Artists Jonty Harrison

Jonty Harrison studied with Bernard Rands, Elisabeth Lutyens, and David Blake at the University of York (UK), graduating with a DPhil in Composition in 1980. Between 1976 and 1980 he lived in London (UK), where he worked with Harrison Birtwistle and Dominic Muldowney at the National Theatre, producing the electroacoustic components for many productions, including Tamburlaine the Great, Julius Caesar, Brand, and Amadeus, and also taught electroacoustic composition at City University.

In 1980 he joined the Music Department of the University of Birmingham (UK), where he was Professor of Composition and Electroacoustic Music, as well as Director of the Electroacoustic Music Studios and Director of BEAST (Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre); he is now Emeritus Professor. At the University of Birmingham he taught a number of postgraduate composers from the UK and overseas; many are now themselves leading figures in the composition and teaching of electroacoustic music around the world. For ten years he was Artistic Director of the Barber Festival of Contemporary Music and he has made conducting appearances with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (including in Stockhausen’s Momente in Birmingham, Huddersfield, and London), the University New Music Ensemble, and the University Symphony Orchestra.

He was a Board member of Sonic Arts Network (SAN) for many years (Chair, 1993-96). He has also been on the Council and Executive Committee of the Society for the Promotion of New Music and was a member of the Music Advisory Panel of The Arts Council of Great Britain.

As a composer he has received several Prizes and Mentions in the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Awards (including a Euphonie d’or for Klang), two Distinctions and two Mentions in the Prix Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria), First Prize in the Musica Nova competition (Prague, Czech Republic), Second Prize in the Destellos Electroacoustic Composition Competition (Mar del Plata, Argentina), a Lloyds Bank National Composers’ Award, a PRS Prize for Electroacoustic Composition, an Arts Council Composition Bursary and research grants from the Leverhulme Trust and from the Arts and Humanities Research Board/Council.

Commissions have come from many leading performers, studios, and presenters: two each from the Groupe de recherches musicales (Ina-GRM) and the Institut international de musique électroacoustique de Bourges (IMEB — formerly the Groupe de musique expérimentale de Bourges), the International Computer Music Association (ICMA), MAFILM/Magyar Rádió, Electroacoustic Wales/Bangor University, IRCAM/Ensemble intercontemporain, Maison des arts sonores, BBC, Birmingham City Council, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, Fine Arts Brass Ensemble, Nash Ensemble, Singcircle, Thürmchen Ensemble, Compagnie Pierre Deloche Danse, Darragh Morgan, John Harle, Beverly Davison, Harry Sparnaay, and Jos Zwaanenburg. Despite renouncing instrumental composition in 1992, he has written Abstracts (1998) for large orchestra and fixed sounds, Force Fields (2006) for 8 instrumentalists and fixed sounds for the Thürmchen Ensemble, and Some of its Parts (2012-14) for violin and fixed sounds for Darragh Morgan.

He has undertaken a number of composition residencies, most recently in Basel (Switzerland), Ohain (Belgium), Bangor (Wales, UK), and Bowling Green (Ohio, USA), and has been guest composer at numerous international festivals. In 2010 he was Guest Professor of Computer Music at the Technische Universität (Berlin, Germany). In 2014 he was Master Artist-in-Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts (Florida, USA), in 2015 he was recipient of the Klingler ElectroAcoustic Residency (KEAR) at Bowling Green State University (Ohio, USA), and in 2014-15 he was a Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow (UK).

His music is performed and broadcast worldwide and appears on four solo albums on empreintes DIGITALes, as well on compilations on SAN/NMC, Cultures électroniques/Mnémosyne Musique Média, CDCM/Centaur, Asphodel, Clarinet Classics, FMR, Edition RZ, and EMF.


