Lou Harrison: Concerto for Piano and Gamelan, a very special performance of an underappreciated masterpiece


This Lou Harrison (1917-2003) concerto is one of his lesser known works largely due to the unusual instrumentation and the labors needed to tune the piano to the gamelan orchestra. A quick search revealed previous recordings, one by its dedicatee, Belle Bulwinkle with the Bay Area New Gamelan (BANG) recorded at Mills College (and overseen by Jody Diamond) from 1992 (now out of print) and one by pianist Adrienne Varner with Gamelan Pacifica (artists who participated with Harrison during his residency at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle) on New World records from 2012.

As a dedicated Harrison fan, I can’t imagine why this work is not better known. It is, in fact, Harrison’s second piano concerto, the first being his 1985 concerto for piano and orchestra. This first concerto has received two recordings by Keith Jarrett (the concerto’s dedicatee) and, more recently by Joanna MacGregor. This concerto also requires tuning the piano but to a just intonation scale, not to the orchestra as in the second concerto. All these recordings were made with significant collaboration with the composer. And here now is a chance to hear this second concerto in a new and defining recording by the next generation of musicians, all of whom have had significant and long term relationships with Mr. Harrison.

The details and complexities of tuning and notation are beyond the scope of this review and, indeed, beyond the expertise of this writer. But suffice it to say that though the performers must run quite a gauntlet of complexity, the listener will likely find this music very accessible. I have included a link here to a PDF of the original score for those who want that sort of detail but this is simply beautiful music when well executed as it is here in this performance.

This new recording of the Concerto for Piano and Gamelan was performed and recorded at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2017, part of the celebration of Harrison’s centennial. It was one of many such celebrations worldwide of a true American master.

Copy of the title page of the score which also shows the composer’s skillful calligraphy.

This 1986-7 work is from a very productive period in Harrison’s life and demonstrates his deep understanding of writing music for Javanese Gamelan which he studied for many years in Indonesia and later with Jody Diamond. His mixing of western classical music with that of other cultures is one of his claims to fame as is his interest and application of non-traditional tunings and scales. This concerto is one of many pieces he wrote for gamelan and western instruments during the aforementioned residency at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington.

One of the most striking things about Lou Harrison for this writer has been his connectedness. He was collaborative and very inclusive. He touched many lives via his composition, his teaching, and his general openness to others. Harrison was born in 1917 in Portland, Oregon and this recording is a document of one of the many centennial celebrations of his music which occurred world wide. At one of those events, Other Minds 22, held at the beautiful Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco (a church where Harrison went to learn to sing Gregorian Chants as a young man) the master of ceremonies, Charles Amirkhanian took an informal poll of the large audience. He simply asked how many people there had met Lou Harrison. Indeed about 2/3 of the audience raised their hands (this writer included).

Harrison was very connected and his influence continues, a fact very much in evidence in this release. This is one of those discs I would buy just for the performers. Sarah Cahill, Jody Diamond, and Evan Ziporyn are all highly accomplished performers, all with deep connections to Mr. Harrison. Cahill, a very fine pianist with an encyclopedic knowledge and real feeling for modern repertoire, can always be counted upon to provide definitive, exciting interpretations of music which deserves to be heard. Her facility with west coast composers as well as her collaborative relationship with many of them makes her an ideal choice to play scores by the likes of Terry Riley, Dane Rudhyar, Henry Cowell, John Adams, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Ingram Marshall, and Lou Harrison to name just a few.

Cahill writes in the wonderful liner notes:

“One of the great pleasures of studying Harrison’s music involves his community, as his friends and colleagues have continued his legacy and performance practice. For the Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, I consulted Belle Bulwinkle, to whom the concerto is dedicated, and met with musicians with the most intimate knowledge of Harrison’s music, including Robert Hughes and William Winant. Best of all was performing the piece with Jody Diamond, who worked so closely with Harrison on his gamelan compositions and was so essential to the premiere in 1987, and with Evan Ziporyn, who has championed Harrison’s music for decades. Our work together culminated in performing and recording at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which brings together its extraordinary collections of Eastern and Western art “for the benefit of all the people forever.” It’s hard to imagine a better home for Lou Harrison’s concerto.”

The Pasadena, CA born Jody Diamond is a composer/performer and scholar who has worked with Gamelan for many years. She was one of the founding members of Gamelan Son of Lion, an American Gamelan ensemble which continues to play traditional music and collaborations with western contemporary composers. She studied gamelan in Indonesia on a Fulbright Fellowship. Diamond writes in the liner notes regarding her relationship with Harrison:

“Jody, you better go help Lou, because he won’t know what all the instruments are supposed to do.” This instruction from my teacher, the eminent K. P. H. Notoprojo, followed his 1976 invitation to Lou Harrison to compose for a Javanese gamelan. This was the beginning of my relationship with Lou, one that would continue until his death in 2003. During that time, I was Harrison’s gamelan teacher, orchestrator, music director, publisher, and friend. Lou and his life partner, Bill Colvig, were the witnesses at my wedding and “honorary Grandpas” to my daughter.

Evan Ziporyn, born in Chicago, Illinois, is the only Midwesterner in the group but his connections and musical proclivities make him a very comfortable fit with Diamond and Cahill. He is a composer, clarinet and saxophone player and, wait for it, a gamelan player. He studied gamelan in Indonesia with the same person who introduced Colin McPhee (1900-1964) to gamelan. McPhee is known for having been the first westerner to do an ethnomusicological study of gamelan. Ziporyn is the founder and director of MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika which counts Jody Diamond as a former member.

The concerto is cast in three movements much as in the classical style. The first movement is entitled “Bull’s Belle” and is the longest of the three movements. The piano takes the lead and the gamelan enters at first almost unnoticed as its gentle tinkling notes seem as if they come from the piano. This is not the classical call and response between soloist and orchestra best displayed in the classical era (think Mozart) but rather an integration much closer in ways to a baroque concerto grosso where the solo instrument is not as clearly differentiated from the other instruments (think Bach). The piano writing is generally rather muscular and Brahmsian but the sound will remind listeners of the music of Alan Hovhaness and even echoes of Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisatory efforts.

The second movement is without a title. The gamelan opens with its gentle chime like percussions and the piano enters almost surreptitiously mirroring the entrances which occurred in the first movement. Like a classical concerto this is a slower movement with a more lyrical and overall less virtuosic feel.

The third and final movement is entitled, “Belle’s Bull”, begins with the gamelan entering first and then the piano. This movement has a lighter feel overall than the grand first movement and even introduces some minimalist repetition passages.

All told this is a performance against which all subsequent performances should be measured. It is a fitting tribute to Lou Harrison, his instrument builder and life partner Bill Colvig as well as a landmark in the performing careers of Cahill, Diamond, and Ziporyn.

Portraits of William Colvig (l) and Lou Harrison (r) displayed at the Lou Harrison centennial celebration at Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco in 2017.

Post Holy Minimalism? New Music from Lithuania


Starkland ST-231

All ready for Women’s History Month is this fine offering which features a fine young woman composer from Lithuania. It comes on the radar of Starkland Records and, happily now, to a new listening audience.

I sincerely hope that no one takes umbrage at my off handed categorization of this music as related to minimalism but I’m not sure what else to call it. This 70 minute work is divided into 10 sections which have poetic titles. It is scored for piano, violin, cello, and electronic sound. It comes from an area of the world (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) where individual national identities have long been overshadowed by the annexation of the former USSR. In the last 20 years a style related to minimalism has emerged as a characteristic style from this region (primarily in the work of Arvo Part). Some of that is here but this music is at least a generation removed and has evolved its own identity at the hands of this new composer.

In an unusual (though not unprecedented) move this album was recorded and produced entirely by the composer in Lithuania. In addition some of her fine color photography is featured in the liner notes (which are mostly by the composer). The production values are very much consistent with the high quality one expects from the Starkland label. In addition it must be noted that this is the simplest and sanest packaging now being used for CDs. None of that fragile plastic and still a functional storage sleeve.

So the next question (also common with Starkland releases) is: Who is
Žibuoklė Martinaitytė ? Well she is one of the emerging generation of composers from Lithuania. That, along with her having studied with Bronius Kutavičius (I actually started his Wikipedia article many years ago but his and other articles on new Lithuanian composers is limited still) suggested to me that she may be of the branch of minimalism which hails from this part of the world (i.e. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania). Wrong, but not entirely.

Like a lot of emerging composers we have here an artist fully schooled in a very wide range of musical techniques and possibilities. On first listen one hears elements of drone, ambient, minimalism, extended instrumental techniques, and mysterious but effective use of electronics with this small chamber ensemble. The effect is frequently almost orchestral but also capable of great stillness and silence.

In the liner notes by the composer she speaks of being inspired by her observations whilst visiting Notre Dame in Paris. She speaks of a rather impressionistic notion of hidden or lost beauty. So I guess that throws impressionism into the mix. The composition does have metaphorical devices which do suggest the emerging of ideas and themes from an initial chaos or, to use Ives term, a “silence of the druids”. One must get to the 4th track to really get a sense that there is actually a piano trio on this recording. Very effective actually and then it fades back into the chaos and then the silence.

The album opens with silence into which a drone gradually makes itself known. These meanderings take the listener on a journey which is essentially the artists sonic vision as she walked through and around the iconic cathedral. The listener doesn’t even hear really more conventional musical sounds until about track 4 and concepts like melody and harmony take on a different meaning in this context. It is a large arc of a composition that embraces both chamber and orchestral textures as it tells its sonic tale of the composer’s visions and returns to the chaos of the unfocused mind at the end.

This puts this work in the realm of the earlier release (also on Starkland) of Ingram Marshall’s Alcatraz (1982) and Eberbach (1985). Eberbach was later released with its originally intended photographic component along with Alcatraz on a recent DVD on Starkland. And Mr Marshall provides some insight and reassurance in his liner notes for In Search of Lost Beauty. He affirmed for this listener that one needs to listen more than once to perceive the beauty found herein.

Recorded and produced entirely in Lithuania the artists include Indre Baikstyte, piano; Ingrida Rupaite-Petrikiene, violin, and Povilas Jacunskas, cello. The recording, done in Lithuania was mastered by the always reliable Silas Brown back here in the United States assures the quality listeners have come to expect from this fine independent record label.

Final Culmination of a Long Collaboration: Alcatraz/Eberbach by Ingram Marshall and Jim Bengston


Starkland's Alcatraz DVD

Starkland’s Alcatraz DVD

The music of Ingram Marshall (1942- ) first came to my ears via the New Albion recording of the Gradual Requiem (1994) written in memory of his father.  The spare sounds in this abstract electroacoustic piece remind one of the music of Harold Budd or the ambient music of Brian Eno.  Like them Marshall has developed a unique and significant voice drawing from methods including minimalist repetition, drones and static harmonies.  He also incorporates electronic music techniques and the techniques of the modern recording studio as well as non-western tunings and instruments.  But even given all the comparisons and qualifiers it is difficult to describe his voice because it is a unique style that, once heard, will leave it’s stamp of individuality much as the distinction between the above-named artists or, for that matter between a Mozart vs. Haydn style.  Very difficult to describe in words alone.

Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio.

Ingram Marshall in his Hamden, CT studio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now a visiting professor of composition at Yale School of Music, Marshall has had a successful career as a professor, composer and performer.  He has written for a variety of instruments including electronic sounds, piano, guitar and voices as well as for chamber and orchestral groups.  He has released 8 (now 9 with the present DVD) albums.

Jim Bengston (1942- ), born in Evanston, IL developed an interest in photography while in the army.  His work will be familiar to music fans through his work on many albums including the characteristically beautiful photographs seen on albums from  ECM.  His work has been exhibited at MoMA, Art Institute of Chicago, Walker Art Center, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo, Lillehammer Art Museum and many others.

JimBengston in studio 2009 crop1107

Jim Bengston in his studio 2009

Starkland pioneered a wonderful DVD audio release in 2000 (which includes Marshall’s ‘Sighs and Murmurs’) called Immersion which contained works commissioned for the new Dolby 5.1 system, the first disc of it’s kind and still a landmark production.  Now comes this DVD from the always interesting Starkland records of two collaborative works between these fine artists making full use of the medium.

Like that earlier disc, this is a venture into another type of art object.  The disc contains musical tracks and a series of photographs leisurely timed with the flow of the music.  But this is not a commercial DVD experience of a film nor is it a traditional slide show.  It is not didactic and only incidentally linear.  It is not just a piece of music for listening either.  The experience that I come away with is more of a hybrid experience of something like a living electrovisualacoustic sculpture (sorry for the improvised neologism).

Alcatraz is a 1991 piece realized on tape as is the companion piece.  It is a sonic reworking by the producers into Dolby 5.1 surround sound.   Here it is paired with photography lovingly displayed on the video format by Jim Bengston.  There is a second work on the disc which is a fitting companion piece called Eberbach (1985) after the abandoned monastery Kloster Eberbach in Germany.  Both works are video sequences of images by the photographer accompanied by Marshall’s hypnotic, impressionistic and elegiac  music.

The audio version of Alcatraz was originally released on a New Albion disc in 1991 and Eberbach (the first two of the “Three Penitential Visions”) was released on a Nonesuch disc in 1985.  According to the liner notes the two artists, who first met at Lake Forest College in Illinois, had been discussing a collaboration such as this for many years and a quick look at the copyright info confirms the dates of the photography to 1984 and 1985 for Alcatraz and Eberbach respectively.  They reportedly exchanged photos and cassette recordings for some time  and the quality of their collaboration is apparent.  And now this formerly languishing collaboration is now completed as it was intended with the release of this DVD.

The first work, Alcatraz consists of environmental sounds as well as electronic music and recorded acoustic instruments.  Marshall creates a glowing ambient texture attempting to reflect the history of the famous prison island in the San Francisco Bay.  The piece is in 7 sections nicely divided into tracks.  Each section reflects different aspects of the prison and the location.

The first section is a minimalistic piano piece which has added ambiance apparently from some added electronic manipulation adding a slight echoing which reflects the open empty reflectively resonant chambers of the stone confinements of the old prison structures.  It is followed by some musique concréte incorporating sounds of the prison environment like the ominous slamming of a metal cell door and its echo.  These sounds are manipulated with minimalist techniques of repetition creating a disturbingly oppressive memory of a sound which cannot ever have had a happy connotation for anyone.  And, of course, throughout the stark, at times almost colorless photographs flow in a gentle rhythm from one to another with a few instances of “jump cuts” or quicker transitions.  One gets the sense almost of the visual and sonic events having been co-composed into this hybrid art form.

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany

English: Monastery Eberbach, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eberbach is based on impressions by the artists of Kloster Eberbach, the first Cistercian Monastery which was established in 1136 by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.  It is no longer in use as a monastery but is actively used as a concert space, wine tasting space (there is a large vineyard and winery on the property which is run by the state) and has been used for scenes in films such as ‘The Name of the Rose’.  It is in fact an acknowledged architectural heritage site as it preserves fine examples of architecture from Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque periods.

Eberbach was conceived and works as a companion to the first piece in several ways.  The same attention is paid to the use of environmental sounds as well as use of conventional instruments to evoke the scenes depicted in Bengston’s photographs.  Both the prison and the monastery are about isolation from the larger society, monks in their cells, prisoners in theirs.

The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cisterci...

The press room of Kloster Eberbach, a Cistercian monastery in Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This disc works on many levels.  You can enjoy it as a focused experience sitting in front of the television listening to the music as the pictures flow by.  But you can also experience it as it was played in an installation type setting with the pictures and the music as this sort of ambient living sculpture object.  One can, of course, also experience the pictures or the music alone.  This is a very pleasant and enjoyable disc which is a satisfying culmination of these long gestating projects.

The original recordings were mastered by Bob Shumaker and the current surround sound mix was done by the equally talented Tom Lazarus.  Photo to digital transfers were done by Lavasir Nordrum Design.  Executive producer Thomas Steenland did the design of the package and the DVD menus.

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