Zen and the art of new music

'Another difficulty I find with many composers of your generation is, that inspite of the considerable interest and ingenuity of the colour of the music, I often find a lack of interesting shapes in the phrases. Lack of basic ideas can become boring after a time' ~ Benjamin Britten writes in 1968 to a twenty-nine year old Jonathan Harvey.

Although Britten may have had reservations about some of the new composers of the 1960s he had no such reservations about Jonathan Harvey. On Britten's advice Harvey studied with Erwin Stein and Hans Keller, and an invitation from Pierre Boulez in the early 1980s started a longstanding relationship with IRCAM which continues to this day. Today he is one of the leading exponents of electro-acoustic music, and more than eighty CDs of his music have been recorded. His new opera Wagner Dreams was premiered in Luxembourg in May 2007 to considerable critical acclaim. The opera is based on the true story that Wagner was planning an opera, Die Sieger (The Victors), on a Buddhist theme. This was to be based on the story of Prakriti, the untouchable who falls in love with the Buddhist monk Ananda.

There are also Buddhist themes in a highly recommended new CD, Angels, of Jonathan Harvey's choral music sung by Les Jeunes Solistes directed by Rachid Safir. Angels takes its name from the the work commissioned by Kings College, Cambridge in 1994, and the CD also includes Harvey's Missa Brevis written for Westminster Abbey in 1995. The spiritual dimension of Jonathan Harvey's music is underlined by two other outstanding works on the new CD. Marahi is a hymn to the Divine Feminine in the form of the Virgin Mary and the Buddhist Goddess Varahi and sets Sanskrit mantras. The extraordinarily satisfying spiritual path is completed by How could the soul not take flight, a setting of a poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi.

Angels is released on the French Soupir label which is distributed by Nocturne. The Soupir label specialises in contemporary music and little-known classical repertoire. The performance of Les Jeunes Solistes is exemplary, and the sound quality reflects the techical philosophy of this enterprising independent label. The recording was made in the IRCAM Centre in Paris, and has a surprising amount of bloom for a studio recording. Only two microphones were used, and their output was taken directly into the digital recorder without any equalisation or sound-shaping in the signal path. Congratulations to Joël Perrot for a superbly engineered CD.

Jonathan Harvey's Angels will certaily be one of my CDs of 2007. I was delighted to pay full price for it in the UK, but note that it can be bought direct from the Nocturne website for an astonishingly cheap €9.90 - that has to be the new music bargain of the year.

Now read about Stravinsky's Tibetan connection.
Photograph copyright On An Overgrown Path - taken outside my garden shed actually! 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 other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
A reader has kindly sent in these Jonathan Harvey links:

Jonathan Harvey : biographie - Médiathèque de l'Ircam © 2007



deSingel - Jonathan Harvey


" The most French of the English composers".


Muziekcentrum Vlaanderen: steunpunt voor de professionele muzieksector

Pliable said…
Email received:

It is always encouraging to find people like you who want to promote new music, contemporary music. As you pointed out in your recent video, a composer like Jonathan Harvey deserves to reach a much broader audience (I had the chance to see his latest opera, Wagner-Dream, recently in Paris, I was fully charmed by the mix of singing, sprechgesang and a spiritual music supported by subtle electronics).

Paris is a great place for such music, as you know, with the likes of the Intercontemporain or Ircam, etc. However composers are all around the world, and the Internet is a natural way to spot new paths in music.

Keep up the good work.


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