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John Tavener

Publisher: Chester Music

Towards Silence (2007)
Commissioned by The Rubin Museum of Art and The Music Mind Spirit Trust
Chester Music Ltd
Large Ensemble (7+ players)
Year Composed
30 Minutes
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Programme Note
John Tavener Towards Silence (2007)
Towards Silence was inspired by reading Rene Guenon's book 'Man and His Becoming according to the Vedanta'. From an exoteric sense the work may be seen as a meditation on the different states of dying, but from an esoteric sense it is a meditation on the four States of Atma:

1 Vaishvanara: the Waking State, which has knowledge of external objects, and which has nineteen mouths, and is the world of gross manifestation. (Mandukya Upanishad 1-3)

11 Taijasa: the Dream State, which has knowledge of inward objects, which has nineteen mouths, and whose domain is the world of subtle manifestation. (Mandukya Upanishad 1-4)

111 Prajna: the Condition of Deep Sleep. When the being who is asleep experiences no desire and is not the subject of any dream, he has become Atma, and is filled with Beatitude (Ananda).

1V Tunya: That which is Beyond. The greatest State (Manhattara) is the fourth, totally free from any mode of existence whatever, with fullness of Peace and Beatitude without duality.

Musically I have tried to express these States of Atma by using four string quartets sounding unseen from high galleries, with a large Tibetan temple bowl sounding every nineteen beats (symbolising the nineteen mouths) in the first three States, and then pulsing 'eternally' in the last, unconditioned State. I have used five revolving ideas which start in the first State as the shortest, the most complex and the most manifest. In the second, 'Dream State' the length is increased mathematically and is twice the length of the first State, as the sound is less complex and less manifest. The third State (Deep Sleep) is a kind of 'halo' of still sound, and is mathematically three times the length of the first State. The final State is the longest, the quietest and the most full statement of the five revolving ideas, and it is played muted, at the very threshold of audibility, which finally leads to silence.

In a sense this is not music that should be heard as concert music, but rather meditated on as a form of 'liquid' metaphysics. I offer this musical experiement as a poor man's mite, and dedicate it to the memory of that great man, Rene Guenon, who died virtually unknown in Cairo in 1951, and who brought my attention to the Vedanta.


Towards Silence should be performed in a resonant building, with the Tibetan temple bowl placed in the dome (if available) or highest gallery. The positioning of the quartets will vary with the building, but as far as possible they should play from raised galleries equidistant from each other, sounding from above the audience.

Preview the score:

  • Ensemble
    Medici Quartet, Finzi Quartet, Cavaleri Quartet, Fifth Quadrant
"The sounds were startlingly "modernist", but the quintessentially Tavener mood of innocent joy was unmistakeable."
Ivan Hewett, Telegraph,13/07/2014
This must count as one of Tavener's most powerful and sublime achievements.
Stephen Pettit, The Sunday Times,01/01/2011
SACD sound was made for this … It is enormously powerful, by turns lush and spare, with a simultaneous sense of the ritual and the sensual. Tavener has always been a profoundly inspired melodist, and there are joyous moments in this work … A glimpse of eternity.
Ivan Moody, International Record Review,01/01/2011
Though he has not been well, John Tavener continues to produce some of the most distinctive music in our time. His acutely original ear for sonority resonates throughout this extraordinary half-hour vision, where four sections (the first silent and vanishing) take one through the four states of Atma to "that which is Beyond". Sweet consonance and febrile dissonance jostle with the hypnotic ringing of a Tibetan temple bowl... I know of no music that takes us quite so near the edge of death.
Nicholas Kenyon, The Observer,19/12/2010
I believe Tavener has composed a masterpiece here. It's like a living ecstasy.
Bognor Regis Observer,03/07/2009
The musical scheme is one of progressive etiolation. The chiming of the bowl marks the passing of time, as the music - thrummed pizzicatos, winding melodies, quietly sustained chords - steadily withdraws into itself, contracting into string chords. Eventually they cease, and all that's left is the sound of the bowl, now a sustained sound rather than chimes, and gradually fading, too. For some in the audience it might have been a great spiritual experience, hard to separate from Tavener's own condition.
Andrew Clements, The Guardian,01/01/0001
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