Sunday, September 10, 2017
Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick is a new biography of one of America's most original and beloved composers, by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, now available from Indiana University Press in time for Harrison's centennial this year. In this blog, we will be keeping track of some of the events in honor of Harrison's hundredth birthday and sharing some fascinating tidbits that didn't necessarily make it into the published biography.

American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003) is perhaps best known for challenging the traditional musical establishment along with his contemporaries and close colleagues: composers John Cage, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein; Living Theater founder, Judith Malina; and choreographer, Merce Cunningham. Today, musicians from Bang on a Can to Björk are indebted to the cultural hybrids Harrison pioneered half a century ago. His explorations of new tonalities at a time when the rest of the avant garde considered such interests heretical set the stage for minimalism and musical post-modernism. His propulsive rhythms and ground-breaking use of percussion have inspired choreographers from Merce Cunningham to Mark Morris, and he is considered the godfather of the so-called “world music” phenomenon that has invigorated Western music with global sounds over the past two decades.

In this biography, authors Bill Alves and Brett Campbell trace Harrison's life and career from the diverse streets of San Francisco, where he studied with music experimentalist Henry Cowell and Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, and where he discovered his love for all things non-traditional (Beat poetry, parties, and men); to the competitive performance industry in New York, where he subsequently launched his career as a composer, conducted Charles Ives's Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall (winning the elder composer a Pulitzer Prize), and experienced a devastating mental breakdown; to the experimental arts institution of Black Mountain College where he was involved in the first "happenings" with Cage, Cunningham, and others; and finally, back to California, where he would become a strong voice in human rights and environmental campaigns and compose some of the most eclectic pieces of his career.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Lou Harrison’s Oregon Trails

first the quaLity
           yoUr music
       its quAntity
       and vaRiety
     make it Resemble
          a rIver in delta 

           liStening to it
       we becOme

—John Cage: “Many Happy Returns” for Lou Harrison

Even though he spent most of his career in California, Lou Harrison forged a lifelong relationship with his native Oregon. Born in Portland in 1917, he lived here until the family moved to California when he was 10.

This weekend — appropriately during Pride Week, as he was early on one of America’s out-est and proudest gay composers and worked for equal rights — Portland State University celebrates Harrison’s centennial in two concerts, a musical salon and academic symposium. The following tales of the composer's long relationship with Portland come from our book, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick:


“Buster” Harrison, ready to steal
the show in a 1920 Portland
production of Daddy-Long-Legs.
Whenever Lou Harrison came home, it was like stepping into another culture. From as early in childhood as he could remember, wherever he looked in his family’s apartment in Portland, Oregon’s Silver Court Apartments, young Lou saw colorful paintings from various Asian cultures mounted on walls covered by Japanese grass wallpaper. Chinese carved teak furniture perched on Persian rugs, colorful Japanese lanterns dangled from the ceiling, cloisonné objects filled the mantel, and the rooms boasted other artifacts from Asia and the Middle East. Compared to the prosaic furnishings and fixtures of the rest of the young Harrison’s post-World War I Pacific Northwest life, his home was an almost magical place.

The exotic decor sprang from the ambitions of his mother. Born in Seattle in 1890, Calline Silver grew up in the Alaskan frontier with her sister, Lounette. Despite these rough circumstances, their father saw to it that both girls had music lessons, at a time when music was an important marker of good breeding and refinement for young women. After her father died and Cal raised herself from this rustic beginning to a middle-class ideal, she became a woman of strong will and determination, qualities that her son would inherit. She married affable, fair-skinned Clarence Harrison, a first-generation American born in 1882, whose Norwegian father had, like many immigrants, changed his surname from exotic (de Nësja) to blend-in conventional: Harrison.

Like many upwardly mobile West Coasters, Cal Harrison was attracted to the allure of Asia and regarded exotic artifacts as exemplars of refined taste. Such decorations were common in Portland homes since the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair. Japan alone spent a million dollars on its exhibit, which featured exotic (to American eyes) arts and crafts, sparking a local infatuation with Asian art and culture. Many middle- and upper-class houses boasted “Oriental Rooms” festooned with Asian and Middle Eastern furniture and art, “Turkish corners,” and other symbols of what many Americans still regarded as the mysterious East.

That Pacific exoticism also manifested in music. When Lou was born on May 14, 1917, Hawaiian music was the most popular genre in America. Radio broadcasts of Hawaiian slide guitars and the clacks of his mother’s mah-jongg tiles supplied the soundtrack to some of his earliest memories—and inspired one of his last compositions eight decades later.

The Silver Court’s surrounding Irvington neighborhood in northeast Portland had been developed as an exclusive enclave only twenty years before Lou was born. Connected to downtown Portland’s cultural riches by trolley, the “streetcar park” originally catered to the toffs (including lumber barons). During Lou’s childhood, however, the changing neighborhood’s new Queen Anne revival, Craftsman, and Prairie School-style homes welcomed more middle-class people like the Harrisons. They had built the handsome Silver Court Apartments (which still stand at 22nd and Hancock streets) shortly after Lou’s birth, when Calline received a substantial inheritance from her family in Ohio, who owned a manufacturing business; her grandfather’s widow’s death in 1910 led to a partition of the estate, and the Harrisons used their share to build the three-story, thirty-unit apartment building. The money allowed them to hire a family to take care of the apartments, including their own.
Harrison visiting Silver Court Apartments in 1987:
(l to r) Bob Hughes, Charles Shere, Harrison, Bill Colvig

