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In 1984 he won the AMCON Award at the Concert Artists Guild of New York, and has since developed a distinctive sound for the saxophone based on breathing and resonating techniques more commonly used in singing. Michael Nyman describes Harle's sound as "hard edged, vocal romanticism". Between 1979 and 1985 he was also an actor/musician at the Royal National Theatre, London, working under the tutelage of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Dominic Muldowney, in productions of Brecht, Edward Bond (with Hans Werner Henze) and Aeschylus, with one-man shows at the RNT, New End Theatre Hampstead, Kings Head Islington and The Arts Theatre Great Newport Street. Harle was a founder member of the Michael Nyman Band, and with violinist Alexander Balanescu created the distinctive sound for Nymans music in the iconic Peter Greenaway film scores including The Draughtsman's Contract and The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover. In 1986 Harle formed the avant-garde cabaret ensemble, The Berliner Band, which featured free-jazz bassist Barry Guy, which combined performances of early cabaret works by Eisler and Weill with his own compositions and improvised music. The Berliner Band performed contemporary scores to silent avant-garde films of the 1920s by Man Ray, Léger, Clair and Moholy-Nagy.
Harle was principal saxophonist in the London Sinfonietta and the London Symphony Orchestra for many years, and also worked frequently in The Nash Ensemble and Peter Maxwell Davies's The Fires of London. He was the subject of a BBC2 one-hour documentary in 1988 called 'One Man and his Sax' produced by Tony Staveacre.
In 1989 Harle was appointed Professor of Saxophone at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he tutored and mentored most of the current leading saxophonists in the UK, many themselves now teaching at conservatoires,: for example Simon Haram, Tim Garland, Christian Forshaw, Rob Buckland and Gerard McChrystal.
From 2012 his teaching continues with an MMus in Saxophone Performance at Canterbury Christ Church University which is the first Masters program in the UK to expand the areas of study for saxophonists to include history and analysis of the saxophone, saxophone iconography and stage skills.
In masterclasses and lectures Harle's curriculum is broad, and includes the science of performance, physiology of wind playing, performance confidence and stress control, audience communication, the role of the performer and teaching methodology.
As a composer, Harle's concert music encompasses Opera, Choral, Symphonic and chamber music. His music is dramatic and often otherworldly, gaining inspiration from history, folklore and mythic stories.
He has had four commissions from the BBC Proms, including his first Opera, 'Angel Magick', based on the life of Elizabethan alchemist John Dee, which was performed in a season at the salisbury Playhouse and then at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in fully staged performances. Angel Magick is currently being revised by Harle for CD release in 2012 on Sospiro Records. His second opera, 'The Ballad of Jamie Allan' was commissioned by the Sage, Gateshead, and was the story of a rogue Northumbrian piper, horse-thief and army deserter, featuring Kathryn Tickell (Northumbrian Pipes) Sarah-Jane Morris (Vocal) and Omar Ebrahim (Vocal) in a series of performances for the opening of the Sage Gateshead.
He was creative consultant to Paul McCartney between 1997 and 2003, assisting in the composition of works such as 'Standing Stone', 'Ecce Cor Meum', 'Shadow Cycle', 'A Garland for Linda', orchestrating much of McCartney's output in that period, and was also record producer and conductor of works by McCartney. He was producer and soloist on 'Moondog Big Band' and performed live with Moondog and Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson several times, including performances at Elvis Costello's 'Meltdown' at the South Bank, London. With Ute Lemper he collaborated on several projects, including his own show for the LSO and Lemper 'Berlin Nights' at the Barbican, and was producer and saxophone soloist on much of her late work in the late 1990s, including his own 'Cradle Song' and the score to Volker Sclhondorff's film Homo Faber. With Elvis Costello, he was the composer, producer and soloist on 'O Mistress Mine', a song cycle from Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night' which appeared on Harle's album Terror & Magnificence in 1996 and on live performances that included Costello singing other works by Harle and Costello's own 'Shipbuilding'. Costello continued to perform 'O Mistress Mine' song cycle in duo form with pianist Steve Nieve on tours between 1997 and 2002. Harle was soloist on Costello's ballet music 'Il Sogno' for Deutsche Grammophon with drummer Peter Erskine, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO. In 2001 Harle was conductor of 'Maiden Voyage', an extended work for Herbie Hancock as soloist with the LPO at the Royal Festival Hall, London.
He was artistic director at the Green Hall, Tokyo, from 1986 to 1988, Artist in Residence at Musikkollegium Winterthur in 2000, Artist in Residence at Chester Summer Music Festival 2008 and Curator of 'Sustain!' at the City of London Festival in 2009. In 2011–2012, Harle has been Producer for EMI Classics in Tokyo, and is currently artistic director of Sospiro Records, a new hybrid-genre label based in the UK.
As a conductor, he has performed with the LSO, LPO, BBCSO, BBCPO, RPO, RLPO, RTÉ, Ulster Orchestra, Northern Sinfonia, the Winterthur, Lahti, and Norrshirping Symphonies, the New Zealand Chamber Orchestra and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Harle's 'Polar', a multi-media performance including IMAX HD footage of the polar regions with music by Harle, Stravinsky, Rautavvara and Sibelius has toured throughout 2011, and continues in 2012 and 2013, with performances in China and the USA.
In 1998 he was a castaway on Desert Island Discs on Radio 4, has been a presenter on BBC Radios 3 and 4 and LBC Radio, and was the subject of a BBC2 one-hour documentary in 1988 called One Man and his Sax, produced by Tony Staveacre.
In 2007 he taught Lord Robert Winston to play the saxophone on the BBC1 programme 'Play it again', and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4 'Front Row' and BBC 3 'In Tune'.
"John served his apprenticeship in the late 20th Century context of expanding horizons and a growing willingness for musicians of all backgrounds to share knowledge. But he is also one of its most innovative contributors". John Fordham – The Guardian
RTS Award for best theme for a television programme – 2001 – Silent Witness (BBC1)
RTS Nomination for best music for a television programme – 2009 – The Commander (LaPlante)
RTS Nomination for best music for a television programme – 2005 – Summer in the Suburbs (BBC2)
RTS Nomination for best music for a television programme – 2002 – Defence of the Realm (BBC1)
Nomination – 1999 – Terror and Magnificence
Mercury Music Awards
Nomination – 1999 – Terror and Magnificence
No.1 Crossover Album in the USA – 1999 – Terror and Magnificence
Cannes Film Festival
Best Artistic Achievement in a Feature Film – 1988 – Prick Up Your Ears (Zenith) – with Stanley Myers
UK Advertising Awards
Nomination for best original music – 1999 – Flying (TBWA/Trevor Beattie/Nissan)