Saturday, April 29, 2017

Lou Harrison's La Koro Sutro

The Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir and Rutgers Percussion Ensemble perform Harrison's La Koro Sutro.
Lou Harrison's most famous legacy may be his long romance with gamelan music of Indonesia, yet he first wrote not for the well known Javanese or Balinese varieties of this orchestra of gongs and metallophones but for a set of instruments he called his "American Gamelan." Yet these remain some of his least performed works, but not because of their quality. The Rutgers Kirkpatrick Choir and Rutgers Percussion Ensemble recently performed Harrison's La Koro Sutro, or The Heart Sutra, a major work that combines his love of Buddhist wisdom, Esperanto, pure harmonies, and these homemade instruments, at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York, along with his Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. (See the video here, 1:19:00 for La Koro Sutro and 44:00 for the Suite.) The same two pieces will be featured on the West Coast at San Francisco's Mission Dolores on May 20.

The origins of these instruments extend back to Harrison's 1970s experiments with his instrument-building partner Bill Colvig when they performed in a Chinese music ensemble. Tired of trying to keep his instrument of porcelain bowls in tune, Colvig suggested a similar instrument of aluminum. Harrison remembered that the ancient Korean orchestras have an instrument of tuned metal bars called a fangxiang.

Colvig set to work on what would become a set of tuned aluminum conduit pipes that rang out in pure bell-like tones. Just as important to Harrison, they could be precisely tuned to just intonation. Soon Colvig also built instruments of deep sounding metal bars and added gongs made from oxygen tanks. They first resounded in the quirky orchestra largely of homemade and Asian instruments featured in his puppet opera Young Caesar in 1971, but Harrison wanted to feature the instruments as a self-contained orchestra, like Indonesian gamelan. Just as the varieties of gamelan are often named by their region of origin—the Javanese gamelan, the Balinese gamelan, the Sundanese gamelan—Harrison named this metal orchestra the American Gamelan

Later, after having built several other ensembles in the following years, Harrison and Colvig would sentimentally refer to this original set of instruments as "Old Granddad." Unlike those later instruments, the Old Granddad instruments were not intended to imitate, be tuned like, or function like the instruments of Indonesian gamelan, leading to some confusion over Harrison's use of the term.

The American Gamelan instruments

Harrison's chance to compose for the instruments came from an unusual source: his contacts in the World Congress of Esperanto, the international language. Harrison had been a devotee of Esperanto for years, and when many Esperantists were gathering for a summer program at San Francisco State University in 1972, Harrison proposed a concert with his instruments and choir (singing in Esperanto, naturally). He chose for his text one of his most beloved Buddhist scriptures, familiarly known as the Heart Sutra. It elegantly distills the 100,000 lines of the Perfection of Wisdom literature down to just 14 verses. “It’s called that because it’s the heart of the matter,” Harrison explained. “It concentrates all of the paradoxical beauty of this whole area of philosophy into a very brief, sharp space.”  He commissioned an Esperanto translation from his linguist friend Bruce Kennedy.

The text of the “Heart Sutra,” rendered in Bruce Kennedy’s Esperanto translation as “La Koro Sutro,” divides into seven sections Harrison called paragrafoj. To these he added an opening invocation and an epilogue for a total of nine movements, ranging from celebratory tintinnabulations to dark meditations. The second paragrafo pays homage to the early 13th-century conducti of Perotin, in which interlocking voices weave a rich tapestry of sound. In the mesmerizing fourth paragrafo, La Koro Sutro’s balancing point, the deep bass metallophones resolutely sway back and forth between the tonic and fifth, providing the eternal stability of wisdom, even as the meter of the melody shifts above them. This midpoint, the heart of the Heart Sutra, gives us the central paradox of Buddhism: if the phenomena of our lives do not exist in the void, neither does suffering nor the attainment of Nirvana itself.
Bill Colvig working on one of the American gamelan instruments

