Latvian Radio Choir, James Wood (conductor), Jonathan Harvey (electronics), Carl Faia (electronics), Clive Williamson (synthesizer)
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