Jonathan Harvey is Britain’s foremost composer of electronic music and has developed a complex and personal musical language for which he is globally recognized. His catalogue of works explores unique sound worlds and imaginative ensembles. The works on this disc, composed within seven years of each other during one of the most productive periods of Harvey’s career, demonstrate the stylistic range of his choral writing and his unique approach to the combination of live performance and electronic sound, as well as his innate sympathy for the voice.
The Latvian Radio Choir have been labelled as the creators of a new choral paradigm: a testament to their diverse range of voices and skilful performances of challenging experimental works. The choir champions the works of many leading Latvian composers and much focus is placed on exploring the capabilities of the human voice. The singers explore their skills by turning to the mysteries of traditional singing, as well as every other vocal utterance, from speech to breath.
They make their Hyperion debut with thrilling performances of Jonathan Harvey’s The Angels, Ashes Dances Back, Marahi and The Summer Cloud's Awakening.
It is striking that a composer as committed to technological innovation as Jonathan Harvey—with eight commissions from IRCAM (the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris), and many of his works pioneering new techniques, he is Britain’s foremost composer of electronic music—should also remain so attracted by that most traditional of instruments, the human voice. A high proportion of his works use voices, and his worklist includes three operas and several large-scale compositions for voice with orchestra or ensemble, as well as numerous choral pieces. The works on this disc, composed within seven years of each other during one of the most productive periods of Harvey’s career, demonstrate the stylistic range of his choral writing and his unique approach to the combination of live performance and electronic sound, as well as his innate sympathy for the voice.
Harvey’s first experience of performing music came as a boy chorister at St Michael’s College, Tenbury, where he sang two services every day. This early immersion in the Anglican choral tradition clearly informs the dozen or so pieces he composed during the 1970s and early 1980s for the choir of Winchester Cathedral under its then Organist, Martin Neary. The culmination of Harvey’s involvement with the musical life of the Cathedral came in 1981 with the composition of a ‘church opera’, Passion and Resurrection. This project involved numerous members of the Winchester community, amateur as well as professional, galvanized by the direction of Bishop John Taylor, whose poetry Harvey sets in The Angels.
Written for the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, The Angels (1994) shares with Harvey’s earlier liturgical music an essential simplicity, resulting from an intuitive understanding of what sounds work best in the inward-facing choir-stalls and massive acoustics of buildings such as Winchester and King’s. For most of the piece, the humming and vowel sounds produced by half of the choir rotate around the same few pentatonic cluster chords, most of whose notes are in common. The sense of eternal calm that this conveys perfectly illuminates Taylor’s words, sung by the other half of the choir in a fluid setting which moves between two-part canon and unison. Complexity of texture is reserved for the approach to the climax, where the introduction of contrary motion illustrates ‘the spiralling turn of a dance’; homophony returns, however, for the final, hushed repetitions of the word ‘holy’.
If The Angels is recognizably a product of the Anglican cathedral tradition, then Ashes Dance Back (1997)—influenced, like so much of Harvey’s recent music, by Eastern religious texts—lies at the opposite end of the spectrum of his choral writing. Performable only by specialist groups, its text consists largely of discrete phonemes with words only occasionally discernible, its pitches include numerous microtones, the result of a mathematical process of ‘compressing’ harmonic spectra, and its performance requires live electronic treatment of the sounds produced by four semi-chorus singers as well as a CD of recorded sound. The fragments of text that are heard are taken from a translation by Andrew Harvey (no relation to the composer) of the thirteenth-century Persian mystical poet Rumi, who is also the source of the epigraph that gives the piece its title:
I burn away; laugh; my ashes are alive!
Rumi’s poetry envisages death as ecstatic: individual identity is dissolved as the self becomes absorbed in the elements of nature. Ashes Dance Back vividly realizes this idea by successively exposing ‘the self’—represented metaphorically by the choir—to the elements of wind, fire and water. Using techniques developed at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University, where he was working at the time, Harvey processed sounds of wind, fire and water through a computer analysis of choral sound, producing a recording that blends almost seamlessly with the live sound and creates the illusion that the elements themselves are ‘singing’. Though the music runs continuously, the gradual changes in the recorded sound from one element to the next provide landmarks, and the three ‘movements’ that result exhibit structural parallels with one another. In each, the singers begin with isolated notes and sounds, then move through passages of chant and intricate vocalization; finally, we hear sustained chords and pick out fragments of text relevant to the element through which we are passing—‘scattering all ways like dust in wind’, ‘fire I crackle in you’. The succession of fire by water, as in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, seems to suggest a process of healing. Tellingly, both the sustained harmony and the passage of text—a coda for solo soprano singing ‘like a wave I rise … water’—are more prominent in this final ‘movement’.
Marahi (1999) is described by Harvey as ‘a hymn of adoration to the Divine Feminine’—a theme explored in several pieces, particularly the two large-scale Proms commissions Madonna of Winter and Spring (1986) and Mothers Shall Not Cry (2000). The title exhibits Harvey’s fondness for wordplay: ‘Marahi’ is a portmanteau word made up from the names of the two divinities the piece celebrates, the Virgin Mary and the Buddhist goddess Varahi. The diversity of the texts Harvey assembles reflects his spiritual odyssey: from his early Anglicanism, via youthful atheism and later fascination with Vedic texts and meditation techniques, he is now content to describe himself as ‘largely Buddhist’, though he still draws on Christian belief and iconography. Here he sets traditional Marian antiphons and hymns (in Latin), Sanskrit Buddhist prayers (chanted in the original language, and later spoken in translations by the composer), and a spoken Renaissance hymn to the Virgin (in an English adaptation by Andrew Harvey). Each category of text is heard in each of the ‘realms’ through which the music passes: the ‘angelic’, represented by major triads, the ‘human’, depicted through plainsong-inspired monodic lines, and the ‘animal’, conveyed—perhaps surprisingly—by noises which the singers are instructed to make ‘quite softly, with respect and sympathy and without exaggeration or parody’.