Clarence and Calline did share a love of cars—she was reputedly the first woman to drive across Portland’s Steel Bridge—and the family enjoyed then-common Sunday drives and picnics in the country. They appreciated the scenic beauty—waterfalls, the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, Mt. Hood (which dominated the eastern skyline), and nearby Mt. Tabor—and gave Harrison and his brother, Bill (born three years later), a lasting love of the outdoors. Harrison never met his grandparents and had little contact with extended family during childhood, so his parents exerted the greatest family influence on their eldest son. Their two most persistent legacies were his lifelong loves: arts and reading. Aunt Lounette played violin, often accompanied by Calline on the piano, and little “Buster” Harrison would dance.

He took the stage early. Calline worked in a Portland beauty shop, and one of her regular customers, Verna Felton, ran a small theater company that in 1920 was producing Jean Webster’s 1912 play Daddy-Long-Legs. They needed a young boy for a silent walk-on role as a little orphan, and Calline volunteered two-year-old Buster, who, encouraged by candy, improvised his lines—for the irrepressible little Lou, it turned out not to be a silent role after all—and won the audience’s heart, getting his picture in the daily Oregonian newspaper and an invitation to reprise the role on a Northwest tour and in another production in Washington. The experience gave Harrison both a taste for performance and a deep set of separation anxieties that never left him.

Harrison’s Oregon upbringing left lasting impressions on the budding young musician: an inclination toward the outdoors and nature’s beauty, an affection for high-culture art and music, and a performer’s sense of the stage and the audience. Although his family moved to California when he was nine, Portland would always be a special place for him. After beginning his music career in San Francisco, Los Angeles (briefly) and New York, Harrison returned to Portland during the summer of 1949 and 1950 to compose for and accompany dance performances of his music at Reed College. There, he met Remy Charlip, a young dancer (in the company of their mutual friend Merce Cunningham, among others) and theater designer who became his lover.

Lou Harrison visiting Portland in the 1990s, with (l to r)
Nanik Wenten, Bill Colvig, I Nyoman Wenten, Harrison,
and Vincent McDermott, director of Lewis and Clark's
Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan
Harrison moved back to the West Coast shortly after his Reed summers, settling in Aptos on Monterey Bay in 1953. He and Colvig (also a native Oregonian, from a Medford pioneer family) returned to Oregon often in the 1980s and ‘90s, working with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan (which has often performed his music), and Oregon Repertory Singers and was composer in residence at the Oregon Bach Festival’s Composers Symposium. “He loved Portland and he was particularly excited that the Gay Men’s Chorus performed his opera [Young Caesar],” his friend and documentary biographer Soltes recalled.

Much later, toward the end of one of the richest lives ever lived in American arts, the then-octogenarian Harrison came to realize that in pursuing, studying, and ultimately creating original music deeply informed by the traditional sounds of Asia, he was “trying to recapture the lost treasures of my youth.”

“I was surrounded by a household of very fine Asian art,” he said, “and as I grew up, I wanted to reproduce that. My problem and my drama has been, could I recover the lost treasures of childhood? Well, I discovered that if I couldn’t make enough money to buy them, at least I could make some.”

Throughout his eventful career, Harrison would pursue the magic first experienced amid the Asian art treasures gracing his childhood home in Portland’s Silver Court apartments. He’d find it in mysterious shops in San Francisco’s Chinatown, in Korean temples and Indonesian percussion orchestras, Medieval musical modes, ancient Greek tunings, in new instruments contrived from junkyard detritus. From these unlikely ingredients, he would fashion beguiling new sounds far removed from the conventional music of his time and place. Like his mother, he would embrace beautiful strangeness — and make it feel like home.


On June 16-17, Portland State University hosts CeLOUbration, which brings together Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan ensemble, Portland Percussion Group, PSU faculty and student performers (including FearNoMusic co-founder Joel Bluestone, guitarist Bryan Johanson, pianist Susan Chan, violinist Tomas Kotik and more), and other Portland musicians (singer Hannah Penn, cellist Diane Chaplin, percussionist Florian Conzetti, pianist Adrienne Varner, and more). The two concerts feature music by Harrison from the 1930s-1990s and new music by Cascadia Composers Bonnie Miksch, Susan Alexjander, Greg Steinke, Lisa Ann Marsh, and Matthew Andrews, written in the Harrison tradition.

Friday’s concert showcases some of the pioneering percussion music Harrison and his musical partner John Cage wrote and performed in San Francisco in the late 1930s and early ’40, plus chamber music. Saturday’s show presents music for guitar, chamber music, and some of Harrison’s music for the melodic Javanese percussion orchestra called gamelan, with soloists on Western instruments like trumpet, saxophone, and voice.

Concert tickets are available online. The festival also includes a free salon and symposium, a screening of Eva Soltes’s 2014 film Lou Harrison: A World of Music, and talks and presentations about Harrison’s life and music. Copies of Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick and Venerable Showers of Beauty’s new CD containing previously unrecorded Harrison music for gamelan will be available for purchase.

©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. Book excerpt used by permission of Indiana University Press. A shorter version of this story appeared in The Oregonian/O Live. If you enjoyed reading about Harrison’s music, there’s a lot more where that came from. Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Hail Caesar!

