Monday, December 10, 2018
Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick is a new biography of one of America's most original and beloved composers, by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, now available from Indiana University Press in time for Harrison's centennial this year. In this blog, we will be keeping track of some of the events in honor of Harrison's hundredth birthday and sharing some fascinating tidbits that didn't necessarily make it into the published biography.

American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003) is perhaps best known for challenging the traditional musical establishment along with his contemporaries and close colleagues: composers John Cage, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein; Living Theater founder, Judith Malina; and choreographer, Merce Cunningham. Today, musicians from Bang on a Can to Björk are indebted to the cultural hybrids Harrison pioneered half a century ago. His explorations of new tonalities at a time when the rest of the avant garde considered such interests heretical set the stage for minimalism and musical post-modernism. His propulsive rhythms and ground-breaking use of percussion have inspired choreographers from Merce Cunningham to Mark Morris, and he is considered the godfather of the so-called “world music” phenomenon that has invigorated Western music with global sounds over the past two decades.

In this biography, authors Bill Alves and Brett Campbell trace Harrison's life and career from the diverse streets of San Francisco, where he studied with music experimentalist Henry Cowell and Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, and where he discovered his love for all things non-traditional (Beat poetry, parties, and men); to the competitive performance industry in New York, where he subsequently launched his career as a composer, conducted Charles Ives's Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall (winning the elder composer a Pulitzer Prize), and experienced a devastating mental breakdown; to the experimental arts institution of Black Mountain College where he was involved in the first "happenings" with Cage, Cunningham, and others; and finally, back to California, where he would become a strong voice in human rights and environmental campaigns and compose some of the most eclectic pieces of his career.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

John Cage in Claremont

Although we created this blog primarily to discuss the music and life of Lou Harrison, his close friendship with composer John Cage prompted some of our most interesting explorations of the directions of American experimental music in the twentieth century. I had met Cage in the 1980s and knew of him, like most people, as the brilliant explorer of radical art, indeterminacy and Zen Buddhism. But through our research in Harrison’s life, especially of his early life, we came to know a very different Cage. Therefore, I was delighted to contribute some research and this essay about a pivotal point in Cage’s early life -- when he decided to devote his life to the arts -- for a symposium on Cage in Claremont, California, hosted by the library of the Claremont Colleges in September 2018.

The 15-year old John Cage, second from right, in a Los
Angeles Times photo documenting his prize-winning oratory.

In 1928, John Cage, 15-year-old inventor’s son and resident of the Glassell Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, graduated valedictorian from Los Angeles High School with the highest grade average in the school’s history. He was recognized for his achievement in Greek, Latin, and French, and he won the Southern California Oratorical Contest with a speech at the Hollywood Bowl. His stated ambition was to receive a PhD and a Doctor of Divinity degree in the Methodist Episcopal Church [1].

Two years later, a C average Pomona College dropout, Cage was traveling around Europe with another man and an obsession about modern art, making abstract drawings that he thought could be turned into music. In short, he was on his way to becoming one of the most innovative and influential artists of the twentieth century. Whatever happened in those two years, happened in Claremont.

Fannie Dillon with composer
Arthur Farwell.
One connection with Claremont emerged even before Cage enrolled at Pomona College. His piano teacher was the composer Fannie Dillon, who had been on the Pomona College faculty before teaching at Los Angeles High School. Dillon was known for her charming piano works that imitated calls of California birds. However, there is no evidence that Cage engaged in any other high school musical activities. Instead, he was known as a classical scholar and aspiring Protestant minister who also played the piano, so a local liberal arts college was a traditional path for such a teenager.

Founded by Congregationalists, Pomona College had 800 students at the time, who were joined by 62 students of the new adjoining Scripps College for women. Annual tuition was $300. Clark dormitory was under construction, and most of the male students lived in shared houses off campus. At Pomona, Cage enrolled in the freshman liberal arts sequence, which included history, math, English, German, French, religion, and physical education. Unlike in high school, he also joined the Pomona College choir [2].

