Body Mandala

Music by Jonathan Harvey to purify the body, speech, and mind.

Mandala of Amitayus, 19th C Tibetan School. Wikimedia Commons.

holsthousezoom      By Simon Brackenborough

How do you feel about your body?

If that sounds like an intrusive question, then let me explain. I don’t mean whether you’d like to lose some weight, or which of your features you like the best.

I mean how do you feel about being a body – a body that breathes, moves, touches and perceives? How does it feel to be a body right now, a unique entity that has never before existed in the history of the universe?

You probably don’t dwell on this question much in everyday life. But if you stop and think about it, being a body begins to seem strange, remarkable – even miraculous.

No doubt you’ve seen the iconic Vitruvian Man, splayed out geometrically in a circle. But imagine for a moment that your body is more than flesh and bone in various proportions. Imagine it as a place of energy and vibration.

Now hold that thought, and listen to this:

The deep, pulsating opening of Body Mandala takes us to Northern India, where the composer Jonathan Harvey visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. A note on the score reads:

…reside in the mandala, the celestial mansion, which is the nature of the purified gross body.

A ‘mandala’ is a design that represents the cosmos, sometimes used as a tool for meditation. It’s a visual tradition of enormous beauty and variety. But it can also be understood metaphorically. As Rae Erin Dachille explains:

Within tantric Buddhism, the body mandala is a ritual process of imagining parts of the human body as parts of the mandala, a cosmic palace inhabited by Buddhas and attendant deities.

Mahavairocana Mandala – Tibet, 19th Century. Photo by cea +, shared under Creative Commons.

At the monastery Harvey witnessed purification ceremonies, in which music and bodily actions were both fundamental. As he recalled:

The famous low horns, tungchens, the magnificently raucous 4-note oboes, gelings, the distinctive rolmo cymbals – all these and more were played by the monks in deeply moving ceremonies full of lama dances, chanting and ritual actions. There is a fierce wildness about some of the purifications, as if great energy is needed to purge the bad ego-tendencies. But also great exhilaration is present. And calm. The body, when moved with chanting, begins to vibrate and warm at different chakra points and ‘sing’ internally.

The pulsating opening gives way to wildly exuberant passages  – if you knew nothing of this music, you might think it was describing a heady narcotic experience rather than a religious ceremony. Its visceral nature seems a world away from the stereotype of Buddhism as quiet meditation – but the same can only be said of Harvey’s account of the rituals.

Harvey is not exactly duplicating the ceremonial music. But as Michael Downes notes in a recent book, he asks for performance techniques which expand the orchestra’s sonic range, bringing instruments ‘closer to their Eastern counterparts’:

Brass instruments are required to use ‘lip vibrato’, producing a pulsating effect on a single note; woodwind players are directed to use alternate different fingerings of the same note […] string instruments, as in Quartet no.4, are required to use circular bowing.’

In its mesmerising drones and extravagant outbursts, Body Mandala confronts us with an array of arresting vibrations, battering and coaxing us in a vigorous sonic massage. It might feel a bit silly to imagine yourself as a ‘cosmic palace’ with deities inside you, but nonetheless this music is describing an intense experience of bodily habitation. It asks us to feel sound to our core.

Tibetan monks playing horns in Nepal, photograph by Wonderlane. Shared under Creative Commons.

Harvey died in 2012, aged 73. Body Mandala is one of many works concerned with Buddhism he composed in later life, and it forms the first piece of a triptych written during his association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Respectively, these works explore the purification of body, speech, and mind – a Buddhist concept reflected in the ‘Three Vajras’.

On the Overgrown Path blog, a wide-ranging interview from 2010 offers a detailed portrait of this ‘true Renaissance man’. Harvey’s immersion in eastern philosophies was complemented by an advanced knowledge of modern composition techniques. He experimented with developments in electronic music in the 60s and 70s, and was as an early adopter of ‘spectralism’ – an approach concerned with physical make-up of sounds, through their partials in the harmonic series.

His mastery of sonic manipulation in shown particularly well in the second work, Speakings – the longest and most ambitious of the three. Building on research conducted at IRCAM in Paris, Harvey analysed recordings of speech and developed a way to utilise electronics to combine the sound of speech with music. ‘A process of ‘shape vocoding’, taking advantage of speech’s fascinating complexities, is the main idea of this work’, he wrote.

Using microphones and loud speakers, the orchestra is delicately balanced with computer manipulations, which process the sounds to create speech-like effects. There are no audible words as such, but at times it sounds uncannily like the orchestra is saying something to us.

The work begins with fragments, focussing on a series of isolated timbres, and we hear a recording of a baby crying, then cooing. From this state of innocence the orchestra ‘learns’ to speak, and the music develops into more complex chattering in the second movement.

What purifies this increasing chaos is a two-note ostinato, based on a recording of the Buddhist mantra ‘Om Ah Hum’ – considered to be ‘the womb of all speech’. This ‘celebration of ritual language’, as Harvey puts it, builds to an overwhelming climax. 

In the final movement, the music is much more quiet and peaceful. Fast chatter has given way to a focussed melody, somewhat like plainchant, and ‘the paradise of the sounding temple is imagined’. As the music slowly dissolves into silence, the baby is heard once more – perhaps suggesting the Buddhist idea of Rebirth.

