Jonathan Harvey: Touching the Void
Jonathan Harvey’s music has always contained visions of the beyond. As he faces death himself, he talks to Tom Service
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 26 January 2012 16.29 EST
Composer Jonathan Harvey’s smile is just as generous and infectious as it has always been, but the rest of his physical body is wasting away. “They tell me – gently – that it will become more uncomfortable, and that there isn’t much time”, he says, reflecting on the motor neurone disease that will end his life. There is no trace of bitterness or fear in the way he tells me, just a simple and moving acceptance of what is happening to him.
We are in his house in Lewes, looking out over the South Downs, but Harvey is contemplating a journey to that place “behind the veil” – a phase of his life that his deep immersion in Buddhist thought and practice has prepared him for. Long a devotee of eastern philosophy, even the titles of some of Harvey’s recent orchestral pieces hint at his fascination with Buddhist ideas of the beyond, of reincarnation: Body Mandala, Tranquil Abiding, … Towards a Pure Land. The ideas are one thing, but it’s the way that Harvey’s music gives that experience of transcendence and wonder so directly to his listeners that makes it so special. There is no more consistently wonderful composer than Harvey, no other contemporary music – classical or otherwise – that makes your jaw drop with joy and delight at the sheer voluptuous possibilities orchestral or electronic sound has to take you to other dimensions of being and thinking.
And his work is at last getting the attention it deserves in his homeland. This weekend, 72-year-old Harvey is the featured composer of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion series, and he has a major British premiere in June, when the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will play his orchestral and choral epic, Weltethos, a revelation, through music, of the interconnectedness of all the world’s major religions. “The Mexican composer Carlos Chávez said that you have to go through a period of quarantine as a composer”, he says. “Well, I wasn’t played for decades in this country … but it seems as if that is changing now.”
Harvey’s music realises its visions with startling power. He talks of the essential things that he thinks great music should express: “Freedom, light, and love.” He’s too modest to suggest that his own music radiates those qualities. Yet that’s exactly what it does.
The pieces the BBC Symphony Orchestra will play on Saturday night are cases in point: the cathartic, pulsing wildness of Body Mandala, inspired by Tibetan purification rituals, and the epic drama and luminous stillness of Madonna of Winter and Spring.
But it’s precisely the lack of cynicism in his view of the world, and music, which made him a composer outside the mainstream of musical life in the UK. Harvey’s single-minded focus on the spiritual dimensions of music “just wasn’t very British”, he says. Neither was his exploration of the new sonic realms opened up by electronics. Computers weren’t the route to hermetic, highfalutin abstraction in Harvey’s music, but simply another means to express emotional and spiritual transcendence. You can hear that in his first works to use them, such as the tape piece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, a fantastical electro-acoustic explosion of the sounds of his chorister son’s singing and church bells, or the fusion of tape with a live ensemble in Bhakti. In more recent music such as his Fourth String Quartet, the electronics turn the four string instruments into supernatural musical beings that exist both in the physical world of wood, string, and metal, and an ether of electronic shadows and halos.
And yet what gives Harvey’s music its sense of authentic expression, what makes it so essential, is that it isn’t afraid to confront the darkness, dynamism, and contradictions of human life. And nowhere is that confrontation clearer than in the piece that’s the climax of the BBCSO’s weekend, the first UK performance of his opera, Wagner Dream. First heard in Luxembourg in 2007, Wagner Dream is “a fusion of my two selves”, Harvey says. It’s a piece that unites two of the totems of Harvey’s musical and spiritual lives: Wagner and Buddhist philosophy. “I love Wagner’s music. I still weep at the sensual, erotic power of that late, hyper-Romantic music. When I was a teenager, that was what obsessed me, to discover how Wagner created these other places, these visions, in his music, to find where that power came from.”
Wagner Dream begins on the day of Wagner’s death, in Venice in 1883. In the moments before his demise he is granted the chance to finally realise a dream he had for decades: an opera on the Buddha, called Die Sieger (The Victors). So much is historical fact – strange as it seems, Wagner, acme of late-Romantic ego-mania, was as fascinated by Buddhism as he was by any of the western religions.
Harvey’s opera gives Wagner the opera he didn’t live to write. It tells the story of Prakriti, a woman who finds acceptance in the religious order of the monks and the Buddha (who has a singing part in Wagner Dream), at the moment she realises the connection between sensual, physical love and spiritual fulfilment. Unlike the erotic infatuations in Wagner’s own operas, this is a love defined by egolessness and letting go rather than heroism or lust. At the end of the opera, set to some of Harvey’s most violent and suddenly serene music, Wagner dies. Harvey’s opera releases him into that place “beyond time, beyond the body”.
He has been there before. Before I leave, Harvey talks about one of the pieces that Guildhall students will play this weekend, Songs of Li Po. “It will only be the second time I have heard this piece. Mahler set this poetry too, in Das Lied von der Erde.” Li Po’s poems, written in China in the 8th century, are mixtures of the corporeal and joyful as well as the transcendent. “Do you know how he died? He went for a drunken row in a boat in a lake one night, and he leaned over the side, trying to kiss the moon.”
Harvey smiles – again, as he nearly always does. His music has kissed the moon for decades now; has found ways of making the intangible tangible, has made time slow down, and has transfigured the fragility of musical sounds into harbingers of eternity. I look outside the window. A Buddha in the garden beams contentedly, the birds sing, the trees rustle in the wind. And at the still centre of it all is Harvey, the man as tranquil as those visions of the beyond in his music.
• The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion: Jonathan Harvey is at the Barbican, London on 28 and 29 January, and is broadcast Radio 3. Details: barbican.org.uk. The CBSO play Weltethos on 21 June.
SOURSE: BUDDHIST ART NEWS