This is John Pitts‘ second incursion into adapting non-western music for the conventional piano. In doing so he follows a long tradition of fascination with non-western musics by western composers. Listeners will likely be familiar with Beethoven or Mozart who imitated Turkish music to add an exotic dimension to their compositions (Beethoven with his Turkish March sequence in the finale of the 9th Symphony; Mozart imitating Turkish music to add the exotic sound to enhance the geographic setting of his opera, The Abduction from the Seraglio). This fascination gained traction over the years as the great romantics such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Debussy (whose encounter with gamelan music at the Paris World Fair was formative), and their successors took on similarly exotic interests in their music.
Serious study of non-western music with attention to tunings and rhythms is virtually unknown in the western canon before the twentieth century. Colin McPhee, the Canadian-American composer did his landmark study of Balinese Gamelan music in the 1920s and 1930s (some of which is influenced Benjamin Britten’s ballet, The Prince of the Pagodas) which was the first of a series of such explorations done subsequently by the likes of Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, Alan Hovhaness, David Fanshawe, and others of Balinese, Javanese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other cultures. Unlike their forebears, this new generation studied tunings, instrument construction, rhythmic construction, performance practice, compositional methods, etc. instead of basically just fitting the music to the mold of the western paradigm.
The present volume is, as mentioned, the second such effort by British composer/musicologist John Pitts. His first effort detailed suggestions for playing Hindustani Ragas (raags in the British spelling) and was reviewed here on this blog. In that study, as in this one, Pitts takes the fixed tuning of the piano that is familiar to western ears as a given, without getting into the complex issues of tuning (that is a subject unto itself). Neither Hindustani Ragas nor Javanese composition can be played on pianos tuned to the current western standard of twelve tone equal temperament but there are riches to be had in understanding compositional techniques other than tuning and harmony. Pitts uses the piano as a starting point from which to learn about music of other cultures. This appears to have grown out of his own efforts as a western trained musician trying to learn what techniques can be incorporated into the creative processes of western music. Many of the author’s compositions appear to be in part the product of lessons learned from his study of various musical systems including gamelan (Javanese and Balinese), Hindustani raga, and balafon music from Burkina Faso.
For the present volume Pitts consulted with western gamelan masters including Jody Diamond and other members of the international gamelan community. He did his homework well and one of the strengths of this book is in its remarkably lucid exposition of javanese music in a way that is understandable by anyone with a reasonable grasp of western music theory. Here is where the use of the piano serves as a springboard from which one might grasp this musical system in part via the differences in the two. It is this pedagogical aspect to which I refer in my parody in the title of this article. As one with a largely self driven learning of music this volume presents an opportunity to expand my knowledge of gamelan music. It is a friendly approach which makes me no longer “afraid to ask” or afraid to learn.
In the space of approximately 50 pages the author provides a marvelous distillation of the essentials of gamelan music including terminology, descriptions of the various traditional instruments commonly used, and, most crucially, descriptions of some of the processes of composition, melody, and performance practice. There seems to be more data here than one would reasonably expect to fit in those pages. It is a concise reference which many listeners and musicians will want to keep close at hand. These pages alone are worth the price of the book.
What follows is about seventy pages of transcriptions by the author of a traditional javanese composition playable by one or more pianists. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t simplify the learning of these processes. Rather it clarifies the material so that these concepts are learnable by motivated individuals. The transcriptions are the musical description, if you will, of the processes outlined in the preceding chapters. These are basically teaching etudes in lucidly engraved western notation. Even if the reader lacks sufficient skill at the keyboard (as is the case with your humble reviewer) to actually play these works, the illustration of the concepts described verbally can be understood more completely when one sees them in western notation.
As a listener to a wide variety of music I personally find it useful to be able to learn about music which had previously been just a bit out of reach due to my perception of its impenetrable nature and the lack of easily accessible guides such as this. While it has taken me a while to grasp some of the concepts so as to be able to write a reasonably coherent review of the book I’m gaining insights that are aiding my understanding of gamelan music. The book requires some work to understand largely due to the unusual nature of this music but grasping more as I continue to read and re-read, I find it both compelling and rewarding.