Speakings is the most demanding listen of the triptych, resisting typically ‘orchestral’ textures for much of its duration. But there is a compellingly creepy quality in its subtle blend of instruments and electronics, which taps into our easily confused auditory perception, and its ability to trick our minds about what we’re hearing. The fact that electronic speech infiltrates so many aspects of our daily environment also gives it a very contemporary resonance, and the overall effect is quite extraordinary.

The process of purifying speech reflects the purifying of the chatter of the mind in meditation, and the tranquility that ends Speakings leads on to the final piece,  …Towards A Pure Land. That title pause seems significant, suggesting that what we hear must come after a period of reflection. Harvey reveals that ‘a Pure Land is a state of mind beyond suffering where there is no grasping’:

It has been described in Buddhist literature as a landscape – a model of the world to which we can aspire. Those who live there do not experience ageing, sickness or any other suffering […] The environment is completely pure, clean, and very beautiful, with mountains, lakes, trees and delightful birds revealing the meaning of Dharma. There are also gardens filled with heavenly flowers, bathing pools and exquisite jewels covering the ground which make it completely pure and smooth.

This work contains the most transparently transcendental music of the triptych. String players from the back desks of each group form an ‘Ensemble of Eternal Sound’, and throughout the work sustaining strings create sensuous and radiant effects.

Even in its climaxes, this music feels lighter and more collected than the previous two pieces. But its sonic range still enthrals – a large percussion section adds splashes of evocative colour, and performers are asked to whisper consonants. 

This work is broadly symmetrical – ‘an arch with developments’ – and once again Harvey suggests purification as continuous ritual process. At its centre is a chasm of Buddhist emptiness, ‘sound but only insubstantial pitch’. 

This final piece of the triptych is a truly magical creation, and at its close we are left at the gates of this Pure Land with vaulted string chords, punctuated by the tinkling of bells.

Jonathan Harvey, photographed by Maurice Foxall. Shared with the kind permission of Faber Music.

At the 2011 Edinburgh Festival, the BBC SSO triptych was performed complete for the first time – it garnered rave reviews. Then in January the following year, Tom Service interviewed Harvey for the Guardian at his home in Sussex, shortly before a ‘Total Immersion’ weekend of his music at London’s Barbican. ‘I wasn’t played for decades in this country’, the composer told him, ‘but it seems as if that is changing now’.

Diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease, an uptick in performances may have given Harvey some satisfaction, but he knew he didn’t have long to live. And yet as Service wrote, ‘there is no trace of bitterness or fear in the way he tells me, just a simple and moving acceptance of what is happening to him’.  

Harvey died in December that year. All religious and philosophical traditions must deal with the reality of death, and as he said in his 2010 interview, Buddhism teaches us that ‘everything is impermanent […] nothing is fixed and solid’. 

There is one particularly beautiful mandala tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, which uses coloured grains of sand. These designs can be enormously intricate, and are painstakingly assembled into complex patterns by monks. One writer describes the process:

When the mandala is finally finished, however long it takes for the monks to deal in this divine geometry of the heavens, they pray over it — and then they destroy it. They sweep it up, every last grain of sand and give handfuls of it away to those who participate in the closing ceremony as a final memory of sublime possibility. Then they throw the rest of the sand into the nearest living stream to be swept into the ocean to bless the whole world.

Our secular culture prizes the rewards of labour, and resists the decay of all that is solid, including our own ageing. But this creative destruction invites us to understand the cosmos as forever in flux, our achievements only fleeting.

Harvey wrote of the flow of elusive ideas in …Towards A Pure Land that ‘to grasp them and fix them would be to distort them falsely’. In a similar way, his triptych prompts us to reimagine ourselves with sublime possibility. To consider that our bodies might be a heavenly palace, our speech a kind of music, our minds a beautiful landscape.

A sand mandala at the Days of Tibet event in Moscow 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

We all know that religious ideas of purity – Puritanism in its various guises – can lead to dark and punitive places. But reading Harvey’s description of the monastery rituals, it seems there is a purity of purpose here, a collective endeavour of becoming less focussed on the self. It’s not the ‘Pure Land’ of the Garden of Eden – forever lost – or a pure Heaven, promised only in death. It is a ritual progression towards a better way of living.

Whatever your feelings about Buddhism, it is not hard to fathom the appeal of its outlook on life, particularly in western societies long burdened by the ceaseless striving of industrial capitalism. More importantly, at a time when scientists are calling for ‘a fundamental reorientation of human values’ to mitigate a planetary crisis, the ideal of a world ‘without grasping’ resonates deeply with the imperative for this kind of radical transformation.

Jonathan Harvey’s music is no mere spiritual tourism. It is art with a primal power to jolt us awake from the stupor of the mundane and routine. These three dazzling works remind us of something that is so easy to forget – the sheer miracle and mystery of existing, in the here and now.

How does it feel, to be a body in the great mandala of life?

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Find out more:

Jonathan Harvey in interview on the Overgrown Path blog.
Jonathan Harvey: Song Offerings and White As Jasmine by Michael Downes is published by Routledge – preview on Google Books.
Explore Jonathan Harvey’s works published by Faber Music.
Tom Service interviews Jonathan Harvey in The Guardian.
Watch more videos from Ensemble Intercontemporain and Codarts Symphony Orchestra.