HCMF Composer in Residence Jonathan Harvey in conversation
"It's important to have nourishment for the impulse towards freedom and imagination and inspiration."
Jonathan Harvey knows when he heard his future calling. He was eleven, and a chorister.
"I remember exactly the moment," he says. "I was coming out of the church and the organist hit a wild dissonance. With that chord, I said to myself, ‘I'm going to be a composer', and I wrote it down mentally. I remembered it for two years, five years, ten years, and now sixty years."
Appointed Composer in Residence at HCMF 2009 and with an honorary doctorate from the University of Huddersfield among his many accolades, the career of one of the world's leading contemporary composers spans orchestral, choral, chamber, opera and tape works, in settings ranging from concert hall and campus to sacred spaces and the ultra-modernist bunker of IRCAM. Harvey's music sees ancient spiritual texts newly illuminated through electroacoustic experimentation, and inanimate instruments digitally wedded to living voices.
Born in 1939, Harvey was introduced to music by his father, an amateur pianist and composer. At the age of eight he became a chorister at St Michael's College in Tenbury Wells, a school established by Frederick Ouseley in 1856 for the preservation and perfection of Anglican church music. Pupils sang in daily services and rehearsals, a timetable he describes as "a real immersion in music. We covered an enormous repertoire - in fact, people said it was a larger repertoire than any cathedral in the country."
Even with this wealth of musical experience, Harvey yearned for more adventurous sounds. "I was always impatient with the church music because the modern pieces, mostly by contemporary living organists, seemed to me to be so tame," he says. "I can remember this childish frustration very well. I heard modernistic works, like The Rite Of Spring and a lot of Sibelius and Bartok, and none of the modern church music seemed to come near to that degree of sophistication."
He was, perhaps surprisingly, encouraged by the choirmaster to pursue his interest. "I used to go into the organ loft and improvise. I had the key to this dark, huge building and I would play happily away. It was an awe-inspiring experience."
Later, as Harvey went on to study at St John's College, Cambridge, he benefited from the guidance of Benjamin Britten, who suggested he receive private instruction from Erwin Stein, then, after Stein's death in 1958, Hans Keller. Both were Austrian refugees living in London, and their knowledge of the Second Viennese School made a great impression on him. "I went very deeply into Schoenberg; he remains an extraordinary figure for me," he says.
Nevertheless, Harvey found the early 20th century composers' theories did not entirely satisfy his sense of how music could be. "I was never a thoroughgoing serialist, for instance. I wrote serial works, but not ones that were very close to Schoenberg in technique," he explains. "But I did follow the serial path, right through to Milton Babbitt, with whom I studied." Harvey gained his PhD from Glasgow University in 1964, whilst working as a cellist with the BBC Scottish Orchestra, and then took up a lecturing post at Southampton. In 1969 he was awarded a Harkness Fellowship to study at Princeton, where Babbitt was part of the faculty.
"I wanted to gather from Babbitt how much one could hear, how possible was it to get to a real sense of structural depth, which one has almost automatically in the great tonal works. I came away, having made my own experiments in composition, with a feeling that that was not really the path. Keller, with whom I was in contact, certainly urged me that the important thing was spontaneity, inner logic rather than outer logic, and freedom. These things were very important, and he was quite an influence in making me forge a way beyond serialism."
In the mid-1960s he also had a growing fascination with Stockhausen, and started working on a book, The Music of Stockhausen, published in 1975. "My serialism became more Stockhausen-esque, and at the same time more free," he notes. Ultimately he found his own balance between formal rigour and freedom:
"I tested all my serial ideas with my perceptions and asked myself how much I could really hear; how much did this mean to me? And that's why I began to only keep those things which genuinely contributed. Sometimes they can be quite deep things, systems that are going on under the surface, but nevertheless they immediately give the listener a sense of unity and logic.
He adds, "It's important to have nourishment for the impulse towards freedom and imagination and inspiration, to finding the thing which we all long for, which is deeply hidden inside us."
Harvey had an early encounter with computer music at Princeton and would later work with analogue electronics at Cardiff University. However, an invitation from Pierre Boulez, the director of IRCAM, the Parisian electroacoustic research institute, marked the start of a deeper engagement with electronic music. Over the course of several years Harvey realised eight works at IRCAM, the first of which was 1980's Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco.
