Jonathan Harvey, who passed away yesterday, was considered one of the most important new music composers of the past 40 years (which explains why the New York Times hasn’t yet run an obituary as of 9.30 this morning). One of the pieces for which he was best known was the 1980 composition Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. Its soundworld is built out of two central elements, the bells of Winchester Cathedral and the voice of Harvey’s son, Dominic, who was a chorister there.
Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco is a computer-generated composition that is perhaps best heard live or with headphones. In a few notes about the piece, Harvey wrote:
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.
The piece can be heard via the YouTube video below.