Aerial view of Pomona College and the city of Claremont, 1928.
But he soon lost interest in academics, as he later told an interviewer: “One day the history lecturer gave us an assignment, which was to go to the library and read a certain number of pages in a book. The idea of everybody reading the exact same information just revolted me. I decided to make an experiment. I went to the library and read other things that had nothing to do with the assignment and approached the exam with that sort of preparation. I got an A. I deduced that if I could do something so perverse and get away with it, the whole system must be wrong and I wouldn’t pay any attention to it from then on. I discovered Gertrude Stein about that time, and I took to answering exams in her style. I got an A on the first and failed the second. After that I just lost interest in the whole thing” [3].
Pomona College's Carnegie Library.

We can blame Pomona College. Gertrude Stein’s famously elliptical style was notorious for its modernism but then published by small presses and largely inaccessible in the United States. Nevertheless, Pomona College’s Carnegie Library had copies of several Stein works by 1928, copies still in the Claremont College Library’s collection, including Tender Buttons and Geography and Plays. Cage’s interest showed up in Pomona College’s student literary magazine, The Manuscript, in a rather bizarre short story by one “Jonathan” Cage titled “The Immaculate Medawewing,” about a young man’s obsessive revulsion at anything dirty.

Pomona College personnel record for John Cage.
When Cage had first entered Pomona College, he had listed swimming, tennis, and riding as recreational activities on his Pomona College personnel form, but on returning in the fall of 1929, he listed his activities as sleeping, talking, and stealing. He wrote that he had spent the summer of 1928 before he arrived at Pomona on a camping trip and working at the beach. But in the summer of 1929, he reported that, “I merely proved that I possess neither character, will power, [nor] backbone” [4].

A dance at Frary Hall the fall before Orozco painted his mural.
 In his second year at the college, Cage continued his participation in choir, German, and French, but also enrolled in logic, aesthetics, 19th-century literature, and short story writing. Through his roommate, Gregg Anderson, he developed an interest in typography and visual art. One of the new sights on Pomona’s campus was just opened Frary Dining Hall. Art professor José Pijoán had arranged a commission for a mural from the famous Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. Students watched and talked to Orozco as he worked on his striking modernist fresco of Prometheus.

Modern music found its way to Claremont as well. The Student Life student newspaper quoted a visiting French pianist as speculating that “in the future, music will be set forth more and more by means of mechanical instruments” [5]. Los Angeles’ leading concert pianist, Richard Buhlig, also visited campus and his friend music Professor Ralph Lyman. Buhlig, a student of Hinduism and Buddhism, often performed the works of European modernists and had given the American premiere of Schoenberg’s opus 11. Two years later, Cage would hitchhike to Buhlig’s house in Los Angeles and camp out on his lawn for 12 hours in order to see him. Buhlig eventually gave Cage his first lessons in composition.

A preview of Henry
Cowell's 1929 concert in
Pomona College's student
newspaper The Student Life.
But Cage’s most crucial musical connection arrived that fall of 1929, when the so-called “ultra-modernist” composer Henry Cowell performed his original music at Scripps College's Balch Hall, a venue then so new it hadn't yet been formally dedicated when Cowell arrived in September [6]. Cowell was notorious for playing directly on the strings of the piano and for smashing down his fists and forearms on the keyboard, but open-minded Claremont welcomed his radical modernism. Richard Buhlig insisted that Cowell was no mere showman or “charlatan.” “He has, for his own purposes, written piano works in which the remarkable and the ordinary are placed together,” Buhlig said about Cowell in an interview with The Student Life. “In short, this Henry Cowell is a fine and rare example of this age, and of his country.”

