Saturday, June 10, 2017

https://www.amazon.com/Lou-Harrison-American-Musical-Maverick/dp/0253026156/
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 Bj√∂rk 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.

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.

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.

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.
Solstice
 
“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.” 

Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere. 

A World of Music



Lou Harrison and Eva Soltes
Sunday marks the 100th birthday of the subject of this blog and our new book, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick. Naturally, the occasion is being celebrated by events around the world, some chronicled here.

The biggest birthday party, a 24-hour celebration at the straw bale house in Joshua Tree California that Harrison designed, is being staged by the indefatigable keeper of Harrison’s legacy, Eva Soltes. Meanwhile, this Saturday, May 13, a couple hundred miles north and west, New Music Works in Santa Cruz, California will screen Soltes’ 2012 film, almost 30 years in the making, Lou Harrison: A World of Music along with an earlier documentary, Cherish, Consider, Conserve, Create, by Los Angeles filmmaker Eric Marin. The creation of Soltes’s film is a story almost as epic as the career of its subject.

One day in the late 1970s, Lou Harrison phoned Eva Soltes, then a student in her late 20s. “Hello, dear,” the deep jolly voice boomed. “Glub glub glub, I’m drowning in papers. Can you save me?” Harrison’s growing fame as a pioneering figure in American music, coupled with a car accident that reminded him of his mortality, spurred him to start getting his papers (music, files, correspondence) in order, and Soltes, who was producing 100 concerts a year at Berkeley’s chamber music organization, 1750 Arch Street, seemed to him to offer a solution.

They’d met earlier when Soltes was studying classical Indian dance with the famed teacher and dancer Balasaraswati at Berkeley’s Center for World Music. One day after leaving the class, she walked across the street and saw two bearded men making musical instruments, and occasionally playing them. The center had given the great composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and his partner Bill Colvig the workshop space as part of Harrison’s teaching assignment there. Soltes often stood in the doorway, just to watch and listen.

They grew closer when she produced a concert celebrating the centennial of the pioneering American composer Charles Ives. Harrison edited much of Ives’s work and conducted the 1943 premiere of Ives’s Third Symphony that won Ives the Pulitzer Prize in music.

Soltes recognized the respect the brilliant, charismatic polymath Harrison commanded. “When you were in Lou’s presence, you’d stand straighter or sit taller or listen a little better,” she remembers. Despite hating paperwork and already having a full time job, she agreed to help. Eventually she found Harrison an assistant, but Soltes stayed in his orbit for the rest of his life, producing concerts around the country for him, bringing some order to the chaos of his burgeoning career and contributing significantly to Harrison’s emerging recognition as the grand old maverick of American music.

In 1984, Harrison invited Soltes to an event honoring his old mentor, composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who was visiting San Francisco. She brought a video camera that she’d been given by a foundation to document the life of her dance teacher -- who had died a week before they were to begin. And Harrison was a year older than Balasarawati. If her life deserved preserving on film, Soltes reasoned, then surely so did those of America’s homegrown creative geniuses like Harrison

That day, she shot footage of Harrison and Colvig walking arm in arm in a church — her first video of the legendary Aptos-based composer. But far from the last.

Soltes brought her camera to hundreds of events Harrison participated in, from concerts to lectures to residencies to hikes in the woods to the building of the beautiful straw bale house he designed for himself in Joshua Tree, completed not long before his death, and which now hosts an artist residency program that Soltes administers and which the film premiere event benefits.

But she didn’t initially regard her frequent documentation as part of a film biography. Then Harrison spent a year in New Zealand on a Fulbright grant. “I realized how much I missed him and his music,” she recalls, and she realized that his amazing generation of maverick West Coast artists would be disappearing soon.

“I understood the impact his music had on people, like it had on me. He was a really great composer who touched people in a deep way. Little by little I came to the idea that we were the first generation that had the ability to preserve the music and words of our treasured artists.We’re in the same clan, and he's my elder. If I didn't do it, no one else was going to do it.”

