Towards Silence


This premiere recording of John Tavener’s Towards Silence, written for four string quartets and a large Tibetan bowl, explores the nature of consciousness and the process of dying. Tavener had long wanted to write the work and persuaded Professor Paul Robertson (leader of the Medici Quartet and Co-Founder of the Music Mind Spirit Trust) to perform it. However, shortly after the manuscript was completed both men became critically ill and close to death themselves.

By August 2008 Robertson had recovered sufficiently to resuscitate the project, which had now taken on a profound significance for himself and for Tavener. The members of the Medici Quartet immediately agreed to reform and identified young professional string quartets with whom to perform and to act as musical mentors.

Tavener’s vision was for all four quartets to be positioned high up in the cathedral dome, invisible to the audience, and arranged in the shape of a cross, bringing the Christian, Bhuddist and Hindu religions together. This sense of space has been captured in the recording, which is an SACD hybrid that can also be enjoyed on a surround sound setup.

"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 (concert review)




What people are saying

"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." International Record Review

"John Tavener continues to produce some of the most distinctive music in our time … 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." The Observer

"The ‘silence’ of the title is that of death, although the music eschews morbidity: its keynote is rather one of otherness and mystery … the effect on the listener is anything bur formulaic in this palpably committed premiere recording." BBC Music Magazine

Medici String Quartet, Court Lane Quartet, Finzi Quartet & Cavaleri Quartet

Release date:8th Nov 2010
Order code:SIGCD221
Barcode: 635212022122

The Independent


Inspired by the possible relationship of near-death experience to Vedantic principle of Atman, Towards Silence was written for four string quartets and Tibetan temple bowl. Its four sections represent the successive states of Arman as the soul journeys towards nothingness: thus the opening “Vaishvanara” features a crowded landscape of overlaid motifs busily fighting for space. Then, as each successive state is achieved, the motifs cycle ever more slowly, the music seeming to aerate and dissipate gradually, until the strings form just a hanging mist of chords behind bell and “aum” chant, eventually dissolving into just the rubbed humming of the singing bell. From the ridiculously complex to the sublimely evanescent, in just over half and hour.

 La Scena Musicale, 29th November 2010

Another world premiere. Four string quartets and a Tibetan temple bowl are the components of this new work, meditative but not static or lacking in development. As always, Tavener requires an active suspension of disbelief, a loan of your soul for just over half an hour.

Norman lebrecht


The Arts Desk, November 2010

More quality Russian ballet music from a reliable source. Cinderella is still not as familiar as it should be; a full-length, three-act score which ranks as one of its composers most successful creations. There’s a delectable streak of dark melancholy running through this score, unsurprising for a work created during wartime. I’ve long been haunted by the angular opening string melody, intensely memorable and poignant but almost impossible to sing or whistle accurately. Fortunately, Temirkanov’s St Petersburg strings are unfazed by Prokofiev’s chromatic side shifts and his piercing woodwind players sound completely at ease. Once you’ve heard the full score, no selection from the composer’s suites will quite satisfy, though this disc provides a good introduction for any Cinderella novices out there. I was frustrated though by Temirkanov’s dramatically clumsy decision to play the ballet’s closing Amoroso two-thirds in, finishing his suite with the noisier and flashier Midnight. The numbers from the earlier Romeo and Juliet work well here, again aided by excellent orchestral playing. I liked the heavy, ponderous gait of Temirkanov’s Montagues and Capulets, and the love music has a satisfying oomph. If you fancy dipping your toes into these two seminal 20th-century ballets, do purchase with confidence, as playing and recording are superlative.

Graham Rickson

 The Observer, December 2010

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 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. The score specifies four string quartets hidden in distant galleries, but this recording is much more immersive, the sounds swirling around and gradually extinguishing. I know of no music that takes us quite so near the edge of death.

Nicholas Kenyon

 The Sunday Times, January 2011


Towards Silence was completed in 2007, days before John Tavener suffered the onset of a series of life-threatening health problems. A curious coincidence, as the work, scored for four string quartets (scattered unseen in high galleries) and a large Tibetan temple bowl, is about near-death experience – a meditation on what, in Hinduism, are the four states of dying. This must count as one of Tavener’s most powerful and sublime achievements.

Stephen Pettit


International Record Review, January 2011

Towards Silence is a wholly remarkable work. In the first place, there is the scoring, for four string quartets and Tibetan temple bowl. In the second place, there are the circumstances of its composition: just after completing it – and it was deliberately intended to be a work about near-death experience – Tavener fell gravely ill. He recovered sufficiently in time to hear the work performed privately for him on the afternoon preceding the premiere. Thirdly, it sounds very little like any other of the composer’s works. It is a piece that transmits truly tremendous power, its title notwithstanding. Tavener has always valued silence, and once said that he never understood why Stockhausen’s music never attained that condition.

