Towards Silence

Towards Silence

2007, 30' Large ensemble

Orchestration: four string quartets | large Tibetan temple bowl

In Hindu philosophy, Brahman refers to absolute reality — the transcendent self of which each manifested being shares a part, known as Ātman, the higher self. Unlike the Western conception of the self, however, Ātman is a continuation of Brahman and not a particularisation of it; it is not specific - to that being, but is its true essence as well as that of the universe. As Ātman is identical with Brahman, so each being is ultimately identical, and while it cannot be sensed or quantified, the nature of Ātman can be known by individuals through a process of enlightenment. The word Ātman is a cognate not only of the root word ēt-men, but of the Old English, Greek and German words meaning ‘to breathe’. The Upanishads, a body of texts concerned primarily with Brahman, are a commentary on the Vedas, a larger collection constituting the oldest Sanskrit literature and Hindu philosophical writings. The Upanishads are considered a distillation of the Vedas and form the basis of Vedantic thought. René Guénon, a French metaphysical author and intellectual, wrote in 1925 an exposition of Hindu metaphysical and philosophical thought, entitled Man and His Becoming according to the Vedantā. The work — as with the majority of Guénon’s writings — aimed to bring to Western minds the universal character of Eastern doctrines and expose the manner in which, throughout its history, Eastern metaphysical thought has maintained an uninterrupted line originating at what he felt was an original transmission to humanity from the source of wisdom. Guénon was convinced that the West’s failure to maintain such a lineage, and the construction in its place of metaphysical doctrines modelled closely on human experience rather than a neutral, overarching universal essence, was at the root of the moral and spiritual degeneration of the modern Western world. This trajectory led toward the rise of individualism and the ever-expanding divide between man and an understanding of his own infinite nature. Guénon’s Universalist approach and his conviction that the steady degeneration of modern Western society was due to the lack of a continuous tradition resonated deeply with Tavener. Towards Silence, while it may be interpreted superficially as a meditation on states of death, was inspired by Man and His Becoming according to the Vedantā and rather reflects the four States of Atma as described by Guénon. These are Vaishvanara, the waking state whose world is that of gross manifestation and worldly objects, and which has 19 mouths; Taijasa, the dream state inhabiting the world of subtle manifestation and of inward objects, and which also has 19 mouths; Prajna, the Condition of Deep Sleep, in which the sleeper does not dream and feels no desire, only beatitude; and Tunya, a state of total beatitude without duality, free of any mode of existence.

In Towards Silence, Tavener sought to represent the four States of Atma with four string quartets, each playing unseen in high galleries. Throughout the first three States, a Tibetan temple bowl sounds every 19 beats to symbolise the 19 mouths, and in the last pulses to evoke the eternal nature of Ātman. Five revolving musical ideas begin in the first State and at this point reflect its complex and manifest qualities; the second state is exactly twice the length of the first and its reduced complexity accords with the nature of the ‘Dream State’; in the third state of ‘Deep Sleep’ a resonant halo of sound continues thrice the length of the first State; and the longest, subtlest statement of the five ideas is found in the representation of the final State, opening at last onto silence.

The composer viewed this work as something of a ‘musical experiment’, to be approached as ‘liquid metaphysics’ rather than concert music. It should be performed in a resonant building, with the Tibetan temple bowl placed in the highest possible position. The string quartets should play from raised galleries equidistant from one another, and sounding above the audience.