedom from Orthodox principles, is a theatrical composition based on the life of Krishna and influenced by Mozart's Magic Flute.

Sir John was formerly signed to the Beatles' Apple record company, which released his oratorio The Whale in 1968. The Beatles were themselves influenced by Eastern culture, particularly George Harrison, who was a Hare Krishna disciple until his death in 2001.

However, Sir John's biggest breakthrough came 21 years after The Whale, when his work The Protecting Veil was performed at the Proms.

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