A Solid SoundBox Retrospective Hints at Lou Harrison’s World of Ideas

Giacomo Fiore on December 12, 2016
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting in SoundBox | Credit: Cory Weaver

Lou Harrison was the rare composer who could combine dazzling stylistic breadth with an immediately recognizable voice. Whether in the guise of hypermodern percussion ensembles, carefully crafted chamber pieces, or gamelan-inspired metal orchestras, Harrison’s gift for sinuous melodies, energizing rhythms, and textural clarity always shone through. As the Bay Area and the broader musical world prepares to celebrate his centenary next year, long-time Harrison associates like the San Francisco Symphony, Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, and dancer and documentarist Eva Soltes joined forces to present a lovingly curated retrospective for the first installment of the new season of SoundBox.

As audience members filed in early hoping to secure a seat they were greeted by the hypnotic pulsations of Gamelan Mayan Sunda, a traditional West Javanese ensemble consisting largely of University of California Santa Cruz students and alums, who accompanied a traditional dancer in an appropriate nod to two of Harrison’s lifelong passions — Asian music and the dance.

The evening’s program consisted of seven selections (several, unfortunately — but perhaps necessarily — excerpted), presented in chronological order to outline the evolution of Harrison’s musical language. Harrison, however, was more than just a composer. He cultivated and excelled in a plethora of endeavors, from calligraphy to poetry and painting, and from music criticism to social and political activism. This kaleidoscope of activity was highlighted through a selection of clips from Soltes’ documentary Lou Harrison: A World of Music, allowing the audience to witness Harrison’s wit, warmth, and lust for life directly.

Excerpts from Lou Harrison: A World of Music projected above the musicians| Credit: Cory Weaver

The first group of selections focused on the composer’s early years, and showcased artistic and aesthetic connections with his mentors Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, as well as his colleague and friend John Cage. Even in their austere, late-1930s modernist sheen, the pieces already proved Harrison’s melodic invention and rhythm drive, whether in the medieval echoes of the Kyrie from his Mass to Saint Anthony (an early protest piece, written after Hitler’s invasion of Poland), in the sinuous, disguised dodecaphony (12-tone serialism) of the First Concerto for Flute and Percussion (expertly rendered by Tim Day, Jacob Nissly, and Tom Hemphill), or in the Mesoamerican tinges of the Canticle No. 3, featuring a rudimentarily strummed guitar and an ocarina.

Lou Harrison

The rest of the program attempted to capture the remaining 60 years of the composer’s career, which accelerated dazzlingly after a complete mental breakdown in 1947, and involved his eventual return to California, his embracing of alternative tuning systems, and his deep study of a number of non-Western musical traditions. In a way, SoundBox was attempting an impossible task, with the curtailed compositions only hinting at the depth that lurks underneath Harrison’s vast stylistic expanse. A work like Pacifika Rondo (1963), with its seven movements literally traversing the Pacific basin as it juxtaposes traditional musics from Korea, China, and Mexico with U.S. modernism, is effectively neutered when presented only in its extremes. The strident, equal-tempered serialism of the work’s penultimate movement, subtitled “Hatred of the Filthy Bomb” in protest of the environmental and geopolitical dangers of the day, caused more laughter than chills when deprived of four out of the five euphonious, purely tuned movements that precede it.

Two other excerpted works proved the most successful. Three movements from the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan finally featured the pure resonances of just intonation, Harrison’s preferred tuning system. The audience’s sense of awe at the visually and sonically imposing homemade instruments devised and built by Harrison and his life partner Bill Colvig was tangible. Soloist Nadya Tichman weaved filigree melodies over the medieval forms of the Threnody and Estampie (a structure consisting of repeated pairs of melodies), and in the hauntingly beautiful Chaconne. The work is one of Harrison’s finest, and it filled the space with resplendent, timeless consonance.

Some of the percussion instruments that were featured in the concert | Credit: Cory Weaver

Soundbox’s “sampling” approach was perfectly suited for introducing Lou’s music to a new audience, as Tilson Thomas himself acknowledged in his closing remarks. He had just conducted the loudest ensemble of the night in two movements from Harrison’s Concerto for Orchestra and Percussion Orchestra, whose finale is an unforgettable combination of Cowell-like clusters, rocking rhythms, and whacked metallophones; as with the rest of the evening, the crowd had enthusiastically nibbled it up. For anyone still hungry, the upcoming season will offer plenty more of Harrison’s musical world, as organizations like Other Minds, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and New Music Works are planning a year-long birthday party for the Bay Area’s most beloved composer.