Lou Harrison on CD
by Brett Campbell
An introduction to the work of American composer Lou Harrison through some of the best recordings of his music...
LOU HARRISON MADE at least five major contributions to music: his co- invention of the percussion ensemble with his partner John Cage in the 1930s, his experiments in tuning (including just into-nation) beginning in the 1950s, some of the 20th century’s finest music for dance throughout his career, his pioneering fusions of Asian and Western classical music beginning in the 1960s, and his creation of the American gamelan movement (including sumptuous works he composed for both Javanese gamelan and his own “American gamelan” of homemade percussion instruments.) Not all these contributions are yet well represented on CD, but some of the strongest evidence of Lou Harrison’s continued and even growing prominence is the surprisingly abundant number of CDs of his music available today, six years after his death. The concept of “in print” is a murky one in these days of downloads on demand, but as best as I can determine on a sunny day in spring 2009, here are some of the best available recordings of Lou Harrison’s music.
Overview recording: The best single-disk introduction to Lou Harrison’s music is the reissue of the old CRI LP Lou Harrison: Chamber and Gamelan Works on New World. It includes several of his finest gamelan works, his now titled String Quartet Set (played by the Kronos), Concerto in Slendro, and his early Suite for Percussion. Another worthy overview is Lou Harrison In Retrospect, containing one of his finest ballet scores, 195?’s Solstice, his magnificent Four Strict Songs (one of Harrison’s first adventures in tuning), and more.
Percussion music: Harrison’s first great contribution to music was his and John Cage’s invention (with help from their mentor Henry Cowell) of the percussion ensemble, and he composed much of what’s considered the standard repertoire for it in San Francisco from 1938-1942. Harrison never lost his love of percussion music, and incorporated it in most of his great compositions throughout his career — including, of course, the gamelan music that dominated his last decades. The world still awaits a definitive Harrison percussion collection, although an Italian ensemble’s nearly comprehensive if inconsistent four disk set of most of his percussion music makes a good start. Drums Along the Pacific includes some of the major early percussion works, such as Canticle #3 and Song of Quetzalcoatl, plus later percussion works including the poignant, plangent Threnody for Carlos Chavez, for viola and Sundanese (western Javanese) gamelan, that honored his friend the great Mexican composer.
East-West hybrids: Harrison was fond of quoting his mentor Henry Cowell: “enjoy hybrid music because that’s all there is.” All music is a product of inter-actions among cultures, and beginning in the early 1960s, Harrison embarked on a rigorous course of study of Asian classical music forms. He was particularly attract-ed to the music of China (he even performed in a chamber music ensemble in the 1970s), Java and Korea, but influences from India, Turkey and other world cultures found their way into his music, somehow forming a seamless amalgam of great originality and integrity. The CD Music of Lou Harrison on Phoenix includes the groundbreaking Pacifika Rondo as well as a sampling of other sonic marriages of East and West.
Guitar music: Harrison composed a number of gorgeous miniatures for guitar, and some of his other works for harp work quite well on the instrument, especially when the instrument is tuned as the composer intended. Los Angeles guitarist John Schneider has been one of Harrison’s most ardent disciples and interpreters, and worked closely with Harrison on his interpretations and tunings. His CD Por Guitaro lovingly captures the exotic flavor of Harrison’s tuning innovations and world music influences.
Orchestral music: Harrison didn’t compose his very finest music for the stand-ard concert stage Western orchestra, but he did write a number of such works of lasting value that may eventually become part of the repertoire.There’s no better intro than his almost Brahmsian Piano Concerto performed by Keith Jarrett. It’s on the same New World CD as his beguiling 1954 Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra, still one of my favorite 20th century pieces. Note that this piano con-certo uses Western classical orchestra (and a retuned piano); Harrison’s other, equally magnificent piano concerto for Javanese gamelan (written around the same time) is hard to find on CD, but may soon be available from Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica, which performed it superbly in March 2009.
Gamelan music: Harrison was a great student of all Western music (he was especially enamored of Baroque music) and many non Western traditions, but nothing enchanted him so much as the Javanese gamelan music he first heard in late 1930s San Francisco and began to seriously study in the 1970s. By the end of his life, he’d come to favor the sound of Javanese gamelan orchestras as “the most beautiful music on the planet.” In a late career resurgence rare among vanguard artists, Harrison composed some of his most radiant music for those ensembles of tuned percussion and other instruments, including a number of pieces featuring Western classical instruments such as harp, trumpet, violin, and even saxophone. Harrison’s CD Gamelan Music on MusicMasters offers several other of his finest Javanese gamelan works, including the rapturous Philemon and Baukis. Beginning in the 1960s, Harrison also composed for what he called an American gamelan of per-cussion instruments that he built with his life partner, Bill Colvig. The CD called La Koro Sutro contains the title work for those instruments plus chorus singing the Buddhist Heart Sutra in Esperanto (a language Harrison used himself), his equally compelling Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (no 20th century composer surpassed Harrison in writing violin melodies), and the delicately shimmering Varied Trio for, among other instruments, tuned rice bowls and chopsticks.
Brett Campbell writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, Willamette Week, San Francisco Classical Voice, and many other publications. He and Bill Alves are writing a biography of Lou Harrison.HOME