Tombeau de Messiaen (1994) by Jonathan Harvey
for piano and electronic tape

This piece for piano and tape dates from the same year as Advaya for solo cello and electronics. The title of the latter work, the composer explains, translates as "not two." These few syllables stand for a crucial concept in much of Harvey’s music: two things entwine in such a way that their boundaries are blurred and one is no longer sure whether two separate things overlap, or rather one thing enlarges itself into different voices. This is certainly the concern of Tombeau, written in homage to the French composer, Olivier Messiaen.

There are several obvious musical "debts" to Messiaen here, including long strands of modally derived chords in even note-values. But what Harvey honors most here is Messiaen’s role as a forerunner of French spectralism. Tombeau presents a dual-voiced music in which the live piano often plays in "unison" with an electronically generated piano, but the match is never precise because the latter is tuned utilizing a "natural" harmonic series (involving perfect whole-number ratios: 1:2:3:4:5:6 etc.), while the live piano is in equal temperament (a "compromised" tuning system invented in the early 18th century to facilitate Western tonal motions). This blend can be disconcerting at first—the tape piano seems "out of tune" — but gradually what emerges is a subtle play between two voices seeking unison and "in tuneness" with one another, while nevertheless preserving the tensions of their distance. Only at the end, in a grand Messiaen-like affirmation, is there a sense of arrival—although even this is dissipated by the final bars, in which the piano (extending the idea of falling implied by the word "tombeau") is heard "flinging itself into a downwards vortex to the abyss."

— J. H.    

[from program for March 28, 2011 concert]