The last paragrafo, which might be expected to bring a comfortable return to the opening tonality, instead launches into the startling realm of F minor, a tonality distant from the Heart Sutra’s prevailing tonality as represented on the American Gamelan, as if the wisdom of the sutra has provided a new view of the world.  When Harrison realized the necessity of the key, rather than asking Colvig (who was off leading a Sierra Club hike) to build a new set of instruments for this single movement, Harrison decided to include a harp. Only the reed organ and harp (which is otherwise silent through the performance) accompany the choir’s polyphonic fantasia on the transcendental wisdom of the following mantram (that is, a mantra or sacred repeated formula). Without pause, the choir strikingly modulates back to the home prime pentatonic and the epilogue. The bass instruments announce a gently repeating pattern that underlie the final passage’s concluding chaconne (a favorite Harrison ending form). To Harrison, the movement represented “the smile on the face of the Thai Buddhas. There are kind of alleluias in the air.”

Despite the difficulty of performing with a unique set of homemade instruments, the glorious La Koro Sutro would become one of Harrison’s best-loved compositions, embracing some of his most characteristic passions: peace, universality, homemade instruments, just intonation, bell sounds, Asian influences. Somehow, Harrison had taken a text that counsels indifference to desire and created a gripping paean to peace.

Which brings us back to the opening question: why is one of Harrison's greatest achievements performed so seldom? The problem is that none of the American gamelan pieces can be performed on any other instruments, because they're turned differently from standard Western instrument tunings. Even though several copies of these instruments now exist, anyone who wants to perform the music Harrison wrote for Old Granddad must own or ship one of the four sets of American Gamelan instruments. So if you have a chance to hear these pieces performed in San Francisco next month, or anytime, seize it!

©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. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Wonderful Whirligig: Lou Harrison discovers San Francisco

Lou Harrison in San Francisco, 1940.
With Lou Harrison's 100th birthday coming up next month, concerts celebrating his music are happening all over the world, from Ohio to Lapland (!) this year. But Ground Zero (hmm, maybe not the best choice of terms when the subject was an early and ardent opponent of nuclear weapons beginning even before they were first used in 1945) for Lou Harrison celebrations is the San Francisco Bay Area. Several Harrison concerts have already taken place there this year, with more to come.

Harrison's seven crucial formative years in the city of San Francisco set the course for his long, colorful, creative career. Here's a glimpse of his first few years there, originally published at San Francisco Classical Voice and freely adapted from our new book, which contains many more details, anecdotes, and adventures artistic and amorous in the life of the young (late teens to mid 20s) composer on the cusp of creative ascent.

City of Art

Although Harrison’s family had lived in the environs of San Francisco since he was 12 years old, their move into the city itself, in January 1935, revealed to Harrison a vibrant cultural world. The next seven years — the period that shaped his career — would introduce him to the elements he combined in fruitful fusion for the rest of his life: dance, percussion, European and American avant-garde music, early music, Asian music. In his old age, he called San Francisco “the city where I attained my maturity — I can’t say I grew up here, because I haven’t yet.”

To the voluble, energetic young Harrison, San Francisco was “a lavish, very social city with friendship and pleasure above all.” In the quarter century since it had been leveled by an earthquake and fire, the city had developed into a busy metropolis of art deco skyscrapers and cable cars, jazz clubs and Victorian row houses. Traditional musicians played along the fragrant alleyways of Chinatown, and sizable communities of immigrants from Japan, the Philippines, and India contributed their flavors to the port city’s cultural stew. Until the completion of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, ferries crisscrossed the bay, with small musical ensembles often furnishing entertainment for the passengers.

WPA orchestra in San Francisco's Civic Auditorium, 1938
Harrison soon became friends with the artists who created San Francisco’s thriving, underground arts community in downtown lofts and high school auditoriums. Much of their work was made possible by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which in 1935 established federal projects for the arts. Unlike today’s National Endowment for the Arts, “the projects” directly employed artists as craftspeople to do what they did best — paint, compose, write, stage plays, play music. The Bay Area’s several WPA orchestras employed scores of musicians and, in keeping with the program’s philosophy, tended to play new American music, a rarity on most other symphony programs.

“We all went to WPA concerts and ballets because there was minimal admission,” Harrison recalled. “It was a wonderful period for American arts. They had the notion that an artist was also a workman and craftsman and deserved to be paid just like any working craftsman. For a young person growing up in that atmosphere and with friends who were working with WPA and giving concerts and exhibitions and decorating public buildings, it was really quite an insight into what the arts can be, and I’ve never forgotten it. Art was part of our daily lives.”
Chinatown's Mandarin Theater (as it appeared in Orson Welles'
The Lady From Shanghai), where Harrison saw many Chinese
opera performances.

Chinatown Charms

As Lou Harrison and his young friend entered the theater, they saw a turquoise silk stage curtain with embroidered dragon and phoenix on both sides—and the word “Bromoseltzer” in giant silver letters. The curtain and its advertisement was the Chinatown theater’s sole concession to Western culture. At night, a quarter bought you a table with snacks of candied coconut and sugarcane, pumpkin seeds and dried plums.

One night in 1935, Harrison enjoyed a bowl of ginger ice cream as the curtain rose and giant, pantomime paper dragons danced onstage. Flames of yellow and red silk gushed from their nostrils, lights flashed, smoke poured out. Actors tumbled acrobatically across the stage; others danced or broke into song, accompanied by supple, falsetto voices singing and narrating, in Cantonese, the highly-stylized drama. A half dozen musicians played instruments like the lute-like yueqin or the jinghu, a two-string fiddle. Clattering cymbals and gongs punctuated the actors’ movements. By the end, long after midnight, the heroes had won, peacock feathers adorning their crests.
Music in Chinatown, 1941

Clamorous, colorful, the music seemed a world away from refined Western string quartets or piano recitals. Instead of the quiet reverence that accompanies European opera, Chinese opera competed with children lining up by the stage, friends gossiping — but no one applauded. Huddled together in the unheated building, most of the Chinese patrons knew the ritualized stories of the opera and were there to experience the atmosphere of the performance or perhaps the solo of the top-billed singer.⁠ Other than the occasional tourist, Harrison and his friends usually found themselves the only non-Chinese patrons in the theater.

Before he ever saw a European opera, Harrison had seen dozens of productions of Chinese opera. Harrison and his friends would come to these thrilling performances at least once a week, at a time when European opera was expensive, infrequent, and, in Harrison’s opinion, “pretty stuffy.”

Early Music Encounters

San Francisco State College offered no music major, so Harrison took courses in anything that interested him — astronomy, classics, a journalism course (which he failed) — while taking lessons in horn and clarinet in the music department and singing in campus choral groups.

San Francisco's Ancient Music Ensemble with
Eileen McCall (on lute). Harrison is second
from the right, playing bass recorder.
From the Oakland Tribune, 1936
But the college’s “ancient music” ensemble attracted him more than anything else. Beguiled by the Baroque, Harrison was lucky to find one of America’s rare early music groups at the time that paired period instruments with a historically informed approach. Harrison learned harpsichord and recorders, in addition to singing bass parts. The group performed Renaissance music as well as Baroque masters; Harrison arranged and occasionally even composed works for the group, which he played with even after he left college. The ensemble also used meantone temperament (generated from slightly flattened perfect fifths), which showed Harrison a viable alternative to ordinary equal temperament.

Harrison scoured the San Francisco Public Library for information about early music. He made an intense study of the entire collection of English Tudor-era madrigals and church music and English viol consorts of the 17th century, including the works of John Jenkins and William Lawes, culminating in the fantasias of Henry Purcell. This uncompromisingly concentrated polyphony greatly influenced his own compositions.

The director of the early music ensemble, Eileen McCall, nurtured Harrison’s composing as well. 17th-century dances and musical forms—sarabande, fugue, concerto grosso, passacaglia — marked his compositions from the 1930s. His sketchbooks from the period include a “Pavan” for two recorders and bass viol and a later Suite for Recorder and Lute that included an “Alman,” a “Pavan,” and a “BourĂ©e.” He played one of his Cembalo Sonatas as part of a college noon concert.

Social Circles

Harrison also pursued other wide-ranging intellectual interests, such as “the little blue books” — radical or progressive monographs by writers such as Sinclair Lewis that introduced Harrison to the liberal and socialist ideals that informed some of his work from then on.⁠ His friend, John Dobson, wore a button for Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair, and they boycotted a restaurant because it refused to serve black people. Harrison was always carrying books and scores home from the library. Harrison remained a bibliophile and a library supporter ever after.

Along with his intellectual and artistic pursuits, Harrison enjoyed a thriving social life, much of it in private house parties where people from the theater, dance, and art scenes congregated over wine and cheese, music and poetry, and lots of heavy smoking.

“Everybody was having a good time all the time,” he remembered. “Sometimes parties were where you met your next lover!” He elaborated, “I met dancers, set designers, artists, other musicians, writers. This was fairly common. You’d get one idea after another — constant ideas and learning, learning all the time. For example, that’s where I found out about Hart Crane. Someone at a party said he was gay, and I looked him up for that reason.”⁠

A man he met at a theater party introduced Harrison to the city’s gay underground. Homosexuality was so accepted within Harrison’s social circles that he never hid his orientation from most friends and acquaintances. The first gay bars sprung up after Prohibition was repealed, and in the 1930s and 1940s, the city’s gay and lesbian communities frequented the same bars, including the “quasi-dangerous” Mona’s (“where we encountered many a fistfight”). Although many of his friends were gay, “all of us were part of the straight world,” he explained. “Our oddity was acceptable coin. We were musicians, poets, artists, and so on, and there was no problem about our boyfriends or girlfriends.”⁠

Though these artists were creating a vibrant modernism, neither Harrison nor his friends adopted the self-consciously avant-garde identity common among inhabitants of other bohemias. “It was no big deal. We were just having fun,” Harrison said. “We were occupied doing what we were doing. And we had friends who liked doing it, too, and that constituted a party. Absolutely, it was a big community thing … If you don’t feel you can play some things with your friends, what’s the point?”

By the end of his second year in San Francisco, immersed in an astonishingly dynamic new world of fascinating art and ideas and people, Harrison had rekindled his passion for Asian arts, acquired his first real lover and identity as a gay man, joined a vibrant and varied circle of young artists and other intellectually and artistically voracious Bohemians, and developed a deep affection for nature. From the lonely, friendless adolescent who had sequestered himself with music and mementos had emerged a breathlessly energetic, charming young artist now surrounded by convivial and sympathetic friends.

“I was giddy at that time — being interested in almost everything,” he remembered. “I spent many a night and day just burrowed in books and thinking and writing. But I was also out and about all the time. It was a grand time then, no doubt of that. And I realized it then. It was a wonderful whirligig.”⁠

In the 1950s, after an eventful, sometimes tumultuous, decade in New York City and at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, Harrison returned to California. He lived for the rest of his life outside the village of Aptos, overlooking Monterey Bay. He wrote more dance music, symphonies, concertos, Chinese and Korean music, and become a pioneer in alternative tunings, with his friend Harry Partch. By the time he died, in February 2003, Lou Harrison had reached an artistic pinnacle. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown declared June 14, 1996, Lou Harrison Day — an appropriate tribute for a composer whose music owed so much to the wonderful whirligig of the city where he never grew up.

©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. Originally published in San Francisco Classical Voice and adapted from Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press 2017).

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.