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michael kieran harvey


an experiment in life at the piano

danielle carey & michael kieran harvey talk art, science, politics...

Freelance writer Danielle Carey is a graduate in musicology from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Publications Coordinator at the Australian Music Centre.

Michael Keiran Harvey Michael Keiran Harvey
photo Simon Cuthbert
WHEN I SPOKE TO PIANIST MICHAEL KIERAN HARVEY, WHO HAS RECENTLY RECORDED LARRY SITSKY’S THE WAY OF THE SEEKER, ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF MYSTICISM, HE SEEMED WARY: IT’S NOT A NOTION THAT GIVES HIM MUCH CONFIDENCE. A SELF-PROCLAIMED SCIENTIFIC MATERIALIST, HE ISN’T INTO “PRODUCING SOMETHING MYSTICAL FOR THE SAKE OF PRODUCING SOMETHING MYSTICAL.” I PAUSED MOMENTARILY—WHERE TO GO FROM HERE? BUT HIS VOICE, SUDDENLY ENERGISED, CHANGED TONE: “THE REAL MYSTICISM FOR ME IS MAKING MUSIC OUT OF SOMETHING”.

Inspired by ancient Sufi wisdom, Larry Sitsky’s solo piano work The Way of the Seeker celebrates the mystical journey towards enlightenment. The virtuosic work draws on direct quotations from the 11th century texts of Hakim Sanai, considered to be one of the three great Persian Sufi poets.

I was intrigued—if mysticism is the pursuit of ultimate reality, did this mean that Kieran Harvey seeks insight and meaning through his chosen art? He elaborated: “In the bad old days one could quite easily get hold of mercury. This element is most peculiar—it is a metal and a liquid—very difficult to handle, yet fascinating. There are so many things in the universe we don’t understand. Some people give up and pass over responsibility to something or someone else as a way of coping. Other people are motivated by curiosity to find out as much as possible in their short span. This latter attitude is my approach to music, but—like mercury—the essence is very difficult to pin down and is constantly shifting. I relish this insecurity—it’s exciting for me.

“I maintain my sense of awe in the creative process by attempting to compose—this keeps my respect for real composers very high (even though I pretend to be disrespectful to them on occasion. Can’t have them acting like Beethoven can we?).
One gets a feeling of awe or mysticism from the natural world constantly. Look at those astonishing pictures of Saturn with our world reduced to a speck, or Bryce Canyon in Utah (no wonder whacko sects flourish in such landscapes)—far more mysterious than man-made shrouds, weeping plaster statues, faceless fakirs or transubstantiations. The ability to interpret our reality through music is profoundly useless, yet satisfying, and I’ve found it to be completely unpredictable.”

For Michael Kieran Harvey, meaning in music is derived from “getting into the mind of the composer.” And—with regard to The Way of the Seeker—it is Sitsky’s own curiosity that is inspiring: “Sitsky has an amazing intellect, is fascinated by different approaches to composition and his own ways to enlightenment...Forever researching and reinventing, he isn’t closed but open to disparate styles and the whole gamut of human experience.”

While the search for personal enlightenment is a prominent theme in many of Sitsky’s works, it is interesting that he chose to celebrate the writings of Sanai in the midst of the ‘war on terror’ (Sanai was born in the province of Ghazna, which lies in what is now Southern Afghanistan). And given the incessant propaganda currently fed to us by the federal government, a different perspective on this culture is refreshing.

Kieran Harvey agrees: “...every sane person knows how ludicrous war is and how cynical this one is in particular. Genetically speaking, we are slaughtering brothers and sisters. Does this help enlighten people about their religious memes? Of course not. Do we have more to learn about overcoming our genetic destiny? Of course we do. We are bludgeoned into apathy by paid-off corrupt governments and corporate interests are rampant accordingly. Science is under attack by morons. One doesn’t have to accept this.

“Larry has paid homage to the tremendous insights of the Sufis instead of simply writing off this sect as an enemy. Wisdom is achieved through time and by maintaining an open mind. The major human dilemma is balance and control of oneself. War, of course, shatters this and reinforces propaganda, greed, a state of constant hypocrisy, newspeak and mass memory lapses. We should be more concerned with the consequences of corporate disregard for human life—for example, the road toll, global warming, the arms trade, poisoned groundwater and the Catholic Church—than terrorism because these are responsible for much more human suffering and the end of life itself.”

art does what?

So what then of the role of art in this declining world? One immediately imagines a world where art serves to challenge the atrocities of power hungry governments—a struggling voice embodying the essence of humanity. But Kieran Harvey thinks otherwise: “Unfortunately, I don’t think what Larry or I do is important to society at all.

