Thursday, November 22, 2018

John Cage in Claremont

Although we created this blog primarily to discuss the music and life of Lou Harrison, his close friendship with composer John Cage prompted some of our most interesting explorations of the directions of American experimental music in the twentieth century. I had met Cage in the 1980s and knew of him, like most people, as the brilliant explorer of radical art, indeterminacy and Zen Buddhism. But through our research in Harrison’s life, especially of his early life, we came to know a very different Cage. Therefore, I was delighted to contribute some research and this essay about a pivotal point in Cage’s early life -- when he decided to devote his life to the arts -- for a symposium on Cage in Claremont, California, hosted by the library of the Claremont Colleges in September 2018.

The 15-year old John Cage, second from right, in a Los
Angeles Times photo documenting his prize-winning oratory.

In 1928, John Cage, 15-year-old inventor’s son and resident of the Glassell Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, graduated valedictorian from Los Angeles High School with the highest grade average in the high school’s history. He was recognized for his achievement in Greek, Latin, and French, and he won the Southern California Oratorical Contest with a speech at the Hollywood Bowl. His stated ambition was to receive a PhD and a Doctor of Divinity degree in the Methodist Episcopal Church [1].

Two years later, a C average Pomona College dropout, Cage was traveling around Europe with another man and an obsession about modern art, making abstract drawings that he thought could be turned into music. In short, he was on his way to becoming one of the most innovative and influential artists of the twentieth century. Whatever happened in those two years, happened in Claremont.

Fannie Dillon with composer
Arthur Farwell.
One connection with Claremont emerged even before he enrolled at Pomona College. His piano teacher was the composer Fannie Dillon, who had been on the faculty of Pomona College before teaching at Los Angeles High School. Dillon was known for her charming piano works that imitated calls of California birds. However, there is no evidence that Cage engaged in any other high school musical activities. Instead, he was known as a classical scholar and aspiring Protestant minister who also played the piano, so a local liberal arts college was a traditional path for such a teenager.

Founded by Congregationalists, Pomona College had 800 students at the time, who were joined by 62 students of the new adjoining Scripps College for women. Annual tuition was $300. Clark dormitory was under construction, and most of the male students lived in shared houses off campus. At Pomona, Cage enrolled in the freshman liberal arts sequence, which included history, math, English, German, French, religion, and physical education. Unlike in high school, he also joined the Pomona College choir [2].

Aerial view of Pomona College and the city of Claremont, 1928.
But he soon lost interest in academics, as he later told an interviewer: “One day the history lecturer gave us an assignment, which was to go to the library and read a certain number of pages in a book. The idea of everybody reading the exact same information just revolted me. I decided to make an experiment. I went to the library and read other things that had nothing to do with the assignment and approached the exam with that sort of preparation. I got an A. I deduced that if I could do something so perverse and get away with it, the whole system must be wrong and I wouldn’t pay any attention to it from then on. I discovered Gertrude Stein about that time, and I took to answering exams in her style. I got an A on the first and failed the second. After that I just lost interest in the whole thing.” [3]
Pomona College's Carnegie Library.

We can blame Pomona College. Gertrude Stein’s famously elliptical style was notorious for its modernism but then published by small presses and largely inaccessible in the United States. Nevertheless, Pomona College’s Carnegie Library had copies of several Stein works by 1928, copies still in the Claremont College Library’s collection, including Tender Buttons and Geography and Plays. Cage’s interest showed up in Pomona College’s student literary magazine, The Manuscript, in a rather bizarre short story by one “Jonathan” Cage titled “The Immaculate Medawewing,” about a young man’s obsessive revulsion at anything dirty.

Pomona College personnel record for John Cage.
When he had first entered Pomona College, he had put down swimming, tennis, and riding as recreational activities on his Pomona College personnel form, but on returning in the fall of 1929, he listed his activities as sleeping, talking, and stealing. Where he wrote that he had spent the summer before he arrived at Pomona on a camping trip and working at the beach, in the summer of 1929, he reported that, “I merely proved that I possess neither character, will power, [nor] backbone” [4].

A dance at Frary Hall the fall before Orozco painted his mural.
 In his second year at the college, Cage continued his participation in choir, German, and French, but also enrolled in logic, aesthetics, 19th-century literature, and short story writing. Through his roommate, Gregg Anderson, he developed an interest in typography and visual art. One of the new sights on Pomona’s campus was just opened Frary Dining Hall. Art professor José Pijoán had arranged a commission for a mural from the famous Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. Students watched and conversed with Orozco as he worked on his striking modernist fresco of Prometheus.

