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.

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