Henry Eames, the first music professor at Scripps College, said in The Student Life that Cowell’s “thought-provoking and stimulating contribution to pianistic tonal-beauty comes to this generation as an original message—original in its emotional and aesthetic content and original in the type of piano and notation technic developed by Mr. Cowell....’Original’ is a dangerous word to use lightly, but it is the correct one to describe the type of tone-thinking of this ‘Challenger of Conventions.’”

Bridges Hall at Pomona College.
Cowell returned to Pomona College that December 1929 and gave a recital in Bridges Hall. Cowell prefaced his performance with some words about the state of music in the new Soviet Union, where Cowell had toured earlier that year. (A few days after Cowell’s recital, Cage performed Handel’s Messiah with the Pomona College Choir.)

At the time of Cowell’s visit, despite his fascination with modern art and literature, Cage apparently had no aspirations to become a composer. (On his personnel form, his "occupational outlook" switched from "minister" to "writing.") Only after a few years and the recommendation of Buhlig would Cage seek out Cowell as a teacher, one who would be a formative influence on the young composer.

Claremont also gave Cage one other important relationship that finally led him away from California. Alan Sample was an amateur poet and painter who had studied at Harvard some years before and was hanging around Claremont. Sample was a decade older than Cage, and his European travels and knowledge of the European avant garde must have seemed very worldly to the teenaged Cage. Sample introduced him to the arts journal transition, which was in the Pomona College library and was one of the most important venues in which news of the European avant garde reached the United States. In it, Cage read William Carlos Williams’ defense of noise as a musical element [7]. Together, Cage and Sample put on an art exhibition in Claremont [8], and their relationship became a romantic one.

John Cage, circa 1930
As Cage’s second year at Pomona was ending, Sample (who later went by the name “Don Sample” and then “Don St. John”) told Cage that he would be traveling to Europe and invited Cage to meet him there. Cage convinced his parents that such an experience would be more important to him than continuing his education at Pomona College, so in June 1930, the 17-year-old John Cage began hitchhiking across the country. His first ride was from one of his Pomona professors, who said, “I’m so glad to see you.” When Cage asked why, he said, “All of my best students have dropped out” [9].

Cage ended up in Galveston, Texas, where he boarded a ship for Le Havre, France. Cage met Sample in Paris, where they took in the modern arts scene. He met another of his Pomona College professors, José Pijoán, the same art professor who had arranged the commission for the Orozco mural, and told him that he wanted to study Gothic architecture. According to Cage, Pijoán’s response to such historical interests was to “lift his foot and [give] me a violent kick in the pants” [10].

I like to think that, despite Cage’s disillusionment with academics, Claremont’s role was also to give the teenage Cage a kick in the pants.

[1] Much of this information can be found in Robert Stevenson, “John Cage on His 70th Birthday: West Coast Background.” Inter-American Music Review 5, no. 1 (1982): 3–17.
[2] See Cage chronology in Paul van Emmerik, ed. A John Cage Compendium.
[3] Qtd. in Thomas Hines, “‘Then Not Yet “Cage”’: The Los Angeles Years, 1912-1938” in Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman, eds. John Cage: Composed in America, University of Chicago Press, 1994: 78.
[4] Cage’s personnel form is archived at Pomona College (shown above).
[5] For these and the following quotes from The Student Life, Pomona College’s student newspaper, I am indebted to the research of Pomona student Oliver Dubon.
[6] These quotes come from a December 1929 issue of The Student Life previewing Cowell's Pomona concert, but one article mentions that Cowell visited Scripps earlier that fall. According to the timeline in Joel Sachs' Henry Cowell: A Man Made of Music, 179, it would have to have been before September 11.
[7] See the discussion in Branden Wayne Joseph, Experimentations: John Cage in Music, Art, and Architecture, Bloomsbury, 2016: 45. The original article is William Carlos Williams, “George Antheil and the Cantilene Critics,” transition 13 (Summer 1928): 240. Joseph assumes, like some other writers, that Cage met Sample in Europe, whereas we have other evidence that they first met in Claremont and later decided to meet up in Europe.
[8] Stevenson 8. See also Mark Swed, “John Cage’s Genius: An L.A. Story,” Los Angeles Times Aug. 31, 2012.
[9] Hines 79.
[10] Hines 79.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Harp and Lou Harrison

We remember Lou Harrison today as one of the most original composers of the twentieth century, distinctively American yet best known for his advocacy of influences from across the planet, particularly Asia. He loved the timbral richness and “radiance of overtones” of many Asian instruments such as the erhu (the Chinese fiddle), the piri (the Korean double reed), and the zheng (the Chinese zither).