On Tuesday, June 13, the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series presents a new, “hybrid” version of Lou Harrison’s 1971 opera Young Caesar. Harrison originally created it as a puppet opera, which premiered at Cal Tech in Pasadena, but later refashioned it for more conventional, equal-tempered instruments and live performers. This version premiered in 1987, but Harrison worked on more substantial changes in response to a commission from Lincoln Center. This last version was not performed until 2007, after Harrison's death, at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The production premiering this week, created by the Los Angeles opera company The Industry, uses elements of the original and the revised versions. Here’s the story of the original production of Young Caesar, excerpted from our book: Lou Harrison:American Musical Maverick.

One day in the 1930s, while Lou Harrison was working as a dance accompanist at Mills College, he witnessed a group of young San Franciscans pull up to the college theater in their car. An older woman directed them to unload some pieces of wood from the back of their the car—and within minutes, it magically metamorphosed into an enchanting window onto a mythic world.

This was Harrison’s introduction to the Red Gate Players and their entirely portable production of Chinese shadow puppetry. The medium fascinated him even then; one of his favorite works was Manuel da Falla’s charming setting of the puppet scene from Don Quixote, El Retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show). Ever since, he had wanted to make his own puppet opera. His 1960s investigations of Asian music revived that notion: the ancient puppet dramas of China and Indonesia could represent far more elaborate settings and events than were practical to stage in conventional opera.

And now he’d have the chance, thanks to a commission from the Encounters new music series in Pasadena. Still, Harrison told his partner, Bill Colvig, one night, not long after one of their trips to the city to attend a gay rights function, he couldn’t find a suitable story.

“Why don’t you do a gay subject?” Colvig replied.

What a splendid idea, Harrison thought, and he searched his memory. He’d already used a story from the historian Suetonius’s chronicles of Rome about Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Cinna, as source material for a dramatic production. Now he remembered another Suetonius story about Caesar’s dalliance with the King king of Bithynia, long before he became emperor.

As with Cinna, the ancient story suited the times. At the height of the Vietnam War, Harrison’s puppet opera would recount the tale of a young citizen of a powerful, militaristic Western kingdom, expected by society to fulfill the roles of a husband, father, and soldier. Yet first he is assigned to go and confront the king of a province of the sensual East, where he encounters beauty and love. Without abandoning his duty, Gaius (Julius Caesar) gives himself openly to these pleasures and suffers the contempt of Western society as a result.

As Harrison delved into the history, though, he realized that the story posed dramatic challenges. For audiences to understand the significance of the opera’s events, the libretto would have to explain unfamiliar history at the risk of overshadowing the characters’ conflicts and motivations. Writer Robert Gordon, approached Harrison at a San Francisco performance of a Satie puppet opera and volunteered to take on the tricky task. Gordon began by conscientiously and carefully researching the story and the period—maybe too carefully, because the first draft he sent Harrison read less like a libretto than a historical novel and was the size of the latter. At Harrison’s insistence, Gordon whittled at the text over and over, down to 14 fourteen scenes but resisted cutting any further.
Gaius in the Bythinian palace in the original production of Young Caesar.
The set design is by Harrison himself.
Next, Harrison had to find someone to make the puppets and puppeteers to realize a production about a gay love affair—decades before such themes were openly represented on the concert stage. Harrison enlisted an art director at San Francisco’s public television station, KQED, Bill Jones, to help create a set of over 20 twenty rod puppets, which ultimately required seven puppeteers to manipulate. Colvig helped out by building the stage and lighting, and as the increasingly elaborate project progressed, Harrison found himself painting the moving backdrops as well as composing.

Harrison’s do-it-yourself method, reminiscent of his old days in San Francisco making instruments from junk and rounding up dancers to play them, turned out to have downsides as well as advantages. Instead of simplifying the production, this puppet opera wound up entailing more work and maybe even more expense than if he had relied on a conventional opera company.

For months through 1970 and stretching into the next year, Young Caesar consumed Harrison, with the libretto proving especially knotty. To give the audience the complex background and context needed to understand the action, he proposed a narrator. After experimenting with using a male chorus to provide narration, Harrison decided to make the narrator a central solo role, patterned after the tayu storyteller of Japanese bunraku puppetry, who not only sets scenes but also describes action happening onstage. Narration also helped overcome another limitation: the puppets’ limited movement capabilities. An action as simple as Gaius picking up his infant son had to be described instead of acted, and at times the narration would crowd out the characters’ dialogue.

With so much explaining to do and an entirely prose text, Harrison decided, conventional arias, which generally use poetic texts to allow characters to express their emotional states, wouldn’t work. To get through the prose exposition as quickly as possible, Harrison relied almost entirely on recitatives (which sometimes obscure the opera’s most alluring musical moments), often modeling them on the psalmody of the Gregorian chant he had learned as a teenager. As in a chanted psalm, each line would have many rhythmically free syllables chanted on a central psalm tone or “tenor” surrounded by an introductory intonation motive and a termination motive.

Harrison added another exotic element to narration and dialogue that he remembered from the Chinese operas he had seen as a youth: punctuating the vocal melodies with percussive woodblock sounds, where percussion ostinatos bubbled under the onstage action, a technique in turn inspired by Japanese Noh drama. In Young Caesar, those ostinatos add texture and depth to the recitatives and sometimes suspense to the scenes.

