No bar to spiritual ritual

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, January 21st.

Michael Downes
Jonathan Harvey: "Song Offerings" and "White as Jasmine"
Ashgate £35

The writing of “new music” has become a largely secular process. Its goals have often been quasi-technological as much as artistic, and the idea that music is expressive of anything much beyond its own structure – let alone the Romantic conception of music as a mode of access to the spiritual realm – has long ago been passed over in favour of models that bear a lighter metaphysical load. Those composers, such as John Tavener and Arvo Pärt, who conceive of music as a means of expressing spiritual and religious devotion, tend to explore idioms at some remove from the Modernist mainstream.

There are three prominent exceptions. The first, Olivier Messiaen, exercised an influence through teaching and composition over the past forty years comparable only to Arnold Schoenberg’s in the forty years before that. The influence of the second, Karlheinz Stockhausen, has also been extensive; but even his admirers have found his oblique, idiosyncratic spiritualisms somewhat hard to swallow. The third is the English composer Jonathan Harvey, whose stature has never equalled that of the other two, but to whom few would deny an important position in post-war European music. Though close in artistic purpose to Stockhausen, with whom he shares the view that by virtue of its ambiguity and resistance to decoding “all good music is spiritual music”, Harvey does not share his late German contemporary’s Messiah complex. He has his detractors, however. Even so sympathetic a critic as Ivan Hewett has charged him with wanting the impossible when it comes to simultaneously enacting and representing ritual in music, while Arnold Whittall, whose concise 1999 book about the composer has remained until now the principal secondary source, aligns himself with the sceptics, asking how it can be “possible to link these very profound and longstanding spiritual concerns with the concreted specifics of modern compositional techniques – serialism [and] spectralism”? One of the merits of Michael Downes’s new study of the composer is that it skewers this question. Where is the real conflict between the kind of enlightened Anglican- Buddhism which best characterizes Harvey’s interests and the motivation to develop the musical materials of an age? Even if it is conceded that the links between wider cultural modernity and secularism are far from merely incidental, there seems to be no contradiction per se between the methods, sounds and artistic aims of musical modernism and religious sentiment. Much music of the last half century draws on and lends itself to ritual, contemplation and transformative experience. A visiting Martian might therefore conclude that we have been living in the most spiritual of all musical ages.

The principal aim of Downes’s book is to provide an analytical guide to two of Harvey’s works. Both Song Offerings, from 1985, and White as Jasmine (1999) are written for female voice with instrumental accompaniment, and both set texts chosen by Harvey to reflect his own spiritual leanings. Musically, the two song cycles are among Harvey’s most accessible works. The settings – of Rabindranath Tagore (whom Harvey originally discovered through his readings of Yeats) in Song Offerings, and the mystical and devotional bhakti texts used for White as Jasmine – allow the non-specialist reader to enter into Harvey’s spiritualist aesthetic, from which vantage point the music is more likely to make sense.

But it is Downes’s secondary purpose, to provide an outline of Harvey’s musical style and artistic aims, that is most successful. The close focus on the two works lends credibility and insight to the outer chapters. The study of the manipulation of pitches in Song Offerings, to create a web of relations which mirror the spiritual journey embarked on in the text, gives force to the more general observations Downes makes about Harvey’s longstanding insistence on the use of patterns and processes which any ear, with a little guidance, can follow. At one point in musical history, this emphasis on intelligibility would have set Harvey apart from many of his colleagues at IRCAM, Paris’s state-sponsored hive of electro-acoustic musical activity, where Harvey has collaborated regularly since the early 1980s, and still the nerve centre of musical “research” in this area. But Harvey’s use of computers has always been directed toward adapting and transforming elements of instrumental music, rather than generating experimental processes and sound-worlds for their own sake. And in an age where material exploration comes cheaply, Harvey’s developmental, integrative approach may well prove prescient.

If Downes’s book has a fault, besides the odd stylistic aberration, it is a lack of authorial distance. Often it seems that little separates the author’s perspective from that of his subject. Much of the research for the book was interview-based, and Downes has worked before with Harvey on the revision of the composer’s doctoral thesis, submitted in 1964 and eventually published as Music and Inspiration in 1999. But as both amanuensis and apologist, Downes is an articulate and reassuring guide. His readers will soon find themselves better listeners, both to Harvey and to music in general.

Popular Posts