Sir John Tavener: A profoundly spiritual composer

Sir John Tavener's rare heart condition has inspired his first composition for dancers. He tells Lynne Walker how a recorded pulse drives the piece to its climax
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They may seem an odd couple, but a collaboration between the profoundly spiritual composer Sir John Tavener and the cutting-edge choreographer Wayne McGregor has resulted in Tavener's first dance score, Laila, and a new work for Random Dance, Amu. It's inspired by something Tavener and McGregor have in common - the heart.

They may seem an odd couple, but a collaboration between the profoundly spiritual composer Sir John Tavener and the cutting-edge choreographer Wayne McGregor has resulted in Tavener's first dance score, Laila, and a new work for Random Dance, Amu. It's inspired by something Tavener and McGregor have in common - the heart.

The idea was developed at the Royal Brompton Hospital, where the heart-imaging specialist Dr Philip Kilner met the composer, who was being investigated for a heart condition, a complication arising from Marfan syndrome. Kilner secured essential funding from the Wellcome Trust and has been instrumental in pumping information into the project.

Given the weakness of his central organ, Tavener's heart is probably never far from his mind. "I find the purely scientific approach to the human heart a little analytical and dehumanising," he admits. "An artistic dimension, involving music and dance, takes you on to another level of understanding."

Tavener hadn't ever considered writing for dance. "I had sketched out a small amount of Laila, probably late in 2002, before the suggestion of it being danced arose. I was very taken by this idea since opera seemed too literal a direction for the piece, while choreographed movement was the ideal, subtle medium in which to convey the metaphysical ideas contained in the music.

"Laila takes as its starting point a mystic poem by the Sufi saint Sheikh Ahmad al-Alawi. The tale of Majnun and Laila is a great love story, the Romeo and Juliet of the Arabian world," explains Tavener. "Majnun, a mad poet, wanders from place to place looking for Laila who leads him in his travels through the seven stations of the heart. When he eventually finds her again, he doesn't recognise her, because he has interioralised her to such an extent that her physical presence is no longer needed."

As in so many of Tavener's works, the solo soprano part is written for his muse, Patricia Rozario; there are also parts for a tenor, chorus of five bass singers and chamber orchestra. Although Laila provides the soundscape for McGregor's Amu, it can also stand alone as a concert piece. Listeners will find the style of music harmonically rich, unmistakeably Tavener's own, refracted through the development of his spiritual philosophy. The rhythmic contractions of the hollow four-chambered organ that pumps blood through our vessels is present in the resonant boom of the pow-wow drum, and Tavener adds the distinctive sound of Tibetan temple bowls.

"The words are minimal: Laila, who represents God, is restricted to the call of the Sufi: 'La illaha illa llah' ('There is no God but God; nothing exists but existence'). Near the very end where Majnun dies, the pre-recorded sound of a real heartbeat is heard, dropped down two octaves, along with the sound of breathing. Unlike some of my other works, Laila has a certain ecstatic momentum, moving fairly fast at times as a pulse rate might, getting quicker and quicker. I've drawn inspiration from the whirling dervishes, the Sufi mystics of Turkey and Persia for whom whirling is a mode of worship. Laila whirls to an ecstatic point, a little like Ravel's Boléro, at which explosive point the tenor asks in Arabic: 'Waman ana, ya ana, illa ana?' ('Who am I, oh I but I?')."

Tavener hasn't seen anything by Random so he has no notions of what McGregor's work is like. But, he says, "I will attend all the performances of Amu. I have no picture in my mind of how it will look but I suspect I am rather naively imagining it all rather more literally than Wayne. I use the heartbeat and breathing in a purely symbolic way - quite unrelated to science, really."

Composing may be a singular business but dance is primarily collaborative, and for McGregor, who played piano as a boy, music has always been an important part of the creative process. He has married Marin Marais's baroque eloquence to electronica, and Purcell to Marilyn Manson. Over the past 12 years, the Random Dance company, resident at Sadler's Wells, has pushed at the boundaries of movement, encouraged by the unique and often fractured quality of McGregor's vocabulary and apparently boneless fluidity, and his keen interest in science and new technology. That preoccupation has influenced every one of his pieces, from experiments with digital imagery, satellite links and webcasts, to Nemesis, in which the dancers attached prosthetic limbs, morphing into insect-like mechanical creatures.

McGregor was an obvious choice to create Amu ("of the heart"), the dance element of The Fluent Heart. Fascinated by the energy and beauty of neurological dysfunction and the fact that dancers are the most expert co-ordinators of body-brain states, McGregor drew on his research with a group of neuroscientists in both his recent commission for The Royal Ballet, Qualia, and AtaXia for Random, which brought together neuroscience, composition, psychology, design and computer programming.

Although the 10 dancers of Random haven't started work yet on the actual choreography of Amu, the preliminary stages of creating an appropriate physical language are well under way, explains McGregor. "We start by establishing a set of circumstances in which we can push the body into new territories of moving and our research has involved drawing on many different influences in building up a broad picture of the heart."

As well as watching open-heart surgery, in his foray into one of dance's least explored territories McGregor has had his own heart scanned, enjoying the best possible view of his own central organ thanks to Kilner's sophisticated magnetic resonance imaging. Kilner seems surprised when I ask him why the heart should be such a potent inspiration. "Through all our different states of rest, exercise, sleep and fluctuating emotions, there's a real subconscious rhythmic connection between the heart and music," he says. "On the dance side, the heart is the only inner organ that is both dynamic and fluent. It's beautifully organised in terms of its muscular movement in relation to flow - that's what particularly appeals to me."

Another collaborator on the artistic side is the Persian artist Shirazeh Houshiary. Her sculptures, paintings and drawings draw on Sufi poetry and ancient writings as well as mathematics, philosophy, religion, art and astronomy. Her works are distinguished by their bold imagery, often using patterns of circles and squares that subtly expand and contract within deep shades of colour. "We're finding a way of animating them," says McGregor enigmatically, refusing to be drawn further.

On hearing Tavener play through Laila on the piano, Kilner immediately sensed that "it has a lot to do with both heart and breathing rhythms... it's a very powerful, stirring emotional piece but also a powerful contemplation of death."

McGregor is equally thrilled by the music, even without hearing it in its full vocal and orchestral glory: "The range and beauty and drive in John's score are incredible," he says. "Amu is my Rite of Spring."

'Amu', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737) 15-17 September. Sir John Tavener will be appearing at the West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (01223 503333) on 20 July as part of a day-long workshop on Music of the Heart