This new NMC disc is the first orchestral music by Jonathan Harvey to be recorded, as far as I know, since Madonna of Winter and Spring, a Nimbus release from 2000, which featured the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and the London Sinfonietta. BODY MANDALA includes four recent works performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ilan Volkov. This collaboration results from Harvey's position as Composer in Association with the BBC SSO from 2005 to 2007.
Of Harvey, relatively unknown in America, a few salient aspects might be noted. First, his French ties, both to Boulez and IRCAM and its electroacoustic technology as well as to Grisey and the "spectralist school. Second, his cohort -- born in 1939, he came of age in the 1960s with its experimentalism, as did the American composer Roger Reynolds, just a few years older. Finally, his Buddhism and interest in Hinduism. Of the five compositions here, three reflect Buddhist ideas, and one utilizes Hindu poetry. Only one piece ("White as Jasmine") actually uses electronics, though all draw on his knowledge of electroacoustic techniques and study of the sound spectrum.
The first work on this long and well-structured disc is "Tranquil Abiding" (1999 -- 14'46). It is haunting and beautiful, based on a simple two-chord oscillation, like breathing in and out, as in meditation. Complexity gradually builds, and the piece culminates with a sense of peace and clarity.
"Body Mandala" (2006 -- 13'18) is very different, full of percussion and rhythmic dynamism. Projected as the first work of a triptych, its theme is the purification of the body. It uses Tibetan bells and cymbals, and Western instruments played so as to approximate the sounds used in Tibetan Buddhist monastery rituals. Harvey drew inspiration from witnessing such purification rituals in northern India. "Body Mandala" is a quite visceral work, much closer to jazz than most classical music.
The disc closes with "...towards a Pure Land" (2005 -- 17'17), the last in the unfinished triptych, the theme of which is purification of mind. It proceeds in an arch, with a still section at the center, representing the Pure Land, "a state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping." There is a journey through some very energetic passages, but throughout are found ethereal, slow-moving harmonies which emanate from a small string group concealed within the main body of the orchestra, which Harvey calls the "Ensemble of Eternal Sound."
"Timepieces" (18'42), in three parts, dates from the 1980s. It uses two conductors (a la Stockhousen's "Gruppen") to lead ensembles in different tempos (a la Carter). The result is often humorous, quite jazzy, and not nearly as intimidating as it sounds.
"White as Jasmine" (15'39) was written between 1995 and 2000, along with "Tranquil Abiding," while Harvey was at Stanford utilizing its Centre for Computer Research into Music and Acoustics. Ansu Komsi is featured on soprano vocals, singing five poems to Shiva written by the 12th century Hindu saint Mahadevi and her guru Allama Prabhu. Mahadevi died at 23 after wandering through the forest seeking Shiva. This peaceful and lovely piece culminates with an electronic passage representing her vision of an immense, transcendent light.
This is one of the best recordings of Harvey's music yet, and would certainly make an excellent introduction to his work for any who have not yet had the pleasure.