Show People: The sacred and the tanned: 36. JOHN TAVENER

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The Independent Culture
JOHN TAVENER appears disturbingly familiar when you meet him for the first time, and it's hard to work out why. The lean, ascetic frame, the broken-looking limbs, the long straight hair: where have you seen this man before? And then you realise. On a cross.

Or at an English music festival. This year, Tavener premieres have become the sine qua non of festival life. The latest is a large-scale choral and orchestral piece called We Shall See Him As He Is, which launched the Chester Festival last night. On Thursday it has its London premiere in the Proms.

Tavener's ubiquity is market-driven. People want to hear his music. They even buy it. The Protecting Veil, his last Proms piece, is a runaway hit on disc, and has just become the sole classical record on the shortlist for the new Mercury Music Prize. It is easily accessible but has a substance that rewards continued listening. A spiritual substance, hard to define but not to detect, which transforms what might be technical naivety or banality into intensely powerful and convincing statements. At the heart of it is religion.

To call Tavener a born-again composer makes him sound like Cliff Richard. But he has had two dramatically different lives, divided by a conversion. After a conventional middle-class, north London childhood - born in 1944, educated at Highgate School and the Royal Academy - he sprang into the Sixties as a noisy creature of the avant-garde whose work was hip enough to please the pop world. His big success was The Whale, which was performed at the founding concert of the London Sinfonietta. It assailed the listener with factual information declaimed in deadly earnest against a background of amplified metronomes, loudhailers and a large, mixed orchestra. The Beatles liked it and arranged for it to be recorded on their Apple label. Tavener took to

wearing frilly shirts and white suits.

Since then the wardrobe hasn't changed much, but the wearer has. After a series of scores that signified a growing interest in Christianity, Tavener converted to the Orthodox faith and with the zeal of a convert to what is, after all, a remote religion for an Englishman, he surrendered his work to his belief. 'It isn't really practical,' he says, 'but what I'd really like to be is a servant of the church, employed like a craftsman on a cathedral, and just working away at it.'

In fact, his music mostly ends up in the concert hall - the Orthodox Church hasn't the resources to perform it - but he still regards each score as 'sacred art', even if it is a purely instrumental piece such as The Protecting Veil - in effect a non-contentious cello concerto. 'No art can really be domestic,' he says. 'That's the shattering conclusion I've come to. I have difficulty with purely abstract music. I can't understand the purpose of it.'

Tavener's own purpose is to glorify God, advertised not only in the titles of his scores - usually taken from some Orthodox source, and with an awesome innocence that sees no joke in names such as Thunder Entered Her: a Divine Allegory - but also in their structure and language. He calls them ikons: 'if that's possible. Can music be an ikon? I don't know. But an ikon is a window on God, and that's how I think of what I write.' Ikons also serve some kind of evangelical function, albeit gently. 'They might change your way of thinking, perhaps just by being in their presence.' That passivity explains the unassertive, contemplative nature of much of Tavener's work.

Its ritual solemnity bears comparison with Arvo Part, the Estonian composer who writes with a similar, if more systematic, charged simplicity. Both look back for precedents to the Byzantine world of early Christian chant, where the pace of the music and its rate of change are slow. Both, you might argue, are locked in a historically limited language with no potential for development. Will Tavener be writing the same austere, slow-moving pieces in 10 years? Probably. And his preoccupations won't change either. So long as his health holds out (he had heart surgery last year and recovery has been slow) he will still be commuting between London and Greece (where he goes to think, maintain his contact with echt-Orthodoxy, and top up his suntan), still immersed in what he calls 'primordial tradition', and still setting texts by his chief human inspiration Mother Thekla, a former actress who became an Orthodox nun and now runs a religious community in Yorkshire. Like everything about John Tavener, his collaborators are unlikely but sincere.

Tavener transcends criticism that his music is trapped in the past. His faith doesn't ask for new developments. 'Innovation has no meaning to the Orthodox. Religious art is timeless; it doesn't have to move.' If he looks back it is because he finds forsaken purity in ancient music. 'I'm not a theologian, but I believe there was a time when art, life and the spirit weren't so separate, when the process of secularisation wasn't so advanced. It was a sacred time; and that's what I'd like my work to reflect.'

Tavener at the Proms: Albert Hall (071- 823 9998), Thursday.

(Photograph omitted)