Tranquil Abiding, Jonathan Harvey

Xu Bing - Tianshu [cropped]

An obsession with the human voice was a central project in the music of British composer Jonathan Harvey, who sadly passed away this week. It was a preoccupation present right from his first explorations of acoustic and electronic borders at the Paris music research institute IRCAM – the brainchild of Pierre Boulez. Harvey’s 1980 tape piece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco (I lament the dead, I call the living) delved into the particular sonorities of Winchester Cathedral’s Great Bell and his chorister son’s voice – a soundworld where spiritual boundaries met submerged acoustics via groundbreaking digital synthesis. Nearly two decades later, emerging from a period of intense research at Stanford University’s Centre for Composition Research into Music and Acoustics, Harvey’s ecstatic approach to aural shape-shifting elevated the voice to orchestral grandeur.

The voluminous power of sound crosses from instrumental expression towards the voice at its most primal in Harvey’s pulsating 1998 essay, Tranquil Abiding, written for chamber orchestra and extended percussion. Organic symbolism is given physical life as a backdrop of oscillating chordal movement – inhalation and exhalation blown up to universal proportions – while timbral life flickers across the surface. Fractured melody is streaked through this perpetual breath, before drifting into cathartic resonance. The title, described by Harvey as “a state of single-pointed concentration”, is typical of how eastern philosophy infuses his music.

The seminal influences of Stockhausen’s musical mysticism and the electronic soundscapes that Harvey encountered while at Princeton during the 1970s, combined with a personal and intensified spiritual shift to the East, pushed his music out of the confines of the British canon towards a state of “Gregorian Paradise” – a strange meeting of plainchant and Tibetan ritual. Within Harvey’s interest in rendering emotional issues strange by digital technology was a great paradox. Here the electronic world had become a way of discarding the obsession with suffering inherent to 19th century music, reaching for a pure land beyond.

And yet despite its evocation of transcendent realms, the articulation of chant and intense radiance, Harvey’s music has always been a far cry from New Age escapism or the minimalist oases of Arvo Pärt’s “new simplicity”. Writing tonal music “fills me with dread”, the composer once said. Tranquil Abiding’s elongation of soundscapes and unravelling of facades inhabits a complex environment. Buddhist conceptions make a perfect fit for Harvey’s spectralism, where sound is exposed in all its minutiae: “the materiality of the sound itself…the ‘suchness’ – to use a Buddhist term – the ‘thing in itself’: the grain, the richness, the quality of sound”.

Below is a recording of Tranquil Abiding accompanied by a brief listening guide.

Over the course of its 15 minutes, Tranquil Abiding sustains a continuous inhale/exhale structure of held crescendos and lowered decrescendos. The cavernous string motif emerges (0:00), around which the texture increasingly fills (0:46). The breathing grows in climactic force as the orchestra literally works in organic unison. Across this, independent woodwind (1:20) orbit, come loose and expand into rhythmic flourishes (2:50). Fragmentation over textural passivity builds into sharp frenzied song (3:08). By 4:20, the extended percussion of Harvey’s orchestration, complete with oriental bells and gongs, breaks through. This language of symbolic oscillation and sharp expression is stretched out, in a masterclass of orchestral colour, peaking at 11:55 and closing in radiant catharsis at 13:30 with the sound of plucked strings and rustling bamboo.

The above recording for the NMC label comes from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov, on a Buddhist ritual-infused set that also features the song cycle White as Jasmine and Body Mandala’s exploration of the sound of Tibetan low horns.

Harvey’s opera, Wagner Dream, premiered in 2007, is a work of totemic significance. Its dual inspirations – Wagner and Buddhist philosophy – blur the boundaries of geography and thought, in a spectral drama filled with Harvey’s most oppositional music.

Artwork: Tianshu, Xu Bing

by En Liang Khong