Mr. Pitts concludes with a comprehensive and insightful description of his justification of using the ubiquitous piano as his starting point. He compares it briefly with the common nineteenth century practice of imitating various asian musics with western instruments as noted at the beginning of this review and goes on to enumerate other benefits to be had by using the piano as a learning tool in the study of this music. The book concludes with a very useful bibliography and links to internet resources for those who want to go further in gamelan studies. Far from the dreaded “cultural appropriation”, Pitts’ work is more of a respectful anthropological exploration which acknowledges the value of this music and looks to learn from it. That is celebration and it is invaluable.
Were it not for the wishes of some of my valued readers I would not produce such a list. It has no more validity other than, “These are my personal choices”. But there is some joy to be had in contemplating these past 12 months as I have lived them on this blog. So here goes.
First I have to tell everyone that March, 2022 will mark the 10th anniversary of this blog, a venture which has been a rich and exciting one. Future blogs will soon include, in addition to album/concert reviews, some articles on subjects which I hope will be of interest to the select group of people who read this material and who share my interest in this music (which I know can be anywhere from difficult to repulsive to many ears). But I have deduced that my readers are my community, a community of kindred spirits freed from the boundaries of geography, a number rather larger than I had imagined was possible and one that I’ve come to cherish. Bravo to all of you out there.
COVID 19 has reduced the number of live performances worldwide and I have not attended a live performance since early 2020. But, happily, musicians have continued to produce some amazing work, some of which gets sent to me, and a portion of that gets to be subjected to the analytic scrutiny of my blog.
My lack of attention to any music should never be construed as deprecatory, rather it is simply a matter of limited time to listen. So if I have provided a modicum of understanding or even just alerted someone to something new I am pleased and if ever I have offended, I apologize. All this is my personal celebration of art which has enhanced my spirit and which I want to share with others. Look what Ive found!!!
So, to the task at hand (the “best of” part):
The formula I’ve developed to generate this “favorites retrospective” has been to utilize WordPress’ useful statistics and look at the top viewed posts. From these most visited (and presumably most read) articles I produce a list of ten or so of my greatest hits from there. Please note that there are posts which have had and continue to have a fairly large readership from previous years and they’re not necessarily the ones I might have expected but the stats demand their inclusion here.
Following that I then toss in a few which are my personal faves (please read them) to produce what I hope is a reasonably cogent and readable list. Following my own description of my guiding principles I endeavor to present the perspective of person whose day job and energies are spent in decidedly non-musical efforts but whose interest and passion for new music drives this blog where I share those interests.
As a largely self taught writer (and sometime composer) I qualify my opinions as being those of an educated listener whose allegiances are to what I perceive as pleasing and artistically ideal based on my personal perception of the composer’s/performer’s intent. I am not a voting member for the Grammys and I receive no compensation for favorable reviews. I have the hope/belief that my blogs will ultimately garner a few more listens or performances of art that I hope brings my readers at least some of the joy I feel.
New Music Buff’s Best of 2021
As of this writing I have published 37 blog posts in 2021. COVID, job and personal stressors have resulted in my failing to post at all in December, 2020, January, June, and July of 2021. And only one post in February, 2021. Surprisingly I have managed to get just over 9300 views so far this year (a little more views than last year actually) and it is my plan to publish 4-5 blogs per month going forward into my tenth year.
Not surprisingly, most of my readers are from the United States but I’m pleased to say that I’ve had hits from 192 countries at last count. Thanks to all my readers, apologies to the many countries who didn’t make the cut this year (you’re all welcome to try again in 2022). So, following the United States here are the subsequent top 25 countries who have viewed the blog:
Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, China, France, Netherlands, Spain, Australia, Ireland, India, Italy, Turkey, Nigeria, Japan, Brazil, South Korea, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Poland, Philippines, Ghana, Norway.
Top Ten Most Read of 2021
The following are the most seen articles of 2021. Some of these are articles whose popularity surprise me as they were written some time ago and are not necessarily, in my opinion, my best work. But readership is readership and I am grateful for that.
Top article, Linda Twine, a Musician You Should Know. Twine is a musician and composer who has worked for some years in New York theater. I chose to profile her and I guess she is well liked because this article from 2018 is one of my top performers. Kudos, Ms. Twine.
Next up is, The Three Black Countertenors, an article suggested by my friend Bill Doggett whose website is a must visit for anyone interested in black classical musicians. This one, from 2014, continues to find readers. It is about the first time three black countertenors appeared on the same stage. Countertenors are themselves a vocal minority when considered in the company of sopranos, baritones, tenors, contraltos, and basses. Being black adds another level of minority in the world of operatic voices so this was indeed historic.
