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. 

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