Blurred lines: John Tavener was an odd mix of minimalist, royalist and mystic – so why listen up?

More establishment than experimental, classifying the late composer is no easy task

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The Independent Online

The composer John Tavener, who died on November 12th, once said many artists were good at leading the listener into hell, but that he was more interested in showing the way to paradise. His music, which I first heard in A-level classes, initially took me to somewhere in between: a state of bored indifference, very much of this world. As our secondary school’s greatest musical alumnus (his closest rival, Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell, was past his peak by then), Tavener was much vaunted by our teachers, each of his new pieces greeted by a chorus of swooning adjectives in our hagiographic school magazine. We were never made to play his pieces – it was clear that neither the school choir nor the orchestra were up to their technical demands – but boy were we made to hear them, and about them.

If the static chords and thematic loops of Tavener’s music (at least his late stuff) didn’t do it for me then, I now realize that it’s because I’d adopted the intellectual snobbery of the contemporary classical music world. Having surfeited on classical music's experimentalists – Wagner, Debussy, Stravinsky, the uncompromising music of the Darmstadt School – the minimalism of Tavener felt like a letdown, a yawn after a coughing fit. It didn’t flatter the intellect.

The audience’s complex relationship with minimalist music, to which Tavener’s music became increasingly indebted with time, has been well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that the genre’s straightforward major-minor tonality and repetitive structures are often characterized as regressive, lazy, an unpardonable simplification, by the musical elite (Elliott Carter even likened it to the hypnotic propaganda of fascism), and as a return to ‘proper’ music by the wider public (and by a recent BBC documentary). Hence the divisiveness of Tavener. I’d listen to the slowly rising cello line of Tavener's The Protecting Veil and find myself unable to square it with the narrative of classical music in my head, according to which postwar music was supposed to be diabolically complex and melody-free.

Tavener’s second crime was his cosy relationship with the establishment. He was knighted in 2000, and his music was trotted out at big state occasions – notably Diana’s funeral – like a kind of Paul McCartney with strings (fittingly, The Beatles’ Apple label financed a recording of his early cantata The Whale). This anodyne public figure seemed less interesting than the Darmstadt composers, whose music (and, in Iannis Xenakis’s case, facial scars) spoke of the horrors of World War Two – the “hell” to which Tavener referred. After all, minimalism emerged not from wartime experiences, but from the relatively mundane cultural circumstances of postwar American consumerist society; its unsexy style is a reflection of its bland background. As fellow minimalist Steve Reich has noted, “In the real context of tailfins, Chuck Berry and millions of burgers sold, to pretend to have the darkbrown Angst of Vienna is a lie.”

The viewpoint that minimalism represents a failure of creative vision is, it now seems to me, a very limiting one. Tavener’s interest in Eastern mysticism – his third crime, for those who interpreted this as New Age boll*cksism – led him to the belief that art is an expression not of the individual, but of the transcendental: an eternal truth that anybody can in theory tap into, and whose serene immutability is conveyed in the static and cyclical architecture of his music. “So vulgar!”, was the verdict he gave on Mahler’s oeuvre in his last interview – “and it’s always about him.” Now that Tavener’s gone, and the media coverage is all about him, it’s time to cast prejudices aside – be they contextual, mildly xenophobic or couched in anti-royalist sentiment – and reappraise his works on their own terms.