Eduard Heyning

John Tavener

John Tavener
John Tavener

The Tavener Centre for Music and Spirituality came about through collaborative meetings between the Dean of Winchester Cathedral, the Reverend Professor June Boyce-Tillman of the University of Winchester, Andrew Lumsden, Organist and Choirmaster at the Cathedral, and Lady Tavener. Tavener's creative relationship with the Cathedral and its choir was established in the 1970s and continues to this day. A link with the University of Winchester was established in 2007 with the award of an Honorary Doctorate. His Orthodox funeral was held in Winchester Cathedral in 2013, and a memorial was commissioned for 2016. The Centre will organise a symposium on music, spirituality and wellbeing on 14-15th June 2019, in Winchester.

Music from Stillness: John Tavener and Eckhart Tolle

by Eduard Heyning


At first sight, Sir John Tavener and Eckhart Tolle seem to have very little in common. The English composer who converted to the Orthodox faith and the New Age self-help guru appear to have completely different backgrounds, beliefs, lifestyles and audiences. Yet they have two important things in common: a surprisingly wide appeal, and stillness as the source of art and wisdom. In my opinion, both men are touching a living need for a new approach to reality.


In 1977, John Tavener entered the Orthodox Church and subsequently turned away from Western Christianity and Western music (Tavener 1999, 32). Instead, he saw his music as an extension of the Orthodox liturgy and the musical tradition that comes with it. Yet the success he has enjoyed since the 1990s was not just among Orthodox believers, but across a wide section of music lovers, often new to classical music. Tavener's style of contemplative music seems to me to have tapped into Western post-Christian religious desire, closely linked to syncretism, mindfulness, and mysticism. To understand this appeal, we should not look to the Orthodox tradition to which Tavener devoted himself, but rather to successful New Age writers, Eckhart Tolle being a prime example, selling over ten million books worldwide. Tolle's key concept is the experience of the timeless Now, when the ego-identity based on thought has been abandoned for Presence. Tolle recommends music that comes out of connectedness with this Presence or Stillness. To him, such a piece of music can carry an energy field capable of putting the audience in touch with the deeper dimension within. From Tolle's concept of Stillness, it is just one step to Silence, which is the key concept of John Tavener's philosophy of music. In this paper, I will argue that the appeal of Tavener's music is well understood in terms of Eckhart Tolle's thought.


The Music of Silence

John Tavener was always deeply concerned with contemporary Western culture. He saw the lack of spirituality as the main cause of the self-estrangement of 'a technological, profane, ego-based, atheistic and psychologically oriented world' (Tavener 1995, 50). From an early age, he was looking for a different way of life. In Tavener's book The Music of Silence - A Composer's Testament, he relates that composing Prayer for the World in 1981 was the first time he had written music that was not intended as entertainment of the concert hall. This time it was really a musical prayer. The piece was inspired by the Orthodox Jesus Prayer, the Hesychast contemplation aimed at keeping inner stillness (Tavener 1999, 42). The piece was reviewed in the press as a kind of 'silent music', from where Tavener's book obviously takes its title. For Tavener, from then on, his music came out of a sacred silence. As he puts it himself, 'even when music is sounding there is, or there should be, an implicit silence, certainly in my music' (Tavener 1999, 157).

It is important to distinguish between two concepts of silence: the inner silence underlying sound and music, and the mere absence of sound in a piece of music. Tavener makes it quite clear that the literal silence within a piece of music is not necessarily revealing any inner silence, which is a state of mind or being. After Prayer of the World, this inner silence became the source of all Tavener's music. This new way of composing Tavener describes as 'some other level of reality taking over', a process which 'through some higher agency' bypassed his own volition, so to speak 'extinguishing John Tavener' (Tavener 1999, 59, 73). 'This way of writing music [is] something that comes from deep inside one and takes one by surprise, quite honestly. I'm not aware of any conscious deliberation while I'm at work. For me, it's just a void, and each new piece is a new beginning' (Tavener 1999, 132). But unlike many other composers, who have described their creative process in similar words, for Tavener music comes from the Spirit. Composing, for Tavener, is listening to inner silence, of which he writes: 'I know now that it is not a matter of finding what to say, but of how to be silent and how to hear the Spirit speaking in this silence (Tavener 1999, 90). I totally believe that the only way to write music is for the music to be revealed. An eschatological dimension begins to well up inside me (Tavener 1999, 122). For Tavener, 'from both a Christian and Platonic point of view, all music already exists. When God created the world, he created everything. It's up to us artists to find that music' (Tavener 1999, 73).


