The mesmeric work of Lou Harrison (1917–2003) stands apart from so much of the music written in 20th-century America—so singular is its idiom, so striking are its borderless, cross-cultural sounds—yet despite a swell of interest coinciding with the composer’s centennial last year, his scores are all too rarely heard. He was always something of an outsider, this unrepentant free spirit and individualist. Harrison studied with Arnold Schoenberg in the 1940s, when the 12-tone master was ensconced in Los Angeles, and gave serial techniques a serious go, but his best music—lyrical, melodic, indebted to the sounds of Southeast Asia—inhabits a different world from so much of the postmodern avant-garde.
Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon, and studied a variety of instruments during a brief stint at San Francisco State College. A class he took with the modernist Henry Cowell—the subject was world music, which would one day be Harrison’s métier—proved fortuitous, leading to private lessons with the composer. Under Cowell’s tutelage, he became enthralled with the music of Charles Ives. Though championed by the likes of Cowell and Aaron Copland, Ives was still a largely obscure figure in the 1930s, and he happily sent Harrison, at the young man’s request, a few crates of his own scores. Harrison ended up editing a good bit of this music, readying the manuscripts for publication, and upon moving to New York City in the 1940s, he was entrusted with conducting the premiere of Ives’s Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall. When the work won a Pulitzer, Ives generously cut Harrison a check for half the prize money.
New York, however, proved overwhelming. The combination of big-city stress and a failed relationship sent Harrison fleeing to North Carolina, where he began in earnest to investigate Asian music. Back in 1939, in the Dutch East Indies Pavilion of the Golden Gate Exposition, he had first encountered the Javanese percussion ensemble known as the gamelan. The sound of all those bronze metallophones and gongs stayed with him, and after settling in northern California in 1953, he continued to indulge his interest, exploring typically Asian instrumental tunings. While writing one experimental piece after another, Harrison worked a variety of jobs to pay the bills—how many other composers have made their living as, among other things, a fire lookout in the forest service and a veterinary assistant?
Harrison took his first trip to Asia in 1961, visiting Japan and Korea. A year later, he journeyed to Taiwan. Yet it was the music of Indonesia, and in particular the gamelan, with its sensuously beautiful timbres, that fired his imagination. As Harrison once put it,
… a fine gamelan is the most beautiful sounding orchestra on the planet. Second, its classic repertory is enormous, and ranges in expression from the thunderously grand to a lyricism of spider-web delicacy. Third, it is a communal music practiced by villagers and courtiers alike, and indeed often together. Fourth, in a gamelan there is something to do for almost anyone, from singing, or simply counting and feeling one’s way to the striking of a gong, to elaborate and difficult performance at speed, on highly refined solo instruments. The array of musical forms in gamelan music is the most developed of any music and is enough to dazzle or benumb anyone who has only Europe as musical background. You can import or build a gamelan in different metals. You can play classics or compose new music. You can likely never again be bored.
Not only did Harrison study intensively with a gamelan master in the 1970s, he and his partner, William Colvig, also constructed a so-called American gamelan, using all manner of found objects and percussion instruments. Harrison composed some 50 pieces for traditional and American gamelan ensembles—though listen to almost any of these remarkable works, and you will rarely hear music that is merely imitative. Harrison had no interest in creating pastiche out of the borrowed sounds of traditional cultures. Rather, he took those sounds that obsessed him and incorporated them into music that resides squarely in the Western tradition. This was the essence of his genius.
Listen, for example, to his Suite for Violin With American Gamelan, written in 1973. The principal melody of the first movement, incantatory and meditative, seems to exist almost outside of time, conveying warmth and loneliness all at once. Against a minimal gamelan accompaniment that rings out like the tolling of distant bells, the sonorities of the violin’s open strings beguile the ear, before the melody floats delicately up into the higher registers. The animated dance movement that follows is a wonderful departure, the enchantments of the gamelan becoming more apparent as Harrison reveals a spectrum of textures and tone colors. A deceptively simple air comes next, evoking a wistful sensation of childhood innocence, before Harrison presents three forms of the Eastern jhala. In Indian music, the jhala is the propulsive, frenetic end to a sarod or sitar recital; here it takes on different guises, with the percussion instruments at the forefront—in the second of these three central movements, the xylophone-like sounds seem almost liquid; it’s as if we’re awash in a rushing stream of rosewood and bronze. The concluding Chaconne is just as memorable, the violin singing a beatific melody that grows into something life-affirming and full of love. Again, the sonorities are lovely—the low, mellow, rich colors of the gamelan instruments contrasting with the sound of the violin playing in octaves, very high up on the fingerboard—and the rhythms are hypnotic, yet the melodies are what remain in my mind long after the final notes have sounded.
As Michael Tilson Thomas has said, “Nearly all of [Harrison’s] pieces have tunes that you remember and that really can become part of your life.” To have been so unabashed a melodist in the 20th century—when so much musical expression was driven by rage, chaos, and the need for complexity for its own sake—was enough to earn Harrison the status of maverick. But this author of some of the most beautiful, egalitarian, sonorous, and lyrical scores in the repertoire was so much more than that.
Listen to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project perform Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin With American Gamelan:
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