Legacy of Lou Harrison Showcased at L@TE in Berkeley

Lou Harrison remains, even nine years after his death, the quintessential West Coast composer. He often referred to the region as Pacifica (as opposed to the East Coast’s Atlantica), and felt the pull of Asia rather than Europe. “Well, why would anyone choose the East?” he asked rhetorically, in response to an interviewer’s question in 1995 as to why he chose to make his home on the West Coast. “We’re not bound up with industrial ‘twelve-tone-ism’ quite so much as the East seaboard is,” he continued, “and also we’re not afraid out here if something sounds pretty. I don’t see that increased complexity is any solution at all.” Even though these battle lines are not as starkly drawn as they once were, the flowering of “pretty music” throughout the country is certainly influenced by the West Coast aesthetic Harrison embodied.

“He followed his own path, and it took decades to be recognized,” says pianist Sarah Cahill. “I think a lot of young composers today—not just in the Bay Area but across the country—are picking up on what he started: writing melodic, tonal music, embracing simplicity rather than complexity, going back to ancient dance forms for inspiration, incorporating elements of music from Asia and non-Western cultures. Lou Harrison was doing that in 1940 and it took more than half a century for the rest of the world to catch up to him.”

Evidence that the original “pretty music” still resonates with listeners came in the form of the large crowd that gathered in the Berkeley Art Museum on May 25 to hear a selection of Harrison’s works, programmed by Cahill, including his transcendental La Koro Sutro. Also noteworthy was the “re-premiere” of an early piano work, Dance for Lisa Karon. Composed in San Francisco in 1938 when Harrison was just 21 years old, it was first performed in April 1939 on a dance concert involving Karon. The manuscript was subsequently lost for decades before resurfacing earlier this year. Daniel Katz, who found the manuscript, detailed his remarkable discovery in an email to Cahill in February.

I am writing to you because I recently came upon what appears to be a manuscript of a work for solo piano by Lou Harrison, dated 1938 (in San Francisco), entitled “Dance for Lisa Karon.” Lisa Karon was also known as Alice Reawold, an instructor at Estelle Reed’s dance studio on Geary Street in SF. I found the manuscript in a box of sheet music belonging to my father-in-law, several of which had at one time belonged to Alice/Lisa. (Several were signed by her.)  It turns out that Lisa was my wife’s childhood piano teacher and a family friend. My wife then remembered having met Lou several times at Lisa’s house.

“Daniel Katz showed this score to Leta Miller, co-author of the only published biography of Lou Harrison, and I showed it to a number of people who worked closely with Lou Harrison and know his work well,” Cahill says, “and no one had ever heard of it.  So most likely, this manuscript is the only copy, forgotten since that early performance in 1939.  I’m tremendously grateful to Daniel and his wife, Allana Lee Katz, for the opportunity to perform it after all these years.”

This recent concert of Harrison’s music was just the latest programmed by Cahill as part of  L@TE: Friday Nights @ BAM/PFA  at the Berkeley Art Museum, an evening series featuring extended gallery hours and performances. “Larry Rinder, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum, started the L@TE series a few years ago, with the idea of bringing new audiences to the museum and creating an informal, engaging atmosphere for music, films, readings, and various art forms,” Cahill explains. “He invited me to program one evening a month, and asked especially for experimental and new music.”

The musical performances take place in Gallery B, an open space on the ground floor of the museum that is surrounded on all sides by several stories of galleries and balconies, and Cahill feels that this unique space is part of the appeal. “The gallery setting, in which people can sit or lie on the floor, or walk around and look at what’s on view in the galleries, or get different perspectives from overhanging balconies, makes these concerts attractive to people who might not enjoy sitting still in a seat through a whole concert.  We get a younger audience, a lot of kids, a diverse group of people.” The crowd on Friday night was certainly diverse, and even included several serious contenders for the Lou Harrison look-a-like prize.