Sacred Music

These statements by Tavener clearly point to an inner void of sacred silence that generates creativity as the source of his music. The composer is channelling the eternal music he perceives in the mind of God, by creating a temporal, audible form. Note that to John Tavener, God always was a transcendent entity, based on 'the idea that there are two levels of reality; this world and the world beyond' (Tavener 1999, 16). From the 1970s on, he searched for this transcendental God through the Orthodox Church and the music that was inspired by his quest was expressed within the Orthodox tradition. 'Sacred music', he writes, 'must be able to be in some way sung, because from a Christian point of view the Word must be heard. Music is the extension of the Word, not a frilly decoration of the Word. It is at the service of the Word, as in all great traditions. There must be no harmony, no counterpoint, just a single melodic line with an ison, or the tonic note of the melody, representing eternity' (Tavener 1999, 47). In line with the Orthodox tradition, the sacred silence of eternity is represented by this ison, a drone. The ison comes out of silence with no real beginning and no real end, so in a sense it is never not present (Tavener 1999, 155). Inner, sacred silence is represented by a drone, not by silence.

Tavener was not the only composer to turn to religion for writing contemplative music. He is usually grouped together with Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki. What they share is a large, receptive audience, filling concert halls and generating best-selling CDs by uniting classical music with contemplative spirituality. The difference between their music and other contemporary classical music has been compared with the distinction between ordinary prayer and contemplative spirituality. As Martha Ainsworth (2002) writes:

To most of us, prayer involves addressing our words to God; but to the contemplative, prayer means listening in receptive silence. Whereas in traditional classical music you expect to hear development of musical ideas moving forward to a climactic conclusion, this music seems to go nowhere - and that is intentional. The purpose is contemplation. The music is meditative, hypnotic, and gently repetitive, as in the Christian tradition of centering prayer one might continuously repeat a word or two from Scripture to be drawn deeper into prayer. The gentle repetition gives the music a feeling of stasis, of being suspended in time (Ainsworth 2002).


However, this new contemplative music is very different from the traditional sacred music of the Orthodox or Catholic Church. To facilitate a reconnection to spirituality, these composers turned for inspiration to ancient musical forms that pre-dated classical music: Gregorian and Byzantine plainchant, medieval polyphony, and sacred music of non-European cultures. Here they found a world of sound that forces the listener out of his or her comfort zone, to wake up to the unfamiliar. However, Tavener’s music is not aimed at reconstructing the past. Despite his outspoken rejection of modernity, Tavener is very much a contemporary composer, living in a contemporary world, dressing like a pop star and driving a Rolls-Royce. And despite John Tavener's intensive devotion to the Orthodox faith, I feel his art does not reflect a return to pre-Enlightenment religion, but connects to a contemporary spirituality, with a form of art which recycles useful elements of the past, but is rooted solidly in the present.


Universal spirituality

Something changed in Tavener's style of composing after the turn of the century. As he declared in an interview with Michael White, 'I reached a point where everything I wrote was terribly austere and hidebound by the tonal system of the Orthodox Church, and I felt the need, in my music at least, to become more universalist: to take in other colours, other languages' (White 2007). Tavener told White he had a visionary dream in 2003 of a visitation from the spirit of the mystical philosopher Frithjof Schuon, who told Tavener to loosen up, to be open, musically at least, to other traditions. Tavener had been reading Schuon for over a decade, admiring his universalist theories of the transcendent unity of all religions, which leaned heavily on the philosophy of Plato. From then on, Tavener started to absorb elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Islam and even shamanism into his music and subjects. But Tavener did not sign up to a new system of belief; he just found the universalist approach better suited to his personal experience of the sacred. I belief his opening to a Universalist approach may be connected to a transformative spiritual experience Tavener had in 1998 while writing Mystagogia, an orchestral work based on a text by Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, the source of much Neoplatonic thought in Christian theology. Tavener writes that he had no conscious control over his composing at the time; something seemed to take over from beyond (Tavener 1999, 85). And then he had this very interesting experience:

I went for a walk one evening, during one of those wonderful winter sunsets that you get in Greece, and suddenly had, I suppose, what they call an out-of-body experience. I suddenly thought, I'm not a person, I'm just a piece of music. I could only see myself as music. It remains a total mystery to me (Tavener 1999, 85).


