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Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012)

A discussion with F. DAVID PEAT on May, 24,1996

This discussion with the English composer, Jonathan Harvey revolves around the dialectic tension between absolute music and the physicality of sound. The act of composition was also talked about as well as the spiritual nature of early and contemporary music.

Harvey was born in Sutton Coldfield, England 1939. He went to St John’s College, Cambridge and then, on the advice of Benjamin Britten, he studied under Hans Keller and Erwin Stein, both of the school of Schoenberg. As Harkness Fellow in Princeton, he had a brief contact with the composer Milton Babbitt who became an influence on his later composition. In the early 1980 he was invited by Pierre Boulez to the Institute of Contemporary Music in Paris. His pieces include Mortuos Plango, Vivos Boco, Bhakti, Ritual Melodies, Advaya, Madonna of Winter and Summer, Cello Concerto, Lightness and Weight, Timepieces and two string quartets. His opera, Inquest of Love, was premiered by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum in 1993. Harvey now spends part of the year as Professor of Composition at Stanford University in the United States.

I met Harvey at his home in the south of England and we began to talk about the relationship of physical to absolute music and of the Apollonian and Dionysian in music. On the one hand there is a music based on the pure logic of relationships, having perfect intervals and proportions. It is a music very close to architecture and, if performed, would require exact tuning and pure, vibrationless tones. Then there is music that carries the individuality of the sounding body. It is a personal music replete with emotion and history. On the one hand it could be said to interfere with the perception of pure relationship, on the other hand it has a direct human quality.

We also talked of those musics which exploit the physicality of their production; the nature of the sound substance and sound event. One example would be Japanese music in which breath, sustained notes and accidental sound of the fingers hitting the keys are all appreciated as music. Or plainsong and overtone singing in which one is bathed in the reverberations of sound substance so that the past is always there in the present.

Our discussion also revolved around the senses of tension and resolution, progression, argument and unity in Western music. Other musics have quite different orders, such as an Indian raga; or Islamic music which does not so much strive for resolution as to raise the soul to ecstasy through repetitive events of greater and greater internal density.

We also touched on the Dionysian element in music; the ceremonial, the binding together of a group, and even the potential for a collective change of consciousness, within a football chant, a rave party or a rock concert. There is even the ancient notion that matter can be transformed through music, and that particular types of music or chants have a particular correspondence to the body, and to states of spiritual elevation.

For Harvey the greatest music involved a fusion of these two approaches—absolute, Pythagorean order and the personality of the sounding body, it is a dialectic between the Apollonian and the Dionysian in music.

Early music of the Church was abstract and proportional. The Mass and Motet, for example, was an expression of a community singing in perfect proportions and far from individual passions. Bach also combined great purity of intervals with deep spirituality. Mozart achieved a perfect balance of the two while, by the nineteenth century, there was more sense of sounding body and the personality of the performer. But in doing so music also tended to lose sight of the objectivity of the community.

Harvey: It’s so hard to know what they thought in early times. Bernard of Clairvaux was the most glorious mathematician and architect of the age. Everything was calculated in music and architecture. There is no ornament. Everything is very bright and with long resonances. Plain chant is a sea. Your past is still present while going into the future. The monks would sustain this sea of sound for maybe 24 hours in shift. People at that time lived in sound as a physical substance. It bound a community together and music was not about performance but was an inward meditation.

Music today is very pluralistic. It contains both a spiritual tendency and an objectivity. Between the 50s and 70s music became very occupied with number systems and abstraction. There was the Darmstadt school and Boulez. And on the spiritual side Messiaen and Stockhausen were highly intelligent and spiritual but also emotional and questioning in a scientific way. And today…maybe music has spun loose.

I questioned Harvey further on this relationship between, on the one hand the spiritual and music and, on the other, abstract mathematical order.

Harvey: Yes, there is a spiritual sense though number. But there are also other spiritual senses. For me it is a matter of refinement of feeling. I practice meditation and after years of meditation these feelings become very delicate, almost silent. At its best some of my music is close to silence. So it has nothing to do with Pythagoras. It has to do with the other side and with the physicality of sound. It is like the inscape of sound.

