Harrison Music for Orchestra, Ensemble and Gamelan


Lou Harrison (1917-2003)
‘Harrison's compositions demonstrate a wild and willful variety of means and techniques. Particularly during the 1940s he was required by each commission (usually for the dance) to write in a specific manner, whether Schoenbergian 12-note serialism, Copland-like diatonicism, Ivesian collage or unpitched percussion music. But in general Harrison is a melodist. Rhythm has a significant place in his work, though it is likely to be four-square. Counterpoint and harmony are unimportant; the Koncherto (Esperanto spelling) for violin and percussion is almost entirely monodic; other pieces from every period are solely melismas against an ostinato or drone.’ Ned Rorem

"Individuality can't be helped; you can neither encourage nor prevent it," Lou Harrison has said. "When I hear a music new to me, and if I like it,—Korean, Chinese, Indonesian gamelan—my response is 'ME TOO!', i.e., I want to learn it. I learn to play it, learn its history and its repertory." LH



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In 1975, Harrison met the renowned gamelan master and teacher K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat (Pak Cokro) and began an intensive study of traditional Javanese gamelan techniques. He soon began to explore ideas of cross fertilization, adapting the concerto principle to the Indonesian orchestra by composing works for Western soloists accompanied by gamelan, and later using gamelan melodic practices in compositions for Western instruments. Latterly, however, Harrison increasingly turned to composing for Western ensembles.

Harrison was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1973 and, over the years, received numerous awards and commissions including two Guggenheims, two Rockefeller grants, a Fulbright fellowship, and two honorary doctorates. In April of 1997, he received the American Humanist Award between premieres of a collaborative with dancer/choreographer Mark Morris (Rhymes with Silver) and a Concerto for P'i-p'a with String Orchestra commissioned by the Lincoln Center. Harrison died in Lafayette, Indiana, from a heart attack while on his way to a festival of his music at Ohio State University.

Biography from the original releases, revised Rob Barnett 2010


The frame of reference for the music of Lou Harrison is typical of open-minded and eclectic Californian culture. That said, he was born in Portland, Oregon (Bloch territory) but moved with his family to California in 1936. His roots were put down deep in California after a bruising spell on the East Coast which cost him dear in mental torment. His iconoclasm and free-thinking is evident not only in his music. He was an adherent of Esperanto and his Concerto for violin and percussion orchestra is properly known as “Koncherto por la Violono Kun Perkuta Orkestra”. California was then an affluent state - home to a film industry that paid the bills for hosts of writers and musicians. Here was a milieu enriched by Europeans fleeing pogroms and oppression. This culture provided the mulch for Harrison, and for his teachers Cowell and Schoenberg.

All praise to Nimbus for rescuing these recordings and this music from the oblivion into which MusicMasters numerous issues have fallen.

The present set all but harmoniously complements the four individual full price Harrison discs issued over the years by New World - the latest of which is the Scenes from Cavafy collection on New World 80710-2. There are but two duplications on disc 3: Solstice and Ariadne (New World 80666-2).

The Nimbus collection is a treasury of considerable variety though inevitably with Harrison gamelan is something of constant. Not though in the case of the Seven Pastorals. These are gentle pastel-tints. They derive from Harrison's reading of Virgil's Eclogues and were written with his mind on the mend at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. They are lovely undulating inspirations for small orchestra including harp. The style is countryside Finzi with shades of what we now associate with Michael Nyman. The work was premiered in New York City when it was conducted by the dedicatee of the fourth movement: Fritz Rikko. The fifth movement is dedicated to John Cage.

The New First Suite had a long and varied genesis across the period from 1937 to 1995. The composer’s tinkering leaves intact a reflection of Harrison's interest in Coperario, Jenkins and Frescobaldi. The surface has a grave shade of RVW's Tallis to it and a Schoenbergian complexity of harmony - there's quite a lot of that sombre complexity. In the Round Dance we pick up a echo of gamelan and oriental inflection.

The Goliard song Vestiunt Silve has a Gallic lambency and a consistently high-lying soprano line. This gorgeous piece was written for Wilfred Mellers' 80th birthday.

Gending Chelsea is elaborate and created out of a slip of an idea which Harrison had encouraged Virgil Thomson to provide. It's an idyllic piece with plenty of gamelan activity and words ranging from the exalted to the mundane including Money is inspiring, success is mellowing.

Sanctus is a virile 1948 song for mezzo and piano. Ruth Golden's name is familiar from her collection of British art-songs. She has a volatile vocal potency. He accompanist on this occasion is Dennis Russell Davies tackling a piano part reminiscent of Alan Bush in his most attitude-striking mood.

For a complete change of gear and mood go forwards into the seven movement suite from The Marriage at the Eiffel Tower – not the same as the composite work associated with Les Six. This is rather closer to Berners, Poulenc or Barber in light mode than the Harrison voice we are accustomed to. The music is all by Harrison and spans touching, frivolous, brassily bombastic, toy soldierish, bluesy (Speech by the General), satirical and finally frivolously and flouncily Parisian. Virgil Thomson and the composer are the two speakers hamming it up with the surreal text.

The second disc draws heavily on the composer’s gamelan works.