Jonty Harrison

Scunthorpe (England, UK), 1952

Residence: Birmingham (England, UK)

  • Composer

On the web

Jonty Harrison [Photo: Alison Warne, August 18, 2007]
Jonty Harrison [Photo: Alison Warne, August 18, 2007]
  • Caroline Profanter, Martina Claussen, Theodoros Lotis, Jonathan Prager, Jonty Harrison [Vienna (Austria), October 2, 2016]
  • Jonty Harrison [Photo: Julia Tazreiter, Vienna (Austria), October 1, 2016]
  • Elainie Lillios, Jonty Harrison [Denton (Texas, USA), October 1, 2015]
  • Elainie Lillios, Simon Emmerson, Jonty Harrison, Trevor Wishart [Birmingham (England, UK), February 1, 2014]
  • Jonty Harrison, Robert Dow, Adrian Moore [Edinburgh (Scotland, UK), February 9, 2013]
  • Jonty Harrison; ; John Young; Denis Smalley; William Brunson; Jøran Rudi; Simon Emmerson; John Dack; ; Sean Ferguson at the symposium Form in Electroacoustic Music, Institute of Creative Technologies, De Montfort University (Leicester, England, UK) [Leicester (England, UK), February 20, 2011]
  • Jonty Harrison, Jean-François Denis, Denis Smalley, Pierre Alexandre Tremblay at the afternoon rehearshal for the concert empreintes DIGITALes @ 20: Cinema for the Ears as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival [Photo: Scott Hewitt, Huddersfield (England, UK), November 24, 2010]
  • Robert Normandeau, Andrew Lewis, and Jonty Harrison on the stage of Powis Hall, Bangor University [Bangor (Wales, UK), October 30, 2008]

Main releases

empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 16139, IMED 16139_NUM / 2016
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 0788, IMED 0788_NUM / 2007
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 0052, IMED 0052_NUM / 2000
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 9627, IMED 9627_NUM / 1996


empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 0898, IMED 0898_NUM / 2008
Various artists
EMF Media / EMF 053 / 2004
empreintes DIGITALes / IMED 0409, IMED 0409_NUM, IMED 9209 / 1992, 2004
Musiques & Recherches / LIEN 1988, LIEN 1998-11 / 1988, 1998


Diatribe Records / DIACD 021, DIACD 021_NUM / 2017
Vision Edition / VE 003MC / 2015
  • Not in catalogue

In the press

An Itinerary Through Northern Europe

François Couture,, February 9, 2004

This is a casual listening path, an invitation to travel — not a guided tour per se, more of an itinerary, akin to Romantic-era travel literature. So this will be a listening itinerary, an invitation to discover a highly subjective selection of electroacoustic composers from a specific corner of the world. Our destination: Northern Europe.

France reigns over European electroacoustic music like a despotic queen. The persisting influence of Pierre Schaeffer’s work — even more than 50 years after the invention of what he has called “musique concrète” — and the gravitational pull of the Ina-GRM tend to hide from the rest of the world the work being accomplished elsewhere in Europe.

So let’s start our journey in one of France’s neighbors, Belgium. The country owes much of its electroacoustic activity to Annette Vande Gorne, the indefatigable animator of the Musiques & Recherches center. Her music displays a strong sense of serenity, something rare in the field of tape music. Tao, a cycle about the five base elements (air, earth, metal, fire and water), remains a classic. In it she explores every possible transformation of the sounds associated to these elements with an uncommon level of artistry and poetry. A student of Vande Gorne, Stephan Dunkelman has picked up on her grace, a grace he transmutes into movement. Often the result of a collaboration with choreographers, his works are driven by an inner force that substitutes the sensuality of movement to Vande Gorne’s philosophical — almost mystical — depth. His pieces Rituellipses and Thru, Above and Between, released on the album Rhizomes, deserve your attention.

