From California to Alaska: Lou Harrison in Conversation with John Luther Adams

[Ed. note: This telephone conversation between composers Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on April 1, 1999. It was the last in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. "In The First Person" served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as "Cover."]

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1. Overture

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: In a mesostic written in your honor, John Cage compared your music to a river opening into its delta. He wrote: “Listening to it, we become ocean.” I think John was right, your music is absolutely extraordinary for its breadth, its diversity, its sheer quantity, and its constantly exquisite quality. You’re an American master with a remarkable body of work. Last year, your 80th birthday was celebrated with performances all over the world. Some major new pieces, including the Pi’pa Concerto, were premiered. Moving into your ninth decade, you’re still going strong!

LOU HARRISON: Yes, and we just had two more performances of the concerto. One in Seattle, and one with the California Symphony, in the Bay region. There were 2 different virtuosi, and they both went very well. You know I’m a slowpoke — I have a difficult time with things like bowing, metronome marks, and all sorts of decisions. Fortunately, most musicians are kind to me and help, which is a good thing.

JLA: Well, the collaborative relationship with performers is part of the fun, isn’t it?

LH: I’m dependent on it. . . I absolutely need my musicians to help me, and thank heavens they do.

JLA: What are you working on right now?

LH: Well, right now, I’m attempting a revision of my second opera for a possible performance at a SummerFest in New York in ’99 or 2000. It’s a major revision, because the last time, it jumped from being a puppet opera to a full-stage one, and having done that, I discovered it needed arias! So I’m singing arias to myself at this point. We also have to perk up the orchestra a little bit. . . It needs a little bit stronger bass. So we’re changing a lot, and there are a couple of scenes that need to be revised. It’s really a major project. I’ve started on it, and will continue, because I want to leave that opera in pretty good shape.

JLA: So this is Young Caesar.

LH: Yes. There has been the shocking proposal that both (puppet and full-stage) versions be done in this new revision. That’s going pretty far.

JLA: What a delightful proposition!

LH: Yes, it’s something, and we hope it works. So that’s what I’m working on. In the meantime, we’re building a getaway house in Joshua Tree, so I can take a project such as this and very much concentrate on it. What are you working on?

JLA: I just recently completed a wonderful collaboration with Percussion Group — Cincinnati on a concert-length work called Strange and Sacred Noise. It’s been a real peak experience for me, working with musicians who perform at such a high level. (I know you’ve worked with them before, so you know what I’m talking about.) They’ve now given two performances of the entire work, and have just recorded it for New World Records. At Oberlin, Tim Weiss recently conducted the premiere of In The White Silence — a 75-minute landscape for harp, celesta, two vibraphones, string quartet and string orchestra. JoAnn Falletta will give the second performance, next year. And we’re trying to pull together a recording of that work, too.

LH: I think we ought to write into all of our contracts that as composers, we are entitled to at least archival tape. It seems to be a normal thing that should be written in, because it’s sometimes hard to get them. And it shouldn’t be, it should be a natural thing.

JLA: Yes, it’s so important to all of us (especially younger composers), but also to those of us who are not as young.

LH: Especially to me who is aged! And in fact, it may be more important to me because I get absent-minded as I get older, and a tape reminds me of what directions I should put in.

JLA: It’s absolutely true. After all, we’re involved in an oral and an aural tradition. Yes, it has a literature, we do have notation, and some of us work in that way. But I think recordings are an increasingly vital part of what we do — and not only as a documentation.

LH: It’s oral evidence of what we’ve done.

JLA: Absolutely, it helps us establish a performance practice.

LH: That’s what Carlos Chavez said. You know a long time ago, I had a tizzy before one of my premieres. And Carlos looked at me and said, “Lou, for heavens sake, this is only the first performance. AFTER that, you can get tizzy, if you want to.” And I haven’t had a tizzy since.

JLA: You know, I often remember the story you told me once about your Fugue for Percussion.