With no background in filmmaking, Soltes assumed that she would eventually hire professionals to make the real documentary, but a film editor who saw her work urged her to make it herself. “Your work has the life in it,” he told her. “Filmmaking is like dance,” she says. “It’s music and movement and content.”

She wound up teaching herself much of what she needed to learn, at first by producing radio documentaries for the BBC (about West Coast composers) and National Public Radio. She made a short film about another composer she worked with, Conlon Nancarrow, that he could take with him on tour, and a longer one about Indian dance. She also enlisted experienced film editor Robbie Robb, who co-edited the film with her.

Harrison allowed Soltes to use his voluminous address book to contact his friends for support. She also obtained grants from the Hewlett Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with investing her own time and money into the long-gestating project.

The bigger obstacle turned out to be the sheer wealth of material she gathered. Harrison lived a long, rich, full, active life — and Soltes was there to film much of it. “It was like trying to eat a whale all by myself,” she says.

How to cut it down to manageable length? She solved that problem by deciding to make not one but 10 films from the material, including one about his relationship with Colvig, another about the long, troubled creation of his opera *Young Caesar*, and more. This one focuses on the development of his music.

Sometimes working up to 20 hours per day, Soltes completed the last marathon round of major editing after moving her editing equipment to Harrison’s straw bale house in 2010, which provided the isolation, focus and inspiration (portraits of Harrison and Colvig gazed down at her from the walls) she needed.
LOU HARRISON: A World of Music (a film by Eva Soltes) ~ Film Trailer from Eva Soltes on Vimeo.

Soltes’s favorite moments include moving shots documenting his 33-year partnership with Colvig, who died in 2000. “I was happy that I was close enough to them to be a fly on the wall,” she says. Harrison always refused to allow her to film him actually composing “those things are private,” he told her — but finally relented, yielding a precious sequence.

Harrison earned a lot of fans during his decades in the Bay Area, but even those who don’t know his fascinating life or his alluring music will find much to enjoy, Soltes says. “He was not only a great composer but also a personality who’s fun to watch. He was always a performer, onstage from the time he was two years old,” she says.

“He was a visionary, a hugely important musical figure, and his life is very inspiring — how he persevered in finding his own path. Like MTT [SF Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas] said, he not only always marched to his own drum —he even made his own drum.”

Portions of this post originally appeared at San Francisco Classical Voice.
Learn more about Soltes’s film at Harrison documentary project.

Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Rare Gems of Lou Harrison in Pasadena, California

Harrison, Colvig, and some of their instruments.
Now that we are in the midst of Lou Harrison centennial celebrations, his music is everywhere. Yet many significant and high quality pieces of Harrison's are rarely performed. They often demand unusual or homemade instruments frequently tuned to the non-standard scales of just intonation. The fearless musicians of Los Angeles' MicroFest specialize in exploring these regions that lie between the keys of the piano, so it will be a unique treat to hear Los Angeles ensembles Varied Trio and Just Strings resurrect some of Harrison's most lovely chamber music May 12 at the Boston Court in Pasadena California.

Harrison's Tenor Bells instrument
Harrison always loved the tintinnabulous timbres of metal bells, which led to his romance with the Javanese gamelan. One of the types of instruments Harrison constructed with his partner, Bill Colvig, was a xylophone-like set of aluminum conduit pipes tuned to the crystalline sonorities of just intonation. Two of these instruments (named "soprano bells" and "tenor bells") formed part of a larger ensemble that became what Harrison referred to as his American Gamelan, but he also sometimes used them individually and with other instruments.