A jump across the Northern Sea and we set foot on English ground. Birmingham has become an important creative node in electroacoustic music, thanks to the work of composer Jonty Harrsison and his Birmingham ElectroAcoustic Sound Theatre (better known as BEAST), a laboratory for experimentation and sound diffusion that has helped many talented composers in developing their art. Harrison’s music is an essential listen. His piece Klang (released on Évidence matérielle) ranks among the best-known electroacoustic works of the last 25 years. His precise sound constructions and his distinctive way of compressing sound matter into streams of energy put him up there with Pierre Henry, Francis Dhomont and Bernard Bernard Parmegiani. One can follow the traces of his techniques into the works of Adrian Moore, one of his students, especially in the latter’s fondness for putting simple sound sources (marker on a white board, tin foil) through complex transformations. Sieve, from the album Traces, uses a catchy playfulness to make this transformative process transparent.

Denis Smalley was born and raised in New Zealand, but he has been living in the UK since the mid-‘70s. His contributions to the acousmatic corpus and to the development of sound diffusion make him not only the contemporary but in a sense the acolyte of Harrison. Furthermore, the two composers share a similar interest in form and in the choreographed displacement of abstract sound objects through space and time. Wind Chimes (on Impacts intérieurs) and Base Metals (on Sources/Scènes) are good illustrations of the slightly cold yet fascinating beauty of his music. John Young, one of his students — and another New-Zealander who studied and now teaches in England), follows a similar approach, although he replaces Smalley’s elemental sound sources with more emotionally charged images. The works featured on his CD La limite du bruit offer to the listener several occasions to dive into his or her own memories, the sound of a squeaky swing or a creaky door turning into avatars of Proust’s madeleine. Time, Motion and Memory is a choice cut.

Scandinavian electroacoustic music is still too largely ignored on our side of the Atlantic, but empreintes DIGITALes’ catalog allows us to make a short stop to round up our peregrinations. Natasha Barrett has studied with Harrison and Smalley and has been involved in BEAST, but since 1998 she has elected Norway as her base camp. There, she has stepped away from the style of her teachers and has sought inspiration in the Nordic cold. Her Three Fictions, released on Isostasie, deserve many listens. And let me bring this listening path to an end with one of the key composers in electroacoustic music today, the Swedish Åke Parmerud, whose Renaissance (on Jeu d’ombres) pays tribute to the analog synthesizer without resorting to nostalgic tricks.

Trois aspects du bonheur

François Tousignant, Le Devoir, May 19, 2001

Il faut bien que je vous parle de ce disque pour deux choses. La première s’impose: la beauté de la musique. Jonty Harrison est un très grand compositeur et cette sorte de portrait nous emmène dans tellement d’univers variés qu’on s’étonne de la puissance d’imagination dont est capable l’espèce humaine. Ici, le critique a tout dit et laisse la place à votre bon vouloir d’entendre en vous le recommandant à tout le moins chaudement, même aux rébarbatifs à l’acousmatique.

La seconde est une vraie farce, de celles qu’on ne commet qu’avec la plus complète sincérité. J’ose donc ici une sorte d’impudique confidence. En entendant Klang (œuvre magnifique), je n’ai pu m’empêcher de penser à des cloches japonaises du temple. Je maintiens: c’en est vraiment le son. Mais une amie m’a dit se retrouver dans sa cuisine et ses casseroles en entendant cela. Quelle honte: je croyais à plus de noblesse et pourtant oui: ce sont des casseroles: je fus berné et m’en confesse sans modestie.

Jamais batterie de cuisine ne fut si résonnante et riche de potentialité. Et, effectivement, la poésie sonore s’enrichit de cette vision qui trouve sa source dans le hasard du quotidien; Cage avait raison de dire que la musique, dans le fond est plus dans l’oreille de celui qui écoute que dans celle de celui la fait. Il y a toujours un impondérable quelque part que l’artiste transforme et qui — Jonty Harrison — devient révélateur. On voudrait bien des mots pour dire cela. Heureusement il y a mieux, à savoir la musique. C’est plus que suffisant.

… un très grand compositeur… on s’étonne de la puissance d’imagination dont est capable l’espèce humaine.