“There is however one exception,” he said, “and that is the harp which, if you think about it, does have a hollow tone. That however, to me, is remedied by the fact that it is plucked, and a series of harp tones is to me very activating, very beautiful, indeed I score for it very often."

That’s an understatement. Harrison not only published a whole book of his scores for the instrument but also frequently featured it in his chamber and orchestral music. He included the harp, along with the harpsichord and clavichord, in an informal list of “Europe’s most perfect treasures.” The harp came to play a distinctive and crucial role in his explorations of mode, pitch, and harmony later in his career.
For Harrison, the foundation of all these musical dimensions was tuning. The harp embodied a role in his tuning experiments that, for him, connected the instrument to the marvels of ancient Greece and Rome — “the most wondrous time of music anywhere, of intelligent beauty, of loveliness enabled in Apollo’s rules (regulations).”

Harrison’s love of the harp’s “dulcet tones” started early, while still a teenager in the California Bay Area in the 1930s, and he regularly included it in his early compositions. He must have made the acquaintance of a student harpist at Mills College, because he included it in scores he wrote for theater productions there.

A decade later, a much more experienced Harrison brought his love of the instrument to several influential scores he wrote during his troubled New York period, beginning with The Perilous Chapel for flute, cello, harp, and percussion. Composed after his series of atonal scores influenced in part by his study with Schoenberg, that 1949 ballet score signaled a shift towards modalism. Despite the unusual choice of the harp’s sweet timbre over that of the piano, Harrison, like other modernists, avoided the cloying harmonies familiar in Hollywood scores. In The Perilous Chapel, the harp becomes an almost entirely melodic instrument, alternating between detached counterpoint and cascades of tones flowing between the other instruments.

The same year, in response to a commission from his friend, cellist Seymour Barab, Harrison again chose the harp over the more obvious piano. The harpist for the premiere of his Suite for Cello and Harp was Lucille Lawrence, ex-wife and a former student of innovative new music harpist Carlos Salzedo, who was also close to Harrison’s own teacher, Henry Cowell. She likely advised Harrison on the extended techniques used in this piece, including selective damping of strings, the use of fingernails, and plucking while muting with the left hand to produce xylophone-like timbres.
Harrison adapted the suite’s most haunting movement from his not-yet-completed Symphony on G. Titled “Aria” and dedicated to his friend John Cage, the movement pairs an ethereally floating cello melody with impressionistic harp arpeggios. While using Schoenberg's twelve-tone method, Harrison also freely combined quasi-tonal pitch sets from the row to create a gently bittersweet lyricism.

The Suite is still one of Harrison’s most performed works, and if he had never written anything else for the instrument, his name would still be familiar to many harpists. But in the early 1950s, the instrument became newly significant as Harrison began studying musical tuning. He learned from Harry Partch’s book Genesis of a Music that when ancient musicians marked off lengths of strings, they found that octaves occur when the string is stopped at its halfway point, again at a quarter of its length, an eighth, and so on — that is, a 2:1 ratio. The next simplest ratio less than the octave, 2/3s of the string length, is the “perfect fifth” so common in musical scales all over the world, and so on. These ratios exist in the harmonic series present in the acoustics of string and wind instruments, and harmonies with these relationships reinforce each other and ring out with a remarkable purity. The intervals of equal temperament, our standard system of tuning pianos and harps, sounded, by comparison, rough and grating.

