Jonty Harrison

… la crème des musiques exigeantes, soit la frange avant-gardiste ou expérimentale de tous les genres musicaux… CFLX 95.5 FM, Québec

The whole toughened by superlative skills in the assessment of timbral structure and a sense of architectural symmetry that not many names operating in this area can challenge. Touching Extremes, Italy

DVD-Audio — Surround (IMED 0788)

  • Label: empreintes DIGITALes
  • IMED 0788
  • 2007
  • UCC 771028078899
  • Total duration: 76:08
  • OGplus
  • 142 mm × 125 mm × 10 mm
  • 55 g

On the web

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In the press

Délire actuel: Top 30

François Couture, CFLX 95.5 FM, December 30, 2008

L’émission radiophonique Délire actuel consacrée aux musiques exigeantes (CFLX-FM, Sherbrooke, Québec) annonce aujourd’hui son palmarès des 30 disques à ne pas manquer en musique expérimentale pour 2008. Cette liste regroupe 30 titres représentant la crème des musiques exigeantes, soit la frange avant-gardiste ou expérimentale de tous les genres musicaux (musique contemporaine, jazz actuel, improvisation libre, avant-rock, électronique, etc.). «Ce que j’appelle musique exigeante recoupe les notions de musique actuelle, expérimentale, d’avant-garde, novatrice, etc., explique François Couture, coréalisateur de l’émission. Évidemment, je n’ai pas tout entendu ce qui s’est fait en 2008, loin de là! Donc, je ne prétends pas présenter LES 30 meilleurs disques de l’année, mais bien MES 30 meilleurs disques! Néanmoins, vu les quelque 550 disques soumis à mon attention cette année, j’espère que les artistes et les étiquettes de disque concernées sauront s’enorgueillir de figurer dans ce Top 30.»

[Au top 15: Jonty Harrison, Environs, empreintes DIGITALes.]

… la crème des musiques exigeantes, soit la frange avant-gardiste ou expérimentale de tous les genres musicaux…


Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes, September 1, 2008

In presence of records such as Jonty Harrison’s Environs one is tempted to leave the leaf totally bare, with the exception of a solitary word: listen. The English composer and director of Birmingham’s BEAST fully deserves to be put side by side with the Ferraris and the Parmegianis of the world, that’s for sure. Few recent acousmatic releases have succeeded in keeping my interest levels persistently high, a program length of circa 76 minutes notwithstanding. Yet it’s right there, on the long distance, that we’re in the condition of sizing up the diverse abilities of those who play in the electroacoustic ground. While most of them need to methodically slice, glue, juxtapose and reinvent their sonic clothes only to sound more or less musty at the end, Harrison focalizes his awareness on the purest elements of life, both from a biotic point of view and the perspective of personal experience. He constructs amazing pieces entirely based on aquatic constituents which, contrarily to many bathed-in-obviousness mélanges, appear psychologically overwhelming to the extent of making us literally feel like drowning (Undertow). Otherwise, he stitches together car engines and other means of transportation to engender a whole range of inner-city rhythms and patterns (Internal combustion). The last track Afterthoughts is built upon “sounds of a suburban garden in early summer”, yet it resembles an alarming sequence of snapshots of disheartening isolation, the human factor all but absent in favour of intimidating roars, sharp clangour and ominous crescendos of insurmountable metropolitan unease. The whole toughened by superlative skills in the assessment of timbral structure and a sense of architectural symmetry that not many names operating in this area can challenge.

The whole toughened by superlative skills in the assessment of timbral structure and a sense of architectural symmetry that not many names operating in this area can challenge.

A familar ring: 21st century programmatic musique concrete.

Tobias Fischer, Tokafi, June 12, 2008

Contemporary sound art rarely deals with our environment directly. Instead, it prefers culling source material from its chinks and corners, picking up emissions usually too quiet for the human ear to perceive. On Environs, Jonty Harrison has not decided to deny or defy this process completely. What distinguishes his approach from that of many colleagues is that it focusses on more readily accessible surface-timbres and comes integrated into an even more ambitious purpose: Using everyday sounds to build new environments.