LH: Well, having read Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources and the advertisement for the Overtone Series, and knowing that a traditional fugue has tonal levels, I wanted to write a fugue in which that could be expressed rhythmically. So I wrote a theme, but I didn’t know how to do the “is-to’s” and “as-to’s”. John Cage and I were working in San Francisco at that time. We had gone to the beach where there was a wonderful pie shop. So we sat down and had a splendid apple pie, while he explained how to do the math. And that’s how I was able to write it. Still, percussionists have found my slippage occasionally, when I did it incorrectly, and have helped. It’s mostly a problem of crossing the bars. (Which reminds me of when John and I were rehearsing in Mills College, and there was a problem about that. We both said: “Let there be no moaning when we cross the bars.”)

JLA: You know, one of the things that impressed me so much about that story was that initially Stokowski looked at it and said, “This is all very interesting, but it’s not yet playable.”

LH: Yes, that was the word he used: can’t be done yet. And then, by the next year, Tony Cirrone was doing it at San Jose State and invited me over to hear it. Very shortly afterwards, it became a sort of contest-piece, and now, it’s back into ordinary repertoire. People do develop techniques for doing things (It’s quite astonishing, one can confidently write for the oboe above E now. And instrument builders extend things frequently). So things do change, and it sometimes surprises one — happily.

JLA: And very quickly too, in terms of performance practice, and even our own ability as listeners and composers to hear things-our perceptions, you might say.

LH: Oh yes, we have them in spades in our ears. We are as virtual users: audio-visceral.

2. The Twentieth Century

JLA: We’re in a time of extremely rapid change and growth in music, and I remember you once observed that all good things must come to an end… even the 20th century. We’re almost there, and I wonder if now (from the vantage point of the eve of the millennium), you might offer some observations on what you feel have been some of the most significant musical developments of the 20th century.

LH: Well, it’s been a long century, for one thing. And Bill [Colvig] and I were just thinking the other day (he’s 82 now, and I’m going to be next month) that it’s extraordinary what’s happened during our lifetime. We both remembered hearing the first crystal sets on our block. Now both of our names are on Mars, and that’s quite a trajectory from 82 years. We also figured out that during the past 30 years, the population of the Earth has doubled, and we wondered what had happened in the 50 years before our lifetime. Well, it doubled then. So it has had two big doublings since we were born, and that’s quite a lot. And what that means is there are that many more composers and that many more ideas, which makes a happy riot of a party, making it ever more fascinating.

Because of that, plus advances in technology, we are in communication all around the planet, which means that we have musical facilities and ideas which would not have occurred to us before. And now they’re right here in our laps, which is a very good thing. I think Henry Cowell was right: in order to be a 20th-century composer, or even a future one, you have to know at least one other culture well, other than the one you were raised in. So it’s not enough to know just European tradition, or those raised in that tradition, or the Japanese tradition, or whatever. And I think that’s very good advice.

JLA: Certainly a uniquely 20th-century perspective.

LH: Well, to a degree. One does remember, of course, that there were exchanges between the Ottoman Empire and Europeans. After all, they told the people that Mozart wrote Turkish marches. Why? Because the advanced part of the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna.

JLA: I guess it’s deep within human nature that we are basically inquisitive and acculturating animals. But it is unprecedented that just in the past 50 years, for the first time, we have had the entire world, and the entire history of human cultures at our fingertips.

LH: Yes, and almost all of it! Of course, new discoveries are happening all the time, and they’re utterly fascinating. Theology and archaeology are showing us so much and I absorb as much as I can. Of course, it has dangers, too. We get more dangerous as we accumulate knowledge, and that’s both a sadness and something to control, try to learn to live with, make terms with.

JLA: So, relativity, quantum physics, the science of ecology, mass media electronic technology, two World Wars, all of these things in the mix in the 20th century…?

LH: They do affect us. And I think one of the major items has been the discovery that we can, and indeed are, destroying the planet. That’s quite a problem. I’m a terrible pessimist… I really don’t think we’re going to make it. But every so often, there’s some little ray of hope. Have you read, for example, about the Colombian village Gaviotas? Isn’t that amazing?

JLA: It is indeed.

LH: It’s just astonishing to realize that in a country that is most difficult in terms of militaries, paramilitaries, governments, deaths and murders, etc., there is a little village which no one will touch because it’s done things right! It’s as though some country (I’ve always thought we could do it) just simply totally disarmed and said: “Here we are, come look!” But there they are, totally disarmed, no one touches them, and they’ve developed all sorts of useful things for us around the planet. It’s astonishing and amazing to realize that some people have got it right. It almost brings tears to my eyes to realize that. Particularly to someone who is so old and grounded in pessimism.