But the opera still lacked what Harrison called the audience’s “take-home pay” of such a work: beautiful arias. “[W]hen I wanted to make an aria, I had to extract sentences and repeat them, take a phrase and make an aria out of that, and so on,” he remembered ruefully. “It was a very hard libretto to work with.” Even the few places where Harrison dwelled on the text long enough to grace it with snatches of lyricism—Gaius’s lullaby for his daughter, his sorrow when he learns of his betrothal, Nicomedes’s confrontation with the financiers—hardly qualify as full-fledged arias.

Without typical Harrisonian modal lyricism, it is left up to the central pitches (or “psalm tones”) of the recitatives to establish a tonic and mode and thus unify each scene. The characters firmly associated with Rome—Gaius’s aunt Julia, the tutor Gniphos, General Thermus—sing on diatonic scales, the class of modes used in classical Rome. These scales were supported by the new metallophones that Colvig had begun to build for Harrison’s Chinese ensemble using conduit tubes and aluminum bars cut to the lengths of a five-limit just-intonation diatonic scale.

The scenes depicting the despair of Gaius’s spurned fiancée Cossutia and Caesar’s escape from the dictator Sulla use the equal-tempered octatonic scale, popular with Russian modernists such as early Stravinsky but then unusual for Harrison. The scale’s alternation of half- and whole-tones half tones and whole tones creates a tense ambiguity appropriate for these painful moments without being entirely chromatic. In contrast, the characters associated with Bithynia and the East use colorful non-diatonic scales often associated with the Middle East. For these scenes, Harrison decided to build a new set of metallophones tuned to the harmonic series, and when the scene changes to Rome’s client kingdom of Bithynia in Asia Minor, they ring out the surprising sounds of harmonics seven and eleven. Gaius himself, the Roman who falls in love with the East, partakes of both types of scales.

West and East also collide in other instrumentation that Harrison collected for the production, for which he relied almost completely on the instruments in his own large collection: his Chinese zheng zither, sheng mouth organ, flutes, and various percussion; Korean piri and drums; percussion orchestra instruments including metal trash cans, cymbals, woodblocks, various bells, rattles, and rasps; European harp, violin, viola, and organ. Much of the score’s colorful character stems from these delightfully distinct and unusual timbres: the breathy sound of the syrinx (Greek pan flute) as sixteen-year-old Gaius processes to his manhood ceremony; the haunting ocarina and weird slide whistle accompanying his delirious dreams; a ram’s horn for the courtly procession; the sweet sensuality of the zheng together with an Indian ektara (plucked lute) and; elephant bells as Gaius moves in wonder through the Bithynian palace.

The set pieces played by these colorful instruments use forms similar to the miniature works Harrison had focused on during the 1960s, especially his lovely compositions for harp and for psaltery. A sensuous psaltery piece, “Palace Music,” accompanies Gaius’s wonder at the Bithynian opulence, with idiomatic slides but a very un-Chinese scale. The funeral procession (done in shadow) is set to a solemn melody on harp and violin with spare percussion ostinatos.

The episodic story that Gordon distilled from several years of Julius Caesar’s life lacks a conventional dramatic arc, juxtaposing several incidents in the first half and then showing the trip to Bithynia in the second. Caesar first appears in his manhood ceremony at age sixteen, then he hatches political schemes after the death of his father, and he reappears next with his new wife and daughter. Unfortunately, the real drama doesn’t begin until he defies the dictator Sulla and appears as a soldier preparing to charge a besieged city. Harrison’s scrolling backdrop mechanism depicted these grand settings.

Gaius is saved from this battle by orders to collect an overdue tribute of ships promised by the elegant and handsome king of Bithynia, Nicomedes. Overwhelmed by the opulent palace and the flirting king, the adolescent Gaius is treated to a lavish banquet, followed by entertainment of dancers to a “Whirling Dance” for violin, harp, and gongs in the form of an estampie, and then acrobats accompanied by a thrilling melody on the sheng. The celebrations intensify to a climactic “Eroticon” dream ballet in which Western strings and Eastern winds entwine lines in a sensuous musical intercourse.

“Here we find a young Roman noble of conservative and upper class parentage confronting, for the first time, an elaborately Asianized court by which he obviously found himself dazzled,” Harrison later described the scene—Determined to unflinchingly represent this (historically accurate) orgy, Harrison advertised the production as an “opera for X-rated puppets.” The flying phalli nevertheless so upset two of the original wealthy funders, Gordon said, that they withdrew their support.

Still, Gordon discreetly handled the ensuing love affair between Gaius and Nicomedes. Gaius’s dalliance at the court creates a scandal, but the future emperor faces up to gossipers, and in the end, by force of love instead of arms, he gets his ships, which cross the Mediterranean (to Harrison’s rousing barcarole) at the final curtain.

The audience at the California Institute of Technology, intrigued by such an unusual production, greeted the hour-long hourlong Young Caesar warmly, on the whole. After returning north, the troupe put together another performance, directed by gay poet Paul Mariah, in the auditorium at the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco.

The opera presented a contemporarily relevant, too-little known true tale featuring positive and historically accurate portrayals of homosexuality, peace, love, and intercultural understanding—along with some of Harrison’s most compelling dramatic music. Thanks to the homespun instruments and puppets, and occasional humor, despite Young Caesar’s ambitions, it retained an appealing intimacy lacking in such large-scale works as his symphonies.

