by M. Sparks
After attending a mesmerizing concert at Auer Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, William Harvey’s sparkling tone, beautiful sound, and diverse program triggered in me a desire to know more about this young performer. As it turns out, he is much more than just a classical musician. In addition to his fantastic performances, Mr. Harvey is a composer and the founder of Cultures in Harmony, a not-for-profit organization that brings people across the globe together through music. Even amidst his busy travel schedule, I am happy that he made time to speak more about his global initiative and personal take on the world of classical music.
1. What is your opinion regarding the state of classical music today? Would you say it has lost or gained potency since Mahler’s time? Do you feel musicians seek relational quantity and status over musical quality?
Western classical music should continue to build on the efforts of many of its practitioners to engage with communities that are not well-represented among our traditional audiences. Our music remains as potent as ever, which is why efforts to explore its power outside the realm of the concert hall have had such a strong impact.
Cultures in Harmony, the cultural diplomacy organization I founded in 2005, has conducted over 40 projects in over 16 countries. I just recently finished a project teaching young musicians in Tunisia. Presently, I’m in Kabul as a guest teacher at Afghanistan National Institute of Music, where I was the violin teacher and orchestra conductor from 2010-2014. Initiatives I admire in which I’m not involved include American Voices, Decoda, and the Silk Road Project.
I spend time thinking about how music can transform society, and don’t devote much thought to whether other musicians seek status or quality. Too many people who complain that another musician has sacrificed quality for fame are probably jealous of the money that famous musician is making!
2. You recently gave a recital in Auer Hall at Indiana University of relatively little known works. What inspired this programming and your divergence from the popular classical repertoire of today?
Why should I perform “standard repertoire”? I play music that speaks to me and which I believe will speak to an audience, and I work carefully to assemble programs out of pieces that complement each other. How frequently a piece has been performed doesn’t enter into that calculus.
The standard repertoire pieces I play most often are the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. I’ve played Bach in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, at parties in Kabul, at an event venue in Islamabad, Pakistan, and for elementary school children in New York City. Somehow the appeal of these works is even more universal than that of our other great composers. While a listener accustomed to Western classical music hears a beautiful Romantic salon piece in Tchaikovsky’s Melodie, children by the side of the road near Marondera, Zimbabwe laughed hysterically: the gentle up-bow staccato sounded to them like human laughter!
Similarly, I achieved great results with a YouTube project, “Playing Carter in Afghanistan.” Afghans for whom I played the 4 unaccompanied pieces of Elliott Carter did not know that many audiences find his music unbearably dissonant. They connected with the raw emotional power in his work in a way few American audiences outside self-selecting modern music lovers would.
I am too curious to confine myself to music people already know to be great.
3. Music has served you as a platform for philanthropic work and cultural crossover throughout the world. How has your community involvement with other nations strengthened the quality of your music as it pertains to performing and composing?
My exposure to diverse cultures has transformed both my performing and composing. On my first trip to Tunisia in 2005, I noticed how Arabic calligraphy and even commercial signage will frequently stretch out the line within a letter to a degree determined entirely by the esthetic perception of the writer. This insight about the spatial relationship between long lines and the ornaments (or vowel markings) around them changed how I play Bach. As a composer, my music since 2009 has drawn inspiration from musical styles I encountered in Afghanistan, India, Turkey, Cameroon, and elsewhere.
4. Once you have accomplished your goal of mediating and creating positive relations between people of different backgrounds, what are your long-term goals with “Cultures in Harmony?”
Cultures in Harmony aims to bring people together through music. As recent terrorist attacks in Charlottesville, USA, and Barcelona, Spain, show, this goal of mutual respect and understanding between cultures might never be achieved. Cultural diplomacy initiatives are not normally intended to reach those who might otherwise tend towards violence, but rather to cement the bonds between moderate and open-minded people of different cultures. The strength of those bonds ideally sends the message that violence will not break them.
5. What are the defining qualities of a masterpiece?
Last year, Cultures in Harmony did our first major domestic project, “What is American culture?” in which I spend one week in every US state asking that question in order to celebrate the many answers it’s possible to give. One of the most memorable interviews I did was with a staff member at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who disputed my statement that “Shakespeare is universal” by saying that we have been taught to believe he is. She hastened to clarify that she didn’t intend to argue that he was not a great writer, but the exchange spoke to a reality we face today. The amount of common ground in our society shrinks every year, and the very concept of the masterpiece is increasingly attacked as inherently racist or oppressive. I don’t happen to agree with that perspective, but in spite of my conventionally liberal views, I have been unable to persuade my friends to my left (culturally and politically) that the very concept of universal truth has value.