What Tavener had touched upon was the experience of the soul as an immortal entity, distinct from the body, constructed upon the mathematical proportions of the harmonic series. This is the core of the Platonic teaching of the Timaeus dialogue, in which the creation of the soul of the world, the anima mundi, is sketched in Pythagorean terms. Tavener was aware of this concept and its connection to the so-called music of the spheres; he had used the harmonic series of the heavenly harmony already in 1994 in Agraphon (Tavener 1999, 156). Yet now, in 1998, he had the living experience of an initiation into the great mystery of everlasting life, not as the Word but as music, the universal language of the soul. Tavener was not unique in this; for example, listen to Kate Bush singing Symphony in Blue in 1978: 'I see myself suddenly - on the piano, as a melody. My terrible fear of dying - no longer plays with me, for now I know that I'm needed - for the symphony'. I propose to relate these intuitions of soul music to the philosophy of Pythagoras. His biography by the Neoplatonic philosopher Iamblichus states:

When [his disciples] arose in the morning, [Pythagoras] would free them from the night’s heaviness, coma and torpor through certain peculiar chords and modulations, produced by either simply striking the lyre, or adapting the voice. Not through instruments or physical voice-organs did Pythagoras effect this; but by the employment of a certain indescribable divinity, difficult of apprehension, through which he extended his powers of hearing, fixing his intellect on the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone apparently hearing and grasping the universal harmony and consonances of the spheres, and the stars that are moved through them, producing a melody fuller and more intense than anything effected by mortal sounds (Iamblichus: The Life of Pythagoras; translation Guthrie 1987, 72).


Sacred melody, according to this text, has something beyond ordinary music and beyond this world. Plato was in contact with the Pythagorean movement and through him this mystagogical function of universal harmony entered ancient philosophy. The idea of heavenly harmony dominated Western thought for some two thousand years until the rise of mechanistic science relegated it to the domain of fantasy. However, a thrilling vision of the rebirth of ancient wisdom was presented in 1987 by the musicologist Joscelyn Godwin:


Our civilization is now, quite unconsciously, more imbued with Pythagorean influences than it has ever been. The evidence is plain to see wherever one looks, in phenomena as various as vegetarianism and the whole-food movement; post-modernist architecture; the synthesis of religions, travellers in search of Oriental wisdom; researches into ancient Egypt and Babylon; the revivals of sacred geometry, arithmology and speculative music; reprints of Pythagorean literature; meditation; music therapy, the speculations of modern physicist; communes and spiritual communities; the widespread belief in reincarnation. Pythagoras is the center towards all these scattered impulses point. If he failed as the avatar of the passing age, perhaps he is coming into his own as a new one dawns (Joscelyn Godwin in Guthrie 1987, 13-14).


Godwin is referring to the dawn of the astrological Age of Aquarius. Pythagoras as an incarnation of Apollo, triggering a new age? What on earth is New Age? The researcher of the esoteric Wouter Hanegraaff has provided us with a scholarly analysis of New Age religiosity, taken from academic and popular writers (Hanegraaff 1998). He writes that New Age emerged in a strict sense as counterculture in the 1960s and became general in the 1980s. He describes New Age as having the following main categories: this-worldliness, sometimes connected to the neo-pagan Goddess movement; holism, the interrelatedness of all things, considered a new scientific paradigm; evolutionism, a teleological view of the history of consciousness; psycho-religion or healing and spiritual growth, connected to transpersonal psychology; expectations of a coming New Age (Hanegraaff 1998, 365-366, 514). What keeps this diversity together is the New Age rejection of dualism and reductionism, as the recent dominant tendencies of the Piscean Age. He considers New Age to have the characteristics of a 'spiritual supermarket' (Hanegraaff in Kemp 2007, 25-49). I prefer the view of June Boyce-Tillman, who sees New Age as a genuine new worldview, with these common elements: a break with the past, reincarnation, unity of nature, spirit and humankind (Boyce 2000, 158). I think Hanegraaff missed an important point of New Age; he should also have studied the music of the 1960s, not just the books. The Age of Aquarius (Hair) ; Deja vu (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) ; Atom Heart Mother (Pink Floyd), that will tell the story.