In a way, the use of synthesizers and electronic equipment to recreate certain parameters of the world around us is a classic thought and it should be fitting, then, that Harrison can be counted among the longstanding masters of his trade. Ever since joining the Music Department of The University of Birmingham in 1980, he has been an inspirational player on the scene, working both as a conductor and composer, picking up awards on a yearly basis, but only raising his voice when the necessity to say something truly presented itself.

His tendency to think in works instead of albums has meant that his discography has remained limited to some sampler contributions and a few, carefully selected solo records. The liaison with Canadian imprint empreintes DIGITALes has slightly mended this situation, but hardly made him more prolific: Predecessor Évidence matérielle was released a full eight years back.

This, though, does not mean that Harrison is a slow worker. His most recent full-length greatly differs from comparable endeavours and from standard practise in the sense that it is a collection of pieces all (but one) written within direct temporal proximity of its release. Streams, the end of the epic ReCycle Quadrilogy, is the noteable exception here, dating back to 1999, but then again this is easily overcompensated by the fact that two tracks, opener Undertow and closer Afterthoughts, are barely a year old. Environs is therefore not a random selection of thematically compiled scores, it is an album which presents us with an up-to-date picture of the composer’s interest and methods.

In relation to the latter, it is an immediately striking fact that Harrison eschews the typically high degrees of post-processing academic sound art is often prone to. His sounds are occasionally pitched, tuned down and transposed or treated with a bit of reverb, but even more often, they are left untreated and in their natural state. He has a point: Why meticulously assemble the gravelling noises produced by his garden roller making contact with the cobble stones of the pathways, of various car engines, different water sounds, of air being sculpted by objects moving through and against it, of data streams being sucked and pulled through fiberglass cables and of lazy Sunday afternoons spent in a dilusional surburban utopia, when you’re going to change them beyond recognisability afterwards? His pieces, then, for all of their abstractions and metaphorical meaning, have a familar ring to them, facilitating access and understanding — seldomy have liner notes been as entertaining and yet unnecessary as in this case.

This technique of course places Harrison outside of most current niches and communities. His processes contain no mysteries or transfigurations, his aesthetics are not connected to intellectual philosophies and his music is of a highly descriptive nature — 21st century programmatic musique concrete, if you like. And yet, this sidelined position allows for fresh perceptions. Freed from any superimposed ballast, you can sit back and simply listen, enjoy this music as much as you would a rock or pop song. Harrison’s pieces are surprising short stories written in the naive language of sound. They can make you happy, sad, aroused, high or melancholic — depending on your point of view and the material at hand.

It is not a modest music by any means. Harrison has a penchant for striking cinematic effects and uses them strategically like a movie director would apply his palette of daunting special effects: On aforementioned Undertow, he captures his audience’s attention right away with a sensory overwhelming introduction, in which he acoustically simulates the moment when a diver collects his breath and splashes beneath the waves. On Free Fall, meanwhile, he delivers blows of shock tactics by shooting the listener miles into the sky to allow him to hear himself tumbling down through the clouds. Already on my humble stereo setup, these pieces develop a disturbing intensity so everyone capable of playing a 5.1. DVD-Audios should be in for something special.

On other occasions, the situations may be less of a Hollywood-nature, turning more towards the vageries of quotidian life, but Harrison never deals with them in an ordinary way. You can almost imagine him rolling his garden roller, loosing himself in his thoughts, as the imaginary stones grow to the size of gigantic boulders, crushed by the greedily gnashing teeth of his destructive garden tool. And on Streams, it is less a photorealistic approximation of a physical reality of water or wind he is after, but rather the aural depictation of movement.

Harrison offers his listeners a veritable real rollercoaster ride here and you can enjoy it both with your eyes opened and closed. What’s more, the emotional proximity of these noises and our immediate environment also allow for the inclusion of humour as a musical means. On Internal Combustion, horns, bycicle bells, engines and the sounds of cars speeding by are juxtaposed with such absurd radicality and at a hyperrealistic pace that I couldn’t help laughing. It’s not the most typical reaction one would expect from a piece of contemporary sound art — but not the most unwelcome either.

