Other Minds Festivals ➔ Other Minds Festival: OM 22: Concert 2, Lou Harrison Gamelan Masterpieces, 7 of 11

Digital Audio

Event Type
Lectures and Panel Discussions
Other Minds
Program Series
Other Minds Festival
Program Length
124 min
7 of 11
| broadcast
| 2017-02-20 | created
The 22nd Other Minds Festival was a special tribute to one of the most gifted and inspiring figures in the history of American classical music, Lou Harrison. “Just 100: Hommage to Lou Harrison” celebrates his 100th birth anniversary with two very special concerts held in February and May, 2017 at the Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco. The second concert - Lou Harrison Gamelan Masterpieces - was held on May 20th, to a capacity audience of 800 people.

The first half of the concert began and ended with two striking organ works performed by the Basilica’s organist Jerome Lenk: The first, “Praises for Michael the Archangel” has been described as Harrison at his thorniest (see musical selection notes below). The second, “Pedal Sonata” is played only by foot on the organ pedals and has rarely been heard live. In between organ works, harpist Meredith Clark performed “Threnody for Oliver Daniel”, followed by “Suite for Cello & Harp”, a moving duet with cellist Emil Miland.

After intermission, Other Minds’ Executive & Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian was honored with the Champion of New Music Award by the American Composers Forum. The award was bestowed by the ACF’s President John Nuechterlein. Amirkhanian was additionally gifted an original cereal box for Wheaties (the breakfast of champions), graced by his image and manufactured by General Mills, who like the ACF, is based in St. Paul, Minnesota.

The second half of the concert featured two of Harrison’s major gamelan works: La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra), which also includes a chorus of 100, organ, and harp; and Suite for Violin & American Gamelan, both performed under conductor Nicole Paiement. The gamelan used for the performances was Harrison’s original American gamelan known as “Old GrandDad”, built by Harrison himself and his life partner, Bill Colvig. The set-up, which included galvanized garbage cans, oxygen tanks and iron gongs among other instruments, were used deftly by William Winant and his percussion group.

The attendance for this concert was truly record breaking for Other Minds. The audience was informally surveyed by a show of hands, and approximately forty percent expressed having met/known and/or worked with Lou Harrison. The Basilica made for an intimate and very appropriate setting for a tribute to his music (Harrison studied Gregorian chant here in the 1930’s). During the rest of 2017, many others will also be celebrating Lou Harrison’s centennial and Other Minds has launched a website devoted to events around the world that pay homage to this beloved composer. Visit: otherminds.org/lou100

About the Composer:

Lou Silver Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon, on May 14, 1917. Harrison’s eclectic musical style was born from rich cultural influences: Baroque, pre-Baroque, and Renaissance period music, Native American and Asian music, twelve-tone composition, historic or “just” tunings and, most notably, the gamelan music of Java and Bali. Perhaps more than any other 20th century composer, Lou had the widest ranging “wandering ear.” His studies included composition with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg. From 1945 to 1948, Harrison wrote for the New York Herald Tribune under chief music critic, Virgil Thomson. He was introduced to Charles Ives and helped reconstruct that elder composer’s Symphony No. 3. When he conducted the world premiere on April 5, 1946, with the NY Little Symphony, the work was awarded the following year’s Pulitzer Prize.

Harrison’s oeuvre was remarkably large and varied including chamber, choral and orchestral works, gamelan, dance, and opera, often employing world, folk instruments, and newly invented instruments built from items from auto shops and junkyards. In 1967 he met his life partner William Colvig who helped him invent instruments replicating the Indonesian gamelan but with his own just intonation tunings. A true renaissance man, Lou was also an accomplished dancer, artist, poet, calligrapher, esperantist and an important advocate for gay causes and pacifism.

Among the many institutions where Harrison taught or was in residence included Reed College, Portland, Black Mountain College in North Carolina, the University of Hawaii, Stanford University, Mills College, and San Jose State University. The recipient of innumerable grants and awards, he received two Guggenheim fellowships and Rockefeller and Fulbright awards.

By 1953 he was back in California, taking up residence in rural Aptos, near Santa Cruz, and creating a series of works embracing Pacific Rim influences. In 1963 he, along with Victor Jowers, Robert Hughes and Gerhard Samuel began a small summer festival that evolved in the long-running Cabrillo Music Festival of Contemporary Music.

Lou Harrison passed away at 85 on February 2, 2003, leaving behind a vast legacy of musical and theatrical works, and an indelible influence on a younger generation of musicians.

