Friday, 7 December 2012

Jonathan Harvey

Jonathan Harvey, who died on Tuesday, was a composer who embraced the post-war currents of musical modernism whilst rejecting its sometimes aggressive and doctrinaire materialism. Rather than reducing it to a dryly academic matter of structures and notational calculi, plotted out process and form, he was interested in furthering the age-old use of music to evoke spiritual states, and to express the intangible, using sound to hint at what might lie beyond the readily perceptible surface of things. This mystical vision put him in the lineage of Messiaen and Stockhausen and, further back and on native ground, of the Gustav Holst of the Hymns from the Rig Veda, Savitri and the Apocryphally derived Hymn of Jesus. His use of electronics to summon up a feeling of otherness, either of evanescent immateriality or of overpoweringly dense mass, also connects him with the French composer Eliane Radigue. Whereas Radigue conjured Buddhist dronescapes from her analogue ARP synthesiser, Harvey favoured exploring new digital soundworlds from the late 70s onwards, and was pioneering in his use of computer technology. His residency at IRCAM (the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), the centre for electronic music set up by Pierre Boulez in 1977, in the 80s allowed him access to the latest facilities and led to the creation of several electronic or electro-acoustic works. One such was Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, probably still his best-known piece. It uses the sounds of the great bell in Winchester Cathedral and the treble voice of a young boy (actually Harvey’s son) and manipulates them with the aid of a computer to create what amounts to an English version of Stockhausen’s classic electronic piece Gesang der Junglinge. It begins with the tolling of the bell, with glassy splinters of the fundamental sound shivering above with a brittle, frosty glint. Bell and boy’s voice are shifted in pitch, blending and parting, and Harvey draws out the sound spectra in both. Sometimes he surround them with a coronal overtone shimmer, sometimes draws them out into ascending and descending arcs of whistling sound, like short wave radio signals. The bell’s deep sonority is transformed into light, glittering chimes, and given throbbing, pulsating rhythmic life – the bell as heart. The boy’s voice is cut up and re-edited into stuttering fragments at one point, emphasising the vulnerable physical form from which it comes. Spatial dimensions are also created, which must be great in a concert hall with proper sound distribution, voices appearing to be coming from a great distance and moving across some inner dimension. The title of the piece comes from the Latin inscription on the bell, which means I toll for the dead, I call the living. The form of the music embodies this description beautifully, the voice of youth, of tender, newly growing life contrasting with the rigidly-cast mass of the bell, solid and eternal. Through the manipulations he subjects both sound sources to, Harvey draws them together, blending them and occasionally making them indistinguishable one from the other, creating a sense of unity, a continuity in the essence of sound and, by extension, of matter and being. In the end, the voices are chorused against the booming toll of the bell, which grows louder and more forceful, emphatically re-iterating its message until its motion ceases and the soundwaves recede into silence.

Harvey’s early debt to Stockhausen was recognised in the short book he wrote on him in 1975. There are echoes in Harvey’s work of Stockhausen’s music from the 60s and 70s; of grand, synthesing pieces such as Hymnen and Telemusic; Spiral and Kurzwellen, with their mixing of instrumental and orchestral sounds with live electronics; and Mantra and Kontakte, in which the spectra of sounds, and their contrasting colours and masses are explored. Stockhausen’s interest in world religions, and his increasingly mystical approach to sound, was also hugely influential, although Harvey thankfully never followed his example in creating cranky personal belief systems. Messiaen was another touchstone, for similar reasons, with the Turangalila Symphony providing the example of a piece which incorporated electronic sounds, world music (gamelan and Indian rhythmic structures) and a mystical vision of creation. Tombeau de Messiaen (1994), its title drawing on the memorial tradition which Ravel revived and pastiched in his 1919 piece Tombeau de Couperin, was a tribute to the composer, written in the wake of his death in 1992. It uses the pianistic language Messiaen used in his Catalogue d’Oiseaux pieces and shadows it with a pre-recorded tape, a ghost accompaniment in which the piano sounds are manipulated to give them a reverberant, watery sound, as if played beside a cavern lake, occasionally illuminations of sparkling quartz reflected in a high, tinkling spray of percussive, pitch-shifted high notes. Harvey’s 2003 piece Bird Concerto with Pianosong also inevitably conjures up Messiaen’s spirit in its use of birdsong as musical material. The birds are present through recordings made whilst Harvey was teaching in California (so we hear orioles and orchard buntings rather that blackbirds and goldcrests), which are initially imitated by imitative trilling high on the piano keyboard. Bright, glittering percussion at the start of the piece suggests the first signs of the dawn sunrise. The orchestra erupts into the occasional sudden flurry of flocking sound during the half hour piece, and swoops and glides in strings and woodwinds suggest flights and landings. The birdsong recordings are manipulated, slowed down or sped up, their sound moulded and shaped like any other instrumental texture. In this, they resemble the similar use of recorded bird sound in Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 1972 Concerto for Birds and Orchestra Cantus Arcticus (with the affecting melancholy of its second movement created through slowing down the keening song of the shore lark), and in Chris Hughes’ gorgeous revelation of the complex beauty of the blackbird’s song in the self-explanatorily titled Slowed Down Blackbird. Harvey’s Bird Concerto ends with Messiaen-style circling and descending block chords, with the birdsong also descending in plummeting arcs, suggesting a general settling in to roost as the shadows of evening begin to encroach.

Messiaen’s spirituality, wide-ranging and open though it was, remained firmly rooted in the Catholic church and its liturgical rituals, however, which formed the basis of much of his work. Harvey was less bounded by doctrine, and seemed to share the view expounded by Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy, that there is a divine ground connecting all religions, a connecting thread found in the writings and teachings of the great mystics. His music drew on many religious traditions and ideas: Hinduism in works such as Bhakti (1984) and Nataraja (1983), Christianity in his church ‘opera’ Passion and Resurrection (1981) and Madonna of Winter and Spring (1986), and the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner in the Inner Light pieces from the mid-70s. It was Buddhism which held the greatest attraction for him, however, and he tried to follow its precepts as best he could. This philosophical and spiritual underpinning creates another connection with Eliane Radigue, whose adherence to the ideas of Tibetan Buddhist informs almost all of her music. Buddhism influenced many of Harvey’s works, including pieces such as Wheel of Emptiness (1997), …towards the Pure Land (2005) and Body Mandala (2006). The deep, braying brass which emerges as an underlying rumble in Ricercare una Melodia (1984) and other pieces draws on the world-trembling horns of Tibetan mountain temples. Harvey’s music shares little in common with the contemplative quietism of the ‘holy minimalists’ such as John Tavener and Arvo Part, with their becalmed and tranquillising spirtitual balms. There may be hushed passages, but this is maximalist music, incorporating the noise of the world, voicing the cosmos in its chaotic as well as its pacific aspects. His work was a great example of the way in which art can be modern and challenging, but still retain a sense of purpose and meaning beyond the abstract (not that abstraction can’t be an aesthetic end in itself, of course), using new forms to realise a particular vision (and finding that these forms express it better than anything else). Harvey was trying to sound the inexpressible in a way that only music can, using the latest technological means to reveal the whole hidden spectrum of sound and expand upon the traditional orchestral palette. His work, with its reflections of the noisy flux of the cosmos and its glimpses into the eternal, has universal appeal and will endure.

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