Just Strings: John Schneider, T.J. Troy, and Alison Bjorkedal
Harrison's first composition with these bell instruments was his puppet opera Young Caesar, where they rang out together with a panoply of unusual Western and Asian instruments. This version of the opera has remained unperformed since its 1971 premiere (also in Pasadena), but on May 12 we will hear a suite of the work's most entrancing instrumental interludes performed on reconstructions of the original instruments. Harrison considered Young Caesar one of his greatest works, and it was one of his life's regrets that it was never again produced in his lifetime. Our book tells the whole turbulent story of this opera's various incarnations—including the tale of the flying phalli.

The radiant sounds of the bell tube instruments also show up in a 1972 Solo and in the quirky score Harrison wrote for James Broughton's 1987 film Scattered Remains. (MicroFest screened the original Scattered Remains at UCLA last month.) Although the ever-practical Harrison later adapted this score for conventional chamber orchestra, the more intimate original version includes unusual percussion, retuned harpsichord, and the sonorities of the justly tuned bells. It's possibly the closest Harrison ever got to the then-popular minimalist style.
Varied Trio: Yuri Inoo, Aron Kallay, and Shalini Vijayan

But the real gem of this extraordinary concert is the original version of Harrison's 1987 Varied Trio (the namesake of one of the performing ensembles). Harrison's good friend Willie Winant suggested the piece, and Harrison decided he wanted to write something that would be fun to play with his friends. So he added  violinist David Abel, pianist Julie Steinberg, his partner Bill Colvig, and himself to create an exotic ensemble of violin, retuned harpsichord, retuned harp, bell instruments, and percussion. This Varied Quintet, its original title, premiered at Harrison's 70th birthday concert in Berkeley, California.

Even so, Harrison recognized the difficulty it would present Abel and Steinberg when they wanted to tour with the piece, so he arranged it for their trio in the standard tuning of equal temperament. As far as I know, the original version has never been performed since its 1987 premiere. The difference in instruments makes the Trio and Quintet almost completely different compositions. For example, the first movement pairs one of Harrison's alluring violin melodies with an ensemble based on the forms and patterns of Javanese gamelan (its title, "Gendhing," is the Javanese word for gamelan composition). In the Quintet version to be revived this month, the interweaving just intonation bell instruments sparkle within an entirely different texture than what can be coaxed from the conventional piano.

Harrison was a prolific composer (the works list in our book contains over 400 entries), and he often did not shy away from exotic demands even in some of his most enchanting works. I hope you can join us at this unusual opportunity in Pasadena May 12.

Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Lou Harrison's La Koro Sutro

The Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir and Rutgers Percussion Ensemble perform Harrison's La Koro Sutro.
Lou Harrison's most famous legacy may be his long romance with gamelan music of Indonesia, yet he first wrote not for the well known Javanese or Balinese varieties of this orchestra of gongs and metallophones but for a set of instruments he called his "American Gamelan." Yet these remain some of his least performed works, but not because of their quality. The Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir and Rutgers Percussion Ensemble recently performed Harrison's La Koro Sutro, or The Heart Sutra, a major work that combines his love of Buddhist wisdom, Esperanto, pure harmonies, and these homemade instruments, at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York, along with his Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. (See the video here, 1:19:00 for La Koro Sutro and 44:00 for the Suite.) The same two pieces will be featured on the West Coast at San Francisco's Mission Dolores on May 20.

The origins of these instruments extend back to Harrison's 1970s experiments with his instrument-building partner Bill Colvig when they performed in a Chinese music ensemble. Tired of trying to keep his instrument of porcelain bowls in tune, Colvig suggested a similar instrument of aluminum. Harrison remembered that the ancient Korean orchestras have an instrument of tuned metal bars called a fangxiang.