Art and the Reclamation of History is the first of the articles written this year to make the top ten most read. It is about a fabulous album and I hope more people read about it. This Detroit based reed quintet is doing something truly innovative. You really need to hear this.
Number four is another from this past year, Kinga Augustyn Tackles the Moderns. This album, kindly sent to me by the artist is worth your time if you like modern music. This young Polish/American violinist has both technique and vision. She is definitely an artist to watch.
Number five is a truly fabulous album from Cedille records, David Schrader Plays Sowerby and Ferko. This double CD just fires on all cylinders, a fine artist, excellent recording, interesting and engaging repertoire, amazing photography, excellent liner notes, and love for all things Chicago. This one is a major classic release.
The Jack Quartet Plays Cenk Ergun was a pleasant surprise to this blogger. The Jack Quartet has chosen wisely in deciding to release this recording of new string quartet music by this young Turkish composer of serious substance. I’m glad that many folks read it.
Number seven on this years hit list among my readers is another album sent directly to me by the artist, one whose work I had reviewed before.
Catherine’s Oboe: Catherine Lee’s New Solo Album, “Alone Together” is among the best of the COVID lockdown inspired releases that flooded the market this year. It is also one of the finest examples of the emerging latest generation of “west coast” composers. Dr. Lee is a master of the oboe and related instruments and she has been nurtured on the artistic ideas/styles that seem to be endemic among composers on the west coast of the United States. She deserves to be heard.
Number Eight is an article from 2014, Classical Protest Music: Hans Werner Henze’s “Essay on Pigs” (Versuch uber Schweine). This 1968 noisy modernist setting of leftist political poetry combines incredible extended vocal techniques with the dissonant modernism of Hans Werner Henze’s work of that era. Also of note is that his use of a Hammond Organ and electric bass guitar was allegedly inspired by his having heard the Rolling Stones. It’s a classic but warn anyone within earshot lest they be terrified.
As it happens there is a three way tie for the number ten spot:
Black Composers Since 1964: Primous Fountain is one of a short series of articles I wrote in 2014. I used the date 1964, 50 years prior to the date of the blog post, because it was the year of the passing of the (still controversial) voting rights act. As a result of this and a few related articles I have found myself on occasion categorized as a sort of de facto expert on black music and musicians. I am no expert there but I have personally discovered a lot of really amazing music by black composers which is way too little known and deserves an audience.
I am pleased to tell you that this too little known composer (and fellow Chicagoan) is being recognized by no less than Michael Tilson Thomas who will conduct an entire program of his works in Miami next year. If my blog has helped in any way then I am pleased but the real honors go, of course, to Mr. Fountain and Mr. Thomas (who first conducted this composer’s music many years ago). Stay tuned.
And the third contender for my tenth most read of 2021 is, Kenneth Gaburo, the Avant-Garde in the Summer of Love. This is among the first volley of releases on the revived Neuma label with Philip Blackburn at the helm. Blackburn’s instincts guided Innova records to release many wonderful recordings of music rarely on the radar of larger record companies and this first volley was a harbinger of even more wonderful releases to come. Just do a Neuma search and see what I mean.
The Ones That Didn’t Make the Top Ten
I would be negligent and boringly formulaic to simply report on these top ten. This is not a democratic blog after all, lol. So here are my choices for the ones that many of my dear readers may have missed and should definitely check out. It is anything but objective. They are, in no particular order:
Dennis Weijers: Skill and Nostalgia in an Auspicious Debut Album is a sort of personal discovery for me. This reworking of Philip Glass’ “Glassworks” and Steve Reich’s “Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards” scored for solo accordion and electronics pretty much knocked me over as soon as I heard it. Read the blog to see why but you have to hear this. This is NOT your granddaddy’s accordion.
Vision, Virtuosity, and Interpretive Skill: Igor Levit’s “On DSCH” is an album I just can’t stop listening to. I raved about his earlier set of piano variations by Bach, Beethoven, and the late Frederic Rzewski and I look forward to this man’s musical vision as he expands the concert repertoire with works you probably haven’t heard or at least haven’t heard much. You owe it to yourself to watch this artist.
Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969 is one of the relatively few times when I write about so called “pop” music. It is wholly unconscionable that these filmed performances from 1969 (many of which predated Woodstock) languished for 50 years in the filmmaker’s basement and were nearly lost. One of the recurring themes in this blog is the lament over unjustly neglected music and this is a glaring example. I was delighted to see that the filmmaker Questlove received an award at the Sundance Festival for his work on this essential documentary of American music.