Freed from any superimposed ballast, you can sit back and simply listen, enjoy this music…

Oursins chroniques

Jean-Claude Gevrey, Octopus, no. 832, May 1, 2008

Dernière parution en date (la troisième pour le label Empreintes Digitales) des œuvres électroacoustiques de Jonty Harrison, composées entre 1999 et 2007, Undertow place d’emblée l’auditeur sur des récifs contre lesquels les vagues viennent s’écraser puis le plonge très vite sous la surface de l’eau, source sonore de prédilection du compositeur. Commence alors une immersion dans le monde du silence qui se révèle étonnamment musical et où la circulation de fluides et l’effervescence de bulles forment un jeu de micro-percussions finissant par faire oublier la nature du matériau d’origine. L’œuvre suivante, ReCycle, est un ensemble de pièces conçu comme une ode aux quatre éléments: la terre avec force éboulis rocheux et raclement de briques, le feu dans une orchestration progressive des hoquets de moteurs à combustion, l’air par une étude sur la dynamique de la propagation des sons et enfin l’eau avec une exploration aquatique multi-dimensionnelle. Concluant cet enregistrement, Afterthoughts est à envisager comme une dérive de l’esprit où la conscience cède la place au rêve et où les bruits paisibles de la nature environnante sont graduellement engloutis par le tumulte urbain, son trafic routier et son agitation industrielle. Une constante chez Harrison retient particulièrement l’attention: son approche méticuleuse consistant à considérer des phénomènes uniques et souvent assez simples puis à les ausculter de très près, à les disséquer à l’échelle moléculaire jusqu’à les dématérialiser. Partant d’éléments naturels ou de sons très concrets, le compositeur semble en effet les réduire en particules et, loin de se contenter d’observer leurs trajectoires aléatoires dans l’espace, les réarrange à sa guise avec beaucoup de vitalité et de poésie. Disque au format DVD-Audio.

Partant d’éléments naturels ou de sons très concrets, le compositeur semble en effet les réduire en particules et, loin de se contenter d’observer leurs trajectoires aléatoires dans l’espace, les réarrange à sa guise avec beaucoup de vitalité et de poésie.


Grisli, Le son du grisli, April 7, 2008

Compositeur reconnu et souvent récompensé de musique électroacoustique, l’Anglais Jonty Harrison assemble sur Environs trois compositions partagées entre mouvement et statisme.

Ode peu banale aux éléments, le disque renferme ainsi les restes sonores et réinventés d’une plongée aquatique (Undertow), une traînée de parasites alertes (Rock’n’Roll), et d’étranges récupérations sonores: bruits d’automobiles et leurs effets sur le paysage (Internal Combustion), atmosphère enregistrée d’un jardin de banlieue en été (Afterthoughts).

Au final, si les intentions et les propositions changent, reste un travail précis sur le son, bientôt fait matière, qui impressionne encore davantage au moment de s’évanouir, une fois qu’elle se sera insinuée partout.

Au final, si les intentions et les propositions changent, reste un travail précis sur le son, bientôt fait matière, qui impressionne encore davantage au moment de s’évanouir, une fois qu’elle se sera insinuée partout.


Ingvar Loco Nordin, Sonoloco Record Reviews, March 1, 2008

This is Jonty Harrison’s third phonogram on empreintes DIGITALes, and his first Audio DVD. Harrison is such a well-known guru of the studios and noble jester of electroacoustics that it wouldn’t serve much purpose to dwell on personal info, except maybe just to state that he upholds a professorship of Composition and Electroacoustic Music at Birmingham University, as well as the directorate of the Electroacoustic Music Studios and Birmingham Electroacoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST). Lately he has also appeared with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducting Stockhausen’s Momente, and with the University New Music Ensemble, conducting Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring — to mention a choice few of his engagements.

To me, Jonty Harrison’s art has always been the most curious and rewarding, leading further than one could have expected; deeper into sound as such, on par with Stockhausen — though Stockhausen went about these investigations down different paths — and intuitively applying clay and paint in a fearless sounding counterpart of J. M. G. Le Clézio’s most nitpicking, frivolous literature; La Fièvre, Le Déluge, Terra Amata, La Guerre, La Quarantaine, Ballaciner etcetera… Jonty Harrison is much more than a mere electroacoustician. He’s a genuine, authentic, original, veritable 21st century Renaissance man!

