Jean Martin interviews Jonathan Harvey 1998

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Jonathan Harvey

Statements made during an interview in Lewes on 18 May 1998
by Jean Martin

I met Jonathan Harvey in his home to do an interview for a programme for German Public Radio DLR Cologne. He was generous with his time, gentle and open. His death on 4 Dec 2012 prompted me to upload some extracts of the interview.

You can listen to the interview with Harvey here (Length: 38'00):
Harvey talk

On inspiration
There is no doubt that going outside yourself can be very liberating. It is in some ways no different from Stockhausen seeing the shapes of the mountains outside his composing window when he was composing the envelopes for Gruppen. You take something completely outside yourself and then you find a music which is very strange and wonderful. There are many instances of people taking the patterns of a leaf or of a tree and being rather slavish about it, allowing it to dictate them what the music should be, what the shapes should be. And that can be liberating. But ultimately I am against that, because what we have to recapture is the absolute concreteness of music. We have been through a time in which music has been rather abstract, it has been concerned with global time where things make sense from view it from far above, but not in linear time as right up to the end of 19th century, when musical time was virtually all linear. Rightly or wrongly we all overthrew that with modernism and many wonderful things happened, but in my view it is absolutely essential to rediscover the joy of the concrete, how each moment comes from the last and is felt to be coming from the last, not just because of some pattern or shape in nature says, this is the next thing that must happen, but because you feel the tension of the next thing happening against the previous thing happening - just as Mozart did. And until we regain that sense of concreteness we are never going to really be great revolutionaries. It sounds like going back to a previous aesthetic which is old, but actually it is the only aesthetic fundamentally.

On computer aided composition (CAC)
There is a function for full CAC, but it is not one that I particularly am attracted to. If you are really working with timbre, e.g. statistical timbre, masses of grains of sound, at that level coming many hundreds of times a second, then you can work on computer assisted micro-composition, so to speak. At that level you don’t have to compose each hundredth of a second. That would be ridiculous. The computer, by working in certain formations to do with random processes or controlled random processes can make beautiful timbres, beautiful acoustic structures. It depends on the level at which the computer mind is situated.
Learning about orchestration is a long and complex process. I am a bit suspicious about synthesizer sequences simulating your compositions. I have never used it. A lot of students I know do. The results always seem to be so inexpressive. You don’t have eight human beings, think eight complex human beings with all their history playing your music. You just have one mechanical thing, there is a very big jump to eight human beings. The jump is too big for me. I’d rather imagine it in my head. I would never do ot for my own work.
I would just use the computer to make completely new spectra, manipulations of the harmonic series or timbres, or morphing between different timbres, all theses things have become possible in the last few years. There is no difference between timbre and harmony anymore.
Extrapolating from this microlevel of sound analysis you can make big structures because it is a grammar or a syntax, in other words you can move as in tonal music or as in melody on the notes of a scale: some notes are more distant from home, from the tonic, others are less distant. The natural harmonic series has the same hierarchical relations as the tonal system. It is a new tonal system. It could be important for a hundred or more years quite easily, maybe way beyond that. It is Pythagorean, absolutely basic. Nobody heard it before these computer programmes. It is difficult sometimes for players to tune. That is why I like to have electronics in the ensemble to help the players to tune to exactly the right microtones. We have to learn how to hear these pitches again.

Fear of technology
Only weak individuals get overwhelmed by the new technology, but there is a danger. You do get a lot of music at these electronic music conferences which does sound very much the same from which ever part of the world that comes, because the creative personality isn’t strong enough.

Electronics in concert halls
I think that’s the way of the future in the next century. The way that percussion has grown in the 20th century, I am shure electronics will grow in the 21st. It is remarkable how few concerts do have electronics in 20th century music or in the concert halls. Although any Rock or pop concert is packed with electronic devices and lighting of course.
In the concert world you ask them to put on one or two electronic pieces and they say: oh, we have to hire a technician, we have to get hold of equipment, we’ll have to raise some more money. It is an incredible resistance to what is completely taken for granted in the rock world. I still don’t understand this resistance, because there is a lot of good and exciting music written using electronics. In Paris it is normal. Most concerts I go to have a little bit of electronics. But you try that in a great many other places and it is a problem.
That is going to change, however slowly. The small, flexible group which can expand and which has electronics available will create an incredibly rich, big and delicate world, subtle and refined. And this surely must become more popular even with the conservative audiences.

The question is: why are orchestral concerts are declining? Why are people less interested in them? The answer could be what you just said that the sound as in a modern film is not sufficiently exciting, as simple as that. It is not a stunning sound. That factor is enough in itself to make big audiences rather than small audiences, possibly.

I am sure Stockhausen and the spatialisateurs at IRCAM using the spatial programmes - they know that big audiences are attracted by this very exciting, sophisticated use of sound distribution and production.

The future ...
A lot of the things I would like are coming about now. Of course spaces are important for new music with a lot of loud speakers, maybe several 100 , but I have seen spaces like that. And there are other ways being developed now without a mass of loud speakers, ways of shifting these sounds through mathematical calculations which I have recently heard at IRCAM, where you get exactly the same impression with maybe 8 speakers.

speed of computers have made real time manipulations in live electronic music possible. I like players to be more tuned in to electronic transformation so that they are used to using their instruments and perhaps adapting to new designs of instruments. I am not very keen on developing totally new violins and clarinets because the old ones are so good, but possibility of adapting them through electronics: micro tuning etc.

On students of computer music in Stanford
So the involvement one way or the other is very intense. And I have to warn these students that there is always the danger that they will be seduced away from music by the sheer fascination of the internal mechanisms of computer programming which of course you can loose yourself in very easily – it becomes so elaborate like a great labyrinth. It's an enjoyable labyrinth undoubtedly – you just loose your way and then you forget eventually all about composing.

I think that the composers have to be rather strong to survive in this computer music world. If they have a strong musical urge and something definitive to say they will of course come through it and see what is there in computer music for this very strong musical personality which pulls things into it rather than being pulled out into computer technology. So it depends on the strength. Some of the students are absolutely marvellous. Many of them come from Latin America incidentally and they see computers as a very friendly tool, something which doesn't worry them at all, which they don't even get particularly caught up in, but they are just good at it. I don't know why but they are. It doesn't get in they way of their composing and their creativity and they can enjoy particularly the colour transformations and the vividness of musical sound manipulation which the computer makes possible in a very exciting way, in a very original way. It has never been possible in the history of music to do some of the things they are doing now.

Harvey wants to use the computer mainly for sound analysis and harmonic synthesis. Sequenzing is too mechanical for him and of no use in the compositional process.

There are levels at which computer assisted composition can be very useful, e.g. where one would normally write quasi aleatoric or random music in the past one way or an other maybe by tossing coins like Cage or statistical means like Stockhausen or Xenakis, the computer programmes can operate on that level. Personally I don't use a lot of that. I find it is still much more exciting to take responsibility for even the tiniest detail. Some composers like Harrison Birtwistle use random processes to take care of things on certain levels. They don't have to bother about them. They don't allow themselves to be bogged down by such chores and that liberates the imagination for them to concentrate on other things. I can understand that, but ultimately it is better to take care of everything if you can only avoid to be bogged down in too much detail.

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