This is an internal, and quite likely eternal, silence, wrought from the remarkable sound of the four string quartets and a ritualistically struck Tibetan temple bowl (SACD sound was made for this). The music is divided into four sections, each with Sanskrit titles from the four states of Atma of Hindu theology as described by Guenon: the waking state, the dream state, the condition of deep sleep, and that which is beyond. Clearly this is music that demands a particular type of listening – as nobody who knows the composer’s work will be surprised to hear – and, indeed, in the booklet notes Tavener writes, ‘In a sense this is not music that should be heard as concert music but rather meditated on as a form of "liquid" metaphysics.’

It is, I think, unlikely that more than a proportion of any given audience would be prepared to listen in this way: but that is, in its turn, irrelevant, because, the composer’s words notwithstanding, the music operates on many different levels and can be heard and understood in many different ways. 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 when that gift comes into play by emerging slowly from, and sinking back into, shining, seemingly endless chordal writing of abundant richness. A glimpse of eternity.

Ivan Moody


Audiophile Audition (, January 2011

John Tavener has long been a composer who finds inspiration in religious philosophy, from his native Anglicanism to Orthodox Christianity, the musings of Swiss metaphysician Fritjhof Schuon, Roman Catholicism, and now the Hindu texts of the Upanishad. He is obviously a man of spiritual striving and one that cannot seem to find comfort or security in any one system; hence the evolution of his current music to a sort of eclectic new age material that I find less and less convincing the more it is stringently associated with any of the basic tenets of any one religious ideology. To me it runs roughshod over his previous efforts which were also no doubt sincere, but now look more than a little fickle.

So in reviewing this disc I have decided not to try and conjure up associations with the specifics of his inspiration or intents (in this case, a meditation on the different states of dying, or the four states of Atma (soul, from the Bhagavad-Gita). Whether or not the music conveys any of the distinct elements of these stated aims is ultimately of no consequence to me (though I admit it might be to others) and what matters in the end—as always—is the music itself.

So what do we have here? Four string quartets in an antiphonal setting (thank you Signum for the surround sound) that correspond to the…well, I said I wasn’t going there, didn’t I? Let’s just say that the effect is nice, and that the music, in four continuous movements of varying complexity, and nicely under girded by an almost unending rhythmic pulse, has an attraction that almost defies explanation. It is as if a certain number of static elements were constantly being set in motion by the contrasting monotony of the rhythmic portion, but refused to entirely give in; there is no question of tonality or melody here, since all of Tavener’s music is tonal, and his melodies are deceptive in that you think they are going to take you somewhere different than where you actually end up. In this case the snippets sort of float, mesmerizing and beguiling, while leading you not from point “A” to point “B” but instead to a third dimension of depth instead of progression.

The large Tibetan temple bowl does not sound very large—more like someone hitting a piece of distant low glass crystal, but its omnipresent interjections do add a certain degree of unity to the four movements. If you like Tavener you will probably like this, and it is nice to hear such a different orchestral setup and what he does with it. But it’s not for everyone, and the first steps with this composer should still be The Lamb, Song for Athene, and The Protecting Veil before venturing anywhere else. This disc sells for about fourteen bucks on Amazon, and is only 33 minutes long, something that would definitely discourage me. But many will have to have it, and it does have its rewards.

Steven Ritter


BBC Music Magazine, February 2011

**** Performance, ***** Recording

You can listen in stereo, but Towards Silence really comes into its own on the multichannel SACD layer, where the work’s quadraphonic deployment of four string quartets (plus Tibetan temple bowl) is truly immersive, more closely approaching the effect of what Tavener calls ‘liquid metaphysics’ than the conventional concert experience.

The ‘silence’ of the title is that of death, although the music eschews morbidity: its keynote is rather one of otherness and mystery, a diaphanous adumbration of things as yet unseen, or seen through a glass darkly, at times recalling the visionary Ives of The Unanswered Question.

Tavener’s note explains his ‘five revolving ideas’ and the mathematical relationships between different sections, but the effect on the listener is anything bur formulaic in this palpably committed premiere recording.

Terry Blain


Classic FM Magazine

The Music Admirers of Tavener’s hypnotic style will not be disappointed with this world premiere recording. Towards Silence was inspired by a near-death experience and its connection to personal spirituality and creativity. Tavener describes it as ‘a meditation on the four [Vedantic] States of Atma’: Waking, Dream, Deep Sleep and the Beyond. Startlingly moving.

The Performance Surround sound makes the most of this SACD, conveying the impression that the four ensembles are arrayed in different areas. They are led by the Medici Quartet, which officially retired in 2007 but reformed specially for this occasion; the other three are among the country’s finest and most adventurous young ensembles. Together they create a rapt, spine-tingling atmosphere. Tavener’s ever-inventive textures are laced with the weird and wonderful singing sounds of the Tibetan bowl, while Winchester Cathedral’s resonance is almost a player in its own right.

The verdict A disc that no Tavener fan will want to miss; though at just over 30 minutes , it could have accommodated more music.

Jessica Duchen

  1. Towards Silence – John Tavener – 33.45