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Hyperion Records

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Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels by William Blake (1757-1827)
Victoria & Albert Museum, London / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67835
Recording details: November 2008
St John's Church, Riga, Latvia
Produced by Jonathan Harvey
Engineered by Andris Uze
Release date: April 2011
Total duration: 17 minutes 25 seconds

'The Latvian Radio Choir is evidently unfazed by the demands encountered, while the sound has an ideal depth and spaciousness. Warmly recommended' (Gramophone)

'Harvey's unworldly scores and the Latvian Radio Choir's superb ability to render them combine in this uncompromising disc' (Choir & Organ)

'Both Ashes and Awakening are visionary pieces, and have the makings of modern masterpieces … a magnificent disc, superbly performed and recorded, and a magnificent argument for the ongoing, cutting-edge relevance of contemporary music' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This fine anthology of Harvey's music is performed by the Latvian Radio Choir, surely now one of the finest vocal ensembles in the world. Its commitment to Harvey's music seems absolute and technical difficulties seem to hold no terrors … sung and recorded to perfection' (International Record Review)

'The Angels, written for King’s College Cambridge’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols in 1994, is at once traditional and modern, apparently effortlessly so … The Summer Cloud’s Awakening for choir, flute, cello and electronics, is another fascinating, often thoroughly blended melting pot … the performances are exemplary' (The Irish Times)

Ashes Dance Back
1997; choir and electronics
author of text
translated fragments with a largely textless whole
translator of text

Ashes Dance Back  [17'25]

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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!
I die a thousand times:
My ashes dance back—
A thousand new faces.

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’.

from notes by Michael Downes © 2011

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