The extended Philemon and Baukis is a gently ecstatic duo for solo violin and gamelan. A touch of Lark Ascending meets Hovhaness … but ever so quietly. It would match up well with Schnittke's Spiegel im Spiegel. The piece becomes more animated at the end but only a little.

A Cornish Lancaran was written for Cornish College, Seattle - the Pacific city that provided the home for Alan Hovhaness. William Trimble plays the sinuous saxophone solo over gamelan rhythms. Gending Alexander is about the same duration as Philemon. It is reserved and dignified and I would guess was written after Harrison had had his ‘cleansing’ studies with Pak Cokro.

Homage to Pacifica is in eight segments, each separately tracked. This is a chiming piece - some of it rather like a music-box but it would have to be a most subtle contraption. The ensemble provides a kaleidoscopic backdrop for sung texts that condemn the 'untied snakes of America', that list the nations subjugated and worse by the USA and reflects on the killing of beasts and how man is diminished by their destruction - the narrowing of biodiversity. The untied snakes and lost nations verses are preceded by the winding bassoon of Robert Hughes. The reflection on extinction of the fauna of the natural world is delivered seraphically and rather sorrowfully and with a suling (Indonesian flute) that has a sad trajectory.

Lastly on this disc comes the Bubaran Robert for gamelan and Randy Master's piccolo trumpet. It is redolent of one of Hovhaness's short trumpet pieces substituting the gamelan array for the Armenian-American master’s string orchestra.

Disc 3 includes two pieces in recordings already included in the New World disc NW80666-2 (Ariadne and Solstice).

The hypnotic Ariadne has the flute striking a dramatic stance. This two segment piece was written in 1987 for the San Francisco dancer Eva Soltes. The inspiration derives from the music of India. The dancer keeps time with ankle bells. Harrison wrote seven lines of music for flute and seven for percussion. The order in which the lines are played is left to the choice of the performer.

The nine movement ballet Solstice is from 1950. It was one of his first major pieces to emerge after the breakdown occasioned by the pressures of what turned out to be an ill-calculated move to the East Coast. Solstice which groups the nine segments into two parts representing the struggle between the old year and the new: the Moon-Bull stands for the dark days of winter while the Sun-Lion speaks for the warmth of summer. The balet was premiered on 22 January 1950 in New York, Merce Cunningham danced the part of the Sun-Lion; Donald McKayle, the Moon-Bull. The music is gorgeously detailed conjuring warm and lavish textures and melodies from minimal instrumental resources. The composer’s work in the Chinese Theatre in the 1930s seems to have left its stamp here though tempered by a Stravinskian eeriness. It’s an extremely attractive piece with pell-mell activity of an oriental caste contrasted with clouded and sinister-chilly realms. The final Blaze of Day sets delight free.

Nohema Fernande plays A Summerfield Set for solo piano. This circa 12 minute piece is in three movements: a running melodic chase and dream Sonata (splendidly Bachian arioso), a Schoenbergian glimmer in the form of Ground and a very short Round for the Triumph of Alexander. The work was written originally to be played on the organ by Susan Summerfield. The Alexander of the last piece is in fact Summerfield's son and celebrates his growth and development.

Canticle No. 3 is from 1941 and is laid out for ocarina, guitar and percussion. It was revised in 1989. The petite sounding ocarina tempts the Homeric percussion into rhythmic display and war dance. Grainger would have loved this. I wonder whether Grainger had any contact with Harrison.

The final disc offers the six movement Third Symphony for a full orchestra and a crowded set of percussion desks. There are four works so titled of which this is No. 3. It is fitting that it is played by the Cabrillo Orchestra and long-term Harrison champion Davies as it was written for them. It draws on a miscellany of previous works. The first movement is glowingly serene and generous-hearted with a prominent role for concert-master Romuald Tecco. The glamorously happy Reel in Honor of Henry Cowell should be a regular on Classic FM - its silvery singing is life-enhancing. The Hinrichsen Waltz is luxuriously leisurely and dosed with sentiment. The Estampie for Susan Summerfield has the bass underpin and stride of a typical ceremonial dance movement from one of the Hovhaness symphonies. The indolently unfurling fanfares of the Largo Ostinato also has aureate violins which should please anyone who is happy indulging in the Mahler Adagietto. The finale finds oxygen-rich life, a vigorous pulse and a glistening Christmassy joy. The last few pages ring out in exultant carillon.

Mark Morris - who had previously had a hand in presenting Strict Songs as a dance-piece - devised a dance-theater event out of the Grand Duo. There are five movements. Tecco and Davies step down from the orchestra to play this dark piece. There is an overcast and shady Prelude, a thorny and chattering Stampadé (presumably linked in mood with the Stampede in the Piano Concerto, New World 80366-2) redolent of the middle movement of the Bax Viola Sonata middle movement, two cloud-occluded movements and a finale which comes in the shape of a gawky ricocheting Polka.

All the recordings are splendidly alive and forwardly inclined.

The words are printed in full for most of the sung works but not the Vestiunt silve.

Lou Harrison gives the listener cause to smile.

Rob Barnett, Musicweb-international.com

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