Two of Harrison’s earliest experiments in just intonation from 1955 take advantage of the ability to easily tune the harp and keep the tuning stable. His Four Strict Songs asks the harpist to prepare up to three different instruments to accommodate the different tunings or otherwise retune one or two harps between movements. His wildly impractical Simfony in Free Style requires five harps each tuned to different scales. The original version has never been performed, but it has been realized on computer long after its composition.

But Harrison’s real use of the harp to explore these ideas came in the 1960s, when he bought a small Lyon & Healy diatonic harp. Before tuning his harp, he decided that he needed an instrument like the ancient Greek canon or monochord, which they used to find pitches by precisely measuring off lengths of a stopped string. Harrison built a version of this zither with a meter stick inserted between the bridges, so that once he worked out the decimal equivalents of the scale ratios, he could precisely find each of the pitches on the string. In order to save the resulting intervals as a scale, the Greeks transferred the pitches to a seven-string lyre, usually called the lyra, the instrument of the lyric poets, so Harrison built a homemade harp on which he could save the tuning before finally transferring the pitches to his Lyon and Healy harp or other instrument. He therefore called this instrument a “transfer harp,” because he used it to transfer the monochord pitches to a stable instrument. In later years, Harrison’s partner Bill Colvig would refine these designs and build several versions of their monochord and transfer harps.

For example, after tuning the monochord’s open string, say to F, he could find C by stopping the string at exactly of 2/3 of its length, creating a frequency that is 3/2 of the frequency of the F. He could then continue the process, finding the next pitch in the sequence of fifths, G at 2/3 of the length of string that produced the C, which is 2/3 of 2/3, or 4/9 the length of the open string, and so on. This tuning system, a sequence of multiplying by lengths 2/3, follows the circle of fifths and is known as Pythagorean tuning, after its supposed inventor in 6th-century BCE Greece. When Harrison first retuned his piano to this scale after reading about it in Partch’s book, he was startled that his pieces composed in quintal, that is, fifth-based, counterpoint gained an amazing new vibrancy next to which the equal temperament of the standard equal tuned piano sounds positively muddy.

This tuning system gained all the more currency for Harrison in the 1970s, when he met Ann Kilmer, a UC Berkeley archaeologist who was also working with Harrison’s friend and ethnomusicologist Robert Brown. Kilmer had translated a nearly 4000-year-old clay tablet from ancient Sumer known as UET VII/74 that outlined this very tuning system — used not only in Greece but also Arabic countries, China, India, medieval Europe and elsewhere — more than a thousand years before Pythagoras. Pointing out the inaccuracy of the “Pythagorean” label, Harrison and others instead called it a “ditone” tuning or a “3-limit” tuning, referring to the fact that 3 is the largest prime number in these ratios. 3-limit tuning works well for music based on fifths, such as the Sonata in Ishartum he composed at this time in one of the modes mentioned by this tablet.

But for European composers around the time of the Renaissance, 3-limit tuning imposed significant shortcomings. First, the circle of fifths is not really a circle at all. If we continue the process of multiplying 3s and 2s, we find that after 12 iterations we arrive at the pitch E#, which is not the same as the pitch F. In fact, E# overshoots F by about an eighth of a tone or roughly 24 cents, an interval known as the Pythagorean comma, though it was well known in China and other cultures. It means that one of the “fifths” on a keyboard (in this example A# to F) will be smaller and dissonant, known as a “wolf” fifth.

Although the wolf fifth could be avoided by keeping to simple keys, a more serious shortcoming for European composers was the interval of a third, which composers used more and more by about the 14th century. The major third in 3-limit tuning has a ratio of 81/64, or 407 cents, a complex number that medieval theorists classified as a dissonance. But narrowed just a little bit to 386 cents, it reduces to the very simple ratio 5/4, which Renaissance composers called a very sweet interval. Tuning systems that include the 5/4 major third, the 6/5 minor third, and related intervals are known as 5-limit tunings, because a new prime number has been introduced.

