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January 20, 2012

Jonathan Harvey: spirits soar in the hands of a master

The Daily Telegraph (UK):

What does “spiritual” music sound like? Walk into any big record store, or turn on Classic FM, and you’ll find a fascinating variety of answers. It can sound like the surging, soaring choral harmonies of Eric Whitacre, the American composer who is literally the pin-up boy for new spiritual music (he used to be a male model). It can hail from the native English choral tradition, in such older figures as John Rutter or younger ones such as Gabriel Jackson. It can sound like those innumerable “Music for Healing” CDs (which you can buy in a job lot with some nice pyramidal “healing crystals”), or the atavistic drones and chants of John Tavener.

Much of this music makes my heart sink. For one thing, it tries to raise us up by looking back. In its desperate efforts to be timeless, it simply sounds old-fashioned. The other problem is that the idea of a musical genre stamped “spiritual” is deeply suspect. All music (or rather, all good music) is spiritual, in that it defies the mechanical ticking of the clock, aligns our being with its dancing motion, and gives us a delicious sense of being freed from tedious rationality. As T S Eliot put it, “You are the music, while the music lasts.” This is as true of a humble Haydn minuet or a Cole Porter song as it is of a lofty sacred piece by Tallis or Palestrina.

By that measure, much of this “spiritual” music is a dismal failure; a noxious blend of nostalgia and narcosis. Only a few composers manage to rise above its limitations. At the end of this month, the BBC offers a Total Immersion in one of them: Jonathan Harvey. His music never harks back, but neither is it self-consciously modern. It glories in the present moment, which it makes real by transfixing our senses, in the same way a rosy dawn makes us forget everything else.

How does Harvey pull off this remarkable feat? By making glowing musical images that carry an instantly perceptible symbolic value. Read more.

Posted by acapnews at January 20, 2012 12:00 AM