Performance Practice
of Electroacoustic Music

Jonathan Harvey

Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco


Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, for computer-manipulated and synthesized sounds, was commissioned by the Centre Georges Pompidou for the IRCAM. Jonathan Harvey realized it there in July-August 1980 with the assistance of Stanley Haynes using Music V and the program CHANT for synthetic human voice creation developed by Gerald Bennett and Xavier Rodet. The first performance took place on the IRCAM day at the Lille Festival on November 30, 1980. According to Harvey, the piece was based on a reflection of his experiences at Winchester Cathedral in England where his son was a chorister between 1975 and 1980. The piece is called after the Latin inscription “Horas Avolantes Numero, Mortuos Plango: Vivos ad Preces Voco (I count the fleeing hours, I lament the dead: the living I call to prayers), which is engraved on a C-tenor bell of the Cathedral. Two sound sources form the basis of the composition: the same bell and the voice of his twelve-year-old son Dominic, who sings the text of the inscription. Both contrasting sources – the spiritual voice of the bell and the living one of the boy – were recorded and analyzed by Harvey with a version of the program Music V developed by John Gardner and Jean-Louis Richer.

The piece is divided into eight sections, each of which is based on the frequencies of the first partials of the bell, the rich and irregular harmonic spectrum of which determined the pitch and time structure of the entire composition. For example, chords are constructed from a repertoire of 33 partials. The duration of the sections follow the frequencies of the partials in an inversely proportional way, i.e. a higher frequency leads to a shorter time-span. Starting from sound analysis, the composer carried out several sound manipulations: recorded samples of the bell were mingled with the voice, both recorded and resynthesized; modulations from one area of the spectrum to another are effected by glissandi applied on each individual components of the spectrum constant transformations of sound occur through internal manipulation of the source components (transposition, enveloping, acceleration of sounds and reverse playback(Harvey uses an interesting form of this effect: a quite quick backward-forward alternance of the reading of a buffer)). Chorus and reverb effects were also used.

As far as spatialization is concerned, the work was originally conceived octophonically on a concept of privileged directions quadriphonically based. According to the programme notes, the composer considered the walls of the concert hall internal boundaries of the bell; the listener was to be immersed in a space within which the “spirit of the boy” would be free to “fly”.



Performance material

Faber Music lends IRCAM performance material, which contains 8 mono files (8 channels, 44.1 kHz/16 bit), and a MAX player patch plus documentation (Patch instructions.pdf by Gilbert Nouno, IRCAM). It lasts 9’02:73. According to the instructions the loudspeakers should be placed in a square. (See below for a discussion of this issue). The general quality of the recording is outstanding, although it contains some hard attacks that can be perceived as clicks, especially at 5’59” (s. below).


Archival material

– The Paul Sacher Stiftung:


  • Drafts, file of diagrams, graphs and calculations, analysis bag (texts), programme notes and texts


  • Tapes (8-track tape and 4-track tape)



Authorial / Editorial instruction

As stated above, the material provided by Faber & Faber consists of eight mono files. The publisher’s catalogue mentions an 8-track version as well as a 4-track version. As far as the loudspeaker configuration is concerned, the documentation distributed with the material recommends the use of eight speakers at the same height around the audience according to the following (square) disposition:

1 ⎯ 2 ⎯ 3

⏐             ⏐

8              4

⏐             ⏐

7 ⎯ 6 ⎯ 5

Bruno Bossis stresses the importance of the spatialization conceived to let the audience experience something similar to being inside the bell, and proposes the following disposition (2004, p. 129-130):

In fact, this disposition permits a clear symmetry in the first part: at the beginning, bell sounds are heard on all 8 channels, after 14 seconds the voices appear in channels 5-8 and superposed onto the bell sounds, lasting together until 0’27”. Afterwards the bell continues only in channels 1-5. From 0’14” to 0’27” the voices are thus located in the 4 cardinal points and the audience is surrounded by bells and voices. The fact that the main bell sounds are laid out in channels 1 and 2, both including the fundamental, seems to confirm this disposition. The same can be said of the last section (6’33”), where the full bell stroke resynthesized with the voices again appears as the main element in channels 1 and 2, the decay being echoed in channels 7 and 8. For all those cases, the disposition quoted by Bossis leads to a more consistent sound image.