Concert 2 - Lou Harrison Gamelan Masterpieces

Praises for Michael the Archangel for organ (1946-47)
This is Lou Harrison at his thorniest in a work which shows him at his most Schoenbergian. While not truly dodecaphonic, it makes use of tone rows with fewer than twelve notes. Praises is uncompromisingly contrapuntal with lean, atonal melodic lines built from smaller motivic cells of limited intervals (most consistently an ascending semitone followed by an ascending perfect fifth). Praises is contrapuntal music at its purest, without any extraneous notes. The contrapuntal lines are deployed almost in the manner of Bach, employing imitative counterpoint techniques such as retrograde and inversion. In shimmering orchestral garb, Praises was later used in Harrison’s Elegiac Symphony, but the organ version uncompromisingly retains the piece’s bare contrapuntal structure.

Threnody for Oliver Daniel for harp (1990)
Threnody was written in memory of Oliver Daniel, American composer and musicologist. He was a founder of Composers Recordings, Inc., an LP label that specialized in new music. He also held executive positions at CBS and BMI and was a close acquaintance of Harrison’s. An indefatigable promoter of new music, he championed such composers as of Harrison, Henry Cowell, Alan Hovhaness, Colin McPhee, and Peggy Glanville-Hicks.
Threnody is an excellent example of Harrison’s gifts as a melodist. It consists of a simple, single-line, elegiac melody sparsely accompanied by single notes and open fifths. Threnody is justly tuned in Ptolemy’s soft diatonic.

Suite for Cello & Harp (1948)
I. Chorale
II. Pastoral and Rondeau
III. Interlude
IIII. Aria
V. Chorale (reprise)

The Suite for Cello and Harp was composed for harpist Lucille Lawrence and cellist Seymour Barab on the occasion of their New York Trio (with flutist Frances Blaisdale) debut at Town Hall, New York, 1949. It was largely assembled from other works. Movements I, II, and V were composed for for a film on the prehistoric paintings at the Lascaux Caves, France, but never used. Movements 1 and V also make use of près de la table-playing at the soundboard–which produces a more “koto-like” sound. Movement II employs a rarely used technique - “xylophonic sounds” - produced by simultaneously playing and lightly muting the strings at the soundboard. Movement III was newly composed specifically for the suite. The “Aria” is from Harrison’s Symphony on G. It makes use of a twelve tone row but as a serene tonal melody for cello supported by lush arpeggiated chords. On the occasion of its premiere, Virgil Thomson remarked, “Why Lou, you’ve rewritten “The Swan,” the famous Saint-Saëns movement from The Carnival of the Animals.
The original Columbia recording with Barab and Lawrence remains definitive. It is being reissued by Other Minds Records on the compilation, “Composer-Critics of the New York Herald Tribune.”

Pedal Sonata for Organ (1987/1989)
I. quarter = circa 68
II. As fast as possible
III. Very Slow
IIII. Jahla - Fast

As befits the title, the Pedal Sonata is played on the organ pedals solely by foot. This dictates that the whole piece is confined to the lowest register of the instrument. The first movement begins with a solemn and majestic chorale. Harrison notates this in six sharps, the notes corresponding to black notes of the piano. Since in equal temperament there are five accidentals, this renders the movement pentatonic by default while permitting the organist to play multiple notes with one foot. Following the opening chorale is a faster middle section of faster notes and in scaler patterns, then a reprise of the opening chorale. The second movement “As fast as possible” is primarily a single line melody with light accompaniment provided by the lower left foot. The melody is chromatic, sinuous, and winding, and performed fast enough, it could be taken as Harrison’s version of “Flight of the Bumble Bee.”
“Very Slow” is again in a densely chromatic idiom yet focussed tonally by the lowest bass notes. Though there are many low passages of sixteenths, the “main” (strongest beat) notes move in scaler patterns, providing a tonal anchor to the passage work. Movement three is written contrapuntally in the manner of Bach’s “Two Part Inventions” but allowing the lower voice to have passages of murmuring ostinati. The final movement returns with one of Harrison’s favorite forms, the Jahla, a reiterated single pitch is repeated between the melody notes resulting in an “interrupted drone” which provides the tonal reference point. This North Indian form is more thoroughly explored in works such as the Suite for Violin & American Gamelan, Mass, and many of the smaller harp and guitar pieces. The Pedal Sonata was premiered in 1989 by Fred Tulan in Stockton, CA.


