There's been a lot in the press recently about John Tavener, probably because his new piece, 'The Beautiful Names', a setting of the 99 names for Allah from the Qu'ran, is due to be performed for the first time next week in Westminster Cathedral. Charlotte Higgins interviewed the composer, whom she describes as a 'tall, etiolated, sunbaked 63-year-old with lanky shoulder-length blond hair, dressed in white linen trousers and shirt', in yesterday's Guardian.
Higgins confesses to a certain scepticism towards Tavener and all his works, which certainly colours her report. But it's difficult not to share her view of a man who seems to embody many of the most irritating features of contemporary 'faith-ism'. To begin with, there's the 'Any dream will do' approach with which we've become so familiar. Although a convert to Orthodox Christianity, Tavener now propounds 'the inner transcendent unity' of all religions, and as well as his fascination with the Sufi strain of Islam also claims to have seen visions after visiting an Apache medicine man. Then just as inevitably there's the Bunting-esque belief that the Enlightenment was a bad idea and that it's all been downhill ever since. Finally there's the secondhand Jungianism (and gender essentialism) in his declarations of faith in the 'eternal feminine' and dislike for 'masculine-oriented' modernism. Oh - and wouldn't you know it - he's a good friend of Prince Charles.
Like many others with an interest in religion and seeking an authentic contemporary spirituality, I was initially seduced by the translucent beauty of Tavener's music. But after a while I began to find its repetitive simplicity deeply unsatisfying. The one CD of his work that I own pairs his 'Protecting Veil' with a Britten cello suite. Now I'm not a great Britten fan either (though his Ceremony of Carols is always the first CD we put on in the weeks leading up to Christmas). But after the grand emotional gestures of the Tavener piece, Britten's is refreshingly unshowy and mentally engaging. What's missing from Tavener's work, but present in composers like Britten who manage somehow to be both spiritual and modern, is any engagement with the contemporary or the everyday: there's no sense of doubt or struggle. Without that, it seems to me that any hope of producing a revival of religious art (or religious belief), rather than a 'timeless' New Agey escapism, is vacuous.