In the composer’s sketchbook, the speakers for channels 1 to 4 were to be placed in a square at the ground level in the four corners of the hall. Those for channels 5 to 8 should have been placed above them (Collection Harvey, Paul Sacher Stiftung). The disposition proposed by Bossis again seems to be more consistent with this initial set up that perhaps was abandoned due to practical reasons. Nevertheless, some instances favour the square disposition, like the imitation “preces” in channels 4 and 8 at 4’33” and 4’37”. Even if on the whole, the evidence tends to favor the disposition proposed by Bossis, this issue has to be carefully addressed by the performer.


Performance report

The loudspeaker disposition and routing was done following the disposition proposed by Bossis and placing the loudspeakers as equidistant as possible to the audience, meaning in an oval rather than in a circle. This layer (approx. 2 m height) was doubled with a second set of loudspeakers at approx. 4.5 m height. Two channel-separated subwoofers were additionally used in order to support low frequencies at the beginning and the end of the piece. Both 8-channel layers were mixed independently, allowing for different degrees of immersion. In sections 1 and 8 they were mixed together to get a full, immersive sound. In sections 2-7 a higher degree of transparency was achieved using mainly one layer and trying to make a distinction between sections in which voices or bells are predominant.

The volume of the first bell sound was very carefully defined and the overall volume was dynamically adjusted in order to enhance the dynamic range.

The 8-channel performance material contains sharp cuts that can be perceived in concert as “mistakes”, especially at 5’59”. In both consulted stereo releases (see bibliography) they have been eliminated. Nevertheless, we considered them as part of the digital quality of the piece and decided to leave them as they are. This decision was supported by a statement of Gerald Bennett describing the synthesis process: applying the dynamic envelope of the highest frequency to all partials would result in sharp transients. This was therefore likely a conscious decision during the composition process.

Selected Bibliography

Allen, J. Anthony, Jonathan Harvey, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco: An analytical method for timbre analysis and notation, Proceedings of the Third Annual Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Art, Univ. of Minnesota, 2005, p. 78-79.

Bossis, Bruno, “Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco” de Jonathan Harvey ou le miroir de la spiritualité, Musurgia, 11/1-2 (2004), pp. 119-144.

Bossis, Bruno, La signification de la temporalité dans “Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco” de Jonathan Harvey, L’éducation musicale, Baccalauréat 2014, 578 (juillet/août 2013), pp. 58-63.

Clarke, Michael, Analysing electroacoustic music: an interactive aural approach, Music analysis, Vol. 31 (2012), no. 3, pp. 347-380.

Clarke, Michael, Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, in Analytical Methods of Electroacoustic Music, ed. Mary Simoni, New York: Routledge, 2006.

Griffiths Paul, Three works by Jonathan Harvey: the electronic mirror, Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 1, 1984, pp. 87-109.

Harvey, Jonathan, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, a realization at IRCAM, Computer Music Journal, 5/4 (Winter 1981), pp. 22-24.

Murail, Tristan, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon Conferences, Centre Acanthes, 9–11 and 13 July 1992, Contemporary Music Review,
vol. 24, No. 2/3, April/June 2005, pp. 187–267.



Bossis, Bruno, Analyse de Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco de Jonathan Harvey, Ircam, available on line at Ircam :

Dirks, Patricia Lynn, An Analysis of Jonathan Harvey’s “Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco”, in eContact!:

Evans, Brian, The Graphic Design of Musical Structure: Scores for Listeners: Incantation and Mortuos Plango,Vivos Voco, University of


Harvey, Jonathan, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco in Visual Kitchen (visual installation):

Harvey, Jonathan, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, in: Ressources.Ircam:


CD releases (selection)

Computer Music Currents n° 5, Wergo, WER 2025-2, 1990

Sargasso, SCD 28029, 1999

Schematic Overview

Piece information

Composer Jonathan Harvey
Title Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco
Year 1980
Studio IRCAM
Type For tape (computer-manipulated and synthesized sounds)
Duration ca. 9’
Publisher Faber Music


Rent material

Renter Faber Music – IRCAM
Format  8 mono files (8 channels, 44.1 kHz/16 bit) and Max player patch plus documentation
Duration 9’02’’


Archival material

Paul Sacher Stiftung Drafts and sketches; textual material; audio material (tapes)


Commercial releases (selection)

Wergo, 1990 Computer Music Currents n° 5, Wergo, WER 2025-2, 1990
Sargasso, 1999 Sargasso, SCD 28029, 1999