RESOURCES AND INTERVIEWS.
May 14, 1987 was the 70th birthday of composer Lou Harrison. Throughout the United States and elsewhere there were concerts of his music in celebration many gamelan pieces were performed as well as works for Western instruments. Three items--a book, a cassette recording and a film--focusing on Harrison are reviewed here. It is but a small tribute to seven decades of dedication and creativity.
'A LOU HARRISON READER', Soundings Press 19487; Peter Garland, editor. pp.143 P.O. Box 8319, Santa Fe, NM 87504-8319 )$15).
1987 marks the 70th birthday of Lou Harrison, one of the America's most innovative and prodigious composers. To mark this event, Peter Garland has compiled yet another excellent and necessary book in his Soundings series on individual composers. As with Garland's other books (Soundings1: Ives, Ruggles Varese; Soundings Book #4: Conlon Nancarrow; Soundings 13: James Tenney), "A Lou Harrison Reader" gives glimpses into the composer's work, life, and personality that are not available solely by listening to his music.
The book begins with a brief overview of Harrison's life and work (written by Garland) plus an appreciation/poem by Robert Duncan. The volume is in four sections, following a "past, present, future" structure. The first section personalizes Harrison's past and shows, through his own writings and correspondences from his mentors and teachers, the growth of his strong musical personality. The second section is a 1973 interview conducted by Winston Leyland. The third section is filled with writings of appreciation by Harrison's contemporaries, plus younger musicians who have been touched by his music. The book ends with five of Harrison's scores, spanning almost 40 years of creativity.
The first section, "Sources", is an interesting sort of desk- clearing, filled with history and, for Harrison, memories. It's wonderful to see the history of American music put in such personal terms. There is a note from Edgar Varese, in 1947, that was pinned to the door of Harrison's New York City apartment ("...found your door padlocked. Will you please ring me up.") This may appear trivial but it conveys the sense of community that existed amongst new music composers in New York at the time. There are notes from Charles Ives ("Dear Lew Harry Son"), also from 1947, concerning corrections to Ives' Third symphony and the Pulitzer Prize that Harrison helped him receive for that piece. There is correspondence to Harrison from Henry Cowell, possibly Harrison's most important teacher, ranging from Cowell's first invitation to the 18-year-old aspiring composer, 1935, to a 1965 letter praising Harrison's pieces. There is, in turn, a recent writing by Harrison on Henry Cowell ("...as was to me/ Of all mentors most marvelous"). Continuing the desk clearing, there is 1944 letter from Arnold Schoenberg, and selected correspondences from Harry Partch, 1955-1970. Possibly no other composer besides Cowell, had such a large influence on Harrison, and it is interesting to see the personal dynamics of their relationship.
Also included in this section (which comprises half the book) are two early articles by Harrison: "Ruggles, Ives, Varese" (1947) and "About Carl Ruggles" (1946). The first is a short article that is as much a blast against commercialism-- "[American business] is a monstrous fake carried out on the backs of slaves and pandering to a populous stupidity"--as it is a praise of these three composers--"our first important masters". The second is a much larger article that covers many subjects in its analysis of the music of Carl Ruggles. This is possibly the first writing that shows Harrison to be an important musical thinker, with a clear grasp of western music history and an emerging understanding of non-western traditions. These same considerations are shown in the 1974 writing "4 Items," which discusses the need for a practice of non-equal-tempered intonation.
The history of modes and the use of different tunings is also covered in the 1973 interview that makes up the next section of the book. This interview is unlike any other I have seen with a composer. There is a recurring theme of the relation of sexuality and gay awareness to the creative process, and Harrison speaks of these matters as easily as of his musical history. I initially wondered why Garland chose an interview almost 15 years old, but then found the openness and inter- relationship of seemingly unrelated topics in this interview to be quite striking and refreshing. For example, Harrison speaking on the circle of composers in New York City in the 1940s: "It was mixed as to social orientation. We all believed though, in advanced technical procedures." The concentration on gay themes is a result of the interview being conducted by Winston Leyland, editor and publisher of the gay cultural magazine "Gay Sunshine Journal", where the interview was first published. I am glad Garland chose to share this with a wider audience.