Track 1. Undertow (2007) [12:19]

A naturalistic swell, ocean touching shore. Heavy night, massive density. Dense masses. Roars shifting weights. Weights shifting roars. The gods scoping fluids. A sudden immersion, submersion, lowering — a dive; that insulated, grayish roaring, like the space shuttle boring into the uppermost layer of the atmosphere, lighting up; that feeling of drowning. The submerged state of mind. Blood and water pressure. Atmospheres. Suffocspheres.

Rippling closeness and distant thunder. The skin-tight rippling grows on you, louder, tighter — closer, clearer — blotting paper tight. You hide with a gang of pikes in the shadow of a hull, beneath a silent wreckage, air bubbles rising, percussively: a cool boil.

The thunder of the undertow dies away, while the close-up ripples and their sonic shadow play form a new kind of submarine ensemble, all but imperceptibly, very gradually taking effect, slowly changing things around, taking power in the rushing of wonderfully nuanced gray, brown, black and transparent fluids, in a lustful game of ever-changing pressure and bewildering motion, turning the spirit of the times around as the ocean out in the night moves over in its sleep and mumbles…

Jonty Harrison is a master of intricate sound worlds of ascetic beginnings; complex sonorities from monotonous events. In one compositional gaze he fathoms the wide scope of the ocean and the molecular wilderness.

Tracks 2 — 5. ReCycle (1999-2006) [47:39]: Rock ’n’ Roll / Internal Combustion / Free Fall / Streams

Jonty Harrison explains his grand work on this CD, made up from the four constituencies of ReCycle:

ReCycle is a series of four works based loosely on the four Greek classical elements: earth — Rock ’n’ Roll; fire — Internal Combustion; air: Free Fall; and water — Streams. The title came primarily from the fact that many themes and sound types I have used in earlier works are revisited here, but it also reflects the possibility that listeners may detect a sub-text of environmental concern — something which I readily acknowledge and which runs through much of my work since the 1980s”

Track 2. Rock ’n’ Roll (2004) [11.43]

Harrison’s preoccupation with the sounds used in Rock ’n’ Roll also calls for some words directly from the composer, since they so clearly explain the way in which he goes about his art and arrives at such interesting and highly enjoyable and exciting results:

“When we moved house, we inherited a heavy garden roller with a concrete wheel and a rusting steel tyre [tire is spelled tyre in British!]. Rolling this around the garden pathways proved sonically interesting. In the studio, my attention became more focused on the ‘rock’ sounds than on the roller sounds which had originally caught my ear. In particular, I became preoccupied with getting as close as possible to the rocks (possibly even ‘inside’ them), in contrast to the more open, spacious and ‘environmental’ use of the roller and the garden ambience. The multi-channel format allowed a further exaggeration of this contrast, using stereo speakers for the close material and a surround array for the ambience”

These are indeed rocky, rough, crude sounds, basic and bouncing, splintering; musical properties of sorts rising out of mineral worlds: clay, sand, rock — reminding me of a few older, legendary electroacoustic musique concrète masterworks: Gabriel Poulard’s La mémoire des pierres, Michel Redolfi’s Desert Tracks and the Sub Rosa production Lilith | Stone. For sure Jonty Harrison’s brute mineral finesse places me directly back into yesteryear’s darnest, most forlorn Lapland valley of Unna Reaiddávággi, by power of suggestion! Harrison’s garden roller sonorities once again open up this rock desert with it’s steep glacier on the far side, tempting me with the treacherous pass between the Pyramid and the Knife Summit, my Petzl Charlet Irvis Flexlock crampons strapped tight on my Extra Wide Island Meindl Pro hiking boots and my 25-kilogram heavy Haglofs backpack shaped along my back, containing concentrated wildlife food, a Haglofs Annapurna 3000 sleeping bag that can withstand chilly temperatures, and the most practical little one-man Hilleberg Akto tent, good for a thousand storms! Jonty Harrison’s Rock ’n’ Roll gets me real close to those rocks, even to smell them as I crawl across wave after wave of chaotic formations, to finally get onto the snow and ice of the glacier incline, rising steeply a few hundred meters. It might seem comical to some that a garden roller of the most domestic and homey Birmingham back yard kind can invoke sensations of semi-risky glacier passages — but it has to do with the sound that Harrison gets out of it, and nothing else; the mineral purity and harshness of sound! Thus rock deserts of Northern Lapland and mountain passes across tilting glaciers couldn’t be better illustrated, having my hairs stand on end as I relive my lonely and lustful rock desert adventure of 2007… and as in the earlier work Undertow, the composer manages to wring a seriously exciting sound world out of meager beginnings, painting a masterly rock rage, the gravel growling through gruesome geological grievances!