As with the three ‘elements’ in Ashes Dance Back, the structure that the three ‘realms’ give to Marahi is much less schematic than such bald description suggests. The piece runs continuously: the divisions between the different realms are often blurred, and the sounds that represent them often superimposed, as for example when the sopranos continue a monodic chant as the other singers begin the whistles, growls, ‘low-pitched ululations’ and ‘pig grunts’ that represent the animal realm. The intention, of course, is to suggest the interdependency of different aspects of creation as well as the continuity between Christian and Buddhist concepts of divine femininity.
This piece, too, makes formidable demands on the unaccompanied chorus: the increasingly frenetic parallel melodic lines bring numerous rhythmical and pitching difficulties and the Sanskrit chants often include quarter-tones. The piece ends strikingly: following the climax, at which two separate sets of parallel lines from the men and the women collide, the whole choir sings a downward glissando ‘only approximately synchronized’, then ‘audible breath sounds’. Finally, the basses are required to produce a bottom A—this pitch, lower than what is normally considered manageable in the West, results, according to Harvey’s directions, from ‘sing[ing] the upper A, then allow[ing] the throat to relax so that the voice falls an octave’. This striking coup, suddenly expanding the parameters of the work, is the sort of effect that Harvey produces elsewhere with electronics—its introduction here demonstrates how his work in the studio informs his writing for traditional forces, as well as vice versa.
The Summer Cloud’s Awakening (2001), which was commissioned by James Wood for the twentieth anniversary of the New London Chamber Choir, also juxtaposes Eastern and Western texts. Here Buddhist scriptures (heard both chanted in Sanskrit and sung in English) stand alongside a line from Act II of Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner, a composer for whom Harvey’s fascination has surfaced in several recent works, particularly the 2006 opera Wagner Dream. Like that opera—which begins with the composer at the point of death, seeing an imaginary ‘performance’ of the Buddhist drama he conceived but never completed—The Summer Cloud’s Awakening explores the common ground between Wagner’s ideas and those of Buddhism. The quoted text, ‘Must the day waken Tristan?’, implicitly celebrates the fascination and suffering of human desire that ‘night’ brings. At the beginning of Harvey’s piece, we hear the musical phrase to which Wagner sets the line ‘stretched out’ from a few seconds to five minutes, so that it seems almost motionless: this process symbolically represents the stretching out to seemingly endless lengths of that earthly suffering from which the Buddha undertook to release all beings.
The substantial electronic component of the piece, prepared with Carl Faia at the Centre National de Création Musicale in Nice, works in part with recorded samples of choral sound, but sounds produced by the live performers are also transformed in real time—sometimes chopped up, producing the rapidly repeated chords heard in the middle of the work, sometimes extended to form ‘mist’ or ‘cloud’. And as in many of Harvey’s recent works, ‘spatialization’—the use of multiple channels and speakers to distribute sound around and above the listener—plays a big part in the music’s impact.
Experimentation with sound is not confined to the electronics, however. The piece also includes a flautist and a cellist: the latter plays for much of the second half on a ‘prepared cello’, whose four strings are tuned to the C and G (two strings apiece) an octave below the normal pitches. We are made acutely aware of the physicality of the instrument, as the loosened strings reverberate against its body: this gesture, like the low bass note at the end of Marahi, takes us into uncharted territory, in which pitched sound almost merges with unpitched noise. Once again, Harvey’s experience in the studio feeds back into his work with acoustic forces.
The singers, too, are required to produce sound in unconventional ways: for much of the central part of the piece, their voices seem to express human emotions, though no words can be discerned. Descriptions in the score suggest the intonations that Harvey requires: ‘astonished’, ‘in sudden delight’, ‘agreeing’, ‘exasperated’, ‘as if stung’. This use of vocal intonation anticipates the orchestral Speakings (2008), in which Harvey uses a unique process of electronic transformation to ‘push’ sound through an ‘envelope’ constructed from recordings of speech in different languages, resulting in the instruments seeming to ‘speak’, though again wordlessly. As in Speakings, the ‘chatter’ we hear in The Summer Cloud’s Awakening gradually subsides, suggesting a process of purification.
This, then, is the mysterious ritual that we sense is taking place in The Summer Cloud’s Awakening, as in Speakings and many of Harvey’s other Buddhist-inspired works. This sense is enhanced by the Tibetan monkey-drums and ritual bells played by three of the vocal soloists, twice in the first half of the piece and three times in quick succession at the end. On each occasion, these interventions suggest that we have passed into a new phase of the ceremony. The last words we hear are ‘The end of craving is achieved’—followed by the final sounding of the Tibetan instruments, and then a slow evaporation of vocal and instrumental sound into nothingness. The human desires evoked both by the Tristan source and by the singers’ wordless intonations have been quenched; the cycle of death and rebirth has finally come to an end as an ‘unconditioned’ state of mind has been attained.
The Summer Cloud’s Awakening is characteristic of much of Harvey’s recent work in its achievement of synthesis on a number of different levels: between pitched ‘music’ and unpitched ‘sound’, between traditional acoustic sources of sound and electronics, between diverse musical styles, and between Eastern and Western philosophical outlooks. Like all the music on this disc, it asserts afresh the importance of the human voice, even as it explores new musical frontiers.
Michael Downes © 2011