In search of the difficult listen

'At Cambridge I became very absorbed, quite suddenly, in mystical writing, like that of St John of the Cross. Christian mysticism seemed to lead out of a framework that I knew and understood fairly well into a more general, more heteredox consciousness, which of course had many resonances in oriental religion. Someone said, 'You only had to squeeze St John of the Cross like a sponge and you are left with pure Buddhism.' The experiences were enhanced by visits to monasteries, where I would stay a few days; usually lonely, quiet peaceful places'.
Those words from contemporary composer Jonathan Harvey lead us down yet another fascinating overgrown path. To my surprise yesterday's post about the forthcoming Gregorian Chant CD by the nuns of L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation near Avignon in France attracted a record number of readers. As Jonathan Harvey said monasteries are "usually lonely, quiet peaceful" and the header and footer photos ( taken by me and copyright please) evoke the peace found at L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation. Yesterday's post mentioned how the Jade disc of Gregorian Chant from the monks of the partner monastery of Sainte-Madeleine had been in my 'to do' pile when the story about the nun's CD broke, and in a neat example of synchronicity in the same pile was a new release of Jonathan Harvey's music that includes a work inspired by Gregorian Chant.

Speakings, released on the French Aeon label, features three recent works by Jonathan Harvey, Scena (1992) for violin and ensemble, Jubilus (2002) for viola and ensemble and Speakings for large orchestra and electronics, played by the 'band on the rolll' BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with conductor Ilan Volkov and soloists Elizabeth Layton (violin) and Scott Dickinson (viola). A team from IRCAM provide the electronics for the title track and, in an interesting contradiction of my theory that technicians should be seen and not heard, Jonathan Harvey is credited for 'Diffusion/Sound Projection'.

Jubilus builds on the principle of structural amplification found in the plainchant technique of prolonging the final vowel of the Alleluia over many notes in a long melisma, a technique that reached its apogee in the 12th and 13th centuries in the compositions of the Notre Dame School. As Jubilus develops Jonathan Harvey takes the listener on a journey from Catholic to Eastern mysticism as plainsong is transmuted into Tibetan ritual chant inspired by the Drukpa Buddhism of the Tibetan Kagyupa tradition.

This blog is informed by one thing above all others, my personal enthusiasms. These, unashamedly, include the personal integrity and music of Jonathan Harvey. When I wrote about his String Quartets (also on the Aeon label) last year I said "There is no point in pretending that all of Jonathan Harvey's recent work is an easy listen". Today, classical radio stations and corprate record labels, including Universal Music with their L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation project, are obsessive in their search for the easy listen. Yes, of course we need new audiences. But thank goodness composers like Jonathan Harvey and independent labels like Aeon are still prepared to challenge that miraculous but threatened faculty called the human brain with difficult listens.

* Listen to Jonath Harvey talking to me about Speakings in an exclusive podcast.

** More monasteries, Buddhism and Jonathan Harvey in New music in the paradise garden.

*** At the suggestion of Benjamin Britten, Jonathan Harvey studied with Hans Keller. More about Keller in New music's reality check.

**** Plainsong is also used in Jonathan Harvey's 1981 Passion and Resurrection.

***** More new music and ancient monasteries here.

This post is available via Twitter @overgrownpath. Photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Header quote is from Jonathan Harvey by Arnold Whitall. A review copy of Speakings was supplied at my request by Music and Media Consulting. 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


Pliable said…
After re-reading this post I feel that my criticism of classical radio stations should be qualified.

As described in the post the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra recorded the disc. Exorcised from the final version of the post (yes, I do watch the word count) was a credit to Radio France who commissioned Jubilus, while Speakings was commissioned by the BBC SSO. The disc packaging carries a credit to BBC Radio 3, presumably because broadcast tapes were used as masters for the Aeon disc. So two classical radio stations played an important role in making these discs possible.

But in recent months I have spent time listening to the output of Radio France Musique and BBC Radio 3. I am afraid that their admirable patronage of new music does not negate the all too evident switch from art to entertainment at both stations.
Unknown said…
"To my surprise yesterday's post [ ... ] attracted a record number of readers" ... Well, it had 'Lady Gaga' in its title, so not só much of a surprise, really :-)

[ We have two highly abstract sound art videos up at YouTube, two in a same series, both are called "We Need Rock 'n' Roll". The first one (green) is additionally entitled 'Part 1', the second one (blue): 'Part 2'. Part 1 hit some 1500 views; part 2 is approaching the 21000 ... Guess why ... :-) ... ]

Thanks for posting ! JKH
Pliable said…
Hefferman, it's an interesting point you make, but in this case it is not true.

My traffic logs give data on how readers arrive On An Overgrown Path. As I said yesterday's readership was extraordinarily high. Almost everyone came from a search engine search against 'Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation' or similar terms. In fact searches for 'Lady Gaga' did not register on the log.

There are already many very fine recordings of Gregorian Chant available, both from specialist and mainstream labels, and the nuns at Notre-Dame de l'Annonciation already have CDs on the market. It just seemed strange that there was so much interest in this rather unremarkable news item, a Belgian reader tells me that it was a lead story on the TV news there last night. I guess it just reflects society's current obsession, as reflected in Pop Idol and similar, with being discovered and becoming a celebrity.

On a more humorous note I suspect Universal Music got a good deal. Chapter 57 of the Rule of St Benedict says:

Members of the community with creative gifts

If there are any in the community with creative gifts, they should use them in their workshops with proper humility ... What is asked by the monastery should be somewhat lower than the price demanded by secular workshops so that God may be glorified in everything.
Pliable said…
Email received:


By pure chance I was sitting directly behind Jonathan Harvey when the BBCSSO performed Speakings last year, and I can vouch that he was very much hands on with the electronics.

i just wished they'd been brave enough to play the Bruckner 9th in the first half, and Speakings in the second half.


Just off to get the CD, and also the Benedictines of Le Barroux and Lady Gaga
Pliable said…
was very interested to receive the email above from a reader about Jonathan Harvey's Speakings.

After listening to the CD a number of times I was planning to write a piece about it focussing on the role of 'sound designers' in contemporary music. This is a fascinating and important development which I have previously touched on in connection with John Adams' El Niño -

But the Benedictine thread pre-empted my planned story and the sound designer aspect was relegated to a single sentence.

Fascinating that a perceptive reader picked up on that one sentence.
Anonymous said…
Sound diffusion / Projection is not a technicians role. In the art of spatialising audio, the diffusionist is considered to be an interpreter in the same manner as an instrumentalist is when performing a work they didn't compose.

The diffusionist is responsible for controlling how a typically (stereo) pre-recorded sound work fills a room. In a similar manner to an instrumentalist, the skilled diffusionist can add extra dimensions to the pre-recorded work, or not do it justice.

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