How Buddhism influenced a great composer

Look beyond culture and beyond the conditioning of your own personality is one of Buddhisms most powerful messages. As is the awakened view so painfully relevant to our current predicament that all things are impermanent, impersonal, and on some level unsatisfactory. A number of celebrated composers have followed the path of transcending culture and the ego, and accepting the inevitable impermanence of everything, including music, pandemics and, sadly, life itself. One of the composers deeply influenced by Buddhism was Jonathan Harvey. His ... towards a Pure Land for large orchestra evokes the state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping, and with Body Mandala and Speakings it comprises his Buddhist-themed Glasgow trilogy. In a 2010 radio interview Jonathan spoke to me about the influence of Buddhism, and the first quotation below is taken from that interview.

The second quotation is Jonathan speaking to Arnold Whittall in 1999. In this he speaks in praise of Buddhism's 'lonely, quiet, peaceful places' and my photos were taken at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery of the Theravadan Thai Forest Tradition. Between the two quotes is a photo taken at the 2010 radio interview by Jonathan's wife Rosa, and note the Tibetan singing bowls flanking the bronze of Hindu deity Shiva. In the interview Jonathan explained how 'It’s all vibrations, I mean music and the world, everything is oscillation', and the transcendental vibrations of singing bowls are heard in many of his compositions, including his 'Buddhist opera' Wagner Dream.

'All artists try different paths. They constantly change, and they have their 'this' period or their 'that' period. I am not saying the Buddhist 'thing' is my Buddhist period. I think it goes back rather longer than that. I came across Buddhism perhaps after [Rudolf] Steiner, but even before that when I was a student at Cambridge, but I was never really wholeheartedly into it. So I have been Buddhist most of my life. But the Buddhist phase would be quite recent if you look at the titles of my music and the explicit musical themes - maybe ten of fifteen years - and I don't mind being called a Buddhist composer. But like all artists I don't particularly like being called only a Buddhist composer. So, of course, it's a subject I could expound on for a long time, about what being a Buddhist composer is. But that's another story. '

'As someone with Buddhist tendencies, particularly at this stage of my life, I enjoy looking back on my life with the kind of rather objective question: why does one person have predilections this way and another that way? What is the nature of Karma? What is the mental continuum that continues through the process of reincarnation? Is there such as thing as reincarnation? These are questions which fascinate me and I can see, looking back, that I did have certain predilections. Where they came from is what fascinates me. These predilections were towards mysticism and transcendental experience [...] 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 heterodox consciousness, which of course had many resonances in oriental religions. Someone said, 'You only have 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 could stay a few days; usually lonely, quiet, peaceful places'

This is a revised version of an April 2014 post. Second text is taken from Jonathan Harvey by Arnold Whittall. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


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