Hyperion Records

Ashes Dance Back
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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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