Towards silence this Christmas

Those who find the prospect of 4' 33" of Christmas silence too much to bear should try the CD seen above. Independent label Signum Classics has just released the world premiere recording of John Tavener's Towards Silence as a 34 minute budget priced (£5.99 UK) CD. Towards Silence was composed in 2007 to a joint commission from The Rubin Museum, New York and The Music Mind Spirit Trust. The latter is a charity dedicated to 'enriching lives through music' and their website is a rich resource for the new work. John Tavener's spiritual path has taken him from the Russian Orthodox Church via Greece towards the East. His recent compositions are influenced by the controversial Swiss metaphysician Fritjhof Schuon (1907–98) who proposed that all the authentic spiritual traditions present in the world today share the same origin and the same metaphysical principles.

Towards Silence, which is scored for four string quartets and a large Tibetan singing bowl, uses a mathematically determined structure of increasing movement lengths. The work is a meditation of progressively increasing austerity on the four states of Ātman, the eternal soul of Hinduism. John Tavener's inspiration came from René Guénon's 1925 book Man and his becoming according to the Vedānta. René Guénon (1886-1951), who was also known as Sheikh Abdul Wahid Yahya, is a little known French intellectual and writer who made an important contribution to metaphysics. He was born a Catholic and embraced Advaita Vedānta and Sufism after an early dalliance with occultism, theosophy, and freemasonry.

One of René Guénon's best known books is The Crisis of the Modern World. This builds on the theory that we are now in the fourth stage of the human cycle (Manvantara) called the Kali Yuga (time of troubles). Kali Yuga is characterized by a remoteness from the principle and source of positive human development and instead exhibits darkness, materialism, and chaos. The Crisis of the Modern World advocates a return to Eastern spiritual values to counter rampant materialism and is disturbingly prophetic for a book written in 1927.

All of which makes this new disc sound rather unapproachable, which it most definitely is not. The paths to esoteric belief systems are the icing on the cake, because, as they say elsewhere, if you like John Tavener's The Protecting Veil you will like Towards Silence. This new work is a triumph when viewed as abstract music. But it is an even greater triumph when viewed as a musical and spiritual commentary on the vacuity of today's X Factor and social media fixated culture. For me there is no disc more deserving to be Christmas number one.

* Towards Silence receives a superb performance by the Medici, Finzi, Cavaleri and Fifth Quadrant Quartets with young music scholar Louisa Golden playing Tibetan singing bowl. The sound from the Salisbury Cathedral sessions is excellent and the Signum Classics disc is a hybrid CD/SACD. I do not have SACD replay equipment but the sleeve notes tell me that a surround mix on the SACD layer places the listener in the middle of the four quartets, shades of Bernstein's 1973 Rite of Spring!

** As Towards Silence is the theme of this post an esoteric comment on the disc programming is justified. The first movement of the work is silent and John Tavener's mathematics indicate a duration of two minutes for this movement. But the producer decided not to start the disc with silence, so it opens with the second movement. This is a much more sensible solution that the eleven minutes of 'black' (ie non-ambient) silence on Simone Mancuso's recent John Cage release. But one small negative, Towards Silence comprises four (with the opening silence) linked movements, but the disc is a single track with no index points for the movements.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Towards Silence was bought from Prelude Records. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


billoo said…
oh, that's really shocking about Schuon-if it's true. His 'feathered sun' is one of my favourite books.

Best wishes,

Pliable said…
'oh, that's really shocking about Schuon-if it's true'

Yes, one of the problems with an article like this is trying to cover all the bases. If I do not flag up allegations like this somebody else will, usually with alacrity.

The difficulty is that there is almost always baggage, some of it fairly heavy, attached to figures such as Fritjhof Schuon. I am not qualified and certainly do not have a brief to pass judgement, so all I can do is say caveat emptor.

It is sad but true that there is an alleged skeleton in virtually every cupboard visited by these kind of posts. For instance both René Guénon and Fritjhof Schuon have been accused of spiritual fascism -

The challenge is not to ignore these allegations while also not allowing them to detract unnecessarily from the main thrust of the post. It is a difficult challenge.
billoo said…
dunno, pli. there are a lot of crazies out there on the net! which is not to deny that there can't be (or hasn't been) an authoritarian aspect to religion and/or some of its followers. Nor is it to deny the crimes of so-called religious people against children and women. But someone who writes of khidr in terms of spiritual fascism?! Holy moley!

sorry for bringing this up and detracting from the music. I've read a lot of Schuon and would be very surprised. I mean, it's hard to fathom a person (muslim) with a love and deep respect for Buddhism, Hinduism, and Native American traditions being a "fascist".

But as you say: challenging (and disturbing).

take care,

So Tavener has moved well, southeast I reckon.Last I saw he was posing with a rather austere easter nun.I think,P, that my ear is lacking, for though you have high praise for Tavener, I always find his work hollow and sentimental.Perhaps I am wrong, often this is the case. I was unaware that Schuon was controversial.His Islamic books tend to become a bit dogmatic,however, i never found them disturbing{his criticism of telhard de Chardin always struck me as odd coming from a sufi]Anyhow, as always, your posts are intelligent, informative and one of the first things I turn to each day for another lesson in music.As always, thank you.
Jerome Langguth said…
According to Kyle Gann's recent book on Cage, the Traditionalist philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy (an associate of Guenon's) was an important influence on Cage. Among other things, it was Coomaraswamy (originally Thomas Aquinas) who was the source of Cage's famous "the purpose of art is to imitate nature in its manner of operation."

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