But performances in front of audiences revealed some unforeseen weaknesses. The unexpressive puppets often made Harrison’s attempts to express love, sexuality, and other emotions clumsy or even unintentionally comical. And by devoting the first half of the opera to exposition of history, rather than the central drama (which really doesn’t ignite until Caesar meets Nicomedes, the natural starting point for a classic heart-versus-head conflict), the original Young Caesar spends too much time in chattering explanation and not nearly enough in singing and action.

Worse, “the crippling weakness of Young Caesar is its precious, self-indulgent libretto,” wrote critic John Rockwell (who decades later tried to revive the opera when he was running the Lincoln Center Festival) in the Los Angeles Times. While praising Harrison’s music and the singers, he noted that traditional Asian puppet theater works precisely because of its acceptance of its mythic assumptions, whereas Gordon’s realism produced only a “pervasive, embarrassing ennui.” In trying to make the story more approachable to contemporary audiences (by using colloquial language and realistic—for puppets, anyway—action), the production vitiated the suggestive power of its mythic theater origins.

More important than these dramatic failings, though, is the sheer audacity of Young Caesar. In the year that Richard Nixon was on his way to a landslide reelection, serial complexity was the new norm, and neither “world music” nor “gay rights” had entered the popular lexicon, Harrison had brought to a mainstream stage a homosexual puppet opera with unheard of unheard-of instruments and sensual melodies. But such an accomplishment, inconceivable by anyone but Lou Harrison, could not overcome Young Caesar’s fundamental flaws and practical difficulties. Its failure crushed Harrison, who had devoted two and a half years of his professional life—and some fine music—to a story he cherished. Like a father who refuses to give up on a problem child, Harrison continued to pursue opportunities to rehabilitate his beloved work for the rest of his life.

The Industry’s sold-out production of Young Caesar, featuring the LA Phil New Music Group, the men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, dancers and actors, runs for one performance only, Tuesday, June 13, at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The recording of the original version of Young Caesar, with its unusual just intonation instruments, is available at the Other Minds archive.

©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. If you enjoyed reading about Harrison’s music, there’s a lot more where that came from. Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Plucky Break

“I am plucking my way through the year!” — Lou Harrison, 1997.

On Friday, Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival in Salt Lake City presented  a world premiere by world renowned choreographer Val Caniparoli inspired by Lou Harrison’s Concerto For Pipa and String Orchestra.

Wu Man
The 1997 piece contrasts with Harrison’s early pieces for Chinese and Korean instruments from the 1960s, where he more explicitly retained the traditional character of the instruments—the expressive pitch bends of the zheng, the slow slides of the piri, the simultaneous variations of the Confucian orchestra. In his long series of suites from the 1990s, Harrison used Asian instruments (and all instruments) more freely within whatever form he had plucked from around the world.

Harrison’s last completed work for orchestra arose from a suggestion by Harrison’s great friend and advocate, the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, that he write a concerto for Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man—reversing Harrison’s earlier process of pairing a Western solo instrument with an Asian orchestra.

“Well, I’m not going to write anything like pipa traditional repertoire, a lot of virtuoso kind of a style,” Harrison told Wu Man.⁠ Nevertheless, Harrison worked closely with Wu Man to adapt his work to the idiomatic idiosyncrasies of the instrument. “Do I do tremolo here?” she asked, describing their collaboration, “or do I do bending notes, do I do vibrato? You know, how can I make the piece more vivid, how can I put more sauce in this piece? Right now, it’'s just linguini, or the notes.”

Harrison owned a pipa, and though able to extract only the most rudimentary melodies from the instrument, he was able to understand what types of fingerings and chords would work. In the end, impressed by Wu Man’s artistry, Harrison allowed her considerable interpretive latitude for her solo part.⁠

His concerto’s first movement followed the traditional pipa music pattern, using Chinese pentatonics with occasional substitute tones. However, he structured the movement’s lyrical middle section like a Javanese lancaran eight-beat form, with the high violin and pipa melody set against a repeating bass melody in quintal counterpoint. The other movements use transpositions of a quirky six-tone mode that allowed Harrison to slip between a sense of tonality and more ambiguous sections.⁠

The second movement, another of Harrison’s “mini-suites” he used in his symphonies, where the traditional scherzo would be replaced with a series of short sub-movements. This one is called “Bits and Pieces” and comprises four sub-movements. In the first, “Troika,” the pipa assumes the role of a Russian balalaika in a woozy, drunken sleigh ride sleigh-ride dance, complete with (non-diatonic) oom-pah chords.⁠ A sort of percussion ensemble sub-movement follows, called “Three Sharing” because one each of a cellist, a bassist, and the soloist share a set of seven rhythmic patterns (Harrison called them "rhythmicles") played entirely by striking the body of the instrument or hitting the strings with the wood of the bow, turning them into percussionists as he had done as long ago as his San Francisco percussion concerts. In the middle section, Harrison arranged the rhythms as a fugue for the instruments, as he did as far back as his 1937 percussion ballet, Changing World. He dedicated the next evocative miniature to the composer Liu Tianhua, who played a central role in bringing the techniques of Western theory and orchestration to Chinese traditional instruments in the early twentieth century, in the same way that Harrison had brought Chinese techniques to the West. Harrison’s use of the pipa to evoke lute-type instruments around the world continues in the last section of the this movement, a romantic Neapolitan song with the pipa now in the role of a  tremolo-ing mandolin.

