Friday, January 22, 2010

A Musical Interlude: Bjork, Brodsky Quartet, Tenebrae and John Tavener

I really love the music of John Tavener and I've been listening to a couple of pieces off the John Tavener: A Portrait album lately. Playing them a lot actually. I'm not gifted musically but I can have music playing the whole time quite happily. And sadly for others I can often like what could be considered quite eccentric. From the moment I first heard her back in my teens I was a fan of Yoko Ono (and still am). When I first the sitar and the oud I fell in love with them. And when I first heard the sacred music of the Eastern Orthodox churches I was transported.

Tavener draws on those Eastern Orthodox musical traditions and so it was only natural I should get right into him. But for some reason lately I just want to keep listening to these two pieces over and over (fortunately for my flatmate I'm using headphones, which means I'm also playing them loud). But they are quite extraordinarily beautiful and transportive and so I thought I'd share them here.

The first is called Prayer of the Heart, which Bjork performs with the Brodsky Quartet. It's a setting of the Jesus Prayer of Eastern Orthodoxy. If you don't know anything about the Jesus Prayer I strongly recommend you check out this excellent Wikipedia article, which describes the prayer as "one of the most profound and mystical prayers and it is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice." The article continues "Its practice is an integral part of the eremitic tradition of prayer known as Hesychasm hesychazo, "to keep stillness")" The Jesus prayer probably was developed in the early monastic communities of 4th and 5th century Egypt and it is practiced in both Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy as well as in the Eastern churches in communion with Rome. It is recited as a sort of mantra with the goal of being prayed by the prayer; praying without ceasing, the prayer becomes centred in the heart. The aim of the prayer is "not to be dissolved or absorbed into nothingness or into God, or reach another state of mind, but to (re)unite with God (which by itself is a process) while remaining a distinct person." Or as Michael Plekon says "Our prayer is to become eventually so much a part of us that our very breathing, our very living becomes prayer." Plekon's article is also very much worth reading not least because he cites various people including two of my favorite Russian saints, Seraphim of Sarov and the 20th century Maria Skobtsova.

The most common form of the prayer (and the form used by Tavener) is as follows

Kyrie, Iesou Christe, uie tou theou, eleison me
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me

But it can be said in any language.

Tavener's setting uses both Greek and English together with Coptic. Bjork starts with the Greek then moves into the Coptic and then the English to close with a final rendition in Greek. The piece is long, nearly 15 minutes, but it is truly spectacular. I recommend putting on the headphones and lying back eyes closed.


The second piece is called Mother and Child, performed by Tenebrae, and below is a clip from You Tube. It's the final section. The text is a poem by Brian Keble. I'll provide the whole poem italicising what's not included in this sample. The part in brackets is a refrain added to the poem.

Enamoured of its gaze
the mother’s gaze in turn
contrives a single beam of light
along which love may move.
Through seeing, through touch,
through hearing the new-born heart
conduits of being join.
So is the image of that heaven within started into life.
As in the first was adoration
another consciousness has come to praise
the single theophanic light
that threads all entrants here:
(Hail Maria, Hail Sophia, Hail Maria)
this paradise where all is formed of love
as flame to flame is lit.

The clip is a marvellous montage of Marian and Christ images which capture well Tavener's celebration of the theophanous maternal. Put the headphones on for this too and turn it up loud but be warned it starts off quietly and builds up to a dramatic conclusion with organ and choir.


  1. Thankyou *THANKYOU* Michael - I have been haunted by that version of Kyrie for more than three years now. I heard it once and it has kind of inhabited me with a sort of cellular memory which was so very special. I am getting gooseflesh hearing it again after what seems like only last week.

    My first experience with the Kyrie happened in Paris at the Pompidou Centre - it was played as the soundtrack to a striking sequence of photographs by Nan Goldin - some very explicit sexually - showing couples from all cultures, all ages, both opposite-sex and same-sex, engaging in foreplay and making love.

    I was not able to source the details of the recording at that time. A piece of musical jigsaw has been found. I am delighted (and not at all surprised) that your written musings and rambling ear could lead me to locate that missing mosaic musical knowledge particle.


  2. Hey Oddur, I'm glad to have helped you find this piece. To my knowledge it's only on the album, John Tavener: A Portrait. I knew the piece was a soundtrack to the Goldin exhibition but I had no idea of the content of the works there. Nice juxtaposition.

  3. There is even a tradition in the West of saying the Jesus Prayer in Latin, where it is just as beautiful.

    Domine Jesu Christe, Filius Dei, miserere mei, peccatore.