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

Gallery B at BAM/PFA pre-concert

The concert opened with the brief Solo for Anthony Cirone for tenor bells. William Winant played the melodic, modal work—dedicated to Tony Cirone, a percussionist in the San Francisco Symphony and colleague of Harrison’s at San Jose State University—with wonderful lyricism. Next came Dance for Lisa Karon performed by Cahill. It’s written in a bracing, modernist idiom that Harrison explored prior to his more well-known work with different tuning systems and the music of Asian cultures. Here’s what Cahill had to say about the new work.

There’s only a marking of “Maestoso,” so it’s hard to figure out the tempo, but big leaping chords in the climactic middle section establish a speed which isn’t too fast (with any of these early dance pieces by Lou Harrison, you try to take the pulse from imagining what the dancers would be doing).  The right hand and left hand are in different keys.

It begins with brash, muscular music; dense chords in the left hand buttress angular melodic gestures in the right, which is then followed by a more subdued section in which oscillating harmonies accompany a circuitous melodic line. A third contrasting section recaptures the brashness of the opening with leaping melodic lines in octaves above the oscillating harmonies heard earlier—this time in a descending sequence—before the opening material returns to close the piece. The music is striving and assertive, and Cahill’s playing captured this sense of barely harnessed power while maintaining great clarity in the live acoustics of the gallery.

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Tenor Bells used in Solo for Anthony Cirone

Next the Abel-Steinberg-Winant trio performed Varied Trio, a five-movement work Harrison composed for them in 1987. Fleeting pitch and ensemble issues did little to detract from an otherwise strong performance. The second movement, titled “Bowl Balls,” is a moto perpetuo for rice bowls that Winant played with scintillating energy. In “Elegy” pianist Julie Steinberg’s swooshing, modal arpeggios evoked the strumming of a koto. In the fourth movement “Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard”one of the ancient dance forms Cahill noted—violinist David Abel subtly darkened his tone to capture the music’s wistful spirit, and was mirrored beautifully by Steinberg. Even in the work’s loudest moments, like the central section of the final movement “Dance,” the ensemble remained well balanced, the piano and percussion playing crisp and lively without overpowering the violin.

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

Rice bowls—from Harrison’s own kitchen—used in Varied Trio

The centerpiece of the concert was Harrison’s La Koro Sutro, a setting, in Esperanto, of the Heart Sutra scored for chorus, harp, and American Gamelan. The eight-movement work opens with Prelude: Kunsonoro Kaj Gloro, a paean to “Blessed, Noble, Perfect Wisdom,” and the following seven movements, sequentially numbered “Strofos,” set the text of the Buddhist scripture that details the enlightenment of Avakiteshesvara, who in a moment of deep meditation realizes that the phenomenal world is an illusion.

The gamelan used in this performance is named Old Granddad and was built by Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig in the late 1960s. Harrison called the gamelan “the single most beautiful musical ensemble on the planet.” , and he loved its range and ravishing tone colors. Colvig said that their motivation for building one was simply to recreate this sound and create music for it.

The composer Lou Harrison and I decided to make our own Western Gamelan based in general on the traditional ones but not copying anything for the sake of authenticity. Our primary consideration was to make beautiful sound; our primary purpose to build a usable musical instrument for which new serious music could be composed.

It is tuned to a just-intonation centering on D. Colvin describes the ideas behind the tuning in an essay titled “An American Gamelan.”

The tuning of any instrument is determined by its use . . . Certainly it could be made with “sharps and flats” and all tuned up out-of-tune Western style in 12 equal tones so you could play “Stormy Weather” on it. Why bother? We already have pianos and marimbaphones etc. to play your favorite tunes on. Marvelous new (to us) sound sensations can be achieved by trying different musical modes in “just intonation”, the expression used for rational tuning.

Harrison and Colvig began with a pentatonic scale on D (D-E-F#-A-B), and added the pitches C# and G, again “justly tuned.” The result resembles a D Major scale but in just intonation rather than equal temperment and is, in fact, the syntonous, or “stretched,” diatonic scale described by Ptolemy in his 2nd-century C.E. treatise Harmonics.