Suite for Violin & American Gamelan (1974), composed with Richard Dee
I. Threnody
II. Estampie
III. Air
V. Chaconne

This extended form work, running over 30 minutes duration was composed jointly by Lou Harrison and Richard Dee. The Suite opens with a “Threnody,” the violin taking the lead with a long, winding, and elegiac melody. The movement employs extensive double stops with the violin frequently providing the melody with its own drone. The gamelan provides discreet support with occasional punctuating octaves and chords.
The “Estampie” is a dance from Medieval Europe, a dance form in which Harrison frequently composed. Here, the gamelan provides a steady accompaniment in 3 which the violin sometimes follows and occasionally undermines with hemiola phrases. The violin is frequently in unison with the higher pitched instruments, but here Harrison employs one of his favorite melodic devices which he termed “simultaneous variation” otherwise known as heterophony. The instruments are essentially playing in unison, but each is providing simultaneous ornamentation or variation, in a fashion idiomatic and specific to that particular instrument.
In the third movement, “Air,” against a backdrop of hypnotic ostinati the violin plays a cantabile melody, largely in the upper reaches its range.
The fourth movement comprises a trio of Jahlas, the first two fast in tempo, the third slow. The Jahla comes from North India; a single note is repeated between the notes of the melody resulting in what Harrison termed, “an interrupted drone.” Jahla I” is for the full ensemble, “Jahla II”alternates between the violin doubled with solo gamelan and the full ensemble. “Jahla III” is for gamelan alone. It’s here that the purity of the just tuning can be heard most clearly. Harrison was inspired to use the Jahla form by composer Alan Hovhaness, of whom Harrison was an early champion.
The Suite ends with“Chaconne,” a dance form that reached its height of popularity with composers of the baroque era. It typically features a ground bass–a repeated bass line. This provides a steady framework over which the violin plays ever increasing elaborate variations of the initial melody. Initially, the gamelan provides an accompaniment of repeated chords. Midway, the gamelan takes a melodic role, first repeating the original melody in unison and eventually engaging in imitative counterpoint. And in a manner similar to a da capo aria, the original theme is restated by all instruments bringing the suite to a grand conclusion.
When asked which parts he wrote and which were Richard Dee’s, Harrison would demure and forbade Dee to tell. For Harrison, the Suite was a true collaborative work.

La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra, 1972) for large mixed chorus, organ, harp, and American Gamelan
Kunsonoro Kaj Gloro (Chime and Glory)
1a Paragrafo
2a Paragrafo
3a Paragrafo
4a Paragrafo
5a Paragrafo
6a Paragrafo
7a Paragrafo–Mantro kaj Kusonoro

La Koro Sutro is one of the high points in Harrison’s oeuvre. It is a setting of the Heart Sutra, one of the ancient sacred Buddhist texts translated into Esperanto, and was composed for the 1972 World Esperanto Convention in Portland, OR, but subsequently received its premiere at San Francisco State University. The original Sanskrit, Prajñāpāramitāh daya, literally translates as, “the heart of the perfection of understanding.” La Koro Sutro calls for massive performing forces: a large-scale chorus, harp, percussion, and organ. In addition to Harrison’s American Gamelan “Old Granddad,”constructed by his partner William Colvig, the percussion battery includes all manner of unpitched instruments such as multiple bells, gongs, tam-tam, sleigh bells, and triangles.
As a teenager, Harrison studied Gregorian chant at the Mission Dolores, and the prevalence of unison choral textures bears witness to both his love of chant and his gifts as a melodist. When not in unison, the vocal harmonies are reminiscent of medieval organum composed almost exclusively of perfect fourths and fifths. Harrison eschews contrapuntal writing, preferring the warmth and depth of a unison choral sound. Neither wholly Javanese nor Western in idiom, it is written in an organic and idiomatic style and inhabits its own sound world.
The combination of the purity of the justly tuned gamelan and the high metallic, unpitched instruments casts a shimmering aural halo over the whole ensemble. La Koro Sutro is composed in a justly tuned pentatonic scale which yields three additional, usable modes. The differences are very subtle, but each mode has a different aural or affective quality. Paragrafo 3 and 6 are the exceptions. They are both written chromatically and, since the gamelan can’t alter its tuning, employs only unpitched percussion, albeit a wide variety. Number 6’s chromatic phrases are alternated with brief gamelan ritornelli, to further put in relief the “impure” and equal tuning of the chromatic passages.

[Notes taken from the printed program.]
20th century classical