Evidence Often Extraordinary

Alexander Varty, The Georgia Straight, April 1, 2001

It’s not unusual to hear people talk about recordings that take you on a journey, usually in the context of sounds that are tropical, uplifting, or expansively — and expensively—produced. Jonty Harrison’s Sorties, however, doesn’t so much lead you through a sonic landscape as buridle you, blindfolded and confused, into the back of a car, destination unknown.

A series of linked soundscape vignettes, this 15-minute piece begins placidly enough, perhaps any ordinary urban street. Heels click against the pavement; cars - thrum by on what sounds like wet asphalt; children’s voices clatter from the reflective shop windows nearby; an indistinct bass line wafts from a second-floor studio. But then the mood changes: the squealing of subway brakes leads to a minor scuffle, after witch a door slams shut and the ambient noises fade to black. But the work is far from being over. Keys rattle against locks, tumblers turn, an oddly musical creak — electronically processed saxophone? — signifies the opening of another door.

In this new world, it’s raining; thunder booms, and then the downpour stops as the listener kicks along a shingle beach, waves plashing nearby, before being pulled through yet another door into a leafy garden of birdsong; in the distance, a puzzled child cries “Mommy! There’s a shoe!”

What domestic or criminal drama is being played out here remains unexplained, as the listener is quickly taken away from this pastoral scene. A buzzing fly morphs into droning industrial noise and then into a silvery synthesized chord, which in turn becomes the noise of a passing bus as the initial street reappears, this tune overlaid with a mesh of clicking and whirring. The piece continues for another minute or so until, finally, ominous low pulses signal its uneasy end.

Sorties a title intended to be read for both its English and French meanings — is taken from Évidence matérielle, Harrison’s new CD on the Montréal-based empreintes DIGITALes label, and in the liner notes the composer explains that “the dominant sound image of the work is that of leaving (exiting, escaping, fleeing) an interior space for an exterior one, only to find that one is mysteriously and inevitably trapped once again in another ‘interior’.”

Be that as it may, when one listens to this work on headphones, in a darkened room, it’s hard to detect that the listener has any hope of escape. Harrison’s sonic images have such presence that one really does seem kidnapped, swept away in the composer’s design, and although the feeling is not always-comfortable it’s as gripping as a pair of handcuffs.

Sorties is an extraordinay piece, as are most of the other works collected on Évidence matérielle. The glorious, metallic physicality of Klang; the fractured yet evocative images of Splintering the appropriately transparent liquidity of Streams: all use a supposedly cool medium — electronic music - to paint warm portraits of human experience. Only Surface Tension fails to cohere: it’s an attempt to make music by sampling and manipulating the sounds of discarded packing materials and other rubbish, but those noises are too amorphous and its structure too indistinct to be fully involving.

Harrison’s compositions are typical of those featured on empreintes DIGITALes, which with 58 titles in its catalogue is perhaps the world’s leading record label dedicated to electroacoustic music. Its productions run the gamut from “environmental” sounds made up of electronically manipulated field recordings to the purely digital concoctions of the recording studio, and its roster includes such Vancouver composers as Sergio Barroso, Paul Dolden, and Hildegard Westerkamp. Vancouver and Montréal are both hotbeds of this kind of work, but an indication of empreintes DIGITALes’ status in the world at large is that only one Canadian composer is represented in its four new releases. Accompanying Harrison’s CD are albums by his student and fellow Englishman Adrian Moore and New Zealand’s Denis Smalley, in addition to one from Montréal’s Louis Dufort.

Space precludes full reviews of these, but it’s probably fair that all four composers share a common aesthetics - although whether that is the result of a shared philosophical outlook or something forced on them by the technology they’re working with is hard to say. Whatever the case, if you’re looking for drama Dufort is your man; his dynamic range is greater and his sounds harsher than those used by his English and Kiwi counterparts. But, like them, he’s interested in building long, flowing compositions from small sound sources. By compressing, stretching, and twisting familiar noises, and by the steady aecumulation of sonic detail, all four make music that is transporting — even if, as in Harrison’s Sorties, the journey isn’t always fun.

… one really does seem kidnapped, swept away in the composer’s design…


André Mayer, Musicworks, no. 71, June 1, 1998

Articles indéfinis is not as varied a collection as Contes de la memoire, but it still amply displays Harrison’s importance. The disc begins with Pair / Impair, recorded in 1978, a manic depressive composition in which Harrison sought to reconcile dynamics and stasis. The electronic and acoustic tones on Pair / Impair still seem otherwordly over twenty years later.

The centrepiece of Articles indéfinis is … et ainsi de suite… (1992), an eleven-part suite of musique concrète. Harrison utilized wine glasses as his raw texture, then time-stretched and digitally manipulated the sounds to create a mesmerizing sonic canvas. The final piece, Hot Air (1995), is notable because it is a study of air — children’s balloons were merely a starting point for a complex exploration of the dynamics of breath and the energy needed to achieve it. The result essentially offers a wordless philosophical discussion on the concepts of air and heat.

Appleton and Harrison’s work can be truly held up as visionary; their influence can be heard in modern electronic bands such as Germany’s Mouse on Mars and Britain’s Autechre, which have taken raw, sometimes unpalatable sound experiments and forged engaging and more commercially viable equivalents.

Appleton and Harrison’s work can be truly held up as visionary

Articles written


Jonty Harrison, Contact!, no. 11:1, October 1, 1997

In Forêt profonde, we may be better able to relate to the central proposition — we have all been children at least, even if this is only one of the many levels on which the piece operates. Dhomont’s evocation of childhood through fairy tales is potent — dangerous, even — to our urbanised sensibilities. What is staggering about this work, as with so much Dhomont, is the sheer accuracy of the observation — he might be talking about me, my life, my singular experience; the insight cuts the listener like a knife. The piece exhibits a masterly and poignant interweaving of the sounds of childhood (actual? remembered?), an adult’s awareness of the ‘real’ subject matter of fairy tales and documentary references to the life of Bettelheim, who survived Dachau but committed suicide in 1990.

Those who know other works by Francis Dhomont will recognise some fingerprints: the exquisite sound world; the beautifully executed recordings of real-world sounds; the apparent simplicity, yet complete appropriateness to the poetic intent, of the studio transformations (particularly, in these two works, of the voice); the sense of everything happening at just the right time, the right speed, the right density; the staggering depth of field, from infinity to much too close for comfort; the subtle reference, not only to the real world (but what is really ‘real’ in this aural evocation of an internal super-reality?), but to a musical heritage of which he is fully aware, even if his art now extends beyond this. In Sous le regard d’un soleil noir, this manifests itself in the insistent B natural (si in French, also meaning ‘if’) which permeates the work, recalling what the composer calls ‘the memory of Wozzeck’ (from Berg’s ‘Invention’ on this note in his opera of the same name), and echoing Laing’s repetition of what Nattiez calls ‘the conditional if… [which] becomes obsessive alliteration’. In Forêt profonde the primary musical reference is to Schumann. As Dhomont explains, ‘each of the 13 sections borrows a brief element, a colour, an atmosphere, from the 13 Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood)’.

As ever with works by Dhomont, the listener’s ear in these two remarkable pieces is enhanced by the composer — he makes us hear better than we might otherwise. He makes us aware of connections, of subtle exchanges and interplays; and by contrast, he makes radically different material sound ‘right’, sound organic and logical. He holds the listener in a suspension of belief, in a magical land not unlike the ‘deep forest’ of the imagination, guided — so unusually in this day and age, and so all the more strikingly — by our ears. What Dhomont tells us is true — the proof is the confirmation of aural perception: hearing is believing.

… hearing is believing.


