Jonathan Harvey is an English composer who, after a career as an oboist and Stockhausen scholar, first gained wide attention in the late 1970s when the Ardittis commissioned his first string quartet. Like the spectralist composers, Harvey has a great interest in the nature of sound and has worked at IRCAM. However, he has maintained an interest in serialism with its associated soundworld of pointillism and angularity. One might compare him to Philippe Manoury. However, what really sets Harvey apart from anyone else in that whole French scene are his mystical inclinations. Indeed, Harvey sees the purpose of his work as expressing the spirit and seeking wholeness, and this contemplativeness comes through in the music. "Bhakti" for chamber orchestra and quadriphonic tape (1982) is an ambitious suite of 12 movements inspired by the hymns of the Rig Veda.
"Bhakti" has one of contemporary music's most memorable openings, which Harvey intends to represent the Rig Veda's creation myth. A woodwind intones a single mid-frequency tone, beginning almost inaudibly quiet. Minutes go by, with steadily growing dynamic as this basic tone is eventually by a very low and a very high sound. Unlike music of the classical era, where everything seems built on top of a bass, Harvey conceives a tonal center that expands outwards on both sides. Towards the end of this first movement, the rest of the ensemble appear.
The second movement introduces electronics as a source of novel timbres unobtainable with only a traditional ensemble. The electronic part are also spatialized here, its sounds bouncing around the four speakers. Here we have only a stereo recording, but the effect is still lovely. All in all, the movements of "Bhakti" are quite varied. Some are dramatic, full of crashes and epiphanies. Others are calm and contemplative, like musical gardens. While Harvey doesn't work with clear themes as such, references to earlier movements appear in later movements.
One generally looks to Amazon reviews to decide whether to obtain a work and listen to it, but this is music very difficult to describe with words. Even comparisons to other contemporary pieces are difficult to draw, I can think only of the opening of Xenakis "La Legende d'Eer" for the seventh movement of Harvey's work. Still, I'm confident that this will appeal to the majority fans of modernist repertoire. I do think that the piece tends to be a bit overlong, thus I award it 4 stars, but I still enjoy it greatly.
This Naive recording was made at IRCAM and sounds fantastic. The Nouvel Ensemble Modern have committed themselves to this kind of repertoire and perform confidently here. There is one another recording of "Bhakti" on an an NMC disc, where Guy Protheroe conducts the ensemble Spectrum, but I have no heard it.