John Tavener accepting the Ivor Novello Classical Music Award in 2005. Photo: Getty
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John Tavener: The search for the music of God

The celebrated English composer has died at the age of 69. While he was better-known for pieces like Song for Athene and The Lamb, listening to his 2003 work The Veil of the Temple is the best way to appreciate his genius.

A common criticism of the composer John Tavener was that his work was "easy listening", prime fodder for Classic FM and schmaltzy adverts. There can be no doubt that he had popular appeal - in 1992, his cello sonata The Protecting Veil topped the classical charts for months, and millions wept as his choral work Song for Athene was sung as Princess Diana's coffin was borne out of Westminster Abbey in 1997. His became the sound of a time: his setting of the William Blake poem "The Lamb" was sung at the Millennium Dome in the final moments of 1999. The diverse sources of the tributes paid to him since his death demonstrate this – as well as fellow composers and musicians, the Prince of Wales has let it be known that he is "saddened" by his death. Tavener was famous in a way more usually associated with a pop star – he was even signed to The Beatles' Apple label early on in his career, and was nominated twice for the Mercury Prize.

Tavener, who has died at the age of 69 after struggling with ill health for much of his life, had another side to his work, though, that more rarely made it beyond the awareness of those who make, read, and write about classical music. His conversion to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 had a profound impact on his composing, as he moved away from the modernism of The Whale and Celtic Requiem and began importing ideas from Gregorian chant, Orthodox liturgical traditions and eastern harmonies. Always, he told the BBC in 2003, he was trying to find "a music that already exists in the cosmos" or "the uncreated music of God".

Nowhere is Tavener's search for "the essence of God" more evident than in The Veil of the Temple, the seven-hour choral work he composed in 2003. It is vast and complex, and is comprised of eight cycles, each of which ascends in pitch and reworks themes and motifs from what has gone before. Snatches of melody, verses from St John's gospel, and rhythms from Hindu devotions weave in and out of the motets, chants and solos that make up the piece. Tavener himself likened it to a "gigantic prayer wheel", but there is so much more than just devotional music to this piece. As well as being intended as the accompaniment for a dusk-to-dawn vigil, it is a kind of oratorio, telling the story from the rending of the veil in the temple in Jerusalem as Jesus died on the cross to Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb, seeing the risen Christ, and perceiving that the veil between death and life has been lifted.

It's also a piece inspired by a particular building – the Temple Church in London, where it was first performed. As Tavener wrote in the sleeve notes when the recording was released, when the Knights Templar built their beautiful round church, they were seeking to recreate something of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for their own place of worship and burial. The Veil of the Temple imports this, giving the Knights a theme in Cycle 8 of surpassing beauty that evokes a great feeling of peace and permanence. Occasionally interspersed between the vocal harmonies, though, are discordant organ phrases and the melancholy tolling of bells, which is Tavener's reminder that all is not at peace in the place the Knights sought to found anew with their church – Jerusalem itself.

Setting its spiritual and historical resonances aside for a moment, The Veil of the Temple is also just brilliant music to get lost in. The layering of liturgical chant with the clean harmonies of the western church and the intricate rhythms and cadences of eastern traditions is breathtaking. It is also written on a scale we are rarely treated to these days - it requires more than one choir, soloists who have been trained in both orthodox psalm-singing and the Hindu Samaveda, a brass ensemble, a virtuoso organist, Tibetan horns, temple bowls, tubular bells and more. Tavener himself told the Guardian earlier this year that he thought "the days of seven-hour pieces are gone" and that even he was writing in a more compressed language these days.

It is to my eternal regret that I didn't go to the premiere in 2003. A close friend who did describes an extraordinary atmosphere of tension and anticipation over the hours of music, as it built implacably towards its glorious climax, and the catharsis when the musicians arrived at Cycle 8's "Light of Christ" just as the light of dawn began to filter in through the windows of the Temple Church. Steven Poole, who recorded his experiences of the night for the Guardian, said he would be quite happy to hear "Mother of God" from Cycle 7 over and over again all night, and I agree with him - a few simple-sounding chords underneath Lermontov's beautiful words are capable of provoking an emotional response that even the crashes and squeals of the piece's climax can't emulate.

Tavener called The Veil of the Temple "the supreme achievement of my life and the most important work that I have ever composed". Listen to it: there can be no more fitting way to mark his passing.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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