The only thing that perhaps will be hard to fit into my Lapland vision is the squeaking sound from the garden roller’s rusty wheel… A wild aspect of the close-up rock sounds is their spatiality, phasing madly! Another non-Lapland fitting circumstance is the presence of common garden birds! There were birds present in the previous Undertow, too, but seabirds.

Track 3. Internal Combustion (2005-06) [11:43]

Yet more crudity! I really begin to enjoy Harrison’s tour-de-force, hammerhead audicity: now cars! To begin with he swings the automobiles past, phasing in and out, crossroadswise, in a way you’re used to hearing them… but then… engines just start up, or begin to start up, coughing, hawking, falling apart in the process; car engines just trying to catch their mechanical breath, clear their exhaust throats, losing the body battle, gravel gliding down into gearboxes, engines imploding in rust and heatstroke… A sonic joy to listen, completely insane — reminding me in some ways of the also utterly mad Racing Car Opera by Swedish textsound guru Åke Hodell. Jonty Harrison’s art is exceedingly gifted; fun and sonically reverberant: barnstorming gale force audio: garage-gargantuan! And, aah, the phase-shifts inside this enginecide!!! Finally a jet-engine drops a dry rain of gravel on wasted automobiles huddling for destruction in a gravel pit where sand martins breed…

Track 4. Free Fall (2006) [7:54]

Wheezing whispers of sound, slowly growing contours and directions in an accelerating descent into a hellhole of heart-burned gravity. Everything is in a hurry; a gray, flaking, hot hurry… Lava, cockroaches and meadowlarks, and W. E. Johns’s Bigglesworth slowly rising over a Somerset airfield…

Track 5. Streams (1999) [16:12]

Bouncing, jittery bubbles, and the unlikely, cozy sensation of water scarves around your neck — the sound of close-miked rivulets like nightjars!Harrison grasps the horrific and silvery sonorities of a stream and commences to paint the town, embellish the whole world’s oral cavity, messing with balance organs deep inside skulls.

Rain can sound like fire!

Track 6. Afterthoughts (2007) [15:59]

Harrison comments on Afterthoughts, but in my mind his thoughts fit well with much electroacoustic daydreaming:

“The everyday sounds of a suburban garden in early summer evoke more disturbing memories and imaginings as the listener drifts into semi-slumber…”

Distant airplanes beyond the cityscape provide a basic murmur of the common cardiography of existence, while the familiarity of magpies scratch calligraphic patterns in three-dimensional recollections through our close pasts. Nothing is happening in its usual pidginlike, muffled growl. This modern life is a curious mix of animalism and machinery.

Harrison wouldn’t be who he is if he didn’t stretch reality in his elastic artisanship, so the commonest trait of garden and city gets pulled up in enchanted realms, extracted and contracted and layered and corrugated — and in particular dreamed upon, fantasized upon, mirror-hall speculated about, and painted across the bulging canvas of time and space, and all across the uncertain filter of time itself: wonderful!

To sum this CD up in a very basic way, I’d like to express my loud and clear admiration for Jonty Harrison as a genius and a jester of sound and sonic composition, and as a very fun and very serious artist. He brings you deeper knowledge of sound and sound art, and leaves you in quite a better mood than when he found you. Hurray!

Jonty Harrison [is] a genius and a jester of sound and sonic composition, and as a very fun and very serious artist.
  • Thursday, November 29, 2007 / New releases

    empreintes DIGITALes is releasing the DVD-Audio in “Surround 5.1” by: Martin Leclerc (Québec): Horizons du silence Jonty Harrison (England, UK): Environs More

  • Thursday, November 22, 2007 / New releases

    empreintes DIGITALes is announcing the upcoming release of 5 new discs (including 4 DVD-Audio with “Surround 5.1”) available on pre-order with a 20% discount. Elsa Justel (Argentina / France): Mâts (CD-Audio) Martin Leclerc (Québec): Horizo… More