Author Topic: Spiritual adventures of musical explorer  (Read 4100 times)


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Spiritual adventures of musical explorer
« on: December 07, 2012, 05:53:36 AM »
Here's a nice piece of news by a Buddhist musician and how it influenced his life that I'd like to share

The composer Jonathan Harvey was unique in the way he put digital technology and a strenuously rational approach to music at the service of a deeply spiritual message. In terms of international profile and honours, Harvey’s status was almost on a par with his slightly older colleagues Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies. While they have always been in the news, thanks to their pugnaciously unfashionable views and hard-edged modernism, Harvey’s rise was so inconspicuous that even the musical world seemed not to realise just how eminent he had become.
He was a quiet man, tall and slightly stooping, with the fluty and precisely modulated voice of an Anglican clergyman. His music, though not without its tumult and discord, on the whole speaks in a similarly quiet voice. What makes it distinctive is its otherworldly, incandescent sound and sinuous oriental-sounding melodies, which give it a sense of ecstatic striving for a world beyond this one.
Jonathan Harvey was born on May 3, 1939 in Sutton Coldfield, in the west Midlands. He was joyously aware of that other world from early childhood. His interest in music started early on, and was stimulated by his businessman father, who had surprisingly unorthodox tastes. Harvey became a chorister at St Michael’s college in Tenbury, Worcestershire, and it was here, during a concluding organ voluntary after evensong, that he had a life-changing experience.
‘‘Usually these voluntaries were real milk-and-water affairs,’’ he recalled, ‘‘but one day the organist did something really wild, which was thrilling. I knew in that moment that I wanted to be a composer, and do something similar.’’
The years at Tenbury also gave him an enduring taste for unaccompanied choral music, shown in the modest liturgical works for Anglican liturgy that sit in his work-catalogue alongside big complex works for orchestra and electronics.
Harvey went on to study music at St John’s College, Cambridge, and sent some of his early compositions to Benjamin Britten. On Britten’s advice he went on to study privately with two doughty defenders of the European tradition, Erwin Stein and Hans Keller.
They instilled a keen sense in Harvey that music has to be unified to be coherent. It was a useful lesson; Harvey seems to have been touched by the prevailing flower-power ethos, and some of his early works, such as Ludus Amoris (1969, written for the Three Choirs Festival), have a kind of anything-goes exuberance, not so far from other quintessentially 1960s works such as John Tavener’s Celtic Requiem.
By this time Harvey had become a music lecturer at Southampton University (1964-77), and was married to Rosaleen, a physiotherapist. One of the remarkable things about Harvey was his ability to combine a busy composing schedule with an impressive academic career. He was then lecturer, reader and eventually professor of music at Sussex University (1977-95), and part-time professor at Stanford University, California (1995-2000).
Though teaching took up valuable time, it also gave Harvey the freedom to develop at his own pace, and pursue the intellectual and spiritual passions that had shaped his music. After imbibing Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-note system of composing through Stein, Harvey came under the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s more heady and liberating concept of musical unity in the 1970s. Stockhausen’s message – that melody, rhythm, harmony and tone colour were all aspects of vibration – held enormous appeal for him.
He published a monograph, The Music of Stockhausen (1975), and became an assiduous practitioner of Buddhist-inspired meditation, which was another way to access the all-encompassing One underlying the Many. ‘‘I try to practise Buddhism, but I can’t say I am a Buddhist,’’ he liked to say.
Harvey’s music of the 1970s reveals this new, more meditative outlook. Inner Light 1 (1973) mingles electronic sounds on pre-recorded tape with live music from seven musicians, and shows Harvey taking his first steps towards deriving melodic patterns from the overtones of instrumental sounds – a technique that he would later use in a much more single-minded way.
Also typical of Harvey is the way he makes its ingenious structural idea carry symbolic weight. The 12-note row that governs the latter part of the work is partitioned into a low, dark, four-note pattern; a high, light, three-note pattern; and a five-note pattern that mediates between those extremes.
In Harvey’s First String Quartet (1977), his sense of colour and melody is even more explicit. For several minutes we hear nothing but a single pitch, endlessly re-coloured. Eventually this trembling note ‘‘breaks’’ into a single line, one of those ecstatic, luxuriantly decorated melodies that would become his trademark.
The idea that a musical discourse could be teased from a sound with complex timbres led Harvey to investigate electronic and digital sound synthesis in a much more thoroughgoing way than any of his contemporaries. He was one of the first composers to make use of the facilities on offer at the Paris-based musical research institute, Ircam, in the late 1970s.
With the aid of its resources he produced the wonderfully evocative electronic piece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (1980), based on sounds of a boy soprano and the great bells of Winchester Cathedral. The title is derived from the message etched into the largest bell, which means, ‘‘I lament the dead, I call the living to prayer.’’