Modern music found its way to Claremont as well. The Student Life student newspaper quoted a visiting French pianist as speculating that, “...in the future, music will be set forth more and more by means of mechanical instruments” [5]. Los Angeles’ leading concert pianist, Richard Buhlig, also visited campus and his friend music Professor Ralph Lyman. Buhlig, a student of Hinduism and Buddhism, often performed the works of European modernists and had given the American premiere of Schoenberg’s opus 11. Two years later, Cage would hitchhike to Buhlig’s house in Los Angeles and camp out on his lawn for 12 hours in order to see him. Buhlig eventually gave Cage his first lessons in composition.

A preview of Henry
Cowell's 1929 concert in
Pomona College's student
newspaper The Student Life.
But Cage’s most crucial musical connection arrived that fall of 1929, when the so-called “ultra-modernist” composer Henry Cowell performed. Cowell was notorious for playing directly on the strings of the piano and for smashing down his fists and forearms on the keyboard, but open-minded Claremont welcomed Cowell’s radical modernism. In an interview with The Student Life, Richard Buhlig insisted that Cowell was no mere showman or “charlatan.” “He has, for his own purposes, written piano works in which the remarkable and the ordinary are placed together. In short, this Henry Cowell is a fine and rare example of this age, and of his country.”

Henry Eames, the first music professor at Scripps College, said that Cowell’s “thought-provoking and stimulating contribution to pianistic tonal-beauty comes to this generation as an original message—original in its emotional and aesthetic content and original in the type of piano and notation technic developed by Mr. Cowell....’Original’ is a dangerous word to use lightly, but it is the correct one to describe the type of tone-thinking of this ‘Challenger of Conventions.’”

Bridges Hall at Pomona College.
According to The Student Life, Cowell first performed at Scripps College’s Balch Hall, a venue so new it hadn’t yet been formally dedicated when Cowell arrived in September 1929. He returned to Pomona College that December and gave a recital in Bridges Hall. Cowell prefaced his performance with some words about the state of music in the new Soviet Union, where Cowell had toured earlier that year. (A few days after Cowell’s recital, Cage performed Handel’s Messiah with the Pomona College Choir.)

At the time of Cowell’s visit, despite his fascination with modern art and literature, Cage apparently had no aspirations to become a composer. (On his personnel form, his "occupational outlook" switched from "minister" to "writing.") Only after a few years and the recommendation of Buhlig would Cage seek out Cowell as a teacher, one who would be a formative influence on the young composer.

Claremont also gave Cage one other important relationship that finally led him away from California. Alan Sample was an amateur poet and painter who had studied at Harvard some years before and was hanging around Claremont. Sample was a decade older than Cage, and his European travels and knowledge of the European avant garde must have seemed very worldly to the young Cage. Sample introduced him to the arts journal transition, which was in the Pomona College library and was one of the most important venues in which news of the European avant garde reached the United States. In it, Cage read William Carlos Williams’ defense of noise as a musical element. [6] Together, Cage and Sample put on an art exhibition in Claremont [7], and their relationship became a romantic one.

John Cage, circa 1930
As Cage’s second year at Pomona was ending, Sample (who later went by the name “Don Sample” and then “Don St. John”) told Cage that he would be traveling to Europe and invited Cage to meet him there. Cage convinced his parents that such an experience would be more important to him than continuing his education at Pomona College, so in June 1930, the 17-year-old John Cage began hitchhiking across the country. His first ride was from one of his Pomona professors, who said, “I’m so glad to see you.” When Cage asked why, he said, “All of my best students have dropped out” [8].

Cage ended up in Galveston, Texas, where he boarded a ship for Le Havre, France. Cage met Sample in Paris, where they took in the modern arts scene. He met another of his Pomona College professors, José Pijoán, the same art professor who had arranged the commission for the Orozco mural, and told him that he wanted to study Gothic architecture. According to Cage, Pijoán’s response to such historical interests was to “lift his foot and [give] me a violent kick in the pants” [9].

I like to think that, despite Cage’s disillusionment with academics, Claremont’s role was also to give the teenage Cage a kick in the pants.

