Friday, March 31, 2017

Early Lou Harrison classics in Los Angeles April 4

Most of us know Lou Harrison best as a disseminator of thrilling advocacies of just intonation, world music, and peace alongside his ravishing melodies and gamelan tunes. But long before he was the musical Buddha of the American West Coast, Harrison was a part of the great generation of American modernists, a radical experimenter steeped in influences from such iconoclasts as Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles as well as his teachers Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg.
Lou Harrison in 1940

The San Francisco Bay area, where Harrison grew up, was the center of an arts renaissance during the Great Depression, as federal and other support nourished a thriving counterculture. The 20-year-old Harrison soon got a job composing for theater and dance at Mills College in Oakland, where he would be called upon to provide new works at a rate that astonished his good friend and fellow experimenter John Cage. Encouraged by Cowell, Harrison used these productions to try out new ideas in melody, modes, rhythm, and percussion. Percussion music especially attracted Harrison and Cage, for whom it became at once a source of new sounds and a way to get their music played without having to depend on the conservative classical music establishment. Together, they scoured hardware stores, Chinatown shops, and junkyards to build up a shared orchestra to use both in their dance scores and a groundbreaking series of percussion-only concerts.

Lou Harrison (playing gong), John Cage
and their percussion ensemble in 1940
The April 4 concert at Tuesdays@Monk Space will give a rare opportunity to hear some of these pioneering works alongside his more familiar late works. One of Harrison’s favorite setups was a solo melodic instrument paired with a percussion ensemble, and his First Concerto is one of his earliest such works. Henry Cowell had taught Harrison how to make melodies through the manipulations of a small number of short melodic fragments, which Harrison called “melodicles,” not as in traditional classical music, motives enslaved to harmonic progressions and hierarchical phrase structures, but as tesselae transposed, inverted, reversed, and freely combined into an entrancing mosaic floating atop propulsive percussion.

Louise Kloepper in 1938
A more elaborate work with the same instrumentation, Omnipotent Chair from 1940, is a score Harrison wrote for Mills College choreographer Louise Kloepper, and LA’s Varied Trio ensemble will now present the piece for the first time since its 1940 premiere. It features Harrison’s usual colorful collection of unusual sounds, including those from flower pots, elephant bells, and a string bass played as a percussion instrument.
The Varied Trio ensemble: Shalini Vijayan, violin,
Aron Kallay, piano, Yuri Inoo, percussion
Another source of inspiration for the young Lou Harrison was the Depression-era enthusiasm for regionalism in the arts, which had already touched composers such as Cowell, Aaron Copland, and Harrison’s later friend, Virgil Thomson. Harrison’s "Rangesong and Jig" from his Usonian Set more specifically references Frank Lloyd Wright’s term of populist idealism. Bay Area pianist and Harrison specialist Sarah Cahill unearthed this engaging work at Harrison’s archive at UC Santa Cruz and has given it new life for the first time since its premiere in 1939.

Pianist Sarah Cahill
In 1942, feeling that he had outgrown San Francisco’s art community and wanting to begin a career freed from constant works for dance, Harrison moved to Los Angeles, where he talked his way into a UCLA composition class with the fearsome avatar of atonality himself, Arnold Schoenberg. Cage had warned Harrison with stories of Schoenberg’s harshness, and others told him that the master refused to look at any student experiments with “his” system of twelve-tone composition. Regardless, Harrison embarked on a twelve-tone piano suite but soon became hopelessly lost in thickets of complexity in his neo-medieval “Conductus” movement. With some trepidation, he brought the movement to class and was relieved when Schoenberg not only did not throw him out but instantly saw where the young composer had gone wrong. “Thin out! Less! Thin! Thinner!” Schoenberg insisted, showing him how to restructure the movement, cutting away all but the salient. This movement, performed on April 4 also by Cahill, would be a landmark in Harrison’s evolving style.

The virtues of clarity and simplicity echo throughout the rest of his career, and this concert will also feature late works, including his entrancing Varied Trio, the namesake of the LA ensemble, and his Summerfield Set, a keyboard suite that still echoes with reverberations of the young Californian’s music four decades earlier.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Lou Harrison and His Circle: 1940s Music in New York

Sarah Cahill
Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill will present a program titled "Lou Harrison and His Circle" on Sunday April 2 8:00 at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont California. Cahill has been at the forefront exploring the piano music of these composers, who defined a unique point in the history of American musical modernism.
Lou Harrison in the 1940s

In 1943 at the age of 26, Lou Harrison headed to New York City to make his career. After study with Henry Cowell in San Francisco and Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, after years of composing dance and theater scores to order, after a ground-breaking series of percussion concerts with John Cage, Harrison was ready to take on the city that was, at the time, the undisputed capital of American Arts. However, the city, unimpressed with his ambition and enthusiasm, rewarded him mostly with poverty, noise, stress, and lost opportunities. Harrison spent days and weeks in his apartment, meticuloously working out his expressionistic, often atonal scores, but they were rarely performed.

Still, some of the warmest times in this unforgiving city were those he spent with his circle of friends, who included the composers Cage, Cowell, Virgil Thomson, Ben Weber, Frank Wigglesworth, and Merton Brown. Sometimes they would gather in Harrison's Greenwich Village apartment with six packs of Schaefer beer, shooting the breeze or playing games. One game they played was a variation on the French Surrealists' "exquisite corpse," in which a drawing is created in round-robin fashion, but each contributor can see only the edge of the previous drawing. When applied to music, each composer would contribute a measure but could see only the last notes of the previous measure. Once finished, they would gather around the piano to hear the frequently astonishing result. Harrison saved these scores, which were later published as "Party Pieces."
Henry Cowell

It was a heady time and place for the future of the arts in the United States. Some observers detected a superficial schism between two supposed “camps" of composers.  Copland and Thomson led the so-called Americanists, who produced tonal works of home-spun, classical simplicity related to the reigionalist painters (such as Thomas Hart Benton) and writers (such as John Steinbeck). Cowell and Cage championed the experimentalists who produced complex, atonal works related to the nascent New York School of abstract expressionist painters. This gap is frequently exaggerated (given, for example, Thomson's mentorship of Harrison and Cage), but even so, the eclectic Harrison freely traversed both circles.

Cahill will present fascinating but rarely heard works by Harrison (including works unheard for over 70 years), Cowell, Harrison's San Francisco friend James Cleghorn, the startlingly original Johanna Beyer, Cowell, and Wigglesworth. Admission is free!

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Some important Lou Harrison links new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere.

Brett Campbell talks about Harrison on National Public Radio.

The Lou Harrison Centennial Site at Other Minds collects information about Lou Harrison events going on everywhere during his hundredth birthday year.

Lou Harrison: A World of Music is a documentary by Eva Soltes, who also manages the Lou Harrison House in Joshua Tree, California

MicroFest, the Southern California festival of microtonal music, is devoting its 2017 season to a celebration of the Lou Harrison centennial.

The American Gamelan Institute has many scores and recordings of Harrison's gamelan music.

Frogpeak publishes many of Harrison's scores and writings.

Harrison's Wikipedia page.