NEW YORK — When the mystical British composer John Tavener made a rare appearance in New York last year for a performance at Carnegie Hall of his cello concerto "The Protecting Veil," a large and curious crowd attended. The recording on Virgin of the work had become an international bestseller and was an outright sensation in London, practically on the order of Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony.
The work, rapt and reverential in tone, is long, static, repetitious. Its elegiac melodies, written mainly in whole notes, are medieval sounding. Its intense, sweet sonorities evoke the strong incense of the Russian Orthodox Church to which Tavener is devoted. This can be interminable music to those not in the proper mystical mood, and a glance around the hall revealed many in audience squirming--a few walked out.
Yet when the lanky composer, with his serious tan and flowing blond hair, walked on stage to take a bow, the audience reacted with palpable awe to his Christlike presence. The standing ovation was nearly as rapt as the music, as if there were something about this man that can make people, whether they actually enjoy paying attention to his music or not, think him really important.
Tavener is part of the strangest phenomenon in music in years, one that is also strangely lucrative. Three seemingly like-minded composers with intensely spiritual concerns in their music have become incredibly popular, thanks mainly, in each case, to the recording of a single work--Arvo Part's "Passio," Gorecki's Third Symphony and Tavener's "The Protecting Veil"--each selling in the hundreds of thousands, far more than work by any other living classical composers except for the occasional Philip Glass hit or Michael Nyman soundtrack.
Whether or not theirs will be an enduring popularity remains, of course, to be seen. It appears likely, however, that three recent recordings of major liturgical works--Tavener's "Akathist of Thanksgiving" (Sony), Part's "Te Deum" (ECM) and Gorecki's "Miserere" (Nonesuch)--all will maintain the enthusiastic response they initially have been given, as all these works are arguably more significant than those that made the composers famous.
Theories keep being put forth to explain the phenomenon of Tavener, Part and Gorecki, how it is that their reverent, uneventful music can attract a following among skeptical, skittish modern listeners, but no one really knows why. These are not, after all, the three tenors. They are not public men and have not courted fame, however much their record companies promote them (often with considerable difficulty, especially when it comes to enticing them to make the exceptional appearance). They neither form a compositional school nor appear to show competition between themselves (although there is plenty of that between their record companies). Rather they seem wrapped up in their own musical worlds and little else. No one even knows quite what to call them.
London music critic Andrew Porter, in a review in the Observer, has dubbed them the Holy Minimalists. Others have suggested calling their style Mystical Minimalism or the New Simplicity, and the catch-all New Age, of course, keeps cropping up. But Porter's label, faintly derogatory though it is, has sort of stuck.
Clearly Tavener, Part and Gorecki represent something that needs a name. Their music seems to spring, at least superficially, from the same enigmatic source, and the works on the new recordings reveal great points of stylistic commonality as well.
This is a music that is largely based upon consonance and modal harmonies; it is a music that appears to have no need for conflict, although it takes great advantage of contrast. And while each composer can be identified through a very distinct sound, each bases his music on similarly striking, luminous sonorities of sensual color and beguiling character.
Simplicity and spirituality are, of course, great attractions these days, as is anarchism. But so, too, is complexity, which happens to be the latest fashion in science, and which has been made a return to post-Minimalist music. And so, too, is nihilism, as the Generation X keeps reminding us. As for archaism: that, for an increasing number of people, means the '50s.
Even repetition, which underpins popular music and Minimalist music, doesn't adequately explain the attraction to the Holy Minimalists, because in pop music repetition is allied to a beat, a fast beat that is the heart of the music (and often functions to deaden the senses), whereas the Holy Minimalists use slower, more surprising repetition to heighten awareness. Concentration time, too, tends to be down these days, yet the Holy Minimalists favor a very slow, often barely discernible pulse, and ask for concentration on very little stimulus.