Hyperion Records

1999; unaccompanied choir
author of text
various Latin, Sanskrit and English texts

'Harvey: The Angels, Ashes Dance Back & other choral works' (CDA67835)
Harvey: The Angels, Ashes Dance Back & other choral works
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Track 3 on CDA67835 [10'20]

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.

from notes by Michael Downes © 2011

Track-specific metadata
Details for CDA67835 track 3
Recording date
1 November 2008
Recording venue
St John's Church, Riga, Latvia
Recording producer
Jonathan Harvey
Recording engineer
Andris Uze
Hyperion usage
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