In this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, director Graham McKenzie, who took up the post after helming Glasgow’s CCA, seems less concerned than before with exploring shifting currents in experimentalism, exploiting mixed media and creating a pop ambience.

Instead he’s focusing the 32nd festival on composers. This, after all, is an event where such giants as Cage, Stockhausen, Boulez and Berio were regularly found.

In celebration of his 70th birthday, Jonathan Harvey is composer in residence – a post he also held with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He has a long association with HCMF, notching up well over 30 performances, and continuing to intrigue with enthralling exchanges between electronic and live sounds. His music and philosophy are sensitively scrutinised in a fascinating new film by Barrie Gavin to be unveiled at the festival.

Towards and Beyond takes the viewer from the composer’s pastoral English roots on a journey “far away in time and space”, as Gavin puts it, turning the camera on a composer whose vision of a world beyond fuels his quest for spiritual truth through music. “Music,” says Harvey, “is an explanation of the divine universe.”

The 10-day festival opens with Harvey’s celebrated piece for electronics, Mortuos Plango Vivos Voco, an adventure in electro-acoustics. Listeners can immerse themselves in the surround-sound nature of the work by being part of an abstract installation devised by the Brussels-based video collective Visual Kitchen.

A highlight of the HCMF homage to Harvey will be the UK premiere of Sringara Chaconne, marrying Hindu philosophy and Western culture, while a range of pieces offers listeners the chance to trace the composer’s varied influences. These include his absorption of Anglican church music, his spell as a cellist with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and his pianist-composer father’s love of music by Skryabin and Fauré. The Arditti Quartet plays his Fourth String Quartet, a piece which involves the tricky real-time electronic transformation.

The music of the Scots-born James Dillon has enjoyed well over 20 airings at Huddersfield. Considering that nearly three-quarters of performances of his music take place abroad, that makes his relationship with the festival special.

It was in 1978, at the first festival, that I first heard his music, a little piano piece called Dillug-Kefitsah, designated his Opus 1. It struck a chord and by the time he was featured at Glasgow’s Musica Nova festival nine years later, Dillon’s reputation as a highly individual musical voice had blossomed. Though his fantastical complexity of rhythms can make his music seem daunting at first, this largely self-taught composer is a distinctive creative artist.

He’s a shadowy figure, however, living abroad, which makes his presence in Huddersfield all the more alluring. His Fifth String Quartet will be unveiled by the Ardittis, but the most eagerly anticipated performance is the substantial Leuven Triptych in which Dillon tries to translate the aesthetic principles of the expressive 15th-century Flemish painter Roger Van der Weyden into music. Played by the Ictus Ensemble, this weighty work will surely take flight.

Laptop Revolutionaries, mixing hardware, software and live electronics, promises HCMF participants a chance to get totally wired up. But for sheer festival craziness there can be little to beat the performance, by 50 pianists at 25 pianos, of Kristoffer Zegers’s Piano Phasing. Each player picks out the same tune but in his or her own time. “When I was a little kid I would walk to the local church,” says the Dutch composer. “I heard its bells ringing along with those from other churches and they were always out of phase.”

Other composers featured in this avant-garde festival include Wolfgang Rihm, whose requiem ET LUX, written for the Ardittis and the Hilliard Ensemble, concentrates on luminous elements of the mass, transcendence, eternity, and light. The music of the leading Portuguese composer Emmanuel Nunes is given a rare outing in this country, while in the edgy soundworld of Richard Barrett and the complex creations of maverick multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, musicians and audiences will live dangerously at Huddersfield.

The festival, from tomorrow until November 29, promises to be exhilarating.