For me, Bartok’s 1903 violin-piano sonata is a masterpiece, yet the classical music establishment has decided that it is not as good as, say, Schumann’s A Minor Sonata. I don’t agree. And you can easily find people who have no respect for the very concept of a masterpiece existing within Western classical music—or within any genre of music.
Merely by suggesting that there exist qualities which can define a masterpiece, we are reaching back into an earlier era before a post-modern aversion to universal truths infected both the left and the right. I could postulate definitions which most classical music lovers in 1950 might have accepted, but today, who would agree that I have the authority to delineate the qualities of a masterpiece?
6. In art museums, conservators and curators preserve and protect masterpieces, leaving them virtually unchanged throughout time. As musicians, we are the “conservators and curators” of compositional masterpieces. What are our responsibilities towards music? What liberties do you believe we are allowed to take in our efforts to preserve and share music of previous eras?
When inspiration strikes a composer, it is amorphous, pulsating, hovering, free. Like the caricature of a 19th-century entomologist chasing after a butterfly with a net, the composer then attempts to capture this inspiration: one can compare the 5 lines of the musical staff to the bars of a prison. The performer’s task is not to play the symbols on the page that the composer used to describe the original inspiration, but rather, to use those symbols to attempt to determine the nature of that original inspiration and render it for an audience to appreciate.
I take a lot of liberties when I play, but tend to vibrate much less in Bach or Mozart, which occasionally caused surprise in Argentina, where Romantic interpretations of Bach are still common.
7. When you begin projects in different nations, such as your music school in Afghanistan, what is your “follow-up procedure” to ensure lasting relations once the project has been completed?
Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) was founded by Dr. Ahmad Sarmast as part of the Ministry of Education of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. I arrived in Kabul on March 21, 2010, as his first international employee. For four years, I worked very closely for and with him. Presently, I’m visiting the school, and am proud that the government of Afghanistan still supports his initial vision that every Afghan girl and boy has the right to study both Afghan and Western music.
ANIM and Cultures in Harmony are entirely separate entities. For Cultures in Harmony, the quantity that we seek to sustain is the relationship itself, so for us, success looks like the ability to annually conduct projects in the countries where our work has been best received, such as Mexico, Tunisia, Egypt, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and the Philippines. We also would like to begin bringing more musicians from these countries to the USA, but this requires more infrastructure than we have at the moment.
8. How is your team growing? How can someone become a part of your efforts?
American classical musicians over 21 can apply to participate in our projects by writing the email address on our website. However, what we need more is people willing to volunteer to help raise money. Many people value travel to countries they might not otherwise visit; far too few are willing to write the grant applications that make such travel possible.
9. Which composers or particular experiences have inspired your compositions?
The composers and musicians I admire include Bach, Schubert, Elliott Carter, Thomas Ades, Henri Dutilleux, Ravi Shankar, Homayoun Sakhi, Tarkan, Yo-Yo Ma, Daniel Barenboim, Zubin Mehta, George Walker, and Augusta Read Thomas. I am insatiably curious, and my many experiences in countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe invariably influence both my composing and performing.
10. Tell us about some lesser known composers you have discovered through your international projects. What factors have contributed to their status as “lesser known,” and what attributes do they have that should propel them into the eyes of the international public?
One of the encouraging trends in Western classical music in recent years has been that more and more performers program music from the last century. While I admire this trend and participate in it as well, I would like to encourage my colleagues to explore the ways other genres of music can be included in programming. I’m not referring simply to crossover, or to musicians using their conservatory skills to build a career in popular or world music. The recital program of which I’m proudest included Bach, Schubert, Elliott Carter, Ryan Francis…and music from the Afghan classical tradition (virtually indistinguishable from the Indian classical music popularized in the West by Ravi Shankar). While some of my friends may consider me elitist, my bias is in favor of quality, not in favor of any particular culture. I value Arab, Turkish, and Indian classical musics a great deal. In a globalized world, we can do more to create thoughtful programs that incorporate a variety of musical genres in a way that simultaneously respects those genres and allows them to speak with one another.
11. Do you feel that you are using music as “a means to an end,” or would you say music is the “end in itself” and simply has a rippling effect which benefits societies and communities?
Speaking bluntly, music absolutely can be a tool. It is, after all, a language, and it matters what we choose to express in any language. But music can be so much more than that. It is the highest expression of our common humanity, the easiest way to show that our inner emotional lives are not so different, no matter where or when we were born.