Jonathan Harvey at 70

Philip Mead (piano), Paul Archbold (electronics), Neil Hyde (cello), Kaffe Matthews (laptop)

King's Place, 7 October 2009 4.5 stars

Jonathan Harvey The Sargasso label commemorated Jonathan Harvey's 70th birthday last night with a themed concert that sought to illustrate the transition from acoustic to electronic models that has taken place in Harvey's music.

Given as part of the wonderful Out Hear series of contemporary music events held every week at King's Place, the concert was intriguingly shaped: four Harvey works were presented chronologically and attaca, a brief (but enlightening) Q&A with the composer followed, and the evening was drawn to a close with a solo electronic performance-improvisation from Kaffe Matthews.

The concert began with a gnarled performance by Philip Mead of the 4th image from Harvey's early cycle 4 Images After Yeats. The piece is typical for the composer in its poetic graphing of a cyclical process that develops towards some sort of a synthesis, only to be then drawn back towards the purgatorial cycle at the end. In this case, that purgatory is comprised of composers past— including Bach, Schumann, Scriabin and Schoenberg— whose music is thrown up, tossed around, and churned out through highly discontinuous dynamic and syntactic modes, coloured at every stretch by Harvey's distinctive treatment of the sonorities of the instrument (which included much muting of strings with hand, harmonics, and extravagant use of each pedal). Mead battled hard with the score, but his performance always made the billows of the music seem showy, and actually a little hollow.

Mead's performance of the following Tombeau de Messiaen displayed none of the same problems. As befits the now lustrous, phantasmatic sonic palette, the interpretation was totally vivid. The enigmatic laments of the cascading piano and electronic figures continued into the following Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. I heard the very same piece in the same room only three days before, and impressive as its clanging bell and voice microtones were on that occasion, here the corresponding structures and sound images in Tombeau echoed forwards and then drew the ear back to its amalgam of acoustic and electronic sounds, making the room shimmer with a sort of sonic transcendence.

The largest and in some ways the most significant work of the evening came next. Advaya, for cello (an astonishing Neil Hyde) and live electronics (performed by Paul Archbold), seeks as its title indicates to exceed the duality of the performers by exploring and developing the notion that their two contributions 'emerge from the same cosmic ground.' To do this, Archbold's material is drawn from pre-sampled and live processing of the cello music. Usually the two musicians are tussling with similar material (which is always passionate, spectral, and finely-drawn), Archbold often extrapolating great beds of sound from the cello figures, or, alternatively, shadowing in canon or otherwise quite directly the gestural and timbral space of the cello. The work builds to a great climax, with the difficult cello expostulations reaching a fever pitch of theremin-like high harmonic vibrations, set against a funked-up percussion tattoo played on the instrument’s body. The conclusion echoes earlier material, now saturated by the memories of the development.

Harvey was his quietly-poetic self in the Q&A as he ruminated on the relationship between the acoustic and electronic realms (the latter, above all else, has taught us to pay attention to the 'inner life' of sound), and on his compositional processes. Matthews' closing performance was totally involving: from the bursts of unreconstructed noise at the start, to the graceful ballet of sine tones and beeps and crackle that made the heart of the machine-lyrical piece, the sonic detail and flavour was always intriguing. As the darkness grew heavy around us, and we drifted further into her extremely beautiful sound-choreography (which often put me in mind of Rolf Julius' near-silent sound pieces, or the delicate interactions of the improvising electronic duo Filament), Matthews tapered her music away into a twilight reverberation.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Jonathan Harvey

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