The mood darkens in the slow movement, a “Threnody” (Harrison’s alternative name for an elegy, common to many of his suites), this one dedicated to the memory of San Francisco’s best-known AIDS activist, Richard Locke, who had died the previous September.⁠ Unlike Harrison’s mostly chromatic late elegies, this modal one sounds uncharacteristically sweet and wistful, though it ends on a chord as unresolved as the AIDS epidemic. The bright pipa sound, so well suited to the jocular earlier movements, would sound intrusive here, so Harrison restrains it to a few notes, letting the grave string melody set the melancholic mood. The dramatic finale rides another Harrisonian estampie, a medieval dance that was a favorite of Harrison's, to a surprisingly aggressive climax.

In this last of his great Asian–-European fusions, Harrison again contrived a creation from seemingly incompatible forces that feels different from any other music, yet simultaneously seems not only natural but even inevitable. Before the Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra’s 1997 premiere at Berkeley, a journalist asked Wu Man, “What style of music is this? Is it Chinese music?”
“It’s Lou Harrison music,” she replied.⁠

©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. If you enjoyed reading about Harrison’s music, there’s a lot more where that came from. Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Cinna Redeemed

Linda Burman-Hall accompanies Larry Reed's shadow puppet
production of Lou Harrison's Cinna on tack piano
On May 18 in San Francisco, in celebration of Lou Harrison’s centennial, two of his good friends will realize one of his most distinctive artistic ambitions,  a work that, though never completed in his lifetime,  includes some of his most unusual but enchanting music.

In the 1950s, Lou Harrison had retreated from the maelstrom of New York City and the pressures of the professional musical mainstream to a cabin in rural Aptos, California. There he befriended proprietors of the local cafe, some neighbors, and the local cats and foxes as he devoted his evenings to musical experiments, unconcerned with their dissemination or even performability. This attitude (learned from his hero Charles Ives), though, left little room for a medium like drama, which requires collaborators, a theater—and an audience.

Harrison had first fulfilled his ambition to write an opera in 1952, when he completed Rapunzel. But he soon learned how difficult it was to get a conventional opera company to look at producing a modern opera, even one Rapunzel’s relatively modest requirements, and it remained unperformed until 1959.

Now isolated in California and distant from the professional musical world, the impoverished Harrison pondered ways he might produce and perform a musical drama with only his local friends and a tiny budget. He remembered an event during his time as a composer at Oakland’s Mills College around 1938, when a handful of people drove up with a miniature stage that fit in the back of their truck. It was the Red Gate Players, a troupe founded by Pauline Benton, a practitioner of Chinese shadow puppetry. Soon the Chinese instruments sounded and a light switched on, casting the shadows of translucent flat puppets on the screen. Harrison was transfixed that such beauty could be conjured from such modest means. Perhaps it was something he could recreate himself.

Another of his preoccupations during this period of exile was the dark oppression of America's  McCarthy era. Accordingly, Harrison chose as his countervailing story a play that highlighted themes of reconciliation and forgiveness in the face of vengeance: Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century drama Cinna.

Harrison set to work on a score he could play himself, one that somehow evoked both the period of the source material and his current musical obsessions. First, he transformed his personal upright piano for into a “tack piano” by inserting thumbtacks into the felt hammers, creating a brittle, spidery tone closer in sound to the harpsichords of Corneille’s day. Next, he retuned the piano to a distinctive just intonation scale, making his score for Cinna the first modern piano work written explicitly for a specific non-standard scale.
The title page to Harrison's Cinna score, explaining the just intonation tuning

Harrison spent much of the 1950s exploring the crystalline sonorities possible by retuning instruments to these frequencies of the acoustic harmonics present in vibrating strings, known as just intonation, resulting in his Strict Songs and Simfony in Free Style. Cinna takes a different approach than either of these early efforts, creating a kind of tonal chromaticism, interlocking the various sorts of triads available in the distinctive scale. In particular, Harrison makes use of the natural seventh harmonic, a spicy interval nowhere even approximated in standard equal temperament. Harrison married this new sound world to evocations of the French 17th-century clavecinistes or harpsichord composers, who wrote the musical equivalents of gilded Louis XV furniture, dense with graceful ornaments and sinuous lines.

Although Harrison had enthusiastically contacted a local carpenter to construct a puppet stage,and perhaps sounded out other potential collaborators, he completed only the five entr’actes or musical interludes before abandoning the project. Harrison kept the pieces as an instrumental suite, but it remains unclear how he intended to expand it to a full production.

For the hundredth anniversary of Harrison’s birth (and the 60th anniversary of the composition of Cinna), Santa Cruz harpsichordist and Harrison’s friend Linda Burman-Hall decided to resurrect the dramatic context of the score. She contacted Bay Area shadow puppeteer Larry Reed, who has had a long career creatively applying the traditions of Indonesian and other shadow puppetry to modern dramas. Reed produced a condensed version of Corneille’s drama, and he and Burman-Hall (who recorded the Cinna music on her 2009 CD) devised a series of drones and melodic fragments to accompany the dialogue of the five acts. Reed built life-size shadow puppets out of wire to project remarkable modern line drawings of the characters on the screen, whose dialogue he voiced in the manner of an Indonesian dalang or traditional puppeteer-narrator.