As you see, I have made a smooth transition from Tavener to New Age rock music. There is of course much more to be said about Tavener and sacred silence, but in this paper I have concentrated on steps that Tavener took in his gradual transition from the musical tradition of the Orthodox faith towards a style of composing that seeks to integrate many religious and spiritual traditions. Tavener is of course not a New Age composer, but in my opinion he represents the opening of the Christian mind to an experience of the sacred that is no longer the monopoly of just one revealed religion. This universalism comes with the rise of a global consciousness, which you can now feed from the racks of the 'spiritual supermarket'.


Eckhart Tolle

The most influential writer of New Age thought is the German-born Canadian Eckhart (born Ulrich) Tolle (1948). He had a spontaneous religious experience at the age of 29, dropped out of Cambridge University and spent his days in a state of deep bliss on park benches in Russell Square and Hampstead Heath in London. Tolle wasn't working towards enlightenment; he just surrendered to the sacred from sheer despair. After years of living on the edge of society he became a very successful spiritual teacher, selling over ten million books worldwide and reaching many more millions by television and the internet. As an individual outside all institutions, he points the way to salvation using ideas from different religious and spiritual traditions, quoting often from New Testament Christianity, Buddhism and occasionally Greek philosophy. Tolle's message fits in with all the categories described by Hanegraaff and Boyce-Tillman. In his writings, there is no trace of negativity, his life displays humbleness and honesty despite commercial success. It is no coincidence that Tolle took the name of Meister Eckhart; his message often sounds like a contemporary form of the medieval Christian mystical tradition. He admits to saying nothing new, but he explains concepts like Being in words that anyone can understand. And, anyone can become enlightened, not through hard labour, but just by letting go of a false sense of self.

His key concept is the experience of the timeless Now, when the ego-identity based on thought has been abandoned for Presence. It is available to anyone at any time, all you have to do is be completely in the now. What keeps you from that state is an obstinate clinging to a false self-image. Tolle says we are witnessing the dawn of a New Age of global, non-ego based consciousness, a consciousness that has become conscious of itself (Tolle 2005, 93, 182): 'When I no longer confuse who I am with a temporary form of me, then the dimension of the limitless and the eternal, God, can express itself through me and guide me (Tolle 2005, 251). He speaks from personal experience, respects tradition, but gives form to his insights in his own words, in much the same way as Tavener respects tradition but makes his own music.

What I think is the main attraction of both Tolle's writing and Tavener's music, is the immediate effect of evoking a sense of inner stillness, of peace. As Tolle puts it, 'you can become aware of awareness as the background to all your sense perceptions, all your thinking. Becoming aware of awareness is the arising of inner stillness' (Tolle 2003, 6). 'Stillness is the only thing in the world that has no form. But then, it is not really a thing, and it is not of this world. In the Bible, it says that God created the world and saw that it was good. That is what you see when you look from stillness without thought' (Tolle 2003, 8). His words are aimed at evoking the presence of sacred stillness, and they do so for millions of people.

Most of Tolle's writing is meant to be self-help and his method of healing is silent contemplation, but listening to music can help stop the inner chatter. Tolle compiled two CDs of helpful music, mainly by New Age artists. He recommends music 'that comes out of connectedness with Stillness, or Presence. To some extent, the work of art or the piece of music still carries that energy field. It can put [the listener] in touch with the deeper dimension within' (Tolle 2011). If there is an opening, then the transformational potential of music can be realized.