Jonty Harrison, Contact!, no. 11:1, October 1, 1997

The name of Francis Dhomont needs no introduction to members of CEC or readers of its publications — active in Montréal as composer and teacher for almost twenty years, he is the ‘musical father’ of nearly all of the younger generation of Québécois composers who have made such a mark in the electroacoustic world in the past decade.

The two CDs under review were released together with a timely relaunch of empreintes DIGITALes’ earlier Dhomont double album, Mouvances~Métaphores, this time in the format of two singles, Cycle de l’errance and Les dérives du signe.

Like part of the earlier double album, the two new CDs form a cycle, the Cycle des profondeurs, inspired by psychoanalytic thought. The first piece in the cycle, Sous le regard d’un soleil noir (Under the Glare of a Dark Sun) is based on texts by British psychoanalyst Ronald D Laing; the second, Forêt profonde (Deep Forest) takes the writings of Bruno Bettelheim as its starting point; Dhomont states that there is the possibility of a third work in the cycle, “devoted to the works of Kafka, guided by the writings of Marthe Robert.” If the quality of the two disks under review is anything to go by, I wait for this third piece with great excitement! Sous le regard d’un soleil noir dates from 1979-81, some of it having been composed in the studios of the GRM in Paris (the two CDs are produced in collaboration with GRM); Forêt profonde, according to Dhomont himself, has ‘accompanied’ him for the last fifteen years, its final production occupying him for the two years 1994-96.

The first notable feature of both works is their description as ‘acousmatic melodramas’. There is a substantial amount of text in these pieces and, at almost an hour each, the non-French-speaker might well feel some trepidation about his/her ability to engage in what Dhomont is offering. Indeed, the composer shares this concern — at a recent performance of Forêt profonde here in Birmingham [UK], Dhomont was most anxious that English translations of the texts should be available, even to the extent of having quite a high lighting level in the hall by which to read them during the performance! The sensation of pure sound, however, is so wonderfully controlled that this is much less of a problem than one might suppose, and the richness of the works is such that they will bear many repeated hearings, though additional levels of meaning will, of course, be revealed by study of the texts and translations supplied in the very generous booklets.

Sous le regard d’un soleil noir deals with schizophrenia. It is, like the Laing on which it draws, not about schizophrenia, but is a kind of analog of it. Not only does the material suggest a progressive deterioration into the condition (through, for example, the splitting and distribution of text in ‘self-trios’ and the like) but even the spatial organisation suggests the dichotomies and polarisation implicit in the subject matter: the contrast of very ‘present’ material with highly reverberated sound and tightly focused, almost mono, sounds being subjected to sudden, very stereophonic interjections. It is a characteristic of this piece that such treatments are never simplistic, but always fresh and constantly redefining themselves — always serving to enhance the ‘experience’ (which, of course, we cannot have) of another’s experience. In doing this, as Jean-Jacques Nattiez points out in his introduction to the work, Dhomont ‘constructs a more general myth through which the ‘normal’ man discovers his own schizoid traits’.


  • Jonty Harrison [Photo: Alison Warne, August 18, 2007]

    Associazione Prima Materia presents the Sounds Almost Real masterclass on September 5-9, 2017 San Quirico In Collina (near Florence, Italy) with Jonty Harrison.…

    Saturday, August 26, 2017 / General
  • John Young [Photo: Amalia Young, Leicester (England, UK), April 7, 2014]

    The two 2014-15 Klinger Electroacoustic Residents (KEAR) at Bowling Green State University (Ohio, USA) have been announced. John Young will spend his two weeks in the multi-channel / ambisonic studio at the end of October 2014 and Jonty Har…

    Sunday, September 28, 2014 / General
  • Jonty Harrison [Photo: Alison Warne, August 18, 2007]

    Musiques & Recherches presents the concert Portrait musical de Jonty Harrison on June 20, 2014 at Espace Senghor in Brussels (Belgium) with the composer diffusing 5 of his works including the new Espaces cachés (premiered in Montpellier (Fr…

    Monday, June 16, 2014 / In concert