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Jonathan Harvey had an ear for transcendence

Associated Press

Komparu Zenchiku, the 15th-century Noh actor, analyzed artistic mastery as passing through six stages he likened to circles or wheels. The final three: the wheel of forms, where the artistic impulse is manifested; the wheel of breaking, where it is shattered; and, finally, the wheel of emptiness, where art becomes artless, and acting is indistinguishable from simply being.

The music of British-born Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012), the focus of a Sound Icon concert May 3, has echoes of Zenchiku’s progression. Harvey was a composer of unusual breadth and curiosity. His talent was initially noticed by Benjamin Britten; he absorbed modernism from Karlheinz Stockhausen at Darmstadt and Milton Babbitt at Princeton. After his son became a chorister at Winchester Cathedral, Harvey wrote a number of works steeped in English church-music tradition. He taught in Britain and the United States. He was invited by Pierre Boulez for a residency at the electronic-music research center IRCAM; the expressive possibilities of advanced technology were a constant interest.


But Harvey’s most consistent subject was transcendence, drawing on Christian traditions — Saturday’s concert features “Death of Light, Light of Death,” a startling quintet commissioned for a 1998 Good Friday performance — and, increasingly over time, Eastern religions. He explored music’s capacity for opposition and multiplicity, for commingling contradictory images and ideas — a “representation of a rich and incredibly complex world which is ultimately at war with itself because it believes itself to be differentiated,” he said.

“Wheel of Emptiness,” for 16 players and electronics, juxtaposes two musical streams: one deep and primordial, one busy and turbulent — a sonic evocation, maybe, of Zenchiku’s stages. “Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco,” a 1980 electronic piece, recombines the sounds of Winchester Cathedral’s bells and his son’s voice, isolating and mixing the spectra, infusing the former with vitality and the latter with tolling gravity. (Both works are on Saturday’s program.)


Buddhism became Harvey’s most enduring inspiration. He likened Buddhist wisdom to the experience of music: “We project on to the sounds, and realize that we are projecting on to the sounds,” he wrote. “That seeing of the double nature of sounds is exactly parallel to, or even the same as, wisdom, which sees the double nature of conventional/ultimate reality. It brings liberation.”

Harvey’s music is anything but placid, but it is saturated with cathartic conviction. He was once asked about the purpose of music. “To reveal the nature of suffering,” he said, “and to heal.”

Sound Icon performs music of Jonathan Harvey on May 3, 8 p.m., at the Fenway Center, 77 St. Stephen St. Free. www.soundicon.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.