JLA: Well, so perhaps there is hope, after all.

LH: Yes, there is. Let’s hope that there’s hope!

JLA: So what about the future (assuming there is a future for the human race)? Do you have any predictions to offer about the music of the 21st century? Are there any trends or any composers whose work has a particular significance that you feel will have importance in the next 50 years in shaping the future of the art?

LH: Well, I can’t say that, because I think Virgil Thomson was very wise in observing that music changes in movement every 30 years. There’s a new kind of music, at least in Western world. I don’t think that’s true in more stable traditions, such as the Javanese. But it’s like an amoebae: it has moving walls that reach out a little bit, crack here, expand there, and so on. Whereas Western music tends to want to do that awful business of destroying before it creates, which I think is ridiculous. I think the Japanese have it right; instead of tearing down something to put up a skyscraper, just put it here-beside the other thing. Just like we managed to save Walt Whitman‘s birthplace — it was going to be a service station! I’m certainly opposed to the notion that you have to destroy in order to create-that’s ridiculous. Just go about creating.

JLA: And that seems to you to be a particularly Western idea?

LH: I think it is. It’s all mixed up with that love and death Business resurrection, afterlife and all that sort of nonsense at least it seems so to me. I don’t really know where that came from, but you’ll recall that the Romantic period in Europe certainly stressed that sort of thing. And I think we’re growing out of that — (I HOPE SO) — even in the Western world. And that hasn’t even bothered most of the people on the planet, thank heavens.

3. Balancing Two Worlds

JLA: You know, almost as much as your music, your life itself is an inspiration. You’ve been a mentor and a role model for many younger composers — myself included. You’ve done so many different things over the years to support your art, without ever compromising its integrity. I wonder if you have any advice to young composers about that very difficult balance between economic and artistic survival?

LH: Well, I was raised in the era of…let us say, Charles Ives. And that kind of balance when I was growing up was very common. There were practically no foundations in those days. There was no public support. But what you did was to get some sort of job which would support you so that you could do your music. That was the whole point of working! I think that model may survive a little longer than sitting down to write a grant – versus writing a piece. But I do think a certain independence along those lines is a very good thing, and I have no objections to the idea that man is willing to pay for his pleasures. Music is a pleasure, and so is composing and playing it. And anyone ought to have the feeling that they can support that activity rather than insisting that it support them.

JLA: In your Music Primer, you gave a bit of advice which I’ve often come back to over the years, as a sort of touchstone in my own life. The idea was; “Don’t allow yourself to become indebted to the silliness of society. Decide what you can afford to do with your art, and do only that.”

LH: Yes, I think that’s a very sensible notion, even today (and I’m still doing it, by the way). I have many requests, a lot of them are commissions, but I have an increasing need to find new tunings. I would like to build a new gamelan, and I’m having my harps repaired so I can play them more. I don’t necessary have a drive towards doing another symphony, but there are still things I want to do musically and non-musically. I’ve always drawn, painted, and written poetry. I have another book I want to put out, perhaps several of them, and I have some musicological studies that I never finished, which I want very much to do.

And so there’re a lot of things. I don’t feel bound to sit at a desk writing notes all the time (besides, it’s easier to write numbers), so I stick with gamelan for the most part. But I’ll tell you, my hand is getting sufficiently shaky, so I have to use two hands sometimes, to be sure I’m getting it on A instead of G.

JLA: Wow. Are you using larger staff paper?

LH: Yes I am, as a matter of fact. Not quite like Carl Ruggles, who used to have to put it on butcher paper across the room, but I’m getting there.

JLA: Because of the change in your hands, have you changed the computer fonts of your calligraphy?