When you work with electronics you can get into sound and listen to a single sound for a day. But in instrumental performance the notes keep on going. But now, thanks to electronics, we can meditate on the nature of sound itself, on the matter of sound. We can enter into this sound event in the natural world; into the glory, the inscape of the thing itself. You can enter into the immanence of sound and find spirit.

Now you can’t get into this if you are involved in the traditional argument and tensions of Western music, or into melody, because it moves too quickly. But you do find tension in the nature of the sound’s radiance. It is not rhythmic. It’s not pounding, not arguing. It is a dwelling in sound, a being rather than a becoming. You lose the duality between you and the music.

This study of sound in itself has long existed in the East. Japanese flute players practice on a single note for hours. They listen to the spirit of the sound. This becomes the universe; they don’t have to move with melody. It becomes very delicate. It’s a different metaphysics of time; it is moving to medieval music and on before that.

Peat:  What are the physical effects of this?

Harvey: There are past myths of sound having effects on matter. Music changes consciousness. When there is a good atmosphere at a concert something gets into the hall. People become very still and you can really sense this. I’m aware of that when I am compose, that the music I create is consciousness changing.

Peat: What about composing?

Harvey: Getting going is like doodling. You go round and round in circles waiting to get going. If I knew where I was going, I wouldn’t want to compose. Then there comes a faint idea. It’s as if two forces are operating. The idea is conscious, and it’s grabbed by the unconscious where it becomes powerful emotionally and spiritually.

There is probably not a lot of ego in my music now. I like to think about spiritual texts and get close to that world. I don’t trust my ego to do it. I don’t want to compose from the egotistical world—that competitive world, to impressing people—I like to compose like a vessel. Sometimes I have a dream, or during a meditation a short passage will come, it’s a network of relationships.

Peat: I wonder what came to Mozart?

Harvey: The vision of the whole is important. Think of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. In that first half second the whole symphony is there. Its a thing, a complex thing outside time. On the other hand, music isn’t really that logical. After all Bach could have written many different sequences on a given theme. But when it’s finished then one knows ‘that’s it,’ everything is in place. It could not be in any other way. In every moment of the Eroica the whole is contained. Beethoven played one chord—then he played it and the bits after, then played it again, a chord not interesting in itself but in its context its powerful.

It’s a whole thing. It’s a banal chord in itself but in the context it contains the whole. Every part of the Eroica must contain every part. It has meaning only because it’s part of the whole. After all, in that music there are only twelve notes!

But again I’m talking about the Western paradigm of unity in music. It is something we have come to demand. But Indian music can go on for hours or not. Islamic is detailed pattern. Possibly Western music is a limited subcategory of music.

Peat: The demands you make on your music are of a sort of complex unity. And in some way this unity must also contain implication of unexpected. For without the unexpected the music would be without energy. So what happens as you get further and further away from that image of Beethoven and tension?

Harvey: It’s a dialectic in my case. Sometimes I use traditional forms, sometimes just being in the music. In my opera everything takes place after death, a state in which there are static states of being and purgatorial ones. So the two interact. In my music I’m concerned with the pathway whereas Arvo Pärt and John Tavener are more concerned with stasis.

Of course I was oversimplifying before when I spoke of exploring the inner nature of acoustic sound, because the music can seamlessly move over into the other world of striving and back again. One is present underneath the other. In every conflict there is a tranquility—to fight we must agree to fight. Music can bring this underlying harmony in conflict.

Partly the music is about the nature of consciousness and about physical sound. It is a reflection of the cosmos. The cosmos is consciousness, we understand it through consciousness. The two can’t be separated.

The content of the music may have an objective feel, but it is the movement of consciousness. It can become unengaged and contemplating itself, but there is greater engagement in my music because I am partly a romantic, an expressionist. It is an expression of being. It is using the physical, using the body, and refining it.

In a way the Pythagorean tradition is a bit of a heuristic tradition. It is written in the history of music. But then, maybe like David Bohm, it is all sensation. Maybe it is the feeling in the body of perfect intervals. After all these correspondences are pretty universal in cultures—but then not always. There are exceptions. Other cultures have different tunings. Maybe they’re not simple ratios but they are always exact. Then everyone has the octave but musical gestures are not universal.

