The Wire

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Jonathan Harvey RIP

Composer Jonathan Harvey has died. Quietly spoken, Harvey was the first British composer to make a lasting impression on a Central European contemporary music scene that was traditionally ignored by the British classical mainstream.

Born in Sutton Coldfield in 1939, Harvey spent his former years as a chorister, and was mentored by Benjamin Britten. He was a professional cellist for a spell, and considered it the most human of instruments, composing a number of solo works for cello.

In 1966 he visited Darmstadt and encountered Karlheinz Stockhausen both as a composer and a personality, an experience which proved epiphanic. From that moment, Harvey began incorporating Central European ideas and attitudes into his still recognisably English compositions.

In 1980 he was invited to the electronic music studio IRCAM by its founder Pierre Boulez. Whilst there, Harvey assembled Mortuos Plango Vivos Voco, an eight track tape piece often cited as a modern classic, which combined the sound of his young son's treble voice with the tolling of the bell of Winchester Cathedral.

Harvey continued to refine his use of electronic elements in Ritual Melodies (1989–90), and Bhakti (1982), composed for chamber orchestra and quadrophonic tape. The latter, a mystical exploration of Sanskrit hymns of the Rig Veda, was a testament to his obsession with Eastern spirituality and Buddhism.

In The Wire 282, Philip Clark wrote: "Often the gauze-like basting of his acoustic music (and there's lots of it – orchestral pieces, string quartets and instrumental music) feels like it's been refracted through an electronic filter embedded inside Harvey's brain."

Harvey was composer in residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra between 2005 and 2008, and was composer in residence at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2009. He was professor of music at Sussex University from 1977 to 1993, then at Stanford University from 1995 to 2000.