Respiri - in memoriam Jonathan Harvey (2016)

for string quartet


Live recording of the premiere on May 10, 2016 Taplin Auditorium, Princeton, NJ

Performer: Jack Quartet
Recording engineer: Andres Villalta


Program note:

“What is the purpose of music? It is, in my view, to reveal the nature of suffering and to heal. The one big question of existence.”  — Jonathan Harvey

The composer Jonathan Harvey was an extraordinarily kind person. I emailed with him regularly while writing my doctoral dissertation on his four string quartets. Toward the end of our correspondence, I discovered that he was suffering from a motor neuron disease that was gradually paralyzing him; he had been spending a part of his precious final year responding to questions from a person he did not know. The disease eventually ended his life in December 2012. Although we never met in person, his work and philosophy had an immense influence on the way I think about music.

Harvey was a cutting-edge modernist who wrote unabashedly lyrical melodies framed within carefully designed, intricate structures. He believed in the ideal of complex unity, which he found, somewhat paradoxically, in both Western classical music and Buddhism. In his pieces, disparate musical ideas change and merge in multifarious ways, revealing their lack of inherent identity. He saw this as a crucial step to experiencing the transcendent unity of all things. Harvey’s music showed me that complexity and warmth needed not preclude each other; in fact, they should coexist. 

Harvey’s Buddhism can be found directly in his scores. He frequently composed breathing gestures as metaphysical evocations of meditation. He used the concept of a symmetrical harmonic field—with pitches radiating outward from a central axis, rather than deriving from a bass line—to represent the individual’s freedom from obsessive desire. In this piece, I took three distinct ideas from Harvey: composed breaths, a non-octave-repeating symmetrical pentatonic scale, and a melodic segment from the first quartet. Swells of varying lengths develop into long arcs. These breathing gestures symbolize life and—at the end of the piece—death, not as a terrifying inevitability, but as the peaceful resolution I imagine Harvey would have experienced. 

Respiri - in memoriam Jonathan Harvey was written for the JACK Quartet in the spring of 2016.