A report about the Tavener Centre study day on Music and Spirituality on November 11th 2016
Background: Tavener’s creative relationship with the Cathedral and its choir was established in the 1970s and continues to this day. His link with the University of Winchester was established in 2007 with the award of an Honorary Doctorate. The Tavener Centre for Music and Spirituality exists as a result of 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. The Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of the University, Alan Titchmarsh and Professor Joy Carter respectively, enabled the formation of the Tavener Centre as a research unit based at the University of Winchester. We live in a culture filled with music. Many of the former certainties of traditional religions have slipped away but there is still a search for the spiritual. The great faiths and various spiritualities have diverse approaches to the spiritual in music. The Study Day will explore these views and probe interactions between spirituality and music in theory, practice and performance. The Tavener Centre is very grateful to Lady Tavener for helping to fund the project.
The day started with a presentation to Lady Maryanna Tavener which was followed by a moving film from Hugh Pidgeon entitled Negotiating with Gravity. This drew on Barenboim’s West-eastern Divan orchestra to make a beautiful film on the contribution of the theologian and philosopher Martin Buber to our thinking about dialogue and our relation with Nature. Barenboim had taken inspiration from Martin Buber whose lectures he had attended in Jerusalem as a younger man and from whom he learned, as he put it, in all of life’s complexities “the necessity of digging deeper and finding connections”. Hugh had been asked to address an international conference on the contribution of Martin Buber to dialogue and our relations with Nature and the film was his contribution.
The Rev Professor June Boyce-Tillman entitled her keynote Musical Pilgrims – experiencing music through the eyes of Sir John Tavener and the Rev June Boyce Tillman. She explored the nature of the spiritual experience in music, locating it in the relationship between the music and the musicker using John Dewey’s ideas as set out in Art as Experience and the work of Victor Turner on liminal spaces. It was a brief introduction to the frame set out in her book Experiencing Music- Restoring the Spiritual; Music as Wellbeing and drew on an interview with Sir John Tavener illustrated with his music.
Stephen Roberts’s presentation on Theology Down at the Crossroads: the spirituality of the devil’s music started from the interest of Tavener, Pärt, Gorecki and Lauridsen in the spiritual dimensions of music, each drawing explicitly on Christian traditions as sources of inspiration. By way of contrast, while much contemporary popular music can appear to reflect a rejection both of those explicit traditions and of a certain conception of the spiritual. But is this dichotomy a false one? This paper explored alternative conceptions of the spiritual in music through dialogue with ‘the devil’s music’, the blues to which so much popular music can trace its roots. An investigation into the traditions of blues musicians who are said to have sold their souls to the devil opened a window into a distinctive religious worldview with a particular conception of the spiritual. The West African and related religious traditions that can be discerned in the background of these narratives suggest that the character of the devil cannot be simplistically equated with the personification of evil in Christian tradition. In considering how Christian theology might engage with these traditions, music becomes a site for comparative theology bringing Christianity into constructive dialogue with forms of possession religion that challenge the inherent dualisms of much Christian tradition
Brian Inglis’s paper on Music, Mysticism and Ecstasy centred on an exploration of religious experiences (primarily ecstatic) through his own and others’ music. He explored the spiritual processes in his own compositional practice has been, both through the setting of mystical texts and the composition of instrumental structures which relate to the ideas behind them illustrating in with his own settings of texts by Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kempe and others.
Eduard Heyning in Music from Stillness compared John Tavener and Eckhart Tolle. Although they appeared to have completely different backgrounds, beliefs, lifestyles and audiences, he drew them together through two common characteristics: a surprisingly wide appeal, and ‘stillness’ as the source of art and wisdom. Tavener’s style of contemplative music was presented as tapping into a Western Post Christian religious desire, closely linked to syncretism, mindfulness, and mysticism. To understand this appeal, Eduard suggested that we should look to successful New Age writers, of which Eckhart Tolle is a prime example. Especially the key concept of the experience of the timeless ‘Now’.
Helena Kettleborough in Music and Spirituality within Planet and Cosmos, a source of inspiration for community and individual set out the need to create and embed popular music which expresses defending biodiversity and sees the planet as sacred. She used Action Research to explore ideas which place the individual and community within the wider planet Gaia and cosmos. She used the ideas of Thomas Berry seeing the cosmos as sacred (1988) and Brian Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker who place humanity within the history of Universe (2011) and Systems thinker Gregory Bateson (who saw the role of art to provide a bridge between linear thinking and that of systems). She set out the possibility of music acting as a bridge, illustrating through her own practice.
Alexander Westmacott in <strong>Music for the Soil and the Soul: Exploring the place of agriculture in nineteenth century hymns saw agricultural values as closely bound up with religious values, and agriculture as a site for experiencing and relating to spiritual realities. He reviewed nineteenth century British hymns such as ‘We Plough the Fields and Scatter’, which relate the agricultural to the religious or spiritual. He explored some of the ways in which music has mediated ideas about life, culture and spirituality in agricultural practice and rural settings.