Less “flashy” but sublimely beautiful is Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”. This is a masterpiece of scholarship and a gorgeous recording on a specially made Well-Tempered Guitar played with serious passion and interpretive genius by a man who is essential to the productions of New Focus recordings as well as being a fine musician himself. Read the review or the liner notes for details but just listen. This is another one that I can’t stop listening to.
Unheard Hovhaness, this Sahan Arzruni album really rocked my geeky world. Arzruni, a frequent collaborator with Hovhaness turns in definitive performances of these previously unheard gems from the late American composer. A gorgeous physical production and a lucid recording make this another disc that lives on my “frequently played” shelf.
New Music from Faroese Master Sunleif Rasmussen with soloist Michala Petri is an album of world premieres by this master composer from the Faroe Islands. It is also a tribute to the enduring artistry of Michala Petri. I had the honor and pleasure of meeting both of these artists some years ago in San Francisco and anything they do will demand my attention, they’re that good.
Last but not least, as they say, Robert Moran: Points of Departure is another triumph of Philip Blackburn’s curation on Neuma records. I have personally been a fan of Moran’s music since I first heard his work at the Chicago iteration of New Music America in 1982. Blackburn’s service to this composer’s work can be likened to similar service done by David Starobin at Bridge Records (who have embarked on complete works projects with several contemporary composers) and Tom Steenland’s work with Guy Klucevsek and Tod Dockstader at Starkland records. Blackburn had previously released the out of print Argo recordings of Moran’s work and now, at Neuma has released this and a few other new recordings of this major American composer’s work.
My apologies to the albums I’ve reviewed which didn’t make it to this year’s end blog but I have to draw a line somewhere. Peace, health, and music. And thank you for reading.
As far as I can tell this is only the second recording of Harry Partch’s 1958 dance theater masterpiece. The recording that most folks know is likely the CRI release which used that awful simulated stereo (which is rather unpleasant heard on headphones). That recording (thankfully remastered in the original mono for New World Records) is of the 1958 premiere of this inventive and groundbreaking work originally released on the composer’s Gate 5 label.
This release of the 1980 (six years after the composer’s death) Berlin performance is here released for the first time on Neuma records under Philip Blackburn’s new tenure. Neuma’s tagline, “Food for the Mind’s Ear” is curiously reflected in the recording method used here. Binaural recording was pioneered in the late 1960s using two microphones facing away from each other inside a dummy head with anatomically accurate human inner and outer ears. The idea was to produce recordings which, when heard on headphones, simulated the experience of being present in the audience. Of course one can listen on conventional speakers but it is truly worth one’s time and money to get a good set of headphones to appreciate this amazing performance.
This is the second Neuma release which embraces Kenneth Gaburo’s legacy. The above recording (reviewed in an earlier blog post) is of a 1967 choral concert curated and conducted by Kenneth Gaburo at the University of Illinois at Champaign where, nearly ten years before that event, the premiere of Partch’s Bewitched was first imposed on a audience. It is Gaburo’s skills as a musical theater director that come into play in the 1980 Berlin production which features the Harry Partch Ensemble conducted by Danlee Mitchell, a long time Partch collaborator and performer.
The recording has a refreshingly superior sound to the 1958 mono premiere but the crucial significance of this release is of Kenneth Gaburo’s holistic theatrical vision which draws upon world music theater conventions such as Japanese Noh, Hindu Mahabharata performances, Gamelan accompanied Balinese Shadow Puppet theater, and the “happenings” of Allan Kaprow as well as ancient Greek theater. Gaburo rehearsed the musicians and dancers to channel Partch’s grand vision in this, the first of his three major dance/theater works (the others being Revelations in the Courthouse Park, 1960; and Delusion of the Fury, 1965-66). It is a masterpiece of American music.
The Harry Partch Ensemble in this recording consisted of Isabella Tercero (The Witch), Peter Hamlin (Adapted Koto), Phil Keeney (Spoils of War), Cris Forster (Marimba Eroica), Randy Hoffman (Cloud Chamber Bowls), Francis Thumm (Chromelodeon I), John Szanto (New Boo I), Dan Maureen (Bass Clarinet), Donna Caruso (Piccolo and Flute), Robert Paredes (Clarinet), David Dunn (Adapted Viola), Robin Gillette and Anna Mitchell (Kithara II), Ron Caruso (Diamond Marimba), Gary Irvine (Bass Marimba), David Savage and Paul William Simons (Harmonic Canon II), Ron Engel (Surrogate Kithara). Lou Blankenburg (choreographer/associate director) and Kenneth Gaburo (director). The Partch instruments are as much characters in this piece as the musicians and dancers.
