Unanswered Question | The Lou Harrison Centenary
If you asked me who composed the best American violin concerto, and who composed the best American piano concerto, I would answer with the same name: Lou Harrison.
And yet, except on the West Coast of the United States, Harrison is not a brand name. The present Harrison Centenary year can help to change that. We finally have a copious full-scale biography: Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell. Alex Ross, our most necessary observer of American classical music, has published a brief but telling Harrison encomium in The New Yorker. And PostClassical Ensemble has contributed a new Naxos CD with two of Harrison’s most important works: the aforementioned Concerto for Violin and Percussion, and the Grand Duo for violin and piano.
Last week, PCE launched our new CD with a Harrison concert at the Indonesian Embassy in DC (a Harrison mecca thanks to Ambassador Budi Bowoleksono). Both the CD and the concert (and also Ambassador Bowoleksono) are represented in the second installment of our “PostClassical” radio series on the indispensable WWFM Classical Network. You can access this two-hour tribute, hosted by Bill McGlaughlin, Angel Gil-Ordóñez, and myself, right here.
To listen to the Violin Concerto, in a torrid performance by Tim Fain with Angel and PCE, just fast-forward to 18:35 of Part I.
Harrison invented the percussion ensemble with John Cage and Henry Cowell. With Cage, he plundered junkyards and import stores in search of new percussion resources. Their implements included old brake drums and a variety of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian instruments. The eminence gris of American percussion, William Kraft, once told me:
“It was totally new to explore Asian percussion and junk percussion, as Cowell, Cage, and Harrison did. I found Lou’s percussion writing more fascinating than Cowell’s or Cage’s. I think he was the most musical, and the most in tune with sound. I think the Harrison Concerto for Violin and Percussion is a masterpiece – you don’t find music like that written by Cowell or Cage. The solo part for the violin is a virtuoso part, extremely well written. And all the sounds, whether produced by maracas or flower pots, are so well integrated that you forget that they’re exotic.”
You could say that Harrison’s concerto combines the experimental panache of an amateur with the craft of a professional. The first two movements were composed in 1940, then revised in 1959 when the finale was added. Harrison gratefully acknowledged the influence of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto of 1935: “among the highest musical achievements of the century. . . . It really walloped me.” Berg’s molto espressivo violin writing echoes through Harrison’s score. There are also precise percussion instructions in Harrison’s exquisite hand – “For the washtubs, drill holes (4) up from center on the sides of inverted galvanized iron tubs & suspend by strong elastic cords.” For the coffee cans, “cork or rubber-ended pen-holders make good beaters . . . & are best for the clock coils as well.”
Harrison’s music is an original, precise, and yet elusive product of far-flung cultural excursions. He may also be understood as a composer of paradoxes. His idiom is lyric but never lush. He can be monumental but is not grandiose. His Western forebears are Renaissance, Medieval, and Baroque, not the far more famous Classical and Romantic masters. His American roots are wonderfully protean. American is his self-made, learn-by-doing, try-everything approach. So is his polyglot range of affinities. He espoused “world music” before there was a name for it.
PCE’s new Naxos recording documents twin aspects of Harrison’s art: his pioneering role as a composer for percussion, and his pioneering role integrating Western and Indonesian idioms. The achievements are linked. Western percussion instruments of metal and wood are largely Eastern in origin. The gamelan bred the xylophone.
Harrison first learned to play gamelan in 1975, when a Javanese gamelan visited Berkeley for a summer institute. His teacher was Pak Cokro — one of the foremost twentieth-century gamelan masters. It was Pak Cokro who first suggested that Harrison compose for gamelan. The Grand Duo for violin and piano – performed on the new Naxos CD by Fain and Michael Boriskin — is a remarkable example of gamelan-infused chamber music. Like Harrison’s Piano Concerto of 1985, it embodies Harrison at his most regal. Its sustained majesty is a function of its steady, gamelan-like trajectory, undeflected by the tension-and-release of traditional Western harmonic practice. The piano’s sharp attacks and tolling octaves evoke gamelan sounds. Gamelan penetrates in countless other ways, obvious and not. The resulting music does not much resemble the music of anyone else. It is certainly music unthinkable from Cowell or Cage.
The WWFM Harrison Centenary tribute also features music not on the CD – including the sublime Suite for Violin and Harp of 1949, in live performance at the Indonesian Embassy (go to 42:18 part II). This happens to be the first Harrison composition I ever encountered – as a green New York Times music critic in the late 1970s. Its combination of simplicity and originality confounded me. In those days, the hallmark of musical originality was complexity. I listened with guilty pleasure.
Times change – and so must the reputation of Lou Harrison, born in Portland, Oregon, a century ago.
The WWFM “PostClassical” Celebration of the Lou Harrison Centenary:
00:00: Gamelan influences Debussy and Poulenc
18:35: “Stampede” from Harrison Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Gamelan, recorded in live performance by Nati Draiblate and Ben Capps, with PCE percussionists Bill Richards and John Spirtas conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez
33:54: Harrison’s Grand Duo for Violin and Piano, from our Naxos CD with Tim Fain and Michael Boriskin
7:38: Harrison/Cage “Double Music,” from our Naxos CD
42:18: Harrison Suite for Cello and Harp, recorded in live performance by Ben Capps and Jacqueline Pollauf
54:58: Harrison Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Gamelan, movement 3, recorded in live performance by Draiblate, Capps, and the Indonesian Embassy Javanese Gamelan (leader: Pak Muryanto)
1:07:18: A Lou Harrison tribute by Indonesian Ambassador Budi Bowoleksono