Monday, May 15, 2017

A Musical Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Steel

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

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

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

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