Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Sir John Tavener

Have you ever heard Sir John Tavener's Akathist of Thanksgiving? Tavener wrote this ethereal piece in 1988, after his conversion to Russian Orthodoxy. A choral work, it features repetition, chimes, and a tremendous continuous droning bass line.Andrew Marr, OSB writes, at

One of Tavener's characteristics is use of the ison, a drone--usually pitched very low--that sounds throughout a piece, even at the risk of wearying a performer who is assigned this task. Tavener refers to this as the "eternity note," the note that attests to the presence of God. This note does not anchor a piece the way a tonic note does by exerting a gravitational pull on the other notes. Rather, the drone offers a sense of underlying stability that allows other musical voices to move all over the place without becoming unhinged. Theologically, the drone portrays God's sustenance of creation without God exerting a suffocating control over it. That is, God does not pull creatures to the Godhead, God holds all of them in being. But for all this freedom of movement, there is no escape from the underlying divine presence.

At last! I finally understand why Orthodox church music has always captivated me. Tavener describes his music as an icon, except using tones instead of paint. If the Akathist of Thanksgiving is any indication, Taverner's music does indeed provide us a window to God. I must explore more of it.


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