On Jonathan Harvey’s ‘Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco’…

November 3rd, 2016

www.phillipcooke.comA couple of years ago I wrote a blog post on Jonathan Harvey in which I gave the briefest of overviews of his career to date, dipping a toe in the water here or there to highlight the odd piece that particularly appealed to me. The piece which I dwelt longest on was the electro-acoustic masterpiece Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, so with Harvey on my mind at the moment I thought I’d put more than my toe in the water this time and throw the rest of my body into this amazing music.

Harvey is a composer whose music has always appealed to me, not in a sort of ‘take-it-to-my-heart’ kind of way, but more that my ears have been tickled by something new, something different and something original. I don’t really know half of the works he composed (unfortunately he died after a long illness in 2012), and certainly nothing from his final years but there are certain key works from throughout his career that are as impressive and as exciting as anything I’ve heard from a British composer in the last forty years.

For those of you unfamiliar with Harvey, he was born in Warwickshire in 1939 made his way to Cambridge, Princeton and then to Paris to (IRCAM – Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique – the Hogwarts of electro-acoustic music, buried deep within the Pompidou Centre in Paris) with Boulez in the early 1980s. He wrote for many of the world’s leading orchestras and performers, had numerous works recorded or broadcast, had festivals devoted to his music across the world and held prestigious academic posts both in the UK and the US. And he had an excellent moustache (well he does in the promo photos of him I have in front of me) – there should be more moustaches in contemporary music…

But what is it particularly about Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco that appeals to me? Well, it certainly isn’t the medium – other than this work and Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge I don’t really know any other electro-acoustic music intimately (in fact, if I’m honest, I can’t name any other electo-acoustic pieces…which is bad…I work with two EA composers…). Too often works in this medium appear to me to involve trying to mesh together disparate sounds (usually including the age-old dichotomy, machine versus nature), failing, then deconstructing the concept into glitches, whirrs and squeaks (rather like a dolphin behind a mixing desk). But that doesn’t happen in Mortuos Plango, the medium seems entirely fitting for Harvey’s concept and the execution is made with a real ear for technical detail and style.

Prejudices aside, what I feel that really draws me to this work is that it is a distillation of an entire tradition into nine minutes of exquisitely heard music – the tradition in question here being the English choral tradition from plainchant to the present.

Now, plenty of people will disagree with me here and perhaps with good reason. However, when we look at the constituent parts of Mortuos Plango and what Harvey then does with them, I may not seem like such a lunatic. He made recordings of the great bell of Winchester Cathedral (which is inscribed with the Latin phrase ‘Horas Avolantes Numero, Mortuos Plango: Vivos ad Preces Voco’ (which translates as ‘I count the fleeing hours, I lament the dead: the living I call to prayer) and of a boy treble’s singing voice (the boy in question being his son, the head chorister at the time, Dominic). Taking these two source materials he begins a kaleidoscopic journey focussing on the overtones of the bell, the purity of voice and the fusing of the two together to create stunning sonorities. I think what is most alluring about the piece is the relationship between the organic and the synthetic, and the grey-area in the middle where we can’t discern what is one and what is the other.

Mortuos Plango does have many of the gestures I associate with electro-acoustic music, but there is something less austere about this work than others in the genre – something more…approachable. As Michael Downes states in his 2009 biography of Harvey, Song Offerings and White as Jasmin: ‘it showed the institute’s apparently esoteric research programme could yield music capable of appealing to a wider audience’. It has, it appealed to me. I think this appeal lies in Harvey’s musical decision-making (there are many fragments in this work that could be understood by a lover of ‘conventional’ music – not least the way Harvey fashions consonant chords from the overtones of the bell) and the aforementioned source material. There seems something entirely fitting about the sounds of the bell and boy’s voice – for many people this is the sound of the choral tradition – add a plangent organ peal and light streaming through an east window and you’ve got the lot. It is organic, natural and timeless – styles will change, composers will come and go, but these are the constants, the fundamentals.

There is a great quote from Jonathan Harvey which states – ‘I have the feeling there’s some new type of music hovering on the horizon, which I can glimpse very fleetingly now and then, and which does seem like a change of consciousness.’ This succinctly sums up his aesthetic – constantly looking for the new and numinous – he finds that in Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, but also the old and ever-present. That’s what appeals to me.


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