Degard in Degard, Painting & Aetheric Arts set out the concept of Aetheric Art as a new art movement which seeks to embrace within its remit art which is genuinely derived from Aethericism, a concept that unites science, medicine the divine and the arts. She used it to re-examine the works of many artists since the Renaissance and earlier, right-through to the present day. She suggested that for aetheric artists, the tearing down of this last art taboo will serve as a new renaissance for art. It will inject new energy and deliver a stronger connection between art lovers and artists
Mayda Narvey and David Harries in their performative presentation in the newly refurbished Chapel Listen to the Reed: The Role of Music in the Poetry of the 13th century Mystic Poet, Jalal ad – Din Rumi drew on the book ‘Silence, Music, Silent Music’, in which Nicky Losseff and Jennifer Ruth Doctor make the point that Sir John Tavener ‘sought to express (his) silent contemplations of the spiritual through composed sound’. They linked this with the 14th century German theologian, Meister Eckhart, who spoke in his sermons of ‘unwizzen’, a Divine unknowing, an intuitive knowing by Being. One hundred years earlier, Jalal ad-Din Rumi had made the connection between music and the spirit and had likened man to a reed that has been cut from the reed bed. Suffering pierces holes in this reed so that God can blow through it to make music. Their performance used the poetry of Rumi and music played by a cello with the use of a loop pedal to reference the sound of the ney (a reed flute), in order to explore Rumi’s thinking and to evoke in our listeners, unwizzen, a direct knowing rather than the understanding that comes through explanation.
Ruthie Thomas presented the way her new CD Salvation – Healing the sick soul linked with her lived experience. She opened up the way of Salvation in the traditional ‘There Is a Fountain filled with Blood’. Other tracks offered insight into the depth of feeling of the Faith within and invited gentle thought and soul reflection. The ‘Salvation’ CD offered different aspects of song – the way of healing for the sick soul through the Salvation of Jesus Christ.
Nick Reynolds in Inclusive Jazz set out his doctoral research on the link between spirituality, theology and jazz education. He reconceptualised jazz as an evolving system with inclusivity at its heart and explained how the more complex and technical side of jazz performance and theory can be integrated with more holistic and spiritual approaches. He used theological analogies to clarify and illustrate the link between the process of learning jazz and how the language of jazz reflects the language of prayer. He illustrated it from his experience as a jazz educator.
The Rev Canon Gregory Clifton-Smith in Classical music arising out of experiences of war and social fragmentation used Goldsmith to remind us that for some, ‘Words can be confusing. Words relating to religion can be even more confusing, and words relating to religious experience can be the most confusing of all.’ (Goldsmith 2004, p.143) This Goldsmith regarded as an opportunity for new insights, new understanding and the opening up of non-verbal as well as verbal communication that reaches out to a person’s inner being. Gregory set out how music can indeed provide a meaningful language through which people can communicate the presence or absence of God in the midst of suffering. He explored how composers have reflected upon the received tradition of faith and psychology within the context of war and social fragmentation using works by Michael Tippett, Olivier Messiaen, Benjamin Britten, June Boyce-Tillman and himself. In noting that the search for God and the God for whom one searches seems full of dialectical imagery of darkness and light in persistent collage, He suggested that music helps us better understand how practical theology functions, especially as it finds expression through the medium of pastoral care.
Julie Shaw illustrated her paper entitled Song writing in faith school environment with the experiences of a group of Preparatory School girls composing a Cantata based on the story of the Road to Emmaus for performance in school Easter celebrations. She looked at such questions as their understanding of the gospel story, their response to it in lyric writing, their attitudes to music used for worship, their understanding of the composing process and the value or otherwise of collaboration. She explored methods of collaborative composing in mixed ability groups including vocal improvisation, ‘democratic’ decision-making and use of structured repetition as a framework.
Philip Roderick presented a performance of The Harmony of Hang. This was introduced by prayers from the Chaplain of the University, the Rev Chris Day. The sound of the exotic contemporary instrument – the hang drum – with improvised elements from the members of the conference concluded the day.
The rest of the day: the papers were all followed with lively discussions which continued over the refreshments at the university. It is hoped to bring out a book from a selection of contributions to the day.
At the end many people walked down to the cathedral for a stunning Evensong filled with Sir John’s music. It started with an introit from Patricia Rozario accompanied by Dirk Campbell playing the duduk, the Middle Eastern reed instrument that Sir John loved, filling the Cathedral with beautiful melodies from The Veil of the Temple. This was an impressive sound in the acoustic of the cathedral. The psalm in the service was chanted in Orthodox style by Alex Lingas in which the large congregation joined, as they did again in Sir John’s setting of the Lord’s Prayer. The Cathedral choir sang with extraordinary sensitivity portraying the range of feelingfulness in Sir John’s music with beauty and grace in the expert hands of the Director of Music, Andy Lumsden. The performances of Sir John’s evensong settings, which are very challenging to sing, were outstandingly beautiful.
Following this an invited group (under the auspices of the Tavener Foundation) moved to the retro choir where prayers for Sir John were carried out by Metropolitan Kallistos at the Federov icons. There were nibbles and English champagne from the catering team from the Pilgrims School. Hannah Curtain and the King Alfred Consort from the university sang Sir John’s Mother of God here I stand.
The sculptural memorial to Sir John by Angela Conner and Tom Perkins dances with light and provides a source of intrigue and delight for viewers. It was unveiled by Lady Tavener and Sir John’s son Orlando who sings in Winchester Cathedral choir and blessed by Archbishop Kallistos.
In the quire Sir John’s piece Nipson for counter tenor and viols was performed by Andrew Watts and the viols of Fretwork. This was an amazingly beautiful sound against the backdrop of a beautifully lit cathedral reredos.
It was a wonderful day celebrating Music and Spirituality in a variety of contexts and ways. It is hoped that the study part of the day will be an annual event but keep your eyes open for more news.
The Rev Dr June Boyce-Tillman
Professor of Applied Music
Artistic Convenor for the Centre for the Arts as Wellbeing
Extraordinary Professor at North-West University, South Africa
University of Winchester
Tel: 01962 827281
For information about our Music and Spirituality special interest area, please go to www.livingspirit.org.uk/sia/music-and-spirituality.