Rare Music Emerges at Lou Harrison Centennial Concerts

Brett Campbell on May 23, 2017
Lou Harrison | Credit: Eva Soltes

Classical music loves its anniversaries, especially those ending in 00. Centenary, bicentenary celebrations provide an excuse to sum up a composer’s work and rehash the same old well-known warhorses.

Not so with last weekend’s tributes to Lou Harrison revolving around the beloved California composer’s hundredth birthday, May 14, 2017. The four concerts I attended emphasized how much initiative and creativity performers need to perform even familiar Harrison works. Harrison himself proved to be a source of new and unexpected pleasures, 14 years after his death at age 85. Rather than a summation of greatest hits, the weekend proved to be a revelation of how much of Harrison’s music still awaits discovery.

Pasadena Premieres

Of all the music performed in MicroFest’s revelatory May 12 Harrison tribute at Pasadena’s acoustically immaculate and ideally intimate Boston Court Theater, only guitarist John Schneider’s opening set was likely to be familiar to Harrison fans — but maybe not in the way he presented it. A movement from one of Harrison’s final compositions, Scenes from Nek Chand, encompassed a range of the composer’s influences, as it was inspired by the then-popular Hawaiian music he heard on the radio as a child growing up in 1920s Portland, Oregon. Commissioned by San Francisco’s Other Minds festival in 2002, its other inspirations included the strange sculptures, built from recycled garbage, by the titular, outsider artist in Chanigarh, India, and the twangy sound of the National Steel guitar.

John Scneider his steel guitar fretted for just intonation

Guitar frets are normally placed in the standard tuning called equal temperament, which Harrison loathed because its compromised-for-convenience tunings destroyed the beauty he and other microtonal enthusiasts discerned in the purer sonic ratios of just intonation. When Schneider first played it for Harrison on a guitar he’d specially constructed to play in Harrison’s preferred tuning, he later wrote, “it was like seeing a painting in color having only known it from black and white prints.”

So it was with the other Harrison guitar compositions, written over the decades, from 1952’s Serenado through 1967’s Music for Bill and Me (written after falling in love with his life partner Bill Colvig) and others in this set and two more on Sunday in Santa Cruz, played on Schneider’s National Steel or other appropriate guitars. Even to untrained ears, the pure tunings make a real difference, lending a timeless atmosphere even to works familiar from their equal-tempered versions. And Schneider’s sensitive phrasing and tempos unveiled all the seemingly simple music’s depths and riches.

In Pasadena, Varied Trio, a Southern California ensemble named after a Harrison composition, played works that shared the problem of nonstandard instrumentation, which often prevents live performances. Omnipotent Chair, a rarity unperformed between its 1940 premiere at a San Francisco dance concert and this year, used hard-to-find, historically informed flower pots (terra cotta, not plastic), brake drums (steel, not aluminum — the older materials make a real difference in the sound), and elephant bells (located after extensive eBay searches). Even the conventional double bass was used in weird ways — laid on its side, its body and strings sometimes struck with mallets (an effect Harrison used on other works, including the 1949 ballet Solstice.) You could just imagine the 23-year-old composer thinking, “Let’s try this! It might sound cool!” And it did, thanks to committed performances by violinist Shalini Vijayan, pianist/percussionist Aron Kallay and percussionist Yuri Inoo.

The Varied Trio

Percussion works like this one, many performed in the pioneering San Francisco concerts Harrison concocted with his partner John Cage, established Harrison’s early reputation as a musical innovator. What stood out here wasn’t the novelty but rather the musicality.

Kallay was back on his usual piano in another Harrison rarity, the ominous Variations he wrote in 1936 clearly under the spell of his teacher, Henry Cowell, complete with forearm-smashing tone clusters detonated by Kallay with panache and power, and of Harrison’s greatest early influence, Charles Ives, whose then-little-known music he had access to long before most other composers. Anyone who thinks of Harrison’s music as merely sunny or pretty should give this darkling a listen — another centennial revelation.

Like the Variations, Harrison’s savory music for the experimental films made by his close friend James Broughton has never been recorded nor performed outside the score snippets the filmmaker used. This performance elevated the Broughton scores (as Harrison wrote them, not as used in the films) to the top of my list of Harrison works that should be recorded.

The selection from 1987’s Scattered Remains of James Broughton reveals a hitherto unknown aspect of Harrison’s muse: a brief flirtation with the minimalism then emerging from his friend Terry Riley and the other pulse minimalists. While Harrison had long used ostinatos (repeating patterns) in his work, the kind of repetition we heard here appears nowhere else in his music, and it worked beautifully.

