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Jonathan HARVEY (1939-2012)
Tombeau de Messiaen for piano and tape (1994) [8.35]
Mortuos plango, vivos voco for 8 channel tape [1980/1999) [9.10]
4 Images after Yeats for solo piano (1969) [21.35]
Ritual Melodies for quadraphonic tape (1990 –remixed 1999) [13.30]
Philip Mead (piano)
Produced by Jonathan Harvey
rec. Vestry Hall, London, date not given
SARGASSO SCD28029 [53.02]

This is a disc of four works demonstrating Jonathan Harvey’s use of electronic techniques and sound manipulation, something which from c. 1980 onwards he felt strongly was the way forward for serious music of his, and possibly our, time.

It all started when the composer went to the IRCAM Studios in Paris and produced mortuos plango, vivos vocom in which he famously mixed the voice of his chorister son, Dominic, with the great bell of Winchester Cathedral. His idea was to get inside the sounds and to create “not a dehumanised work” (as other composers had possibly done) but to “keep close to the original sounds”. He ended up producing something incredibly haunting and a piece which has become almost his best-known composition.

The title is taken from the bell’s inscription translated thus: ‘I count the hours, I lament the dead, I call the living to prayer”. Harvey was a deeply spiritual, softly-spoken man, as I recall from meeting him, and his character and the aim of the music are fully established.

The star of this CD, apart from the composer himself is pianist Philip Mead who has made Harvey’s music a strong part of his repertoire. Tombeau de Messiaen is for tape and piano. The tape has pre-recorded colours taken from of the harmonic sequence with its distortions. There are twelve possibilities, one for each pitch. The piece is largely undramatic until about ninety seconds from the end when it blows up into a stormy orgy of coruscating falling clusters, totally wild and unexpected. It then fades into stillness, burnt out.

Harvey’s experience at IRCAM informed and fed into the language of his non-tape works. If you know pieces like the ‘Inner Light’ set or ‘Madonna of Winter and Spring’ or ‘Body Mandala’, you will know what I mean, but his earliest pieces seemed to be searching for a soundworld he wasn’t to discover for another fifteen years.

So, Philip Mead’s recording of Images after Yeats from 1969 is a good example. This piece falls into four sections, each one tracked but the first three only amounting to less than five minutes, whereas the last one is over sixteen. The reason is that in this movement there are several quotations from the musical past, Bach, Mozart, and Schumann, Liszt, Scriabin and Schoenberg, in chronological order. The 1960’s was a period when composers used quotations. Sir John Tavener did so in ‘Ultimos Ritos’ (1972), as did Bernt Alois Zimmermann in many works. This fourth movement is closely allied to Yeats’ challenging poem beginning, ‘A tree there is that from its topmost bough’ which is all about the cycle of rebirth after ‘a purgatorial re-living of the passions of memory”. The quotations are couched within a post-Webern soundworld more aligned to Stockhausen, who was for a while a close associate of Harvey. It is certainly a unique work in form and content and worth re-hearing.

It was inevitable that Harvey would attempt, while at IRCAM, to create a piece where the sounds were totally computer-generated and Ritual melodies was produced. It has an interesting form. The computer generated the sounds of an Indian oboe, Vietnamese koto, shakuhachi, temple bells, western plainchant and Tibetan chant and Harvey’s advisor Jan Vanderheede showed the composer how the sounds could drift into each other and then be pulled apart. The ideas are formulated in the format A AB BC CD etc. and then there is a feeling of them being put back together. The chosen, rather sacred, sounds help to create what the composer calls “an imaginary rite”.

This, then, is a re-release of a disc from twenty years ago. The playing time is a little disappointing but it’s really helpful and useful to have Harvey’s main works for tape gathered in one place and to have his original notes in such superb performances and realisations. If you have other discs by this composer, you will realise that this one fills a gaping hole.

Gary Higginson

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