LH: Yes, because I can’t really do calligraphy anymore. My hand won’t obey me. I do like my letters to look well, so I’ve designed fonts. I just finished another one with Carter Schultz, who is my helper and friend along with these things. We just finished a Roman Rustica which is almost the last of the Roman forms that we hadn’t done. And it looks surprisingly readable. It’s supposed to be the least readable of all Roman fonts, but it isn’t, as it turns out. That was fun to do. I still have a little teasing idea that I want to do another font, and that’ll be my sixth or seventh with Carter. He made a beautiful font out of the letters I used to use when I would address an envelope. A beautiful font called “Lou Casual” out of just those letters. It has the most beautiful letter “U” that I have ever seen; it’s exquisite.

JLA: Well, this is very exciting to those of us who have admired the elegance of your hand over the years to know that it will endure, and that some of us may be able to write in “Lou casual”. How does one get hold of those?

LH: You can get the whole set through Frog Peak, and it’s available for both Mac and IBM.

4. The Future of Music

JLA: I have one more big question that I want to try and ask if I can articulate it, and it has to do with audience and community. My experiences over the last several years have convinced me that there is an audience for new music.

LH: Oh, I agree completely there is.

JLA: I’m glad to hear that I believe that audience is growing in number and sophistication, and that younger people today are especially open to new musical experiences.

LH: I agree with that.

JLA: So that’s cause for hope?

LH: You bet.

JLA: Do you have any thoughts about how we, as composers and performers of new music, can better reach that audience, and strengthen our own sense of community? How do you view the present and future roles of new music ensembles, orchestras, record companies, radios, and the Internet?

LH: Well, I’m not privy to the secrets of the Internet. But certainly the technology is advancing and much can be used from it. I’m sorry that micro-radio stations aren’t yet widely available (unless you have a fast card) through which you could, for example, promulgate your own music. Now you can make CDs for practically nothing (though I don’t prefer them at all over the audiocassette, which I think is an excellent instrument), but those parts of technology are fine. I have never learned Finale, (though people now can do it easily, I never could), and I have no intention of learning it. But that’s another way that people can present the written aspect of music well. It’s not as good as a good hand, but still…

JLA: Because it’s not as sophisticated, is it?

LH: No it isn’t. There’s still a new program called Sibelius, I think? It’s from England and you have to buy a whole lot of machinery to go with it, but apparently it starts from zero, and you can do anything. So that sounds OK, but I myself am much too old to do all this.

JLA: Yes, but the possibilities for self-publishing, for desktop publishing for younger composers are very exciting.

LH: Yes, all that is very good, and the technology is a help. Of course, as for the social aspect of music, I still am old-fashioned enough to think that every community, even the small ones, ought to have a gamelan, because you sit on the floor and play your part, and have a grand time. In fact, you should be able to play every part in the orchestra, which is more than you could say in a Western-style orchestra. I think that’s one of the reasons that the gamelan world is spreading so rapidly everywhere. In fact, not too long ago, I was having coffee with Wen Ten down at CalArts, and he said, “I have to go to Egypt next month.” I said, “Egypt?” He said, “Yes, Cairo.” I asked him why, and he said, “Well, the embassy has got a new gamelan.” And I looked him square in the eye and said, “One more nation falls.” He looks me right back and says, “Yes.” We joke about the cultural imperialism of Indonesia, but who can resist a good gamelan, after all? And the idea that any of us can play it is marvelous!

JLA: I remember with pleasure your coming up here with Bill and several others. You brought the first gamelan to Alaska.

LH: I think so. That was wonderful and we enjoyed that trip so much, John. It was just marvelous.

JLA: This is a bit of a loaded question, but what do you see as the role, in all of this, of an organization such as the American Music Center?

LH: Well, I think of it as a Central information booth. I used to speak of Henry Cowell as American Music’s central information booth; if you had a question, you could ask Henry, and if he didn’t know the answer immediately, he knew who did know it, and a telephone number. I think that sort of role is an important function of the Center. It also serves as a library and a research facility for those trying to find out about what’s new in American composition.

JLA: You know, Cowell was involved in the founding of the Center, and we carry on his tradition of the walking encyclopedia in the form of Eero Richmond, who is truly astounding in terms of the breadth and depth of his knowledge of American music; ask him a question and stand back.

LH: That’s good. I hope it continues with flying colors and lots of success.

JLA: I’m very excited about the future of the organization.

LH: Keep working on those wonderful things you do. And I hope you have many great successes.

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