Notes:
[1] Much of this information can be found in Robert Stevenson, “John Cage on His 70th Birthday: West Coast Background.” Inter-American Music Review 5, no. 1 (1982): 3–17.
[2] See Cage chronology in Paul van Emmerik, ed. A John Cage Compendium.
[3] Qtd. in Thomas Hines, “‘Then Not Yet “Cage”’: The Los Angeles Years, 1912-1938” in Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman, eds. John Cage: Composed in America, University of Chicago Press, 1994: 78.
[4] Cage’s personnel form is archived at Pomona College (shown above).
[5] For these and the following quotes from The Student Life, Pomona College’s student newspaper, I am indebted to the research of Pomona student Oliver Dubon.
[6] See the discussion in Branden Wayne Joseph, Experimentations: John Cage in Music, Art, and Architecture, Bloomsbury, 2016: 45. The original article is William Carlos Williams, “George Antheil and the Cantilene Critics,” transition 13 (Summer 1928): 240. Joseph assumes, like some other writers, that Cage met Sample in Europe, whereas we have other evidence that they first met in Claremont and later decided to meet up in Europe.
[7] Stevenson 8. See also Mark Swed, “John Cage’s Genius: An L.A. Story,” Los Angeles Times Aug. 31, 2012.
[8] Hines 79.
[9] Hines 79.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Harp and Lou Harrison

We remember Lou Harrison today as one of the most original composers of the twentieth century, distinctively American yet best known for his advocacy of influences from across the planet, particularly Asia. He loved the timbral richness and “radiance of overtones” of many Asian instruments such as the erhu (the Chinese fiddle), the piri (the Korean double reed), and the zheng (the Chinese zither).

“There is however one exception,” he said, “and that is the harp which, if you think about it, does have a hollow tone. That however, to me, is remedied by the fact that it is plucked, and a series of harp tones is to me very activating, very beautiful, indeed I score for it very often."

That’s an understatement. Harrison not only published a whole book of his scores for the instrument but also frequently featured it in his chamber and orchestral music. He included the harp, along with the harpsichord and clavichord, in an informal list of “Europe’s most perfect treasures.” The harp came to play a distinctive and crucial role in his explorations of mode, pitch, and harmony later in his career.
For Harrison, the foundation of all these musical dimensions was tuning. The harp embodied a role in his tuning experiments that, for him, connected the instrument to the marvels of ancient Greece and Rome — “the most wondrous time of music anywhere, of intelligent beauty, of loveliness enabled in Apollo’s rules (regulations).”

Harrison’s love of the harp’s “dulcet tones” started early, while still a teenager in the California Bay Area in the 1930s, and he regularly included it in his early compositions. He must have made the acquaintance of a student harpist at Mills College, because he included it in scores he wrote for theater productions there.

A decade later, a much more experienced Harrison brought his love of the instrument to several influential scores he wrote during his troubled New York period, beginning with The Perilous Chapel for flute, cello, harp, and percussion. Composed after his series of atonal scores influenced in part by his study with Schoenberg, that 1949 ballet score signaled a shift towards modalism. Despite the unusual choice of the harp’s sweet timbre over that of the piano, Harrison, like other modernists, avoided the cloying harmonies familiar in Hollywood scores. In The Perilous Chapel, the harp becomes an almost entirely melodic instrument, alternating between detached counterpoint and cascades of tones flowing between the other instruments.

The same year, in response to a commission from his friend, cellist Seymour Barab, Harrison again chose the harp over the more obvious piano. The harpist for the premiere of his Suite for Cello and Harp was Lucille Lawrence, ex-wife and a former student of innovative new music harpist Carlos Salzedo, who was also close to Harrison’s own teacher, Henry Cowell. She likely advised Harrison on the extended techniques used in this piece, including selective damping of strings, the use of fingernails, and plucking while muting with the left hand to produce xylophone-like timbres.
Harrison adapted the suite’s most haunting movement from his not-yet-completed Symphony on G. Titled “Aria” and dedicated to his friend John Cage, the movement pairs an ethereally floating cello melody with impressionistic harp arpeggios. While using Schoenberg's twelve-tone method, Harrison also freely combined quasi-tonal pitch sets from the row to create a gently bittersweet lyricism.

