h.20.30 Auditorium San Fedele


Jonathan Harvey
Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco for eight-track tape (1980)


Musical composition created in 1980 by Jonathan Harvey, with the assistance of Stanley Haynes and Xavier Rodet, commissioned by the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.


From 1976 to 1980 my son Dominic was a chorister at Winchester cathedral. During that period, and ever since, I have written a number of works associated with that wonderful building and choir. Listening to the choir rehearse, as I often did, with the bells simultaneously ringing above, was one of the mingled impressions which started me on this work: it is entirely based on the boy’s voice and that of the largest bell.

On this huge black bell is inscribed in beautiful lettering the following text: HORAS AVOLANTES NUMERO, MORTUOS PLANGO, VIVOS AD PRECES VOCO (I count the feeling hours, I lament the dead, I call the living to prayer). The bell counts time (each section has a differently pitched bell stroke at its beginning): it is itself a ‘dead’ sound for all its richess of sonority: the boy represents the living element. The bell surrounds the audience; they are, as it were, inside it: the boy ‘flies’ around like a free spirit.

In 1980 the sounds were recorded and taken to IRCAM, the sound-research institute in Paris that commissioned the work. There they were manipulated by computer and cross-bred with synthetic simulations of the same sounds. These latter being purely digital creations, could be internally transformed to an amazing degree, one could for instance move seamlessly from a vowel sung by the boy to the complex bell spectrum consisting of 33 partials. The entire pitch structure is based on these partials with their curious, haunting intervals: the harmonies are selected from them, and one transposed selection glissandoes to another.

In entering the rather intimidating world of the machine I was determined not to produce a dehumanised work if I could help it, and so kept fairly close to the world of the original sounds. The territory that the new computer technology opens up is unprecedently vast: one is humbly aware that it will only be conquered by penetration of the human spirit, however beguiling the exhibits of technical wizardry; and that penetration will neither be rapid or easy.
Jonathan Harvey