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American Made

Post-Classical Ensemble spotlights the infallible imagination of Lou Harrison

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Lou Harrison, as seen in a still from Eva Soltes’ documentary


The Post-Classical Ensemble presents Sublime Confluence: The Music of Lou Harrison

March 5 at the George Washington University Lisner Auditorium.

For more information visit post-classicalensemble.org.

Anyone who loves Berkeley, Calif., gamelan music, modern dance, percussion, vegetarianism, Navajo religion, building instruments with junkyard finds, puppets, calligraphy, or sipping a bowl of green tea has a place for the music of Lou Harrison. He left this world in February 2003 at the age of 85. But one day, he may be known as the Leonardo da Vinci of 20th-century music—not simply of Western music, but world music. Right now, he’s the secret genius of West-meets-East music. You probably know John Cage, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, and Stephen Reich—but Harrison stands apart.

He was the odd man out who loved melody best. He was as daring and demanding with rhythms and tunings as he was with his politics. Harrison approached music as the art of time awareness. He tempered his brand of “Zen” with 100 percent humor and honesty and disguised the rigor of 12-tone rows or Javanese balungan—ideal melody—so that you want to listen. In an age when everyone wants to tap into diversity, he’s no bland Unitarian compromise. His world is ultra-specific ethnically and yet has no boundaries.

His 2003 death—at a rail stop on the California Zephyr en route to Chicago—is symbolic of how his music has never quite made the journey back to the East Coast. Post-Classical Ensemble’s upcoming Washington, D.C., premiere of Harrison’s Piano Concerto remedies that this weekend. The Peabody Institute’s Ben Pasternack performs Piano Concerto as part of P-CE’s Sublime Confluence: The Music of Lou Harrison, organized by Joseph Horowitz, an artistic director bold enough to risk creating an East Coast Harrison festival. This concert offers the chance to uncover Harrison’s many sides, bringing Pasternack and pianist Lisa Moore to the stage, joined by the Wesleyan University Gamelan and the George Washington University Chamber Choir, with P-CE music director Angel Gil-Ordonez at the podium.

Horowitz—artistic director at the National Endowment for the Arts’ Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera at Columbia University—and Pasternack believe Piano Concerto is a true gem of American piano music.

Pasternack points out that Harrison “was not worried about authenticity,” which is precisely why he achieved so much. “In the Concerto, Harrison is not copying or imitating,” he says. “He made a deep study of many different types of music, but he created something unique.”

Piano Concerto, originally written for Keith Jarrett, demands lightning virtuosity and delicacy from the pianist. It also requires the even-temperament tuning of the piano. Due to the tunings in line with those of a Javanese gamelan instrument, Pasternack is bringing his own piano.

The Concerto offers many colors and sensations. The Allegro packs racing momentum that’s decidedly going somewhere, although it’s not where the ear is used to heading. The Stampede is as brash as a splash of salty sea, and the Largo gives the piece welcome openness, breathing room and light. “Sublime would be the third movement—prayerful, mysterious, still,” Pasternack says of the Largo. “It’s beautiful to hear many chords in pure intonation, which never occurs in conventional tunings.”

The Harrison you hear in Piano Concerto is “the seamless synthesis between a fully trained Western composer and a fully trained practitioner of an Eastern genre [gamelan],” Horowitz says. “The gamelan and non-Western strains are less on the surface than organically absorbed. This is real originality.”

For Horowitz, Harrison’s cosmic confluence depends on a paradox. He shared this nugget from ethnomusicologist Marc Perlman: “Musical boundaries can be crossed, but the value of crossing them depends on the degree to which you respect them.”

That’s why Harrison cherished non-Western music. The stable tradition of Javanese gamelan allows for growth within bounds. “It’s like an amoebae,” Harrison told John Luther Adams of NewMusicBox in 1999. “It has moving walls that reach out a little bit, crack here, expand there, and so on. Whereas Western music tends to want to do that awful business of destroying before it creates, which I think is ridiculous.”

When it comes to Western music traditions, Harrison never destroyed. He embraced George Frideric Handel, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Gregorian chant, and Arnold Schoenberg with equal vigor. The medieval French dance the estampie became his signature in the form of his melodic-rhythmic “stampedes.”

Many of Harrison’s more than 50 works for gamelan were performed on his “American” gamelan instrument, which he nicknamed “Old Granddad.” His longtime partner Bill Colvig helped him build Old Granddad with No. 10 cans and aluminum slabs filed to pitch. They discovered that washtubs and garbage cans offered a perfect imitation of Indonesian gongs.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Harrison never shook off the take-home pay of a memorable tune, but he didn’t resist the rigors of 12-tone or Cage’s composition tactics. He built music off of Dante’s rhyme scheme in the Divine Comedy as deftly and confidently as he employed his own Social Security Number for underlying melodic structure. What he achieves is a myriad mood minimalism. Grandeur resides in apparent simplicity. His often spare music gives the impression of the monumentality of great space, conjures the sublime of temple arcades, the order underlying all teeming nature, and the magic of a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. So it’s no surprise that he spent his last years as an architect in the desert, building a sustainable straw-bale composer’s cave at the edge of Joshua Tree National Park.

Never shy politically, Harrison was a willing composer for San Francisco be-ins. Peace Pieces of 1968 offers a Buddhist metta sutta set in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., followed by a work for harp, viola, violin, and voice titled, “Little Song on the Atom Bomb.” In a November 1993 lecture at University of Utah, he admitted to leaving a note to the taxman under his signature: “signed under duress.” He considered Nevada’s open-air nuclear testing in 1953 a “breach of social contract.”

In the midst of his music, Harrison painted, became known for his calligraphy, and designed his own fonts. He taught Esperanto and traveled to Korea, Japan, and Indonesia. He loved Javanese puppet plays and made his own puppet opera, Julius Caesar. His music backed much Mark Morris choreography. Above all, Harrison was a man serious about being playful in all things.

His KPFA-FM radio “Crackpot Lecture” of 1959 pokes fun: “I am a vegetarian . . . a speaker of the international language of Esperanto . . . I am a promoter of population restraint and sexual freedom. I am a writer of letters to the editor and a reader of science fiction . . . and not last of all, I am a living composer.”

State conservatories in Indonesia consider his Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Javanese Gamelan required listening, but Harrison’s music has gained little traction in the American concert repertoire. Google his name and you’ll find West Coast concerts—many mounted by friends who are still alive. There’s little explanation for this obscurity. Perhaps his non-Western tunings are to blame, or a lack of symphonic output. Perhaps he simply hasn’t been dead long enough to be rediscovered.

There’s no real reason for this lack of love. “Some of the best and most well-known effects in Glass and others have also been achieved by Harrison with less obvious and strict means—shimmering textures of a single harmony, static harmony with highlights, enhancing small changes,” Pasternack says.

So maybe America just needs to get to know Harrison a little better, discovering what his friends have known for years. “ I see Lou as a fish swimming upstream his whole life,” says Eva Soltes, a dancer, music producer, and documentary filmmaker who enjoyed a 30-year friendship with Harrison. “But with such a force of will and force of character . . . that he tried to make the world conform to him rather than becoming what the world wanted him to be.”

Harrison is the gentle giant of 20th-century music, producing more than 300 original works. “There is really no one else like Lou Harrison,” Horowitz says. “That he doesn’t felicitously fit any musical map is both a proof of his originality and the penalty he pays.”

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