This extraordinary production, premiered at last weekend's New Music Works concert in Santa Cruz, will come to San Francisco’s Center for New Music on Thursday May 18. It marks one of the last major realizations of Harrison's uncompleted works.

Unusually for such an assiduous re-purposes of past compositions and even fragments, Harrison seems never to have returned to this music. Years later, however, he did return to its ultimate source, the writings of the Roman historian Suetonius that had provided the basis of Corneille's play, for his next theatrical project. That, too, is being revived in this centennial year, and we'll tell you more about it soon.

©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. If you enjoyed reading about Harrison’s music, there’s a lot more where that came from. Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Musical Garden

While our mothers were playing mah-jongg, my friends and I listened to the radio. Everywhere you dialed, you heard this wonderful Hawaiian slack guitar music. I am attempting to recapture that sound I’ve been carrying around all these years in my head. —Lou Harrison

Two central inspirations shaped the three-movement Scenes from Nek Chand. First, like Charles Ives’s many nostalgic works, it represented memories from Harrison’s own childhood, when the sound of the Hawaiian guitar dominated popular music he had heard on the family’s crystal set radio at the Silver Court in Portland. The swooping twang of the steel slide guitar reminded Harrison of that sound, though it also sounded at times a bit like a sarod, a instrument from India whose fretless neck makes possible long pitch slides.

The other inspiration was visual. Harrison had just been reading about the Indian artist Nek Chand Saini, who over years transformed junk and discarded building material from his town of Chandigarh into a magical garden with hundreds of fanciful sculptures of animals and people. This act of artistic and humanistic rebellion offended the power brokers of India’s planned city, which had been largely designed by modernist architect Le Corbusier, known for his use of irrational proportions and poured concrete, producing what critics saw as sterile, alienating cityscapes. When the local Chandigarh government discovered the unauthorized structures—“a wonderland, a bit of beautiful chaos in tidy Chandigarh”—and threatened to demolish the secret garden in 1975 to build a parking lot and roads, the local population protested, and the site was eventually turned into a public park that drew thousands of marveling visitors each year.
The water gathering women at Nek Chand's garden

When Harrison discovered Nek Chand’s colorful work in a book on outsider artists, he immediately recognized the artist as a fellow maverick, a kindred spirit, and one of the greatest artists of the era. A warm, organic, artistic sanctuary from cold, capitalistic modernism, Nek Chand’s garden echoed Harrison’s music and philosophy. Harrison swapped the book with Tanenbaum for a National steel guitar, so that composer and player could learn what they needed. Tanenbaum worked on the realization with Harrison, and he even visited a New York gallery that housed one of Nek Chand’s many colorful terracotta sculptures of water-gathering women.

From Nek Chand's garden
The statue’s name, “The Leaning Lady,” became the title of the opening movement of the spare Scenes from Nek Chand, which glistens with the pared-down purity of so many composers’ final works. Harrison asks the guitarist to use a steel (a glass or metal tube over the left pinky finger) to effect graceful slides, like the Hawaiian guitars of his youth but also his psaltery pieces of the 1960s, which, aside from the striking tuning, Scenes from Nek Chand also resembles.

The Nek Chand Arcade
In a departure from the typical fast-slow-fast format, Harrison follows the contemplative first movement with a quick bar-line-less tribute to the “Rock Garden” of Nek Chand, similar to his Avalokiteshvara and similar pieces with their engaging, shifting meters. He named the last movement (an estampie, naturally) “The Sinuous Arcade with Swings in the Arches.” “The arcade is two-sided,” explained Harrison. “That is to say, there are arches, and a roof with banisters so you can promenade on the top. In every arch there is an iron-chained swing for two people. It’s just beautiful.”
A magical garden of music and dance for friends was Lou Harrison’s paradise.

National Steel

John Schneider playing Harrison's refretted National Steel guitar
For Scenes from Nek Chand, Harrison wanted the guitar to be tuned in just intonation, in particular a six-tone mode tuned to pitches six through twelve in the harmonic series. This requirement presented more of a problem, since no such resonator guitar with just-intonation fretting existed. Harrison’s friend and student Bill Slye, a guitarist who had written a thesis at UCSC on microtonal guitars, contacted Don Young, the CEO of National Reso-Phonic Guitars, the makers of the National Steel Guitar, the successor to the original Reso-Phonic instrument of the 1920s. Its factory just happened to lie only a few hours south in San Luis Obispo. Young agreed to build an instrument (actually five copies) with frets especially for this project. Slye and others worked out a tuning that expanded Harrison’s hexatonic scale to twelve pitches, so that the “Harrison model” National steel would be available to other composers and performers after the work’s premiere.

For last Friday’s Microfest concert at Pasadena’s Boston Court theater and for New Music Works in Santa Cruz, Schneider brought to life the unusual, sparkling sonorities of Scenes from Nek Chand and suites of other Harrison just intonation guitar music.

©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. If you enjoyed reading about Harrison’s music, there’s a lot more where that came from. Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Birthday Lou!

