Jonathan Harvey (b. 1939) is one of the most important of contemporary British composers. His music incorporates varied conceptual realms -- both serialism and spectralism, both his sacred Anglican music background and his current Buddhism -- and many years working with electroacoustic sonics. His 2008 NMC disc of orchestral works was one of his best yet, and so I had high hopes for "Speakings for large orchestra and electronics" which completes a Buddhist triptych along with "Body Mandala" and "...towards a Pure Land" from that disc. As it turns out, I find it to be the least compelling of the three works on this 2010 Aeon disc, all performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, led by Ilan Volkov. Harvey's residency with the orchestra from 2005-2008 also produced the excellent NMC disc. The common thread linking all three pieces on this disc is the human voice.
"Scena for violin and ensemble" (1992 -- 16'11) features Elizabeth Layton on violin and an ensemble of nine. The violin part moves through five linked tableaux, each meant to evoke an operatic scene -- Lament, Mystical Event, Romantic Event, Dream, and Metamorphosis. So the violin takes the part of a soprano singer. "Scena" begins with great agitation, and ends in peace and stillness, a theme that runs throughout the work of the Buddhist composer.
"Jubilus for viola and ensemble" (2002 -- 25'53) features Scott Dickinson on viola and an ensemble of eight. I find this to be the best of the three works, a slow, meditative piece. According to the liner notes by Bruno Bossis, "[t]he composer had imagined a music that would evoke the image of a solitary monk chanting in a chapel on Mount Athos." The viola part is based on plainchant. Gradually the West is replaced by the East, with an evocation of a Buddhist monastery and "a monk contemplating [on a rocky Tibetan mountaintop] and attempting to transcend his earthly attachments." The Tibetan ritual chant that forms the basis for the viola part comes from the Drukpa Buddhism of the Tibetan Kagyupa tradition. "The piece ... end[s] in a kind of sonic ecstasy in the highest register."
"Speakings for large orchestra and electronics" (2007-8 -- 28'00) in three movements, is quite technically and conceptually innovative. Harvey was assisted by Gilbert Nouno, Arshia Cont and Gregoire Carpenter of IRCAM in creating an electronic part triggered by a MIDI keyboard. "The overall idea of the work is to simulate the learning of speech by the orchestra," and the purification of speech, in Buddhist terms, following the earlier works' themes of the purification of the body ("Body Mandala"), and the purification of the mind ("...towards a Pure Land"). Recordings of human speech, including babies, was recorded and transformed to create the electronic part -- this involved impressive technique.
Part I signifies incarnation, birth, and the speech of babies. Part II signifies the speech of adults -- "frenetic chatter." This second movement culminates in a most impressive passage with bells tolling and a repeating upward three-note motif on trombones. It seems to signal enlightenment. Part III is calm and peaceful, "like some vast, resonating temple." I wish the overall result more effectively conveyed Harvey's vision, but I don't find the first two movements to be very compelling. Once again, as with his earlier BHAKTI, I am underwhelmed by his use of electronics. A much more effective electroacoustic work for orchestra also released in 2010 is York Holler's SPHAREN on Neos.
The best music here is the acoustic music and the previously mentioned BODY MANDALA on NMC, one of his best sets, does not employ electronics. So for anyone just investigating Harvey's music, that is my recommendation for where to start. This Aeon disc is worth seeking out if you know you find Harvey's soundworld compelling, especially for "Jubilus."
I also strongly recommend the recent Complete String Quartets & Trio, also on Aeon. It includes one of Harvey's best electro-acoustic works, the String Quartet No. 4, with Nouno providing live IRCAM electronics.