Friday, November 20, 2009

New music in the paradise garden


Gaston Bachelard's image of an ecstatic paradise garden is linked with the Buddhist vision of the pure land, a state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping, in Jonathan Harvey's Fourth String Quartet. Dating from 2003, the Fourth Quartet uses electronics to explore spectralism, the deconstruction and manipulation of sound as an abstract medium to expose what the composer describes as:
'the materiality of the sound itself... the ‘suchness’ – to use a Buddhist term – the ‘thing in itself’: the grain, the richness, the quality of the sound'.
The Fourth Quartet is available in a 2 CD set and audio download of Jonathan Harvey's complete string quartets and trio performed by the Arditti Quartet on the French Aeon label. This survey of the composer's quartets was, in my opinion, one of the highlights of 2009's new releases. The recordings were made in the studios of S├╝dwestrundfunk Baden Baden and the electronics for the Fourth Quartet were provided by IRCAM, an organisation with which Jonathan Harvey has had a long association.


Jonathan Harvey, who turned 70 this year, has no interest in formulaic compositions and continues to develop a unique musical voice that avoids the stylistic stasis that bedevils many of his peers. Development is central to his work, and this can be seen in the evolution from the plainsong inspired Passion and Resurrection of 1981 to the acoustic and electronic mix of the Fourth Quartet. He is a true polymath and combines a deep interest in Buddhism, mysticism and the work of Rudolf Steiner with composing uncompromisingly modern music.

In Arnold Whittall's invaluable biographical book Jonathan Harvey explains how his particular path towards musical subjectivity is a rejection of the obsession with individual identity and suffering found in nineteenth century music and a move towards the pure land visited in his Fourth Quartet:
...but I wanted to solve a problem. To put it very simply, it was the problem of suffering, and it still is. This seems to me the most important problem, in fact the only problem which one should be engaged with: in art as in life, what is suffering and what is the key to alleviating it? It leads back to Buddhism.

Buddha is famous of course for proposing just such a solution and it seems his whole life was engaged in the Bodhisattva mission of alleviating suffering, bringing enlightenment and releasing all beings, all living beings from samsara, the world of suffering. Be that as it may, I certainly felt that this more objective music was in the direction of moving away from this fascinating world of samsara, of suffering, in which we are interminably caught and upon which art endlessly meditates.
There is no point in pretending that all of Jonathan Harvey's recent work is an easy listen, and I am not ashamed to admit that some of his music comes from a point that I haven't yet reached. But if we accept William Goldman's view that 'art tells you uncomfortable things that you perhaps don't want to hear, truths that you may not be comfortable to hear' then there is no doubt that Jonathan Harvey is producing some truly great and uncompromising art.

* ... towards a Pure Land
is also the title of one of Jonathan Harvey's compositions for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It has been recorded on the NMC CD that featured here last year in Body Mandala - a contemporary classic? Follow the middle path for more on the art of Jonathan Harvey.


The paradise garden seen in my photos is the Dashang Kagyu Ling - Temple of a Thousand Buddhas in La Boulaye, France, which we visited in September. The temple, which follows the Vajrayana tradition of Tantric Buddhism, was opened in 1987 in the grounds of a chateau in the Morvan Forest region near to the town of Vichy. Vajrayana Buddhism is also known as the diamond vehicle, and this is reflected in the exuberance of the decorations inside the prayer hall, seen in my upper sequence of photos, and the exterior of the temple, seen in the lower sequence.

* This will be the last post On An Overgrown Path for a while as I am off in search of more paradise gardens. I will be out of computer range so comment moderation will be sporadic. Do support other music blogs while I am away.

In a neat example of interdependence I bought the CDs of Jonathan Harvey's quartets in Saint Dizier on the same trip to France that we visited the Dashang Kagyu Ling Temple on. Arnold Whittall's Jonathan Harvey was bought online. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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