Ludwig Zamenhof originally imagined Esperanto as a local balm, not a global one. He grew up in Bialystock, then the capital of the Belostock Oblast, a province of the Russian empire that included about half of modern Poland. In Bialystock, the Jews spoke Yiddish, the Poles spoke Polish, the Russians spoke Russian, the Belarusians spoke Russian (and Belarusian), the Tatars spoke Belarusian (but used the Arabic alphabet), the Germans spoke German, and everybody was constantly at odds with each other. Zamenhof invented Esperanto in the 1880s with the hope that getting everyone to learn a single, simple language, unburdened by history or tradition, would eliminate misunderstanding and thus eliminate conflict—internal conflict, at first; international, as the movement took off.
Lou Harrison, the composer, was an Esperantist. He translated the Mahāyāna Buddhist Heart Sūtra into Esperanto for his choral setting, La Koro Sutro—a universal wisdom in a universal language. And then, paradoxically—and in a reversed echo of the progress of Zamenhof’s idea—he set it in a way that guaranteed that performances would be few, far in between, and heavily dependent on where you were.
Conductor Gil Rose opened Monadnock Music’s all-Lou Harrison concert on July 27 with a quick tour of Old Granddad, a just-intonation assemblage of pipes, sawed-off oxygen tanks, plate metal, and large tin cans spread across the floor in front of the stage of the Peterborough Town House in New Hampshire. (This is the second season Rose has had the directorship of Monadnock Music in his brief, which also includes the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and—just recently announced—the newly formed Odyssey Opera company.) Old Granddad, the original, was the “American Gamelan” Harrison and his partner, William Colvig, built from scratch in the early 1970s. Rose explained how, after the University of California at Santa Cruz (owners of that original Old Granddad) stopped renting the instruments out, he was lucky enough—having already scheduled a BMOP concert requiring Old Granddad’s services—to learn that Richard Cooke, a longtime Harrison associate, was building a copy for the Rhythm Discovery Center museum. Cooke agreed to build Rose a second copy. Rose also strongly hinted that, having performed (and recorded, for future release) the two works on the evening’s concert (La Koro Sutro and the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan), he was now eager to program Young Caesar—the puppet opera that is the only other piece Harrison composed for Old Granddad—and then hand the care and storage of the instruments off to someone else.
The Suite is, on the surface, modeled after a Baroque dance suite, prompting Rose to program it alongside J. S. Bach—the G minor solo violin Sonata (BWV 1001), which Gabriela Diaz played with a phrase-by-phrase rubato, micro rather than macro, that emphasized the music’s complex intricacies. In the end, it made more of a contrast than a complement to the Suite, which seems built more out of measures of moods than layered lines. The piece, the last written for Old Granddad before Harrison turned his attention to gamelans more explicitly modeled after Javanese examples, was a collaboration—Harrison wrote it in partnership with his student Richard Dee—and you can kind of sense where one composer leaves off and the other picks up: the opening movement, full of double-stop drones and ostinati, and the following “Estampie,” busy and wandering, are like A and B sides of the same record; the moody, modal-hymnody-tinged “Air” and the long-line, almost Samuel-Barber lyricism of the final “Chaconne” are more like each other than like any of the rest. But it’s all part of the Suite’s grand tour, a stylistic rail pass that comes out most clearly in the trio of “Jhalas” in the center, the first full of Debussyian haze, the second pentatonic and jangly, almost a Russian-frontier Christmas, complete with sleigh bells, the third (for gamelan alone) stateless and ambient. It was a confidently drawn performance, Diaz indefatigably expressive, the six-man crew of Old Granddad (Craig McNutt, Jeffrey Means, Robert Schulz, Nick Tolle, Aaron Trant, and Mike Williams) working with concentrated efficiency.
La Koro Sutro marked the debut of the Monadnock Festival Singers, one of a handful of diversifying initiatives Rose has embarked on since taking over the festival. The singers, recruited from a host of New Hampshire towns, with Krystal Morin as chorusmaster, made a good first showing, especially in those movements where Harrison sends the chorus off on long, elaborate chants in octaves, maximizing the ensemble’s sound and intonation while minimizing the top-heavy imbalance of forces. And long, elaborate chants make up much of La Koro Sutro: it is a piece of ritual and stasis. When Harrison does open out into harmonized singing, the melodies turn in tighter, motivic, repetitive circles; as the singing becomes more expansive, the accompaniment becomes more circumscribed, and vice versa, an undulating equilibrium of texture. The gamelan features most in the bright, steady processional and recessional—“Chime and Glory,” “Mantram and Chime”—or in short, call-and-response litanies with the chorus. The peroration of the 7th paragraph of the Heart Sūtra (“the Transcendental Wisdom is a mantram of true greatness”) unfolds as a SATB anthem, over a drone on the organ (Linda Osborn) and a three-note loop on the harp (Maria Ridenello-Parker).
The sense of asceticism is strong, not so much in the musical surface—which is actually quite rich—but in the lack of the sort of referential web that makes the Suite seem so cosmopolitan by comparison. Harrison later arranged the Suite for Western orchestral instruments, but not La Koro Sutro; it is an insular epic, even more so given its unorthodox equipment. The novelty has kept Old Granddad in periodic use (most recently, in Berkeley last year); still, I realized, there’s a good chance this concert may very well be the only live performance I’ll ever experience. It is a little odd that chances to hear a piece so suffused with a universal, border-free message have been so dependent on one’s geographical proximity to its instrumentation, that a piece steeped in ideas of perpetual change—the renunciant devotion to the attainment of wisdom, the linguistic dissolution of national and ethnic differences—would be necessarily manifested as such a specific, singular event. From the Buddhist perspective, that way of viewing the piece would most likely be judged incomplete, limited. As the Heart Sūtra puts it: “Form is not different from emptiness, and emptiness is not different from form. Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form.” But maybe the better way to consider La Koro Sutro, or even Harrison’s grand, impractical homemade gamelan itself, is as something more akin to a Zen kōan—like the one recorded in the collection The Gateless Gate, attributed to the Chinese master Yúnmén Wényǎn. “The world is vast and wide,” he said. “Why do you put on your robes at the sound of a bell?”