Harrison made two versions of his opera Young Caesar, a production using puppets and Asian instruments tuned in just intonation (which, as with so much of Harrison’s other music, makes it difficult to perform in conventional contexts), the other for human actors using conventional Western instruments, which San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle finally premiered in 2007. (A hybrid of the two is coming up next month at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella new music series, directed by The Industry’s Yuval Sharon.)  But to my ears, the intimate original version, unperformed since its 1971 Pasadena premiere and never available on CD, exudes a peculiar charm unattainable on western classical instruments.

For all its considerable flaws as a dramatic work, Harrison’s second and last opera contains some of his most delightful music. The opening Lullaby and Prelude to Scene 2, performed here on harp and violin, exult in Harrisonian lyricism, while the concluding “Whirling Dance” lived up to its title with still another sizzling solo by vibrant violinist Vijayan.

The show closed with the closest thing to a greatest hit Harrison or most other contemporary composers get — but yet again, not in its familiar form. Recorded by, and intended for, Harrison’s good friends violinist David Abel, pianist Julie Steinberg and percussionist William Winant, Varied Trio’s affecting five movements traverse a range of emotions but share an irresistible melodicism, from the first movement’s heart-melting violin entrance through the playful charm of its solo for chopsticks on tuned rice bowls (“Bowl Bells”), rhapsodic violin showcase (Elegy), to the final dance movements.

Composed at Harrison’s mid-1980s peak, Varied Trio is actually a second version of his original Varied Quintet, which included harp and virginal instead of piano, and which the ever-practical Harrison adapted for more conventional instruments.

I admit I was skeptical of this resuscitation, but heard the earlier version two days later, in Santa Cruz, performed by a sympathetic quintet including Winant himself. Much to my surprise, with one exception, I preferred Harrison’s original thoughts. For a composer who’d been studying and playing historically informed baroque music since his student days at San Francisco State in the mid-1930s, the harpsichord feels entirely idiomatic, blending beautifully with the other instruments in a way the more muscular piano never could. The greater, subtler variety of textures available in the original make a lighter, more enchanting blend, woven silk instead of taut steel.

In the opening “Gendhing” movement, the harp punctuates the cyclical melody exactly as a gong would in a classical Javanese gamelan work. Only in the penultimate “In Honor of Fragonard” movement did I miss the piano’s fullness in duet with the violin. (I also preferred the Pasadenans’ more lyric, playful take to Winant’s admittedly exhilarating and aggressive approach.) Even more than its successor, the iridescent Varied Quintet belongs right up there with Harrison’s other 1980s masterpieces, including his two piano concertos.

Supplemented here by members of Schneider’s Just Strings ensemble, Varied Trio (the band) is one of the best new chamber ensembles I’ve heard in years, capable of expressing great passions as well as humor and shades between. With next-generation performers like these carrying it on, Lou Harrison’s legacy is in supple hands.

Just Strings

Harrison Homeground

A few hours up the 101, Harrison’s colorful career was being celebrated at half a dozen concerts in the Bay Area region that inspired and nurtured his muse for most of the last century. I attended events in Santa Cruz, the Aptos-based composer’s home turf, because the programs offered by New Music Works, under the guidance and sometimes baton of Harrison’s friend and colleague Phil Collins, provided one of the most diverse Harrison celebrations I’ve ever encountered.
The colorfully dressed vocal septet on stage for the first piece at Sunday’s matinee concert at Santa Cruz’s Peace United Church actually came from the organization for which Harrison, in 1986, wrote the piece they were singing: the St. Cecilia Society for the Preservation and Restoration of Gregorian Chant and Peking Opera and Other Endangered Things of Beauty. The unison melody suited the amateur singers, though Harrison would have only reluctantly accepted the presence of an equal tempered piano accompaniment.

The performance, like the whole weekend, felt less like a Tribute to a Great Composer than a fond remembrance of a good friend. Friendship was also the source of the sweet little Suite for Three Recorders Harrison wrote for himself to play with his buddies Henry and Sidney Cowell during his otherwise dark, New York days, in the mid-1940s.

Sarah Cahill | Credit: Marianne La Rochelle

Another prominent advocate, Sarah Cahill, played a pair of recently rediscovered piano pieces. Range Song employed Cowell’s signature forearm clusters, but in an unusual way. Bent over so that her face nearly touched the keyboard, Cahill evoked a melancholy mood. Clusters also propelled another recent 1930s discovery, Jig, which danced, as its title suggested. Discovered a few years ago in an attic, the ruggedly propulsive Dance for Lisa Caron, (pseudonym of a San Francisco dancer) shows Harrison integrating his dance music, written on assignments from choreographers, with the “voluntary” compositional experiments normally confined to his notebooks.