The Suite is still one of Harrison’s most performed works, and if he had never written anything else for the instrument, his name would still be familiar to many harpists. But in the early 1950s, the instrument became newly significant as Harrison began studying musical tuning. He learned from Harry Partch’s book Genesis of a Music that when ancient musicians marked off lengths of strings, they found that octaves occur when the string is stopped at its halfway point, again at a quarter of its length, an eighth, and so on — that is, a 2:1 ratio. The next simplest ratio less than the octave, 2/3s of the string length, is the “perfect fifth” so common in musical scales all over the world, and so on. These ratios exist in the harmonic series present in the acoustics of string and wind instruments, and harmonies with these relationships reinforce each other and ring out with a remarkable purity. The intervals of equal temperament, our standard system of tuning pianos and harps, sounded, by comparison, rough and grating.

Two of Harrison’s earliest experiments in just intonation from 1955 take advantage of the ability to easily tune the harp and keep the tuning stable. His Four Strict Songs asks the harpist to prepare up to three different instruments to accommodate the different tunings or otherwise retune one or two harps between movements. His wildly impractical Simfony in Free Style requires five harps each tuned to different scales. The original version has never been performed, but it has been realized on computer long after its composition.

But Harrison’s real use of the harp to explore these ideas came in the 1960s, when he bought a small Lyon & Healy diatonic harp. Before tuning his harp, he decided that he needed an instrument like the ancient Greek canon or monochord, which they used to find pitches by precisely measuring off lengths of a stopped string. Harrison built a version of this zither with a meter stick inserted between the bridges, so that once he worked out the decimal equivalents of the scale ratios, he could precisely find each of the pitches on the string. In order to save the resulting intervals as a scale, the Greeks transferred the pitches to a seven-string lyre, usually called the lyra, the instrument of the lyric poets, so Harrison built a homemade harp on which he could save the tuning before finally transferring the pitches to his Lyon and Healy harp or other instrument. He therefore called this instrument a “transfer harp,” because he used it to transfer the monochord pitches to a stable instrument. In later years, Harrison’s partner Bill Colvig would refine these designs and build several versions of their monochord and transfer harps.

For example, after tuning the monochord’s open string, say to F, he could find C by stopping the string at exactly of 2/3 of its length, creating a frequency that is 3/2 of the frequency of the F. He could then continue the process, finding the next pitch in the sequence of fifths, G at 2/3 of the length of string that produced the C, which is 2/3 of 2/3, or 4/9 the length of the open string, and so on. This tuning system, a sequence of multiplying by lengths 2/3, follows the circle of fifths and is known as Pythagorean tuning, after its supposed inventor in 6th-century BCE Greece. When Harrison first retuned his piano to this scale after reading about it in Partch’s book, he was startled that his pieces composed in quintal, that is, fifth-based, counterpoint gained an amazing new vibrancy next to which the equal temperament of the standard equal tuned piano sounds positively muddy.

This tuning system gained all the more currency for Harrison in the 1970s, when he met Ann Kilmer, a UC Berkeley archaeologist who was also working with Harrison’s friend and ethnomusicologist Robert Brown. Kilmer had translated a nearly 4000-year-old clay tablet from ancient Sumer known as UET VII/74 that outlined this very tuning system — used not only in Greece but also Arabic countries, China, India, medieval Europe and elsewhere — more than a thousand years before Pythagoras. Pointing out the inaccuracy of the “Pythagorean” label, Harrison and others instead called it a “ditone” tuning or a “3-limit” tuning, referring to the fact that 3 is the largest prime number in these ratios. 3-limit tuning works well for music based on fifths, such as the Sonata in Ishartum he composed at this time in one of the modes mentioned by this tablet.



But for European composers around the time of the Renaissance, 3-limit tuning imposed significant shortcomings. First, the circle of fifths is not really a circle at all. If we continue the process of multiplying 3s and 2s, we find that after 12 iterations we arrive at the pitch E#, which is not the same as the pitch F. In fact, E# overshoots F by about an eighth of a tone or roughly 24 cents, an interval known as the Pythagorean comma, though it was well known in China and other cultures. It means that one of the “fifths” on a keyboard (in this example A# to F) will be smaller and dissonant, known as a “wolf” fifth.

