Music from beyond the grave: In search of divine inspiration, composer Jonathan Harvey sleeps on the job. Mark Pappenheim reports

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IT WAS singing in a performance of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius that gave the young Jonathan Harvey his first intimation that music could be the key to some higher reality. His spiritual journey has taken him a long way since those post-war years as a boy chorister at St Michael's, Tenbury - beyond simple Christian faith into more mystic realms of Buddhism, Vedic thought and transcendental meditation. His choice of musical titles signposts the parallel paths he has pursued: Easter Orisons, Passion and Resurrection, Inner Light, Bhakti, Gong-Ring, Ritual Melodies. His beliefs he now describes as 'both more complicated and more simple', his music as 'songs of experience as well as of innocence'. Inquest of Love, his new opera (premiered by the English National Opera tonight), should supply a current summation of both.

A mystical murder mystery, whose title punningly places it in a long line of quest operas alongside The Magic Flute, Parsifal and The Midsummer Marriage, Inquest is also the latest link in the Orphic nexus between music and the afterlife that has underpinned the history of opera from Monteverdi to Birtwistle and beyond.

Harvey's work has long been permeated by songs of love and death and resurrection - from his early chamber opera, A Full Moon in March, where, in a Yeatsian cross between the legends of Orpheus and Salome, a severed head sings and a queen dances to its song, through his church opera, Passion and Resurrection, to his 1985 Tagore cycle, Song Offerings (winner of the 1993 Britten Award), where death is welcomed as the ultimate lover. Inquest is something of a consummation of this long liaison: its first act begins with a triple murder; its second is set in the hereafter. Yet, post mortem though it is, Inquest is far from morbid, deriving much of its inspiration from joyful images of the afterlife offered in the writings of the poet Kathleen Raine and the Austrian mystic Rudolf Steiner.

As a composer, Harvey was understandably taken with Raine's vision of souls 'walking on music' after death and her ideas about the continuity of consciousness between life after death and life as we know it - 'the idea being that there's very little difference, and one of the differences is that you're closer to music after death'. He liked, too, Steiner's vision of eternity as a kind of cosmic son et lumiere - 'pure music, pure light, pure emotion, pure thought. I loved this idea. It just reverberated in me for year after year, I can't explain why.'

Harvey is at pains, though, to stress that he has drawn upon these visions as images of beauty rather than as articles of faith. 'I take Steiner as poetry,' he says, 'as poetry in the profoundest sense. I've no idea whether it's true - but isn't that what makes poetry important to you? Because in a sense you do feel that it's true.' At the same time, he talks of his explorations in electronic music - Inquest features three synthesisers, an effects unit and a ring modulator, as well as pre-recorded tape (and the composer himself will be at the mixing-desk for all five performances) - as attempts to realise his own intuitions of heavenly music here on earth. He clearly also finds confirmation of his hopes in the accounts of near-death experiences which his wife Rosa has brought back over the years from the hospitals where she has worked. 'I remember her telling me about one woman who nearly died, and when she revived, all she could say was, 'It was like a great symphony orchestra.' She said she'd never heard anything like it.' Much as he likes the idea, he won't quite believe it until he hears it for himself. 'And unfortunately, or fortunately,' he laughs, 'I've never been that near to death. But I think we all get little intuitions - glimpses in dreams . . .'

And indeed, he doesn't just have intuitions in dreams, he sometimes hears whole pieces - 'not always too precisely, although I have had two or three church pieces pretty well complete. I usually write in my book 'received'. One needs one's craft, of course, to get them down, but the essentials are there in dreams.'

Inquest is itself a dream, or rather a vision - a projection of the inner world of the Abbot, who begins the opera in meditation, and the sound of whose deep, trance-like breathing (the composer's own, in fact, on the pre-recorded tape) functions as the work's overture, literally inspiring the pentatonic musical world that the Abbot inhabits.

Despite the opera's apparent Christian context - the monastic setting, and the prayerbook marriage ceremony at which the triple shooting occurs - Inquest harbours a more mystically subversive, more sinuously oriental message. In his use of timeslips, flashbacks and action replays (John and Ann's fatal first-act wedding is re-enacted three times from different narrative and spiritual perspectives), Harvey admits that he is playing with Buddhist notions of time - 'that there is no before and no after and that kind of thing'. He suggests that the whole action takes place in the Abbot's own mind. The image of a purgatory where the three principal characters relive the consequences of their past actions over and over again, gradually unearthing suppressed memories, hidden emotions and forgotten feelings, before ultimately attaining enlightenment through the power of love, also suggests a philosophy of spiritual redemption that goes beyond strictly Christian orthodoxies of eternal hellfire. Whether the text (Harvey's own, shaped with the help of the playwright David Rudkin) actually goes as far as implying reincarnation, Harvey is not so sure. 'Do I imply that anywhere?' he asks anxiously. 'I mean, do we, in the libretto? I happen to have a lot of sympathy for the idea of reincarnation and almost believe in it. But I didn't think it was particularly in the opera. But maybe it has got in there, by some back door or other.' As he admits, he did originally think of calling the opera Again and Again, and there are distinct suggestions of kharma at work - what Harvey calls 'the logic of suffering, the idea that the suffering one inflicts has its logical return'. Whether that is to be in this life or the next (or even the one after that) remains open. Harvey has no doubt, however, that the ultimate goal of life's journey is bliss, a happy ending confirmed in the opera by a joyous peal of bells.

Harvey has long loved these 'great powerhouses of sound' that ring the changes between life and death. In his 1980 tape piece, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, he combined the voice of his chorister son with the fundamental partials of the great tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral, and created the one pop classic to have emerged from Boulez's electro-acoustic bunker in Paris. In Inquest, bells toll, peal, mock, throb, clang, threaten, and even laugh. 'Yes, I had a dream about that,' Harvey reveals. 'I heard it exactly, and I managed to get it on tape. It's only about four or five seconds long - a great peal of bells that just suddenly moves through this wall of sound and there's laughter.'

Inquest's philosophical agenda may appear symptomatic of the current spiritual resurgence in music that has turned Part, Tavener and, above all, Gorecki into best-sellers. But Harvey is not in the business of purveying second-hand religiosity to a secular age; he expects his audiences to work for their own enlightenment. He himself has practised transcendental meditation since 1977 and will be leading hour-long sessions of 'sound meditation', 'breath awareness' and 'guided visualisation' prior to each performance. These are, he admits, rather unusual ways of presenting a new opera to the public, 'but not, I think, out of place. It is to do with healing. There's a lot of darkness in it - I'm sure people will find that. But fundamentally it's about confronting that and trying to understand it.' And, as he says, the idea that music can actually be an agent for spiritual change is neither new nor particularly cranky. 'Some lord once said to Handel, after the Messiah, 'Splendid entertainment, my dear fellow.' And Handel replied, 'I hoped, sir, that it would be more than entertainment, but that it would change people's lives.' '

'Inquest of Love': 7.30 tonight and 8, 11, 17, 22 June, London Coliseum, St Martin's La, London WC2 (071-836 3161) pounds 4.50- pounds 25. Pre-perf sessions: 6pm Friends Meeting House, 8 Hop Gdns

(Photograph omitted)