Lou Harrison
Lou Harrison spent most of his life living near Santa Cruz, California, and one of his great friends and supporters there, Phil Collins, is curating of the many tribute concerts to Lou Harrison on this centennial weekend. (Events are also taking place this weekend in Seattle, San Francisco, Berkeley, Joshua Tree and more.) The two-concert tribute features one of Harrison’s greatest and most enchanting ballet scores, and some of his seldom-performed choral music.
“I was interested in the ways that the abstract language of dance could reveal realms of experience antecedent to words,” choreographer Jean Erdman said later about her ballet Solstice, and Harrison shared this vision. She remembered that Harrison “always seemed to understand what the dance was about. He’s very sensitive to movement.” Solstice was another abstraction from Erdman’s husband and Harrison’s friend Joseph Campbell’s ur-myths. Reluctant to take on a large commission when he was immersed in his studies in scales and medievalism, Harrison quoted Erdman twice his usual fee, expecting rejection—but Erdman accepted. Then he told her that he would need twice the number of musicians as in their previous collaboration, The Perilous Chapel. Again, she unexpectedly agreed. Cornered, Harrison put aside his pastoral experiments and began work on Solstice.

Jean Erdman (right) and her dance company
The myth Erdman devised for Solstice, like The Perilous Chapel, depicts a Campbell-esque cyclic journey from light to darkness and back again, but here the cycle is that of the seasons. The athletic Merce Cunningham applied his feline movements to the part of the invented mythological beast the Sun-Lion, representing the light of summer in a struggle with the Moon-Bull, danced by nineteen-year-old Donald McKayle. McKayle had a “powerful attack with its rhythmic reverberations,” but Cunningham was a “strange, disturbing mixture of Greek god, panther and madman.” In Erdman’s vision, the new year’s god of spring doesn’t achieve true renewal, because the old year’s god of winter isn’t so easily vanquished.

Suggestions of rape and violent destruction—antithetical to nature—require winter’s destruction of all the living, sort of a Noah’s Ark scenario. The female, fertile vision of spring restores wholeness and achieves true renewal in this “eternal seesaw of energy.” Harrison’s “haunting score, wonderfully sensitive to the choreographic rhythms,” set out to depict not only this “cosmogonic cycle” (Campbell’s term) musically, but also the contrast between light and darkness, summer and winter. To create the cyclic sense of the turn of the seasons, Harrison mapped out a plan of tonalities and modes. These contrasting tonalities—and the sometimes frequent polytonal clashes when they overlap—mirror the cosmic struggles of the ballet’s story.

This score marks a significant point in Harrison’s career, because it is his first explicit imitation of the music of the Indonesian gamelan orchestra. But whereas he would become known for his association with the meditative sounds of the Javanese variety of gamelan, this movement represents the bright and dynamic music of the neighboring island of Bali. “The form is based on the successive use of five Oriental-sounding scales,” wrote Henry Cowell in his review. “The scales are used, however, not as exotic impressions but as necessary basic materials. The music is charming and varied, and the suggestion of Eastern materials is woven into a fabric related to the Occidental medieval as well as Occidental modern styles.” 

Although Harrison had only reluctantly undertaken Solstice, the score turned out to be one of his finest compositions and one of the loveliest American ballet scores of that rich era. And although New York’s new radical arts scene took little notice of Harrison’s sweetly tonal pastorales and ballet scores at their late 1940s and early 1950s premieres, their sunny textures and attractive explorations of modes would form a crucial foundation for his later career. Eventually, fashion would catch up with Harrison, rather than the other way around. Sunday evening is a rare opportunity to hear this historic and lovely score.

Choral works 

Also on Sunday's program are a selection of rarely heard Harrison choral works performed by the Ariose Singers. Harrison composed Haiku shortly after accepting a position at San Jose State College in 1967 at the invitation of the college’s choral conductor, William Erlendson. It shares its title, brevity, and sparse texture with several works by Harrison’s good friend John Cage. Harrison had arranged for the publication of one of Cage’s haiku when they were at Black Mountain College in 1952. The wistful text of this miniature is by Kay Davis. 

Harrison composed White Ashes as he mourned the passing of several close friends in 1992, including John Cage. It was commissioned by Harrison’s good friend, pianist Rae Imamura, whose parents were important leaders in the Berkeley Japanese Buddhist Church. She planned a collection of modern settings of Buddhist hymns for amateur singers that could used in their services. Harrison’s contribution is a pentatonic setting in an austere but touching counterpoint of fifths and seconds. 

Robert Duncan
The chordal style sections contrast with an accompaniment of a simple ostinato (repeating pattern) suggestive of eternity. Harrison’s “In Praise of Orpheus” is from a large oratorio for choir and percussion orchestra (not used in this movement) titled Orpheus: For the Singer to the Dance. The text comes from “A Set of Romantic Hymns” by poet Robert Duncan, who was a good friend of Harrison’s and had even given him some poetry lessons. Duncan was at the center of the post-war rise of avant garde poetry in the region that became known as the San Francisco Renaissance, though his work, unlike many of his Beat poet colleagues, was often filled with dense imagery, juxtaposing allusions to classical mythology and modern life. In this hymn, Duncan imagines Orpheus, after returning from the underworld without his love, reincarnated and haunted by vague recollections of his terrible loss. Half of the chorus takes the place of the percussion orchestra, rhythmically speaking and shouting in their role as Orpheus’ nagging memory. His memory of his former life come back in images of Orpheus as a shaman who, like Harrison, “turnd anew the keys, the strings / shadowd, the rays of Apollo’s mode / alterd.”

©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. If you enjoyed reading about Harrison’s music, there’s a lot more where that came from. Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere.