Jonathan Harvey (1939-)

Donald Macleod is in the company of British composer Jonathan Harvey, a fastidious craftsman whose works are very much music of integration, often bringing together different worlds: cutting-edge electronics and traditional instruments, past and present, material and ethereal.




Harvey is singularly thoughtful about his own art and the process by which he makes it, but he is not a composer with his head in the clouds - he is very much hands-on when it comes to computer technology and electronics, and how they can be harnessed to open up new worlds of the imagination.

He is a composer whose work encompasses the realms of bliss as well as the practicalities and imperfections of the world of real instruments and earthly musicians.

In an interview some time ago, he asked himself what the purpose of music is: 'It is, in my view, to reveal the nature of suffering and to heal - the one big question of existence.'

Including a hymn to Angels (an abiding interest of Harvey's, and he is often conscious of their presence in everyday life), and the now-classic electronic work Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, whose two main sonic components are the great tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral and the treble voice of Harvey's own son Dominic (who was a Winchester chorister in the late 1970s).

Plus a pair of viola pieces that evoke the image of a remote Tibetan monastery; and Song Offerings, a magical song-cycle set to the words of Rabindranath Tagore, and one of the composer's most beautiful and accessible works.

The Angels (1994) for unaccompanied double SATB chorus



Harvey's instrumental and chamber works, beginning with two minutes of musical madness for prepared piano and tape, based on the finale of Chopin's Piano Sonata in B flat minor.

This is followed by a musical depiction of the god Shiva in his guise as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance.

Then a memorial to Harvey's friend Peter Gibbs, ex-RAF pilot and leader of the BBC Scottish Orchestra, who died in a mysterious plane crash; The Riot, an exhilarating trio for flute, clarinet and piano (the name is an anagram of the Dutch group for whom it was written - Het Trio); and a recent work, Harvey's String Trio, whose energising spark, the composer tells us, is the collision of two different musical moods - the sacred and the folkoristic.

Homage to Cage, à Chopin (und Ligeti ist auch dabei - 1998) for piano and tape



The orchestra learns to speak in one of Harvey's most ambitious and complex works to date - Speakings, which was premiered at the BBC Proms 2008.

As the composer himself explains it: 'The orchestral discourse, itself inflected by speech structures, is electro-acoustically shaped by the envelopes of speech taken from largely random recordings.

The vowel and consonant spectra-shapes flicker in the rapid rhythms and colours of speech across the orchestral textures.

A process of 'shape vocoding', taking advantage of speech's fascinating complexities, is the main idea of this work.'



The theme of nature runs through the programme - trees form the backdrop to Moving Trees, a ravishing short piece for chamber ensemble written in response to a commission from Belgian choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker.

Birds crop up - first, in Chu (Tibetan for 'bird'), then in Bird Concerto with Pianosong, which began life as Piano Concerto with Birdsong until Harvey realised that the birds were the main protagonists.

The birds in this case are synthesized ones from California, and they transform, morph and interact with the orchestra in extraordinary ways.


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The final programme begins with a short piece for solo guitar, Sufi Dance - which the composer describes as 'a memory of a Sufi song heard some time ago and probably incorrectly retained or at least filtered through my own paths of thought' - and ends with a major work for chorus and orchestra, Messages, whose text consists entirely of the names of Judaic and Persian angels.

The composer calls it his most intuitive work to date.

The recording chosen is its world premiere in 2008 by the Berlin Philharmonic and Berlin Radio Choir under Reinbert de Leeuw.