Thursday, March 06, 2003


Composer Jonathan Harvey (whose 'Bird Concerto' is performed at the QEH in London on 23 April) is giving a talk on 'Understanding Creativity' on Sunday 13 April 2003 at the Sussex Arts Club, 7 Ship Street, Brighton. This is an event sponsored by the British Association of Analytical Psychotherapists, but it is open to all. Tickets may be purchased by ringing 01272 607529.

This news made me return to my copy of Harvey's interesting book, 'Music And Inspiration' (edited by Michael Downes, Faber and Faber, 1999), in which he investigates the writings of many fellow-composers for the sources of their creativity. Unsurprisingly, given his own compositional processes and life commitments, Harvey ends up sympathising most (alongside Schoenberg) with those composers who "right up to the present day have continued to attempt to communicate a vision of paradise in their music." But he is broad and eirenic in his survey, taking seriously those who detach their art from overt emotional engagement - or even from the attempt to reach out to other than the smallest peer audience.

Given the new vacancy for Master of the Queen's Music (an anachronism, but the nearest we have in Britain to a focal 'composer-in-residence'), what Harvey has to say about composing 'for the nation' (p111ff) and 'for the world' (p115ff) might be of particular interest. But he mostly weaves around the notion of national and cultural 'moods' and, unsurprisingly, cites Beethoven's 'Ode To Joy' as the archetypal 'people's music'. So there is nothing new or profound here.

Given that this is primarily a personalist account there is also little deep probing into the darker nationalistic psychologies that have inhabited public music, with only a passing reference to Wagner's anti-Semitism or, conversely (p92-93), to Tippett's social responsibility and internationalism. There is nothing on music and militarism, either; an omission made starker by the present looming war clouds. But the genesis of this work was, it has to be noted, a thesis from Glasgow in the 1960s, and although the material has been updated with the assistance of an editor, Harvey makes it clear that his own priority is compositional expression rather than situational reflection.

Jonathan Harvey's book is, in summary, warm-hearted and thoughtful without being over-wrought. His connectedness with the inner world of sensibility and inspiration will, I am sure, make his talk in Sussex a thoroughly worthwhile event. The first two section of 'Music And Inspiration' (on the categories of the unconscious and experience) are among the best broad surveys of these cultivated impulses that I have seen. But the complex relationship of all this to the social, cultural and political forces that shape and reflect individual personalities is less in the foreground.

A further work, 'In Quest Of Spirit' (University of California Press, 1999) probes further into the realm of religion and spirituality, together with the impact of electronics and spectralism on the creative process. It has an accompanying CD:

Harvey explores aspects of music that he connects with spirituality: self-identity, ambiguity, unity, stasis, and silence. In the course of his explorations he offers corroborating statements about music and spirituality from sources ranging from Nietzsche to Oliver Sacks. The book and CD include samples of his own music as well as of compositions by Mozart, Scriabin, Stockhausen, and others that help to illustrate the profoundness of what Harvey deems "the good listening experience". (c)

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