1 July 2003
Friday, 9.55pm The Temple in the City of London. Narnian lampposts glow in the twilight; black-clad singers roam the courtyard. I am approaching, with trepidation, the 12th-century Temple Church to witness the world premiere of John Tavener’s new work, The Veil of the Temple. Combining the forces of the Holst Singers, the English Chamber Orchestra and the Temple Church’s own boys’ choir, this piece is, the composer says, “a journey towards God” – an attempt to reconcile east and west, Islam and Christianity. A laudable aim, of course. But it’s going to last seven hours.
10pm I find my place on a bench inside, thoughtfully provisioned with a soft blue cushion and two bars of chocolate. The audience of a couple of hundred, mostly of a certain age, settles down. Some have brought extra cushions. Tavener, in his trademark floppy white shirt, sits across the nave with a pained, distracted air.
10.07pm A woman with a blue veil walks slowly down the nave and disappears behind a large column. There is a thud, as though she had tripped down some stairs. Luckily, however, she soon begins to sing, answered by wailing eastern scales on a duduk, a sort of brutally attenuated oboe. The “all-night vigil” has begun.
10.10pm A Tibetan horn sounds, and the boys’ choir begins to sing a Kyrie, alternating with a grown-up choir at the other end of the church. As this goes on, it begins to seem like a very slow-motion game of tennis. Tim Henman could probably win it.
10.29pm Tavener stands up at the appearance of a man singing in an elevated box. After the composer sternly glances around, everyone else stands up, too.
11.19pm Gong splashes jolt me out of a reverie. As the work progresses, the choral textures are gradually thickening, simple lines becoming interwoven and stacked. The repetitive structure is easing some older members of the audience into a state of blissful slumber.
11.58pm The concert guide has assured us that we are free to come and go as we like during the performance, but no one has dared to move yet. Now, a spontaneous act of collective will occurs, and about a third of the audience suddenly gets up and troops softly towards the exit. It is my journalistic duty to join them.
Saturday, 12.03am Everyone is queuing up outside an illuminated van in the car park with a sign that reads “Food Lovers Delight” (sic). I get a bacon roll and a cup of coffee.
12.15am I overhear some singers discussing the evening so far. “Have you been squealing yet?” “I was squealing – on my own! I was cacking myself!” This threatens to spoil the solemn, hieratic mood of the evening, so I wander back into the church.
1.02am The piece is proceeding with a kind of glacial evolution. It is organised into eight varying cycles of alternating solos, chanted texts and choral polyphony. The singers move about the church, split into small groups and recombine with some arcane psychogeography. Recently we have had a groovy syncopated setting of the Lord’s Prayer, and some beautiful slow melodies. I am entranced by the setting of a Lermontov poem that begins “Mother of God”, and wouldn’t mind hearing just that, over and over again, for the rest of the night.
1.03am I would like to know, however, why Tavener is nattering in an annoyingly loud whisper in the aisle next to me. Stagehands dash around frantically with torches in response to some unguessable crisis.
2.14am Some of the choir adopt exaggeratedly jolly “Look at me, I’m singing” facial expressions, regardless of the text of the moment. I decide that this kind of shiny-eyed rictus is quite inappropriate.
3.01am I find myself back at the Food Lovers Delight. Fearing nothing, I order another bacon roll. A passing musician says to his colleague: “It’s more like a rehearsal.” I hope nobody who bought a £125 ticket heard that. Then another one announces, “Things are hotting up”, with something like grim satisfaction. I race back to my pew.
3.30am Things have been building implacably, the sopranos massing like beaming blonde stormclouds. They introduce a pleasingly angular new descant line to the by now toe-tappingly familiar Lord’s Prayer.
4.05am The choir re-enters, but this time they’ve all got white shirts. I sense some symbolism afoot. Now we have singers lining the walls as well as a choir at each end, and they all begin singing at once, providing a huge surround-sound effect as the organ thunders and cymbals crash.
4.30am The boys’ choir reappears, together with a brass section. A gigantic catharsis ensues: the noise of 120-odd singers, fanfaring trumpets, organ on full blast and a battery of bells is thrilling. They are singing about “the light of Christ”, and it may be no accident that by now the light of dawn is coming through the church windows. It’s an irresistible dramatic effect.
4.55am The end: after a final splashy climax, the choir begins to file out, chanting softly. The Veil of the Temple ends like The Waste Land: “Shantih, shantih, shantih.” A twinkly-eyed Tavener motions us to join the procession behind the singers, out into the morning. It’s a kind of conga-line of multidenominational spirituality.
5am Outside the church, people are standing around, grinning at one another. Whether, as a whole, the The Veil of the Temple will withstand rigorous musicological attention seems irrelevant. I decide that Tavener, simply by pursuing his own artistic project so rigorously, and by making the extraordinary demand that people pay attention for seven whole hours, must be some kind of countercultural hero. Seeing as it’s a fine morning, I decide to walk home.