This work ushered in the summertime of Harvey’s creativity, which lasted a good three decades. By now he had worked out a musical language that could embrace darkness and conflict within an overarching sense of consonance and unity. A fine and much-played example was Bhakti (1984), for electronic sounds and pre-recorded tape. The title is a Hindu term meaning devotion to God as a path to salvation, and the music is typical of Harvey in the way it combines dancing energy and stasis, light and dark. In later works Harvey took advantage of new digital-music technologies to bring live electronic transformation of instrumental sounds into his music.
A striking example was Madonna of Winter and Spring (1986), composed for the BBC Proms in honour of the Virgin Mary and her ‘‘soft, yielding influence on forces which are assertive, brutal or despondent’’. The second movement, entitled Descent, portrays Mary’s voluntary journey to the darkness of earthly existence through the simple descent of one chord – an example of that sophisticated naivety that set some listeners’ teeth on edge, while charming others.
Harvey’s mature works include three operas, the most striking of which is undoubtedly the last, Wagner Dream (2006), premiered by the Netherlands Opera. It explores Richard Wagner’s interest in Buddhism and takes place in the imagined final moments of Wagner’s life, in which he has a vision of a Buddhist opera, which he would never compose.
The emotional entanglements of Wagner and his circle are juxtaposed with the myth of Buddha and Prakriti, the despised untouchable who longs to be united with him. Harvey’s musical language proved equally adaptable to the dark, charged intensity of the Wagnerian menage, and the bright realm of the Buddhist myth.
One of the striking things about Harvey’s later works is their hospitality to old-fashioned consonances, including the major triad. When asked why he didn’t go ‘‘all the way’’ and write tonal music, he said self-mockingly that if he did, he would turn into a boring imitation-19th-century Anglican composer. But a deeper reason was that otherworldly electronic sounds were equally attractive to him, and for much the same reason: they were symbols of divine unity.
These were rooted in the complex vibrations of resonating bodies, and could be regarded as natural, whereas the triad is a deeply artificial product of culture. For that reason, some would find the idea of yoking them together inconsistent, but this did not bother Harvey.
He was refreshingly free of dogmatism, as was reflected in the many religious affiliations in his music: Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, Hindu.
During his last years numerous awards confirmed Harvey’s status as an elder statesman of new music. In January 2012 the BBC promoted a generous survey of his music at the Barbican in London. The composer by this time had been ill for some years, and was unable to attend, but he sent a message of greeting to the audience.
The grand summation of Harvey’s mystical ecumenism was Weltethos (a global ethos), which Harvey described as a ‘‘grand oratorio, a kind of total harmony of all the world’s religions’’, with texts from the world’s major religious scriptures chosen by the German theologian Hans Küng.
The world premiere was given on October 2011 by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Berlin Radio Chorus under Simon Rattle. The UK premiere, given by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on June 19 launched the nationwide arts festival London 2012. As with all Harvey’s recent works, a predominantly meditative tone was enlivened by passages of startling vigour.
Radiantly still passages suggestive of heavenly peace sat cheek by jowl with dancing, almost angry, settings of Buddhisttexts, and delightfully literal imitations of the shofar or ram’s horn in the ‘‘Jewish’’ movement. Harvey was too ill to attend the world premiere, but was able to witness it through a live internet link. It was a fitting conclusion to a career dedicated to the idea that music can point towards a higher form of consciousness.
As Harvey put it in a lecture in 1992: ‘‘It’s for music to articulate the true nature of man in his blissful, enlightened form. No less than that should be demanded. It’s a way of charm and simplicity which no verbal concepts, least of all mine, can ever encapsulate.’’
Jonathan Harvey is survived by Rosaleen and their children Anna and Dominic.
Ivan Hewett, Guardian News & Media

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Re: Spiritual adventures of musical explorer
« Reply #1 on: December 11, 2012, 10:51:12 AM »
"I have worked closely with Jonathan for 30 years," said Sally Cavender, vice-chairman of Faber Music. "His impact as a composer has been profound and international in its scope. The spirituality of his music also pervaded his personality; no one who met him came away without commenting on his gentleness, generosity and breadth of imagination … Music simply poured out of him, naturally and organically. In every sense he was a superior human being and one that it has been a privilege to know, as much as it has been a delight to treasure his music."
"We have lost a hugely important figure in classical music," said Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3 and director of the Proms. "His was a powerfully original music which rightly received international acclaim. His gentle spirit and inner strength impressed me greatly and he will be much missed."

Much though I like Radio 3 I do find Wright and his team deeply hypocritical: this is the second time that the death of a famous composer has immediately been followed by a piece of his music (the other was Carter) on 'breakfast on three', when normally the music of those two composers is not heard on air the length of the year (apart from the ghetto of 2230 on a Saturday). Come on Radio 3, try to honour these composers in their own lifetime rather than a one-off tribute on their death: we have way too much of the baroque and romantics. We live in the twenty-first century and yet one would think that we live in 1899 with modern radio to hand.