I feel that there are certain universalities in music, such as simple ratios and the active octave. If we are given no additional data then we expect the same sort of things to occur and so the interruption of a repetition can be a joke or whatever. Of course there are books that aim to tell what the intervals mean, but all this is rather dodgy.

Maybe people resonate best at some frequency. St Bernard said this is the way to God, more than the scriptures, by chanting. There is certainly something about sound and ratio. St Bernard loved mathematics and the complex mathematical designs of buildings. Maybe number and ratio were more living things in those days. People certainly felt that mathematics reflected the divine. But it’s very difficult to hear some of these mathematical orders so one must speculate about what they felt. After all, sloppy sounds and sound waves are very different from the precision of numbers, so it’s a big leap. Only with electronics can you do that, can you make precise mathematical shapes.

Boethius felt musica instrumentalis was inferior to musica humana and in turn to musica mundana (celestial or cosmic music). Humans make mistakes when they play. Absolute music is difficult to hear. If you have the score before you can hear more but you quickly forget, and two days later, without the score, you lose your grip. But with simple relationships it can be very clear.

Serialism has crashed. It was supposed to transform structure, but people could not get any further. Today some go back to conservatism, romanticism, tonal music or minimalism, others go forward to acoustic music and interior nature of sound. Minimalists can be quite joyful but sometimes there’s not enough complexity to unify. The form is not strong enough to sustain an idea. It could stop any time and there appears to be no hierarchy. Steve Reich is the best. Tavener is less subtle than Carver, but on the other hand he wants his music to have second place to prayer, so that the music does not interfere. After all the church has always opposed elaborate music because it distracts. But for musicians it brings them closer.

We moved on to a discussion of Michael Tippett.

Harvey: I’m in sympathy with his ideas, trying to get to the wholeness of the person and heal.

We discussed Tippett’s notion of ‘possession’ during the act of composition and Harvey felt such composition needed a good technique that will send up a warning flag so that the visionary still makes sense. On the other hand, a really a great composer has such an innate sense of order he does not have to think about it anymore so that it never sounds technical or intellectual. It works so quickly and efficiently it does not get in the way of possession. Wagner was like that in Tristan and Parsifal; the possession may be Dionysian, but it is always clear.

We also talked about Britten’s Death in Venice. Harvey felt it was a debate about music and a profound opera. In Britten’s own life there was an obsession with the homosexual love of beautiful boys which Britten seemed to take as spiritual and contrasted it with the Dionysian and physical which he seemed to find indecent. This, in a sense, was Britten’s tragedy. After all music is about sexuality and spirituality and it moves effortlessly from one to another. It acknowledges, separates, and unites. Music is a mystery. It is also something we can project onto. It is so involving that we can project onto it endlessly.

We discussed the idea of complexity. In one sense it may mean having more and more relationships within the music. But I also argued for some of Matisse series of drawings in which an initial detailed drawing appears to become simpler and simpler, in the sense of having less lines. Yet, on the other hand, a simple drawing can be very complex in the way it engages us because it draws on an ever more complex visual decoding. Harvey agreed that this can also be true in music and that what appears on the surface to be simpler can be more complex in the act of listening. Mozart used very few notes. His economy is incredible but every note is charged with many references. That spareness can be like approaching silence, it is the minimal manifestation of music.

So what is silence and what is its meaning? Silence should be pregnant, a full silence. To achieve this you have to work extremely hard so that it is not boring. Silence must be deserved. It must involve a great tension and energy and fullness in the silence. It is close to the profoundness level of consciousness which, when achieved in meditation, is rich and powerful. In the music of Anton Webern there is both presence and silence. The listener is drawn to the stillness of the silence.

But there is another type which is structural silence—Mozart for example—it’s a structural silence but you still feel the beat going on. Or there can be the dramatic silence in a Beethoven symphony. The other silence is like the quantum vacuum, or superconductor. Webern, Stockhausen and Cage all thought silence was important. It can also be an opportunity to listen to the environment in which the music takes place. It is the Zen silence of the logical mind, so whatever happens in the silence is just itself.

In plain chant there is a stillness within the sound. Time ceases.  Stasis and silence are linked, no longer progressing. This has resonance in modern physics and the state of pure mediation may be a prespace? In Vedic philosophy, beyond thought there is non-thought.