Jonathan Harvey: Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco

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 richness 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 glissandos 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                                        

* When we hear the sound from a vibrating object (such as a musical instrument) we hear a complex sound that contains many different frequencies or pitches called partials.