Tandy Beal

The final dance composition on Sunday’s matinee featured an actual dancer. Harrison wrote the catchy Tandy’s Tango in 1992 for dancer Tandy Beal, who originally used it in a two-trapeze act with the Pickle Family Circus. Though she was earthbound this time, Beal’s whimsical dance, employing a shiny suitcase, a gaucho hat, and a black and gold decorative egg she bestowed on pianist Cahill at the end, caught the music’s airy spirit.

“Get ready to rock!” Collins announced before the closer. Harrison wrote his vivid 1972 Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra in response to a pair of commissions that arrived, coincidentally, from two San Jose State faculty members, an organist and percussionist. “Well, they can both make a lot of racket,” he thought. “Let’s put them together and see what happens.”

What happened in the relatively small church space was a lot of glorious noise. With a percussionist (from the William Winant Percussion Group) in the pulpit, the rest arrayed around the stage, and Vlada Petrovna-Moran at the pedals and keyboard, delightful dissonances spraying the stage, the rollicking opening movement gave way to a gentler organ solo and light percussion passages, gradually growing (and rising in volume) into a more insistent and implacable, dark march. After slower, somber sections, rambunctiousness returned in the explosive closing movement. I saw and heard younger listeners vocalizing the riffs as the audience departed. Though Harrison was no rock-n-roller, this piece was a spirited, sassy ride.

William Winant

The evening concert featured other rareties — the 1968 Haiku with a wooden flute and harp imitating Japanese shakuhachi and koto, the sincere White Ashes for piano and two-part vocal harmony, and a late-’60s obscure work drawn from earlier choral works, In Praise of Orpheus.

Using pentatonic modes and, for the first time, explicitly invoking Indonesian gamelan, Harrison’s luminous, 1950 ballet Solstice set a myth concocted by Joseph Campbell’s wife. This performance used Cid Pearlman’s original choreography featuring an ensemble of young, white-garbed dancers, about which I can say little because they performed on the floor of the sanctuary, making most of their movements invisible if you weren’t sitting in the front row. The allure of Harrison’s score, however, shone through.

The biggest news of the Santa Cruz festival was the concluding work: a premiere staging of the music Harrison composed for Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century drama Cinna, as he was emerging from a four-year hermitage in Aptos. As he gradually healed from the emotional turmoil that had produced a nervous breakdown a decade earlier in New York, Harrison sought a way to create a work of music theater that didn’t require expensive production.

His solution: puppet theater, which he’d discovered in 1939 via a Mills College performance. In this way, he could inexpensively perform the story he wanted to tell at the vicious depths of the Cold War: a story of forgiveness based on Suetonius’s histories of ancient Rome. French baroque drama, Roman antiquity, pacifism, just intonation, and puppets ... it added up to something only Lou Harrison could have imagined.

Yet, after completing a suite of five entr’actes, Harrison abandoned the production, so this first realization, exactly 60 years after Harrison composed it, necessarily required its creator, UC-Santa Cruz pianist Linda Burman-Hall and her accomplice, veteran puppet master Larry Reed, to fill in the blanks.

They created what Reed called a “Cliff Notes Corneille,” eschewing the original French language (except for a line at the beginning of each act before switching to English), condensing the story to a manageable hour or so, adding drones and improvisation on Harrison’s themes as underscoring (rather than breaking up the original text of two-plus hours with only musical interludes), and using a quartet of ingenious and evocative wire-rim shadow puppets to enact the story, while Reed narrated all the roles in the manner of an Indonesian dhalang puppet master.

The staging was a worthy and coherent attempt to realize Harrison’s offbeat vision. And its haunting, multidimensional music, so rich with shades and overtones unattainable in conventional tunings, soundly proved Harrison right that solo accompaniment could hold the stage.

Unfortunately, the story itself amounts to whispered exchanges of palace intrigue, mostly bereft of action — a problem that would plague Harrison’s next music drama, also based on Suetonius, the puppet opera Young Caesar. Even truncated and skillfully performed by all concerned, Cinna (which the team repeated at San Francisco’s MicroFest North, last Thursday) amounts more to curiosity than compelling drama. And at three-and-a-half hours, it made for a long, woozy evening.

Which might have been exactly right for this celebration. While not everything was performed to the highest of professional standards, the hometown sense lent the Santa Cruz performances a friendly intimacy that suited the composer. Harrison’s rich musical legacy is so profuse, his presence here still so tangible, that it felt right to overindulge in his creative gifts. The weekend proved that there’s plenty of the great composer’s music left to discover in the next hundred years, and that there are audiences and performers, new and old, ready to explore it.

See Brett Campbell and Bill Alves’s new biography, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, Indiana University Press.