Occasionally, Tolle displays deep philosophical thinking. And it is there that I find an interesting connection between Tolle and Tavener. Tolle writes that 'the Unmanifested is not only present in this world as silence; it also pervades the entire physical universe as space from within and without. Space and silence are two aspects of the same thing, the same nothing. They are an externalization of inner space and inner silence, which is stillness: the infinitely creative womb of all existence' (Tolle 1999, 113-115). He calls space and time external illusions of the inner truth: the two essential attributes of God, infinity and eternity (Tolle 1999, 117). So, when Tolle's wisdom or Tavener's music brings us in touch with stillness, we are becoming aware of the sacred source of creativity. But let me stop quoting Tolle, because the beauty of his thought is better conveyed by reading the whole book, just as talking about Tavener's music is no substitute for listening to it.


The silence of John Cage

Just as Tolle's wisdom may not appeal to everybody, some people are not carried away by Tavener's music. The question arises whether it is possible to convey the concept of inner silence in styles other than John Tavener's. The first name that comes to my mind is the American composer John Cage (1912-1992), who composed a piece of music titled 4:33, consisting of silence, and published a book titled Silence. Cage had been a student of Zen Buddhism for some time when he paid a visit to the sound-proof chamber of Harvard University, around 1951. But, instead of encountering silence, he heard a dull roar and a high whine, his own blood circulation and his nervous system in operation. As Kay Larson explains in her excellent book on John Cage and Zen Buddhism, Where The Heart Beats (2012), that was a turning point in his life. He realized there was no such thing as silence, no split between spirit and matter; silence is a change of mind, a turning around (Larson 2012, 270-271). And so, his 4:33 is not about silence, but about the noise you hear in the here and now, when there is no music. Similarly, there is no analytical statement on silence in his book Silence. What Cage is doing to his audience is pointing with his music beyond that music, to inner stillness. That seems, of course, very Zen to a Western audience. But to a Japanese, it will probably not. In Zen Buddhism, there is a whole tradition of art as the practice of meditation-in-action, for instance by playing the shakuhachi flute or drawing a circle, a tradition that Cage largely ignores. The essence of the practice of Zen in art is to enter a state of non-dual awareness, when the split between object and subject falls away. Eckhart Tolle explains non-dual awareness in this way:

When you look at a tree, you are aware of the tree. When you have a thought or feeling, you are aware of that thought or feeling. When you have a pleasurable or painful experience, you are aware of that experience. These seem to be true and obvious statements, yet if you look at them very closely, you will find that in a subtle way their very structure contains a fundamental illusion, an illusion that is unavoidable when you use language. Thought and language create an apparent duality and a separate person where there is none. The truth is: you are not somebody who is aware of the tree, the thought, feeling, or experience. You are the awareness or consciousness in and by which those things appear (Tolle 2003, 54-55).

Non-dualism is an important aspect of Eastern philosophy and religion, but can be found in the West as well, most of all in Neoplatonism and some Christian mysticism, for instance in the teachings of Meister Eckhart. The contemporary philosopher and Zen teacher David Loy has given a concise description of non-dual awareness of music:

One literally becomes absorbed into the music; the sense of a self that is doing the hearing fades, and at the same time the music ceases to be something out there. Especially if the musical if the musical work is a familiar one, we normally (and dualistically) hear each note or chord in the context of the whole phrase, by remembering the previous notes and anticipating the ones to come, as if the whole phrase were simultaneously present before us and we read it from beginning to end. This changes in the nondual hearing: No matter how well I may know the work, I cease to anticipate what is coming and become that single note or chord which seems to dance up and down (Loy 1988, 71).

Loy also confirms that non-dual hearing contains the aspect of an awareness of silence as that which is beyond sound. He writes that, just as non-dual action is the action of nonaction (Chinese wei-wu-wei), and non-dual thinking has been called the thought of no thought, so non-dual hearing is the awareness of silence, not as the absence of sound but of underlying sound (Loy 1988, 72-73). The introvert music that Zen Buddhism employs to generate this experience is usually built on a single sound, a single pentatonic scale, repetitive phrases, absence of clear rhythm and no sense of thematic development. It is music that goes nowhere, very different from the iconoclastic art of John Cage. What strikes me in David Loy's and John Cage's writings is the absence of any mention of the sacred. Perhaps in Zen Buddhism the sacred is implicit, but to Tavener and Tolle, stillness is always explicitly related to the sacred and the eternal. Are there many roads to inner silence?


