God's own composer: John Tavener in 2007
Show Hide image

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

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
Show Hide image

Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge