Hyperion Records

The Summer Cloud's Awakening
composer
2001; choir, flute, cello and electronics; commissioned by James Wood to mark the 20th anniversary of the New London Chamber Choir
author of text
various Buddhist scriptures, in English and Sanskrit, and a line from Wagner's Tristan

Recordings
'Harvey: The Angels, Ashes Dance Back & other choral works' (CDA67835)
Harvey: The Angels, Ashes Dance Back & other choral works
Details
Track 4 on CDA67835 [30'52]

The Summer Cloud's Awakening
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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.

from notes by Michael Downes © 2011

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