The original recording done by RIAS (Radio In the American Sector) was restored and mastered by David Dunn. The booklet includes commentary from clarinetist Bob Paredes as well as Partch’s original scenario taken from the published score.
The Bewitched is a visionary politically progressive music/dance theatrical satire that parallels the work of Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater and presages theatrical and musical trends that would later characterize the 1960s and beyond. This recording is a very significant historical document and a great sounding CD, an essential recording for fanciers of Partch’s work, and a performance that sets a standard for the future.
If you don’t already have a good pair of headphones get one and buy this CD. You won’t regret it.
Nicole Paiement led a touching performance of Lou Harrison’s La Koro Sutro
Nominally this was a celebration of the life and music of Lou Silver Harrison (1917-2003) but this last concert of Other Minds 22nd year celebrated so much more.
Curator and Other Minds Executive and artistic director introduces the night’s festivities with these artistic icons titled St. Lou and St. Bill (Lou Harrison and his partner, instrument builder Bill Colvig). The portraits were sold by silent auction.
One can’t celebrate the life and music of Lou Harrison without acknowledging his life partner of 30 years, Bill Colvig (1917-2000). Colvig was the man who designed and built the American Gamelan percussion instruments used in tonight’s performance. These repurposed industrial materials were inspired by the Indonesian Gamelan which Lou Harrison encountered at the 1939 world’s fair which took place on Treasure Island just a few miles away. Amirkhanian added another fascinating historical footnote when he informed the audience that Harrison had come to this very church to learn to sing Gregorian Chant some time in the 1930s.
A further and very intimate context was revealed when Amirkhanian took an informal poll of the audience asking who had met and/or worked with Lou Harrison. By his count he estimated that about 40% of the audience had encountered “St. Lou” (this writer met the magnanimous gentleman in Chicago in the early 1990s). Indeed many of the musicians had encountered and/or studied with Harrison and the passion reflected in their performances and the audiences response clearly shows why he (and Bill) were elevated tonight to secular sainthood.
The wonderful acoustics of the Basilica easily accommodated Harrison’s dislike of electrical amplification. Even the solo and small ensemble music was heard as it was intended.
The organ console at the Basilica.
The well attended concert began with an early rather uncharacteristic piece called Praises for Michael the Archangel (1946-7). It reflected the influence of Arnold Schoenberg, one of Harrison’s teachers (Henry Cowell and K.T.H. Notoprojo were also among his teachers). Harrison also famously worked with Charles Ives whose Third Symphony he premiered. He also worked with John Cage and collaborated on at least one composition with him (Double Music). The angular and dissonant sounds were lovingly interpreted by Jerome Lenk, organist and chorus master at the Basilica.
Organist Jerome Lenk acknowledges the audience applause and allows himself just a touch of a satisfied smile for a well wrought performance.
Next was a solo harp piece Threnody for Oliver Daniel (1990). (Oliver Daniel (1911-1990) was a composer, musicologist, and founder of Composer’s Recording Incorporated. He was a friend of Harrison’s and a great promoter of new music).
The Threnody was performed on this smaller troubador harp in Ptolemy’s soft diatonic tuning.
Meredith Clark played with focused concentration and gave a very moving performance of this brief and beautiful composition. Harrison was fond of paying homage to his friends through music.
Clark was then joined by cellist Emil Miland for a performance of Suite for Cello and Harp (1948). Composed just a year after the angular organ piece which opened the program this gentle suite is entirely tonal and very lyrical in its five movements using music repurposed from earlier works. Clark here used a full sized concert harp.
The artistic connection between these performers clearly added to the intensity of the performance. Despite the varied sources of the music the suite has a certain unity that, like Bach and indeed many composers, justifies the re-use of material in the creation of a new piece.
This was followed by another organ piece from Mr. Lenk. This Pedal Sonata (1989) is played solely by the musician’s very busy feet on the pedals alone (no hands on the keyboard). Listening to the piece it was easy to believe that more than just two agile feet were involved in this challenging and virtuosic composition. It appeared to be quite a workout but one accomplished with great ease by the performer.