Although the wolf fifth could be avoided by keeping to simple keys, a more serious shortcoming for European composers was the interval of a third, which composers used more and more by about the 14th century. The major third in 3-limit tuning has a ratio of 81/64, or 407 cents, a complex number that medieval theorists classified as a dissonance. But narrowed just a little bit to 386 cents, it reduces to the very simple ratio 5/4, which Renaissance composers called a very sweet interval. Tuning systems that include the 5/4 major third, the 6/5 minor third, and related intervals are known as 5-limit tunings, because a new prime number has been introduced.

For several Harrison harp works, in addition to some works for Asian zithers, metallophones, and refretted guitar, Harrison used these 5-limit thirds to create beautifully sonorous triads and other harmonies, including a scale that the ancient Alexandrian Claudius Ptolemy called syntonic diatonic, or more generally since then, just intonation. This is the tuning Harrison used, for example, in his Jahla in the Form of a Ductia to Pleasure Leopold Stokowski on his Ninetieth Birthday, in the key of F. (Jhala refers to a section and technique in North Indian music in which repeated drone pitches are inserted between notes of a fast melody.) Unfortunately, tuning the D to be the sweet 5/4 over the subdominant Bb, means that the fifth on the ii triad becomes a wolf. In essence, we need two Ds, to have both consonant triads. In this piece, he simply avoids the G/D fifth, but in other works he sometimes deliberately used the wolf fifth to create points of dissonance and instability. In 1967’s Music for Bill and Me — referring to the times he would play harp with his partner Bill Colvig — Harrison decided to keep the fifth on the second scale degree consonant (D-A in this key) and avoid the F-A major third.

Philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato observed that whole numbers and their ratios represented abstractions intelligible only in human intellects and the phenomenon of music, where they were manifest in the tuning of musical scales. Well-formed music is therefore our opportunity sensually experience the mathematical framework that not only describes the universe but, in a very real sense to these thinkers, actually is the universe.

But Harrison didn't need the mystical justifications of numerology to enjoy the splendor of just intonation. Throughout his life he continued to speak of tuning as an empirically aural experience and remained convinced that the perception of simple ratios, aurally as well as visually, is emotionally powerful. He viewed just intonation as a place where ancient philosophy, physics, and perception converge. “The music sounds better, it just does,” he said. “Because I’m a sensualist, the hearing of those just intervals just pulls me in, whereas in equal temperament, I feel as though I’m on ice skates.”

The European tradition of triadic harmony essentially reflects a five-limit ideal in the compromised form of equal temperament. But beyond the five-limit, Harrison found delicious and exotic intervals not even remotely approximated in the tempered twelve-tone scale. He wrote Threnody for Oliver Daniel in a tuning that uses 7-limit intervals, including the 7/4 or natural seventh harmonic, the 7/6 ratio or small minor third, and the 8/7 ratio or large major second. These last two intervals approximate the step sizes in the Javanese gamelan tuning known as slendro, in which the octave is divided into five roughly equal intervals. Unlike slendro, this 1990 elegy for Harrison’s good friend also includes a mournful semitone, actually a small semitone of 21/20, which Harrison, like Baroque composers, often uses as a symbol of grief.


But the 7-limit was just the beginning. Harrison’s harp adventures continued when he would invite like-minded friends over for a weekend lunch and then spend the afternoon resurrecting the ancient sounds of Archytas’s enharmonic, Didymus’ chromatic, or Ptolemy’s equable diatonic scale. After tuning his harp in one of these scales, Harrison would improvise until the distinctive character and musical possibilities of the scale began to sink in. Harrison said that just intonation opens limitless possibilities, “a sort of paradise garden of delights,” that he never tired of exploring. One piece to come out of these experiments was his 1974 Little Homage to Eratosthenes, which uses a distinctive 19-limit scale invented by this librarian of ancient Alexandria.

“I have always been ‘exceedingly enamored’ of the harp,” Harrison wrote in a letter to John Schneider, who was then transcribing Harrison’s harp compositions for guitar, “and approve of a quote from the 16th- and 17th-century Spanish that Zabaleta wrote about—‘A gentleman will not be for long without his harp.’ Indeed, what you are doing with guitar and harp brings vividly to mind the manuscript pictures of the court of Alfonso the Wise, especially since those instruments were then properly tuned.”


















Sunday, September 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 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
             Of
           yoUr music
            tHen
       its quAntity
       and vaRiety
     make it Resemble
          a rIver in delta 

           liStening to it
       we becOme
         oceaN

—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.