Decoding the composition
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Abhisheka (1996) is an introspective string quartet that has since been adapted for string orchestra, viola quartet, and wind ensemble. Standing apart from my typically energetic and densely notated works, it invites listeners into a slower-paced and more contemplative musical landscape. The inspiration came from reading a book by the Buddhist guru Chögyam Trungpa. The Sanskrit word "abhisheka" translates to "anointment" or "to sprinkle or pour." In the context of this composition, it represents a moment of initiation or a spiritual awakening, where one is open and willing to give up busyness and overcrowding, allowing space and peace to permeate. The work explores the concept of space in music, infusing the composition with moments of silence and slower passages that provide an opportunity for reflection and inner contemplation. The use of quarter-tones adds an intriguing and unusual sound to the piece, further enhancing its emotive impact. Within the composition, each instrument in the string quartet has its moment to shine, with extended solo passages for the violins, cello, and viola. Against a backdrop of hushed chords, the melodies intertwine and unfold, creating a sense of depth and serenity. The composition builds towards an energetic climax, unexpected in its intensity, before the viola takes its turn, further enriching the sonic tapestry. The piece resonates with both beauty and profound meaning. The New Zealand String Quartet gave a striking first performance in Nelson, New Zealand, on August 23, 1998. Their interpretation captures the essence of its introspective nature, drawing listeners into a world of quiet contemplation and musical eloquence. Through the interplay of the four string instruments, the New Zealand String Quartet invites audiences to embark on a transformative journey, exploring the nuances of Abhisheka and experiencing the power of music to convey profound emotions and spiritual depth. Its unique blend of tranquility and complexity offers a rare opportunity for introspection and self-discovery, reminding us of the transformative power of art and the beauty that lies within silence and space.


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Watch and Listen

A curation of Performances, interviews and reviews of my work

In Focus:

Abhisheka (viola quartet)

Performance Notes, Articles, Reviews, John's Messages

Project Details

Abhisheka (viola quartet)

for Viola Quartet

Commissioner: Peter Barber

Instrumentation: Viola 1, Viola 2, Viola 3, Viola 4

Difficulty Level:
Instrument Tags:

John's Rumination on Abhisheka

There's a significant A-to-Z bookmarking in my output. The 'A' is Abhisheka and the 'Z' is Zeal, both written in the first half of the 1990s when I was still in thrall to the  ethos and priorities of a university-composer mindset. Both of these pieces share a fascinating characteristic - they are the (only) two works of mine that other composers consistently (almost universally)give a big thumbs up to. No other works I've created share this distinction. And yet ( - and more subtly - possibly because of this composerly-consensus), I feel more detached from these two works than any of my others. Don't get me wrong, I love both pieces and am proud of having created them, but I believe they came from a time when I was still more 'in my head'. Composers reading this, who know some of the music I went on to write, may think that was a good thing and I should have stayed in my head, but in my own journey I'm glad to have freed myself from that imbalance between the head, the body, and the heart. A few composers felt strongly enough over the years to tell me they wished I'd continued to travel the path I was on with Abhsisheka. I guess it's a 'composer's piece'.

I wish it was played more often with the amplification and the reverb. The Matangi Quartet in Den Haag recently performed it this way in the (Un)Heard Festival. It was exquisite - how they responded to and 'performed' the reverb.

But the New Zealand String Quartet are the true midwives of Abhisheka. They took it to the world, to so many places, and they really believed in the piece. I've been so lucky for their love of it. And then the late Peter Barber made an extraordinary version for viola quartet, and I made a wind version for the Netherlands Blazers Ensemble (inevitably changing the tempo, as the players all seemed to experience an overwhelming need to breathe).

Programme Notes

Drafted immediately after reading a book by the Buddhist guru Chögyam Trungpa, Abhisheka was my first-ever attempt at writing music with space in it. Until this piece, practically everything I had written was ultra-caffeinated, fast, full of notes, and murder on the performers. But having been (albeit temporarily) inspired by the great truths and peace in Trungpa’s writing, I found myself navigating slower passages of musical time, as well as exploring the microcosm of inner space between intervals of our tempered chromatic scale.

“The sanskrit equivalent to ‘initiation’ is abhisheka, which means ‘anointment’ or ‘to sprinkle or pour’. And if there is pouring, there must be a vessel into which the pouring can fall. So at last we might really give up all these complications and just allow some space, just give in. This is the moment when abhisheka – sprinkling and pouring – really takes place, because we are open and really giving up the whole attempt to do anything, giving up all the busyness and overcrowding.

Finally, we have been forced to really stop properly, which is quite a rare occurrence for us.”