Emil Miland and Meredith Clark smiling in response the the applause following their performance.
Following an extended intermission (owing to a dearth of restroom facilities) there was an awards ceremony. Charles Amirkhanian was awarded the 2017 Champion of New Music Award (tonight’s conductor Nicole Paiement was also a previous awardee). Presentation of the award was done by American Composer’s Forum President and CEO John Neuchterlein and Forum member, composer Vivian Fung.
Amirkhanian took the time to pay tribute to his mother (who also would have been 100 this year) his father (who passed away in December at the age of 101) and his charming wife of 49 years, Carol Law, who continues her work as a photographer and her participation in Other Minds and related projects. He also gave thanks to the staff of Other Minds and his former associates at KPFA where Charles served as music director for over 20 years.
American Composer’s Forum President John Neuchterlein looks on as composer Vivian Fung presents the prestigious 2017 Champion of New Music Award to a very pleased Charles Amirkhanian.
In a touching and humorous move Mr. Neuchterlein advised the audience that Mr. Amirkhanian would be given yet another award tied to Minnesota which is the home of General Mills (yes, the cereal people). Amirkhanian (who himself has quite a gentle sense of humor) was surprised and charmed to receive a box of Wheaties emblazoned with his image from whence he can now reign in the rarefied group of breakfast champions in addition to his other roles.
The breakfast of new music champions.
The second half of the concert began with the co-composed Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (1974). Co-composer Richard Dee was in the audience for the performance of this work written two years after La Koro Sutro (1972) and incorporating the same gamelan instrument created for that piece. The substantial violin solo was handled with assurance and expressivity by Shalini Vijayan, herself a major new music advocate.
Composer Richard Dee waving thanks for the performance of Suite for Violin and American Gamelan.
At about 30 minutes in performance the multiple movements all but comprised a concerto with challenging roles for both the percussion orchestra led by the amazing William Winant and his percussion ensemble and the soloist. All were masterfully coordinated by conductor Nicole Paiement.
Shalini Vijayan smiles from behind her bouquet acknowledging the thunderous applause following her performance.
In a previous promo blog I had noted that the location of this concert is a designated pilgrimage site, one where the faithful journey as part of a spiritual quest. Well, having been sidelined by a foot injury for the last 3 1/2 months this amounted to a musico-spiritual pilgrimage for this writer who has not been able to be out to hear music for some time. The last piece on the concert in particular was a powerful motivation for this personal pilgrimage and I was not disappointed.
The American Gamelan was played by the William Winant percussion group consisting of master percussionist Winant along with Ed Garcia, Jon Meyers, Sean Josey, Henry Wilson, and Sarong Kim.
They were joined by the Resound Choir (Luçik Aprahämian, Music Director), Sacred and Profane (Rebecca Seeman, Music Director), and the Mission Dolores Choir (Jerome Lenk, Music Director).
Meredith Clark joined on concert harp and Mr. Lenk on the small ensemble organ. All were conducted with both discipline and panache by Nicole Paiement.
This multiple movement work is a setting of the Buddhist Heart Sutra and is done in an Esperanto translation by fellow Esperantist Bruce Kennedy and, though written for the world Esperanto Convention in Portland, Oregon, it was premiered at the University of San Francisco in 1972. This was the fourth performance in the Bay Area, a fact that reveals the love that this area has had and still has for its beloved citizen Lou Harrison.
Warm smiles proliferated as the bouquets were distributed amid a standing ovation from a very appreciative audience.
In fact this concert can be seen as a affirmation of so many things. Harrison was a composer, teacher, dancer, calligrapher, Esperantist, conductor, musician, musicologist and early gay rights advocate. It is a testament to Lou that he has been given a most spectacular birthday celebration which gave credence and appreciation to all aspects of this west coast genius and all his extended family. It happened 50 years after the fabled Summer of Love and apparently the love continues in its way.
A clearly very happy conductor Nicole Paiement’s smile echoes both her feeling and that of the attendees, a wonderful night.
Esperanto is a constructed language brought into being in an 1887 book by a Polish-Jewish doctor by the name of L. L. Zamenhof (1861-1917). This constructed language was intended in part as an intellectual exercise which might contribute to greater international discourse and perhaps understanding. He outlined his intentions as follows:
“To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”
“To enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with persons of any nationality, whether the language be universally accepted or not; in other words, the language is to be directly a means of international communication.”