Colvig set to work on what would become a set of tuned aluminum conduit pipes that rang out in pure bell-like tones. Just as important to Harrison, they could be precisely tuned to just intonation. Soon Colvig also built instruments of deep sounding metal bars and added gongs made from oxygen tanks. They first resounded in the quirky orchestra largely of homemade and Asian instruments featured in his puppet opera Young Caesar in 1971, but Harrison wanted to feature the instruments as a self-contained orchestra, like Indonesian gamelan. Just as the varieties of gamelan are often named by their region of origin—the Javanese gamelan, the Balinese gamelan, the Sundanese gamelan—Harrison named this metal orchestra the American Gamelan

Later, after having built several other ensembles in the following years, Harrison and Colvig would sentimentally refer to this original set of instruments as "Old Granddad." Unlike those later instruments, the Old Granddad instruments were not intended to imitate, be tuned like, or function like the instruments of Indonesian gamelan, leading to some confusion over Harrison's use of the term.

The American Gamelan instruments

Harrison's chance to compose for the instruments came from an unusual source: his contacts in the World Congress of Esperanto, the international language. Harrison had been a devotee of Esperanto for years, and when many Esperantists were gathering for a summer program at San Francisco State University in 1972, Harrison proposed a concert with his instruments and choir (singing in Esperanto, naturally). He chose for his text one of his most beloved Buddhist scriptures, familiarly known as the Heart Sutra. It elegantly distills the 100,000 lines of the Perfection of Wisdom literature down to just 14 verses. “It’s called that because it’s the heart of the matter,” Harrison explained. “It concentrates all of the paradoxical beauty of this whole area of philosophy into a very brief, sharp space.”  He commissioned an Esperanto translation from his linguist friend Bruce Kennedy.

The text of the “Heart Sutra,” rendered in Bruce Kennedy’s Esperanto translation as “La Koro Sutro,” divides into seven sections Harrison called paragrafoj. To these he added an opening invocation and an epilogue for a total of nine movements, ranging from celebratory tintinnabulations to dark meditations. The second paragrafo pays homage to the early 13th-century conducti of Perotin, in which interlocking voices weave a rich tapestry of sound. In the mesmerizing fourth paragrafo, La Koro Sutro’s balancing point, the deep bass metallophones resolutely sway back and forth between the tonic and fifth, providing the eternal stability of wisdom, even as the meter of the melody shifts above them. This midpoint, the heart of the Heart Sutra, gives us the central paradox of Buddhism: if the phenomena of our lives do not exist in the void, neither does suffering nor the attainment of Nirvana itself.
Bill Colvig working on one of the American gamelan instruments

The last paragrafo, which might be expected to bring a comfortable return to the opening tonality, instead launches into the startling realm of F minor, a tonality distant from the Heart Sutra’s prevailing tonality as represented on the American Gamelan, as if the wisdom of the sutra has provided a new view of the world.  When Harrison realized the necessity of the key, rather than asking Colvig (who was off leading a Sierra Club hike) to build a new set of instruments for this single movement, Harrison decided to include a harp. Only the reed organ and harp (which is otherwise silent through the performance) accompany the choir’s polyphonic fantasia on the transcendental wisdom of the following mantram (that is, a mantra or sacred repeated formula). Without pause, the choir strikingly modulates back to the home prime pentatonic and the epilogue. The bass instruments announce a gently repeating pattern that underlie the final passage’s concluding chaconne (a favorite Harrison ending form). To Harrison, the movement represented “the smile on the face of the Thai Buddhas. There are kind of alleluias in the air.”

Despite the difficulty of performing with a unique set of homemade instruments, the glorious La Koro Sutro would become one of Harrison’s best-loved compositions, embracing some of his most characteristic passions: peace, universality, homemade instruments, just intonation, bell sounds, Asian influences. Somehow, Harrison had taken a text that counsels indifference to desire and created a gripping paean to peace.

Which brings us back to the opening question: why is one of Harrison's greatest achievements performed so seldom? The problem is that none of the American gamelan pieces can be performed on any other instruments, because they're turned differently from standard Western instrument tunings. Even though several copies of these instruments now exist, anyone who wants to perform the music Harrison wrote for Old Granddad must own or ship one of the four sets of American Gamelan instruments. So if you have a chance to hear these pieces performed in San Francisco next month, or anytime, seize it!

Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere.