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Jonathan Harvey

His music has been widely sung and loved by choirs, yet he is also a modernist whose electronic works have been admired by Boulez and Stockhausen; as Jonathan Harvey celebrates his sixtieth birthday, he talks to Daniel Jaffé about his multi-faceted work. A slightly shortened version of this article was published by Classic CD, July 1999.

Jonathan Harvey

“I like to unify” says Jonathan Harvey; “not into an easy unity, but a unity which is rich and complex. I’d like music to speak of, to herald and to prophesy a better world, less entangled with personal egoistic emotions.” Perhaps it’s not surprising to find that Harvey welcomes many of the advances of post-war modernism, a movement intended to replace what was considered the moribund and compromised values of nineteenth century-style tonality and its celebration of the ego. Yet, as enthusiasts of British choral music will realise, Harvey has also written several fine and definitely tonal pieces: there’s the anguished and beautiful I love the Lord (1976), or Come Holy Ghost (1984), with its magical harmonies and its ecstatic climax using an aleatoric flurry of overlapping vocal phrases.

How does writing these evocative, even expressive tonal pieces square in the output of one of Britain’s leading modernists? “I think I write these different levels of music because I like them all,” he says reflectively; “because I am them all, and I’m not even in the simplest church piece doing anything I don’t like. And I never worry about trying to be myself, because I believe I am multiple. As long as I like it, it’s up to other people to say whether it sounds like me or not – it doesn’t bother me at all. It may well be of course that, just as I have a certain shape of nose and certain temperament and emotional disposition, my music has a certain personality from the outside.”

Harvey’s father was an amateur musician who composed music influenced by the “complex and resonant” harmonies of Scriabin and Fauré. Jonathan followed his father’s example when, on starting to learn the piano aged six, he began to write his own music. He later sang as a chorister at St Michael’s College, Tenbury: “It was a High Anglican atmosphere with plenty of robes and candles, and the celebrations at Christmas and Easter were unforgettably intense.” While going through a “religious” phase and singing sixteenth-century music twice a day, Harvey’s by now voracious musical tastes were further nourished and augmented by his father’s extensive record collection. Though now a Buddhist, Harvey insists that his early Christian faith is still important to him: “I don’t particularly lose any of my love of Christianity or any other thing that I’ve come into contact with in my life – I tend not to reject them but to enrich them with other areas.”

One source of enrichment has been Harvey’s increasingly fruitful ventures into electronic music, a medium he has been interested in ever since his “great Stockhausen conversion” in 1966 when he went to Darmstadt: “Stockhausen was very much dominating proceedings.” he recalls. “Funnily enough I heard the piano pieces first – the entire set of the Klavierstücke – and not a single sound in those pieces is in any way strange as sound; he doesn’t do anything inside the piano as he does in the later pieces. But I was impressed by those works – sometimes of a very obscure and harsh nature like Klavierstück VI, but with long silences, strangely disrupted shapes, things not following in the rhythms one had been accustomed to.”

Harvey’s seduction by Stockhausen’s music was complete when he heard the early electronic pieces: “the soundworld of [Stockhausen’s] electronic music – Gesang der Jünglinge, and the Studies, Telemusik – was quite extraordinary, exploring in the studio the nature of sound, turning it inside-out; so it wasn’t just a thing to play music with, but it was a thing for exploration in its own right.” Harvey compares Stockhausen’s “very good grasp of form” favourably to that shown by the musique concr?te experiments of the Group de Recherches Musicales de la RTF in Paris – “who loved to record some complex object like a railway engine; they wouldn’t particularly analyse how the sound was made up structurally.” On the other hand Stockhausen “wanted to know the mathematics – the nature of nature. He was, in a sense, a kind of scientist in music, making analysis of the atomic structure of the sounds – he could begin to rebuild a new musical universe.”

All of which seems entirely applicable to Harvey’s own approach to electronic composition: “Yes. Yes. I daren’t just use sounds to make music with ‘picked out of the air’, so to speak – picked out of nature or the street or whatever. I try to invent sounds of which I know their structure, and compose with that structure, and often manipulate it according to my compositional ‘rules’, if you like; play with these.”

Harvey’s first electronic composition was his now famous Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980), the result of his first excursion to Boulez’s IRCAM studio in Paris. In this work Harvey manipulated recordings of the great bell of Winchester Cathedral – on which is inscribed HORA AVOLANTES NUMERO, MORTUOS PLANGO, VIVOS AD PRECES VOCO (“I count the fleeting hours, I lament the dead, I call the living to prayer”) – and the singing of his son Dominic, at that time a chorister at Winchester. By creating “synthetic simulations” of the bell sounds and of Dominic’s singing, Harvey could make spectra or partials from the bell’s sound appear to “morph” into his son’s singing, or vice versa. Harvey has since refined his technique through such works as Bhakti (1982) and Ritual Melodies (1989-90) to a point where the blending between “live” and synthetic sounds is so sophisticated and seamless that – as Harvey hopes – they “take one, literally, into an unfamiliar world”.

