Music for the Lou Harrison Centennial

In honor of the Lou Harrison Centennial, Naxos has just released a CD of three of Harrison's great pieces: the Violin Concerto (aka Concerto for the Violin with Percussion Orchestra), Grand Duo, and Double Music (with John Cage). Every piece on the recording, which is also available as a 24/48 download from multiple sites, is so unique and engaging, and the percussion so resounding, that tracks from the recording are guaranteed to open ears and turn heads in rooms I visit at the forthcoming AXPONA and LAAS audio shows.

Long before the coining of marketing categories such as "genre-bending," "fusion," and "world music," Portland, OR-born Harrison (1917–2003) was defying norms by gleefully blending Eastern and Western harmonies and instruments. He also a number of his pieces in "just intonation" (the division of the octave into pure intervals), which he considered far more natural to the "equal temperament" on which the Western musical tradition is built. One of the indisputably great maverick composers of the 20th century, Harrison would have undoubtedly become better known during his lifetime had he not been born and raised on the West Coast, and come into prominence at a time when an academically-mired East Coast musical establishment frowned on anything that smacked of Other Coast sensibility.

West Coast, Harrison certainly was. While he did spend four years in New York City, during which time he wrote music criticism alongside Virgil Thomson for the New York Herald Tribune, worked with Henry Cowell to prepare and conduct the premiere of Charles Ives' Symphony No.3, and created several scores for choreographer Jean Erdman (wife of Joseph Campbell), he spent most of his life in California. Bathed in the state's "new frontier" energy and beauty, his oeuvre reflects both the free-wheeling, unconventional spirit of West Coast experimentalism, and the blend of East and West apparent in the music of many composers who spent their lives on the Pacific Rim.

The music is superbly recorded. In fact, comparing two of the CD's three selections with renditions on other recordings finds Tim Fain's violin on Concerto for Violin and Percussion (1959/1940) far better miked, and more full-bodied and impactful than Madeleine Mitchell's distant instrument on a 2007 Signum recording. Ditto for Double Music (1941), a relatively short percussion piece which Harrison co-wrote with John Cage (1912–1992). To compare the new version, by the PostClassical Ensemble under Angel Gil-Ordóñez, to that on a California Symphony Argo disc from 1997, is to go from smooth and impactful to so much unmusical clatter that may wonder if they are playing the same piece.

Let's start with the Double Music. Harrison, who was five years younger than Los Angeles-born Cage, shared with him two teachers—Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg—an affinity for Eastern sounds, culture and beliefs, a love of dance, and an outlaw sexual orientation. (Harrison's life partner was William "Bill" Colvig, who designed and built Harrison's American Gamelan and many of the other original instruments featured in his compositions, while Cage's was choreographer Merce Cunningham, who danced to Cage's music.)

On Cowell's recommendation, Cage drove to San Francisco in 1938 to meet Harrison. Together they wrote a number of pieces, which they premiered in breakthrough percussion concerts they mounted in Oakland and San Francisco.

For Double Concerto, which premiered at the California Club, Harrison and Cage agreed on a specified number of rhythmic figures and/or rests of the same quantity, and shaped the full length of the piece in half notes. They wrote their sections separately—Cage composed parts 1 and 3 (soprano and tenor) and Harrison 2 and 4 (alto and bass)—and then put them together.

"[We] never changed a note," Harrison wrote. "We didn't need to. By that time I knew perfectly well what John would be doing, or what his form was likely to be. So I accommodated him. And I think he did the same to me, too, because it came out very well."

You'd better believe it. Using a near-insane combination of rummaged "instruments," including bells, brake drums, sistra (an ancient Egyptian percussion instrument consisting of a looped metal frame set in a handle and fitted with loose crossbars that rattle when shaken), gongs, tam-tams, and thunder sheet, Double Music begins with a barely audible drone before breaking into a virtual rainbow of colors. Who knows what's responsible for what sounds, but the clanging and gongs are not only sometimes hilarious, but also make for a perfect system test-track. This relatively short, joy-filled cacophony has the last laugh as it fades out at the end.

Harrison wrote the first two movements of Concerto for Violin and Percussion in 1940, and revised them when he created the final movement in 1959. Astoundingly modern, it combines a wild battery of percussion with extremely challenging writing for the violin.

Contemplate these instructions: "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." Throw in flower pots, maracas, and a whole lot more, and get ready for a concerto filled with youthful energy, irregular dance-like rhythms, and lots of surprises. The second movement includes a song-like tune that is occasionally punctuated by spare percussion, while the fabulous ending reflects the sounds of the Javanese gamelan.

Between these comes another of Harrison's great works, the Grand Duo (1988) for violin and piano. Here, Fain partners with pianist Michael Boriskin for a five-movement excursion that includes a second movement "Stampede" (literally), copious amounts of mystery, and surprising depth. As the piano imitates the sounds of a gamelan, the final movement "Polka," which was written for Dennis Russell Davies, could definitely clear a dance floor.

Amidst its unbounded inventiveness and jollities, Grand Duo also reflects the gravity with which Harrison viewed the world. A proponent of boundary-less societies, he condemned war and violence, and promoted Esperanto as a universal language.

I knew Lou a bit. He and Bill sat in the first row when I whistled at a memorial service for poet James Broughton at the San Francisco Art Institute. Not long thereafter, Lou and I conducted a memorable, long phone interview for an article I wrote for the Bay Area Reporter.

A few years before Lou died, when I discovered us both sitting in the same row at an Other Minds concert in San Francisco, I leaned over as I passed him and gave him a kiss on the cheek. A week or two later, I received a letter, inscribed in beautiful calligraphy, in which Lou thanked me. Surprisingly, he told me that in all his years on Planet Earth, our encounter had been the first time a man had ever kissed him in public at a concert. I hold the man dearly in my memory. Once you hear his music, you will likely understand why virtually everyone who met him, loved him.

dalethorn's picture

For anyone who might skip this thinking it too percussion-oriented, don't go so quickly. The violin and piano in the Grand Duo are wonderfully sublime, and the percussion accompaniment in the Concerto - quite listenable, intriguing even, to someone who normally doesn't go for that. This recording (I got the download) is a perfect example of outstanding music at a bargain price.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Bravo for getting the music.

Listen Up's picture

Hi Dale,
Where did you download? I've been lost with Naxos since Classics Online closed.


dalethorn's picture

Got it from ProStudioMasters. See if this link works:

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Listen Up's picture

Thank you both!