Sacred creative energy

Returning to Tavener, we are faced with the question of whether the form of music that connects to sacred silence is dependent on cultural circumstances. To put it in very simple words: the best music to inspire sacred feelings would be choral hymns for the English, shakuhachi flutes for the Japanese, drumming for Africans, and so on. I think there are two arguments against this cultural relativism. The first is the direct connection between music and number, as can be observed in the musical elements of natural harmonics and rhythm. In language, these elements have been suppressed to make room for meaning, leading away from the here and now, and imposing a strong cultural and linguistic barrier. Music can facilitate an awareness of the present by leading away from conceptual thought. In such a state of mind the listener may open to sacred geometry, which connects the laws of nature with music. Number as a numen is a global phenomenon and quite timeless. All revealed religions have known from time immemorial some form of sacred proportionality, archetypal concepts that are based on number or geometry. It is the cornerstone of the Pythagorean-Platonic worldview, presenting the sacred order of creation as based on number. Many composers have experimented with this concept, including John Tavener. And although this may explain to some extent the power of music to transcend different cultures and evoke a broad sense of the sacred, to my knowledge sacred geometry is not a feature of Tavener's best known compositions, Song for Athene and The Protecting Veil.

The second argument to explain a universal power that connects music to sacred silence points at a special quality, instead of a form of music. This quality may explain the success of the creations by Eckhart Tolle, John Tavener and others as a sign of a living need among people for a new approach to reality, connected to the rise of a global New Age of consciousness. That is the main subject of Tolle's book A New Earth (2005). Tolle sees around him the dissolution of the old state of human consciousness, ego- and mind-based, and the emergence of a new transformed state of consciousness, based on self-consciousness and spiritualty (Tolle 2005, 23). Such a vague prophesy is not very helpful to understand Tavener's music, but in Tolle's description of 'awakened doing', the corollary of the new consciousness, I am struck by the parallel with Tavener's description of his creative process, which I have cited at length above. Through awakened action, Tolle writes, consciousness flows through the individual into this world (Tolle 2005, 294). It comes with acceptance, enjoyment and enthusiasm. 'At the height of creative activity fuelled by enthusiasm, there will be enormous intensity and energy behind what you do' (Tolle 2005, 301). As Tolle writes,

The word enthusiasm comes from ancient Greek en and theos, meaning God. And the related word enthousiazein means to be possessed by a god. With enthusiasm you will find that you don't have to do it all by yourself. In fact, there is nothing of significance that you can do by yourself. Sustained enthusiasm brings into existence a wave of creative energy, and all you have to do then is ride the wave. Enthusiasm brings an enormous empowerment into what you do, so that all those who have not accessed that power would look upon your achievements in awe and equate them with who you are. You, however, know the truth that Jesus pointed to when he said, 'I can of my own self do nothing' (John 5:30) (Tolle 2005, 302-303).


Of course, Tolle is explaining his own success. But the description perfectly fits John Tavener's personal, artistic and spiritual life. It provides me with an interesting explanation of Tavener's success. In this view, the audience recognizes in Tavener's music a quality derived from the state of surrender to sacred creativity. This kind of surrender, and the wave of creative energy as described by Tolle, is only possible when consciousness has transcended the ego. It is exactly what John Tavener has been bringing to so much of his music, through a life of utter devotion to Christ. So it would be this quality of surrender to sacred creativity that appeals to an audience, which is longing for a transition of consciousness, a change of mind, a turn around. How the audience exactly picks up this 'vibration', this spiritual quality, is not explained by Tolle. Perhaps it is something beyond words. In Tolle's thought, this is part of the awakening; he calls it the recognition of an energy field, which is part of the dawn of a new form of global consciousness. But perhaps it's best not to name it, so whatever it is can arise in the inner space, left open when we stop talking and start listening.

In this paper, I have stressed the correspondence between Eckhart Tolle's mystical thought and John Tavener's ideas on sacred music, presenting the quality of surrender to sacred creative energy as the connection between these two men and their success. It may be connected to the dawn of a new age, if you like. One may object that there are important points of difference between the two, for instance on the transcendence of God, religious tradition and rejection of modernism. However, the fact that a spiritual quality is recognized by some many, should make us aware of the common source of sacred creativity.





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