This is liberating of course because it is unlikely to attract the spin doctors and corruption of the mainstream, and we can just get on with things we find meaningful. I think it’s a waste of time and money to try to sell something so sophisticated to dim Footy Show viewers merely to justify funding.”

Socio-political comment through art is, of course, widespread, and I wondered further about its importance and how it reflects on Kieran Harvey’s role as an interpreter. But even here he is a little sceptical: “It is easy to write or perform something political—mostly the [target’s] a sitting duck because at least half your audience will agree with you. There’s so much that is an outrage going on—not least of all our imminent demise—that it’s surprising that not all creative works are socio-political. It’s difficult to write a Magic Flute though—something that will retain layers of insight and fool all sides. Once you realize that the concept of a meritocratic democracy is bullshit, you tend to strip away the distractions in your own life. Those not used to this tend to opt for some type of ‘spirituality’, which is just the same illusion as capitalism. My role is not readily discernible to me. I reject the notion of an ‘industry’ which was imposed on my artform and consequently upon me as a cog in this corporate structure. But I don’t give a damn about my own survival as a musician. So, although it’s getting increasingly difficult to live, I am still able to do what I really want, irrespective of audience response, management monopolies, disgruntled pollies or CD sales. But I don’t think anyone notices what I do whatsoever or, if they do, then they’re as misguided as I am.”

choice, curiosity, defiance

Of course, one thing that is difficult not to notice is that Michael Kieran Harvey has played a hell of a lot of Australian music in the last few decades. But he doesn’t think he specialises in Australian music. It’s all just music to him: “Call it lack of direction, serendipity, laziness, a low threshold of boredom, I don’t know. I don’t trawl through repertoire making up marketing strategies or seeking out names to sponge off. I think it’s more important to have a reputation based on word of mouth [rather] than advertising. I don’t pay a manager or publicist and I refuse to be sucked in by the same when making decisions about my performances, whether it be content or presentation. The decisions I make about presenting new music are diverse because I’m not sure about what might or might not work in a concert, and yes sometimes I accept an outside suggestion or dare—I would never have played Messiaen in the Concertgebouw or my next program at the Brisbane Festival otherwise.”

However, given the amount of repertoire Kieran Harvey has trawled through, performed or commissioned, I was curious about whether he thought Australian piano music has a distinct sound. I received a flat no, although he does believe that “bits of it in the past have shown an information lag and cultural cringe or an unscrupulous ripping off of less wealthy cultures, but I think as art music is increasingly ignored in Australia and we realise that posterity as a concept has disappeared, the urgency will return and replace most of the charlatanism”.

Kieran Harvey’s motivation for choosing repertoire is clear: he performs only what interests him. Curiosity is his driving force. “I’m like an entomologist”, he says. “Or at least I think like that—a scientist in the field...I lift up a rock and see what’s there.”
Again, he stresses that he makes no distinction between Australian music and other music: “The piano is just an ancient computer for realising ideas. I don’t think Australian intellectual life is dead, yet, so I find that composers based in Australia are at least as interesting as composers elsewhere.

I used to think I’d like to contribute something to the country I was privileged enough to be raised in. Seeing it overrun by red-necked morons now makes me more determined to work with the few remaining enlightened and endangered individuals who are left. I sort of agree with Patrick White’s observation about it being more difficult here than elsewhere for those not part of the mainstream, which is a good reality check.”

life as experiment

Obstacles won’t deter Kieran Harvey from his passion: he seems to thrive on a life of instability, challenges and continuous exploration. “I regard my life as an experiment—I’ve sort of already thrown it away on an obviously useless pursuit—and I’m comfortable in my skin”, he says. “So far I’ve managed to keep doing what I like doing, which is really an accomplishment for me—it took me a hell of a long time to realise this. I’m very uncomfortable in this society, but it’s where I was born, and I know it could be a lot, lot worse. I studied for three years in a communist country.

There I learned from various scientific contacts that the things of the mind are the truly sustaining interests, not material things or ideologies. I’m fascinated by the universe, and I want to live to see what will happen once the LHC [Large Hadron Collider, Geneva] kicks in this year, and the Singularity event occurs somewhere around 2030—to name a few things I’m looking forward to. Perhaps my archaic piano playing may be re-invigorated by such events.”


See page 41 for Chris Reid’s review of Michael Kieran Harvey’s CD of Larry Sitsky’s The Way of the Seeker, and page 48 for giveaway copies courtesy of Move Records.

Freelance writer Danielle Carey is a graduate in musicology from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Publications Coordinator at the Australian Music Centre.

RealTime issue #78 April-May 2007 pg. 10

© Danielle Carey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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