The third section, "Texts," is filled with writings of appreciation form some of Harrison's contemporaries, such as Virgil Thomson, Charles Olson, Liang Tsai-Ping, Carlos Chavez and John Cage (a beautifully eloquent short mesostic). Writings by younger musicians are also included in this section. Peter Garland's "Drums Along the Pacific" (a Cowell phrase) examines how Harrison has used western, Asian and indigenous American traditions to create a personal music culture. Similar to this is Paul Dresher's "Looking West to the East," saying that the sensuality of Harrison's music ("beautiful melody, vigorous rhythm and elegant form") has overshadowed the analytic integrity of his work. Making a similar point is Larry Polansky's "Item: Lou Harrison's role as a speculative theorist," a look at Harrison's definitions of the terms "free" and "strict" style intonations and their relation to the future of computer music. Polansky's article also contains some amusing observations on Harrison's reaction to technology: "With the advent of word processing, Lou learned to make ink."
The closest an article comes to a straight analysis of any of Harrison's music is Jody Diamond's "In the Beginning Was the Melody: the gamelan music of Lou Harrison." Looking at three of Harrison's pieces for Javanese gamelan (Bubaran Robert, Lancaran Samuel, and Gending in Honor of Aphrodite), Diamond shows how he uses the traditional forms as defined by the punctuating instruments, while expressing his own style in the "balungan", or melodic framework. It is interesting that the book's only analysis of Harrison's music is from a non-western point of view.
The book concludes with five of Harrison's scores, four of them written in his own hand. The earliest is the 12-tone (organized mainly in fifths) "Third Piano Sonata" (1938), and the latest is Gending Pak Cokro (1976), Harrison's first piece for Javanese gamelan. Also included are two songs and the larger "Peace Piece One" (1967) in just intonation for chorus, string orchestra, two harps, reed organ, trombone and percussion. Unfortunately not all of these pieces are commercially recorded, but at least now we have the scores. [Gending Pak Cokro is on Cambridge Records CRS 2560.]
Peter Garland has done a good job in editing this book. One comes away with an understanding of who Lou Harrison is and what he wants to achieve and has achieved in his life. The only thing missing is some kind of annotated list of Harrison's work, something similar to that found in other Soundings books, like James Tenney's article in the Conlon Nancarrow book, or Larry Polansky's references in his book on James Tenney. Considering Harrison's output, such an article could be a book in itself. I also wondered why Garland hasn't added audio cassettes to his publications. It would have certainly made a worthwhile complement to the texts and scores. But these are afterthoughts. As it stands, "The Lou Harrison Reader" will be an excellent addition to the library of anyone interested in global music. [mf]
References. Polansky, Larry. 1984 "The Early Works of James Tenney," in "Soundings 13", Santa Fe, NM: Soundings Press. 1977 "Conlon Nancarrow's Studies for Player Piano," in "Conlon Nancarrow, Selected Studies for Player Piano". Soundings Press, Book 4, Berkeley, CA: Spring-Summer.
"Scenes from Cavafy and Favorite Tunes From Young Caesar" Music by Lou Harrison, performed by Gamelan Si Betty, Trish Neilsen, director. Produced by Hermes Beard Press, distributed by Batish Recording Enterprises, 1310 Mission Blvd, Santa Cruz CA 95060 ($8.95). The cassette insert has seven panels of notes, and includes the text of the poems.
"Scenes from Cavafy" (1980) is a three-movement work for an operatic male soloist with gamelan and male chorus. Harrison expresses musically three scenes from the verse of Constantine Cavafy, an early 20th century Alexandrian poet: the coronation of an impoverished Byzantine Emperor and Empress, the amorous tavern life of Alexandrian men, and the sad desertion of Antony by his patron god Dioysus. David Rohrbaugh of the San Francisco Opera is the soloist; his voice is expressive. Gamelan Si Betty plays solidly. The exuberant male chorus, a bit ragged at times, is from the St. Cecelia Society in Santa Cruz. The music is intense and passionate, with Harrison's lyrical, melodic lines breathing life into these Scenes.
"Favorite Tunes from Young Caesar" (1972) is a suite of 13 short pieces from Harrison's second opera, performed with puppets. The tale is of Caesar's first love, King Nicomedes of Bythinia. The instrumental version on this cassette is performed by the trio of Harrison, William Colvig and Richard Dee; they excel on the variety of Western, Eastern and original Colvig-built instruments. The arrangements show Harrison's talent for percussive and melodic writing. The fine musicianship conjures up exquisite pictures of the beautiful young Caesar and his first important erotic experience. [jbc]
Typed by Barb. Golden Oct 96