Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Towards a pure land

This work is for string quartet with elaborate real-time electronics. The sounds of the players are diffused in space with thematic rhythms so that the flying spatialisation is integral to the structure, part of the transformation process. Using IRCAM's SPAT programme (with the help of Gilbert Nouno) it is possible to locate the sounds at any distance, at any point. This point can then be moved, like a living presence; the sound acquires an attribute closer to life, but unseen. When this movement is regular, like the repetitions of dance steps, for instance, the 'presence' begins to take on a character, a personality (though still invisible). Such music becomes a metaphor of subtle modes of being, from 'astral travel', to dreaming, to Gaston Bachelard's 'vertical imagination', to Nietsche's flying fantasies in Zarathustra, to Buddhist visualisation practices in higher meditation (etc.!). The quartet is the dreamer, the spatialisation the dream... All sorts of psychic metamorphoses are undergone by the string sound; it seems to enter into spaces like the centre of the earth - deep bass transposition - or open empty spaces. Such is the imagined relation of player to the electronic treatment. Formally the quartet is divided into 'cycles'; it is as if several lives are depicted, each dying and being reborn with traces of the previous ones. Repetition, transformation; architecture and narrative; construction, dissolution: these are the characteristics of both autonomous music and what it refers to outside itself.
That is Jonathan Harvey's programme note for his Fourth String Quartet. In it 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. Dating from 2003, the 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 SACD set of Jonathan Harvey's complete String Quartets and String Trio performed by the Arditti Quartet on the French Aeon label. 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 had no interest in formulaic composition, and actively avoided the stylistic stasis that bedevilled many of his peers. Development was central to his work, as can be seen in the evolution from the plainsong inspired Passion and Resurrection of 1981 to the mix of acoustic and electronic sounds in the Fourth Quartet. He was a true polymath who combined a deep interest in Buddhism, mysticism and the work of Rudolf Steiner with composing uncompromisingly modern music. In Arnold Whittall's invaluable biographical study Jonathan Harvey explains how his musical path is a rejection of the obsession with individual identity and suffering found in nineteenth century music, and a move towards the pure land which he invokes so powerfully in the 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.
With his Fourth Quartet Jonathan Harvey defied the zeitgeist of accessibility. But those who reject it because of this should study Bruno Walter's 1905 essay 'On Understanding Art'. In it Bruno Walter argues that, to quote the paraphrase by Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky: "true critics, if moved but puzzled by a new piece of music, will withhold judgement and attribute their confusion to the limitations of their perception, perhaps eventually gaining a just appreciation for the work in question".

* ... 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? The paradise garden in my photos is the Dashang Kagyu Ling - Temple of a Thousand Buddhas in La Boulaye, France. 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.

In a neat example of interdependence I bought the CDs of Jonathan Harvey's quartets in Saint Dizier on the same trip to France in 2009 that I 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

1 comment:

Pliable said...

Angus O'Neill informs me that an entry for Jonathan Harvey has been added to the Oxford Biography Index - "an accurate index of notable people from throughout history – their names, dates, and fields of activity" - http://www.oxforddnb.com/index/105/101105876/