Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Birthday Lou!

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

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

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

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

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

Choral works 

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

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

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

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

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