Taking its name from an engraving on the side of the largest bell in Winchester Cathedral, the tape piece (which will be presented at HCMF 2009 as an audiovisual installation by Visual Kitchen) used spectral analysis and digital synthesis to create a haunting fusion of the bell's sound and the voice of Harvey's son, also a chorister.
"From these two very familiar and, for me, sacred and beloved sounds I made a fantasy, a poem, with the aid of computer manipulation. I see the bell and boy as connected by electronics. Two completely different things: the great dead black thing, the Mortuos, and the lovely little boy who's very much alive - and now is a charming man - to take these very different entities and unite them through numbers in the computer. Integration of the opposites is very important, to show how, in some deep sense, everything is connected. And everything is fluid."
Harvey finds unfettered possibilities for realising his musical aims in the electronic medium. "I love music which dissolves and makes ambiguous whatever exists. Electronic music does that: it can turn anything into anything else; it can make sounds which remind you vaguely of something but which are not exactly that thing. Well known instruments can be made ambiguous, made to be both themselves and something else."
As technology develops at such a rate that the software and processing power which was previously only available to Harvey at IRCAM can now be carried around in a laptop, can he see any limits to what electronic music can achieve? "Actually, no. Which is an extraordinary revolution," he replies.
"All the last inventions, such as the invention of horns with valves, or the use of alternative techniques on a violin, all have their limits. With electronics that's not the case, and more and more it's possible to simulate the complexity of real instruments, and having done that, to actually make those instruments evolve into something far beyond what they are today."
With so much of the choristers' time devoted to religious music, those early years at St Michael's didn't just imbue Harvey with a taste for dissonance. "I never got over that sense of making music for the glory of God," he says, "because we had nobody to listen except God." In his adult life, that sense of spirituality would expand beyond Christianity to include study of Hindu, Buddhist and Sufi beliefs in an ongoing quest to understand what he calls "the human aspect. I'm struggling along the path, like everyone else, and what interests me is the nature of suffering in an unsatisfactory life, and the vision that liberation or enlightenment offers us."
In Harvey's view, computers are as valid a companion on the spiritual journey as acoustic instruments and human voices. "There are many techniques with which one can manifest this expression of my sensibility. They are in electronics, by dissolving the sound-world; in other combinations of instruments and voices, by dissolving the reality of the known world; and through a choice of texts with ambiguous meanings. There's also the ritual element which is common to my works, to give the audience a sense of belonging, of being part of a function, in a way. And the function is being together in a certain mantric activity, the attempt to come together in a unified rhythm of perception."
Many of these elements combine in Harvey's 1982 work Bhakti, where electronics realised at IRCAM underpin twelve interconnected orchestral sections inspired by the sacred Hindu Rig Veda, texts he was studying as part of his practice of meditation.
"They're very ambiguous texts, literally, because the words of Sanskrit were not confined to a single meaning. But that's quite intentional on the part of the poets, I think, because they aimed to unify the world, to bring about connections. It's not the modern idea of words which point to a single object. It was much more the words are there to show the nature of the world as it is beyond labelling. So I wanted to try and capture that."
For Harvey, the discipline of meditation has a beneficial effect upon the job of composing. "I find that ideas come during meditation and, vice versa I often find that experience of meditation is the object of the music. The music tries to describe the state of consciousness which I experienced."
Hindu philosophy and Western culture meet once more in Harvey's newest work, Sringara Chaconne, which will enjoy its first UK performance at HCMF 2009. "The word ‘sringara' means ‘love', and that love can be between a man and a woman, or it can be between a mother and child. It's a flavour, what they call a rasa, which can be explored in poetry or music," he explains. "So I took this Indian way of doing art and tried to compose a piece with it. It's called Sringara Chaconne because it's based on just four, rather gentle chords repeated over and over again, which is what a chaconne [a type of dance from the Baroque period] tends to do. There are many transformations and plenty of variety in the piece, but it is nevertheless in one sense static."
Six decades after that galvanising, dissonant organ chord, does he feel as though he finally understands the mysteries of music? "I think the more you understand, the mysterious music becomes, actually. It's a fundamentally very mysterious thing, because it reflects what I call the emptiness of the world, a Buddhist term, the non-existence of the objective world. Nobody can say what music is, or what its fascination lies in."
Read more about IRCAM here.
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