Old Granddad is composed of pitched and non-pitched instruments, some handmade, some “found” objects, and a small organ. The pitched metallophones range from short tubular pipes to large, low-pitched xylophone-like instruments whose resonating pipes, composed of several restaurant-size tin cans, soldered together, are several feet long. Non-pitched instruments include enormous dinner bells, suspended oxygen tanks played with baseball bats, and trashcans. “Using Western materials our Gamelan is a “happy hybrid” of pipes and slabs and metal resonators and rubber mountings for the pipes and wooden stands to hold everything up,” Colvig wrote.

Oxygen tank bells

Oxygen tank bells

On the whole, this was a remarkable performance of La Koro Sutro. The chorus was occasionally outmatched in the outer movements when the full gamelan is employed (a dozen extra voices would have helped), and sounded unfocused and hazy at times in “Strofo 2,” but there were flashes of brilliance as well. The unison singing in “Strofo 4″ was perfectly balanced from top to bottom, and the sopranos deserve special praise for their crystalline purity in the chant-like “Strofo 5.” The William Winant Percussion Group was rock solid and Old Granddad sounded like the single instrument—as opposed to a group of instruments played by individuals—the Javanese consider it to be. They captured the otherworldly mood of “Strofo 1″ which depicts Avakiteshesvara in deep meditation, and the tranquility of “Strofo 4″ where Avakiteshesvara shares his insight with his pupil Shariputra: “Therefore, O Shariputra, in the voidness there is neither form, nor yet sensation, no perception, no impulses, no awareness: nor the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue, the body, the mind.” These movements feature melodic percussion writing on the pitched instruments of the gamelan, and the players created beautifully shaped phrases.

Performing La Koro Sutro

Performing La Koro Sutro

Marika Kuzuma led the combined forces with a sure hand, her conducting crisp and assertive when needed, each vocal phrase carefully molded. Other than the sections referred to earlier, the overall balance between the choir and gamelan was excellent; no small feat in a multi-faceted concrete cavern. After the final, ecstatic bars of the piece, where the choir sings the mantra “going, going, yonder going on beyond awake, all hail!” and the gamelan sends up glorious peals of sound from oxygen tanks and gongs, she kept her hands raised and everyone held their breath as the sound reverberated for several long moments.

It bears repeating that, from where I was standing at least, all of the performances on this concert worked wonderfully well in the live acoustic of Gallery B and the performers should be commended. Sarah Cahill also credits BAM Administrative Coordinator Sean Carson, a composer himself, whose knowledge of the gallery’s acoustics is instrumental in determining the ideal setup and location for each concert.  Kudos to all involved, both behind the scenes and on stage, for a memorable musical experience in Pacifica.

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Dustin Soiseth is a conductor and co-founder of the Loose Filter Project. He lives in Oakland.

5 thoughts on “Legacy of Lou Harrison Showcased at L@TE in Berkeley

  1. Mark N. Grant

    Every composer should own, or at least take a look at, Lou Harrison’s quirky, fascinating “Music Primer” (which I think is still available from C. F. Peters), his beautifully hand-calligraphed 1970 50-page baedeker to his own singular “Northeast Asian” (his word) composing methods. Not only does it contain technical explanations of his own works’ architecture, but it is replete with juicy epigrams (“In the play of composing, one does not usually cheat at solitaire”), subtle advice on how to expand one’s powers as a composer (“Make an instrument– you will learn more in this way than you can imagine”), and even veiled putdowns of colleagues (“Such as I am, I would generally rather chance a choice than choose a chance”). It is certainly among the wittiest, and even at times funniest, books ever written by a composer about composing.

    Reply
    1. Mark N. Grant

      And his composing methods were not Northwest Asian, either, they were, among many other influences, sometimes East Asian, but Northwest Asia was his term of endearment/opprobrium for Western Europe.

      I’m sorry to say that I’ve thoroughly messed up Harrison’s nomenclature in my attempt to say something nice about him. Rather careless of me.

      Reply
      1. Dustin Soiseth

        No worries, Mark! I had my own run-ins with Harrison’s nomenclature while writing the review – different names for different gamelans that he and Bill built, etc. Thanks for sharing those great quotes from Music Primer.

        Reply

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