God's own composer: John Tavener in 2007
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Sound and vision: John Tavener's Flood of Beauty

Lasting 100 minutes and requiring an orchestra, dozens of singers, cello and vocal soloists, the piece assaults the senses, deliberately seeking to encompass the listener within the scope of its sound.

Tavener: Flood of Beauty
Barbican Centre, London EC2

When we enter a particularly impressive building, such as a cathedral, instinct tells us to stand still and take it in. Revolving on the spot, we grope towards an understanding of the overarching scheme governing all the vaulting arches, both comforted and awed by the sheer scale of human endeavour that contains us.

With Flood of Beauty, John Tavener created a piece of music that evokes this very feeling. Lasting 100 minutes and requiring an orchestra, dozens of singers, cello and vocal soloists and a small ensemble of traditional Indian instruments, it assaults the senses, deliberately seeking to encompass the listener within the scope of its sound.

Although presented by the Britten Sinfonia on 28 September as part of a celebration of Tavener’s work, Flood of Beauty was composed between 2006 and 2007, without a commission or an intended performance – it was just something that he had to write down. Since the composer’s death in Nov­ember 2013, we have had several posthumous Tavener premieres, perhaps the most notable being Requiem Fragments, performed by the Tallis Scholars at the Proms in August to mark the centenary of the
precise moment when Britain entered the First World War.

That piece shows Tavener at his most soulful and pensive. It subverts the traditional western requiem structure by leaving out some of the usual elements and replacing them with Hindu acclamations. It builds towards a 17-part polyphonic triumph with a soprano solo soaring over the top – yet its magnificence is muted, as befits the sombre nature of the moment it commemorates.

Flood of Beauty is on a different scale altogether, though it is also influenced by Hinduism. The piece is a giant palindrome, beginning and ending with a repeating phrase on the sitar. Through five cycles, the densely packed vocal and orchestral harmonies expand and contract. Each one ends with a cello solo, played here by Natalie Clein, full of yearning intervals and luxurious melodies and accompanied by gentle bongs and tinkles from the Britten Sinfonia’s percussionists. The baritone Marcus Farnsworth and the soprano Allison Bell, who sang in unison for much of the time, weaved a melody above the swelling orchestral and choral sounds (although Farnsworth sometimes struggled to be heard at the loudest points). Bell, though, was superb, floating her lines far above the cacophony.

Tavener’s score instructs that the different groups of musicians should be placed “as far apart as possible, surrounding the audience so that the music whirls around the building”. Although the limitations of the Barbican’s hall didn’t quite permit them to gather at the compass points as Tavener had suggested – nor did it have a “dome” or “centre” – the arrangement of brass, vocalists and strings in the balcony did produce a suitably immersive, if occasionally chaotic, experience. (If ever a piece demanded a performance in the Royal Albert Hall, this is it.)

The text for Flood of Beauty comes from a Sanskrit poem called the Saundarya Lahari. Its 100 stanzas form an ode to Devi, the female aspect of universal divinity. The words are sometimes on the fruity side, as revealed by the translation projected on to the wall of the hall – the poem really does praise every aspect of the goddess, including her toenails, which are likened to “crescent moons”, while her breasts are compared to “elephant ears”.

Much of Tavener’s work is preoccupied with religion and in particular with the idea of universalism – the spiritual intersection between all faiths. After his conversion to Orthodox Christianity in 1977, his most notable work in this area was The Veil of the Temple, first performed in 2003. It is a seven-hour, dawn-to-dusk vigil that draws on Gregorian chant, St John’s gospel, the rhythms of Hindu devotions and the story of the Knights Templar to produce a sprawling, complex piece of music.

In an interview at the time of its premiere, Tavener said that he saw his composing as a search for “the uncreated music of God”. Flood of Beauty, for all that it is noisy and strange to the ear, is undoubtedly part of that greater project. Tavener worked with such audacity and at such scale, creating a musical edifice that, above all, demands respect. As these final premieres take place, it feels as though we have lost more than just a composer. This is the work of a visionary we won’t be hearing from again.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World

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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist