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