So what takes priority when he composes? Does the “raw material” ultimately determine his compositions, or does he do a lot of pre-planning? “It’s both,” says Harvey; “I’m excited by the materiality of the sound itself, by the ‘suchness’ – to use a Buddhist term – the ‘thing in itself’: the grain, the richness, the quality of the sound. And I’m fascinated by musical concepts which have to grow in a certain direction, become quieter or louder or faster or slower. It’s some musical concept in form, or most usually some narrative, but which can be a pretty complex composite: it’s not just a matter of getting faster, but it’s usually some sense of metamorphosing like a journey.”

This can be clearly heard in One Evening (1994) where at one point a rhythm speeds up, its pitch rising until it is transformed into a single tone. “That’s a very good example” Harvey agrees. “That is a kind of concept of dance rhythm turning into a static thing which has all sorts of levels [of meaning]; there’s the body, and there’s the spirit. I don’t particularly like to draw a distinction between these two things as you end up with a dualistic philosophy; but that is the seamless transition from dance and the continuous shimmer or colour, static sound; once you’ve speeded up the first it becomes the second and you can’t put a sword in between them.”

This fusion of disparate elements is what is so characteristic and fascinating about Harvey’s electronic compositions. In One Evening he blends his electronic sounds into “live” instrumental sounds to create a virtually seamless tapestry of colours. “I often work with instruments,” says Harvey, “so the soundworld is extension, very often, of the instrumental sound world; and how far I extend away varies from work to work. Sometimes I stick pretty close to the instruments: it’s a bit like putting a mute on, playing sul ponticello – you’re really just taking the instrument and transforming it. That I love doing, because that again is the seamless integration – there’s no divide between electronics and acoustic instruments; you can’t tell where one starts and the other finishes.”

One Evening is one of the best introductions to Harvey’s use of electronics, not least, as Harvey himself suggests, because the work has texts. So what is it all about? “At the core of the work is the idea of emptiness,” says Harvey, “where it’s approached from four different viewpoints.” First is a Chinese Buddhist’s experience of emptiness “like moonlight on snow”; second is a vision of unity in which Rabindranath Tagore experiences a sensation that the people and objects he sees from his balcony become rhythmic light; third is a woman’s sudden fearful loss of self – the sense that she only exists in relation to her history and context; the final movement is a trance-like blend of bliss and emptiness, expressed by floating voices over a dancing tabla accompaniment.

“Emptiness”, Harvey continues, “is again a Buddhist word which is very hard to understand and for people to explain: it really means ‘lack of inherent existence’. Nothing that we call an individual object – whether it’s a table or a person – really has any individual existence: we give it a label, but in fact it’s changing all the time, and it’s composed of parts, the parts are composed of parts. Everything is an imputation of a kind of continuum. So in the Buddhist view of things, nothing has inherent existence, but a kind of shifting existence of impermanence.”

Unable to contain my scepticism, I ask how can an inert object like a table be equated with something living and evolving like a person: “ErÉ it depends on one’s timescale; in a million years this table won’t be here – that’s obvious. But if you look at it over a couple of minutes it’s not so obvious. But anyway it’s quite clearly true ultimately. But it’s particularly a concept to do with the self, in that [the] person that we think we are is a kind of an illusory tacking together of static things, and the self is something we grasp at, which we try to desperately establish. And this is the root of all our suffering. So I think music a very profound wisdom which shows with these notes, or a few notes which are always changing, must make different shapes and ‘forms’. If you call ‘ba-ba-ba Bah!’ the ‘first subject’ or whatever – you think ‘gosh, what a strong character that has!’. But you know G and E flat – the next moment those notes mean something totally different. So music develops to us this sense of the shift of nature, of reality; we believe in things but they’re constantly dissolved before our eyes.”

An individual or a sense of individuality may not be a fixed, static thing; but it surely exists nonetheless as a passing event – in the pattern that it makes. “Yes. It exists in many ways. But it’s not inherent. When you’re expressing yourself, when you’re an artist, you’re aware that you have many voices – I suppose in some artists more than others, but I’m certainly aware that I consist of hundreds of different voices. Which is the real Jonathan? I’ve no idea.”

At the heart of Harvey’s art is the desire to achieve a sense of unity – not a “simple unity”, which he finds “boring and uninteresting”, but finding unity in “unexpected” or even “violently contrasting” things. One Evening could be seen as celebrating unity in what appear to be different experiences of “nothing”, which all seem to blend together in the final movement. “Yes, I think that’s the impression if you’re at a performance; you experience the four movements in a string. Although they’re very different movements, actually they have unifying harmony. You end with all this long dance music as I call it – floating voices over the drums and tablas; somehow it’s all drawn together – everything fits into place, or it should do.”


“Jonathan Harvey” by Arnold Whittall (Faber and Faber)


One Evening; Advaya; Death of Li
Ensemble Intercontemporain/Stefan Asbury
Accord ADES206942

“I Love the Lord” sacred choral music
Joyful Company of Singers/Peter Broadbent

Cello Concerto; Three Sketches; etc.
Frances Marie Uitti (cello); The “Arturo Toscanini” Orchestra/Jose Ramon Encinar
Etcetera KTC 1148

Ritual Melodies; Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco; Tombeau de Messiaen; Images after Yeats
Philip Mead (piano); Jonathan Harvey (electronics)
Sargasso SCD 28029

Article © Daniel Jaffé Daniel Jaffé’s Homepage

SheetMusic by Jonathan Harvey