“To find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.
Esperanto did gain a great deal of popularity and there are still adherents today (an estimated 2 million people worldwide). Lou Harrison was one of the users of this language (users are known as “Esperantists”).
L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917)
In 1966 a horror film, “Incubus”, written and directed by Leslie Stevens (of Outer Limits fame) was released starring the just pre-Star Trek William Shatner. Once thought lost, this film was restored from a copy found in a French film library. It was only the second (and apparently last) feature film done entirely in Esperanto (the first being the 1964 French production, “Angoroj” or Agonies). It was thought that the use of Esperanto would add a mysterious dimension to the production though detractors challenged the actors’ ability to properly pronounce the dialogue. A link to a Shatner scene is here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=accFmyaOj7o
Curiously 1917, the year of Dr. Zamenhof’s death, is also the birth year of Lou Harrison, the principal subject of this essay. This patriarch of 20th century modernism was a composer, conductor, musicologist, performer, teacher, dancer, calligrapher, and Esperantist. He used Esperanto to title many of his works and set some Esperanto texts to music.
Lou Silver Harrison
And the Buddha Becomes an Esperantist
In his masterful big composition, La Koro Sutro (1972) translated portions of the text of the Buddhist Heart Sutra (into Esperanto) are set for mixed chorus and American Gamelan. Gamelan is an Indonesian mostly percussion orchestra which Harrison studied extensively following the example of pioneering Canadian ethnomusicologist and composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964).
Gamelan was first introduced to western audiences at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair where composers such as Claude Debussy and Erik Satie heard the instruments and later incorporated some of those sounds in their music. (That Gamelan now resides in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.) Harrison’s life partner Bill Colvig, an instrument maker, constructed a percussion ensemble which they called the American Gamelan to differentiate it from the traditional Indonesian ensemble. The American Gamelan, consisting of five percussion instruments (augmented with organ, harp, and chorus) was first used in the cantata La Koro Sutro.
Harriso (left) with Bill Colvig
This composition is very much a synthesis of the composer’s musical and philosophical ideas. Harrison was an avowed pacifist and the Heart Sutra is a key Buddhist scripture which supports introspection and non-violence. Here he uses his expertise as an esperantist, his knowledge of Indonesian as well as western classical music to create one of his largest and finest works.
Lou Harrison with Charles Amirkhanian (curator of this concert series) in 1966
It is a testament to Harrison’s influence that this is the fourth performance of La Koro Sutro in the Bay Area. It was written for an Esperanto conference in Seattle in 1972 with a translation by fellow esperantist Bruce Kennedy and was premiered that same year at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco (now part of the University of San Francisco). Additional performances (available on You Tube) were staged in Berkeley in 1973 and again in 2012. This is truly an American masterpiece as well as a prayer for our times.
The performances will take place in the Mission San Francisco de Asís Basilica, better known as Mission Dolores. The mission was founded in 1776 and the still active small adobe church next to the Basilica, built in 1791, is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco. The much larger Basilica next to the adobe church (and the actual location of said concert) was dedicated in 1918.
Interior of the historic Mission Dolores Basilica
For the record, a Basilica is a reference to both architectural and spiritual aspects of any church so designated. In the Catholic Church a Basilica is a pilgrimage site, a place to which the faithful travel in a spiritual quest. I don’t believe it is too much of a stretch to view this event as a musico-spiritual pilgrimage open to all ears and minds, and hearts. You won’t come out speaking Esperanto but you will never forget what you’ve heard.
The program will include:
Threnody for Oliver Daniel for harp (1990)
Suite for Cello & Harp (1948)
Meredith Clark, harp
Emil Miland, cello
Pedal Sonata for Organ (1987/1989) Praises for Michael the Archangel (1946-47)
Jerome Lenk, organ
Suite for Violin & American Gamelan (1974, composed with Richard Dee)
Shalini Vijayan, violin
William Winant Percussion Group
La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra, 1972)
For large mixed chorus, organ, harp, and American Gamelan
The Mission Dolores Choir, Resound, Jerome Lenk, organ, Meredith Clark, harp, and the William Winant Percussion Group conducted by Nicole Paiement.
Saturday, May 20, 2017- 7:30 p.m.
Mission Dolores Basilica
3321 16th St.
San Francisco, CA
The very affordable tickets ($12-$20) are available at: