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.

Other Minds 22, Resounding Sacred Tributes from Music to Wheaties


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A clearly very happy conductor Nicole Paiement’s smile echoes both her feeling and that of the attendees, a wonderful night.

Captain Kirk and the Buddha Speak Esperanto: Other Minds 22 Commemmorates Lou Silver Harrison at 100


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:

  1. “To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”
  2. “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.”
  3. “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

And if you want to sit through the entire film (definitely a cult film experience) you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHUfHj2lTaM

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:

http://om22concerttwo.brownpapertickets.com/

Revido tie. (See you there.)
 

When Politics and the Arts Clash, OM 22


Isang Yun (1917-1995)


The relationship between politics and music is complex and varied.  There are many instances of clashes between these two disciplines from the politics of state and church sponsored music to its repression by those same institutions.

After centuries of Catholic church sponsored music a decision was made in 1903 to repress the performance of anything but Gregorian chant and any instruments except for the ubiquitous organ.  The reasons for this decree have been discussed but the end result was less work for musicians.

More recently the Nazi “degenerate art” concepts and the later proscriptions on “formalist music” in Soviet Russia similarly put artists and musicians out of work.  In fact many were jailed or killed.  Shostakovich and Prokofiev were high profile musicians who endured bans on performances of their music based ostensibly on claims that it brought (or potentially brought) harm to the state’s political visions.

Even more recently the blacklist created by Joseph McCarthy and his acolytes perpetrated a similar assault on actors, directors and writers like Dalton Trumbo (recently dramatized in the excellent film Trumbo with Bryan Cranston leading the fine cast).  This sad chapter of history did not completely end until the 1970s and only recently have efforts succeeded in restoring suppressed screen credits to these films.  Many lives were destroyed or irreparably harmed.  One hopes, of course, that such travesties will not be repeated but the recent efforts to eliminate the NEA suggest that such struggles remain with us.

On February 18th Other Minds will present a centennial celebration of two composers’ births.  Lou Harrison certainly expressed some political themes in some of his music but did not incur state sponsored political wrath.  Unfortunately this was not the case with the other honoree of Other Minds’ 22nd season.

In 1967 Korean composer Isang Yun was kidnapped by South Korean intelligence officers and taken to South Korea to face accusations of collaboration with the communist government of North Korea.  He was held for two years and was subjected to interrogation and torture based on information later acknowledged to have been fabricated.  Even so South Korea declined to allow the ailing composer’s request to visit his hometown in 1994.  He died the following year in his adoptive home in Berlin, Germany.

A petition signed by over 200 artists including composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, Hans Werner Henze, Gyorgy Ligeti and conductors Otto Klemperer and Joseph Keilberth among the many was sent to the South Korean government in protest.  A fine recent article by K. J. Noh, Republic of Terror, Republic of Torture puts the incident in larger political context. It is a lesson sadly relevant even now in our politically turbulent times.

The concert will feature works from various points in his career, both before and after the aforementioned incident.  It is a fine opportunity to hear the work of this too little known 20th century master.  Conductor and pianist Dennis Russell Davies knew and worked with both Harrison and Isang.  It is so fitting that he will participate along with his wife, justly famed new music pianist Maki Namekawa, in this tribute to the the late composer.  This can’t right the wrongs but what better way to honor a composer than by performing his music?

The performance is at 7:30 PM at the historic Mission Dolores Basilica at 3321 16th Street
San Francisco, CA 94114.  Tickets available (only $20) at Brown Paper Tickets.