For several Harrison harp works, in addition to some works for Asian zithers, metallophones, and refretted guitar, Harrison used these 5-limit thirds to create beautifully sonorous triads and other harmonies, including a scale that the ancient Alexandrian Claudius Ptolemy called syntonic diatonic, or more generally since then, just intonation. This is the tuning Harrison used, for example, in his Jahla in the Form of a Ductia to Pleasure Leopold Stokowski on his Ninetieth Birthday, in the key of F. (Jhala refers to a section and technique in North Indian music in which repeated drone pitches are inserted between notes of a fast melody.) Unfortunately, tuning the D to be the sweet 5/4 over the subdominant Bb, means that the fifth on the ii triad becomes a wolf. In essence, we need two Ds, to have both consonant triads. In this piece, he simply avoids the G/D fifth, but in other works he sometimes deliberately used the wolf fifth to create points of dissonance and instability. In 1967’s Music for Bill and Me — referring to the times he would play harp with his partner Bill Colvig — Harrison decided to keep the fifth on the second scale degree consonant (D-A in this key) and avoid the F-A major third.

Philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato observed that whole numbers and their ratios represented abstractions intelligible only in human intellects and the phenomenon of music, where they were manifest in the tuning of musical scales. Well-formed music is therefore our opportunity sensually experience the mathematical framework that not only describes the universe but, in a very real sense to these thinkers, actually is the universe.

But Harrison didn't need the mystical justifications of numerology to enjoy the splendor of just intonation. Throughout his life he continued to speak of tuning as an empirically aural experience and remained convinced that the perception of simple ratios, aurally as well as visually, is emotionally powerful. He viewed just intonation as a place where ancient philosophy, physics, and perception converge. “The music sounds better, it just does,” he said. “Because I’m a sensualist, the hearing of those just intervals just pulls me in, whereas in equal temperament, I feel as though I’m on ice skates.”

The European tradition of triadic harmony essentially reflects a five-limit ideal in the compromised form of equal temperament. But beyond the five-limit, Harrison found delicious and exotic intervals not even remotely approximated in the tempered twelve-tone scale. He wrote Threnody for Oliver Daniel in a tuning that uses 7-limit intervals, including the 7/4 or natural seventh harmonic, the 7/6 ratio or small minor third, and the 8/7 ratio or large major second. These last two intervals approximate the step sizes in the Javanese gamelan tuning known as slendro, in which the octave is divided into five roughly equal intervals. Unlike slendro, this 1990 elegy for Harrison’s good friend also includes a mournful semitone, actually a small semitone of 21/20, which Harrison, like Baroque composers, often uses as a symbol of grief.

But the 7-limit was just the beginning. Harrison’s harp adventures continued when he would invite like-minded friends over for a weekend lunch and then spend the afternoon resurrecting the ancient sounds of Archytas’s enharmonic, Didymus’ chromatic, or Ptolemy’s equable diatonic scale. After tuning his harp in one of these scales, Harrison would improvise until the distinctive character and musical possibilities of the scale began to sink in. Harrison said that just intonation opens limitless possibilities, “a sort of paradise garden of delights,” that he never tired of exploring. One piece to come out of these experiments was his 1974 Little Homage to Eratosthenes, which uses a distinctive 19-limit scale invented by this librarian of ancient Alexandria.

“I have always been ‘exceedingly enamored’ of the harp,” Harrison wrote in a letter to John Schneider, who was then transcribing Harrison’s harp compositions for guitar, “and approve of a quote from the 16th- and 17th-century Spanish that Zabaleta wrote about—‘A gentleman will not be for long without his harp.’ Indeed, what you are doing with guitar and harp brings vividly to mind the manuscript pictures of the court of Alfonso the Wise, especially since those instruments were then properly tuned.”