"During the last two years an extraordinary interest in percussion music has developed on the Pacific coast," wrote Henry Cowell in "Drums Along the Pacific" (1940). "In Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, orchestras have been formed to play music for percussion instruments alone... directed chiefly by two young Western composers, John Cage and Lou Harrison, who have concocted innumerable creations... and have induced others... to write for them." What Cowell omitted from this account was his own influence: his writings and teachings provided the impetus for the percussion works of both composers.
The story of Harrison and Cage's meeting and subsequent collaboration is inextricably linked to the history of percussion music. In 1938 Cage came to San Francisco to meet Harrison, on Cowell's advice. Within minutes, the two composers had discovered common interests in percussion and dance. Harrison soon began to introduce Cage to his circle of friends, among them dancer Bonnie Bird, who had offered Harrison a position in Seattle accompanying her classes at the Cornish School. But Harrison was happily ensconced at Mills College, playing piano and percussion for dancer Tina Flade. Instead he recommended Cage, who moved to Seattle, attracted by Bird's tales about a closet full of percussion instruments. During his two years there, Cage solicited works from composers around the country, including Harrison, who wrote Fifth Simfony and Counterdance in the Spring for the Seattle ensemble.
Harrison (1917-2003) had grown up on the West Coast. In 1926 his family moved from Portland, Oregon, to Northern California, where they lived in nine different cities during the next eight years. After graduating from Burlingame High School in December 1934, Harrison enrolled at San Francisco State College (now University), but studied there only two years until he was enticed into other endeavors, including the job at Mills.
In Spring 1935, Harrison enrolled in Cowell's course, "Music of the Peoples of the World," at the University of California Extension in San Francisco. Cowell taught that most of the world's music consisted of a melodic line with rhythmic accompaniment, noting that Western composers had neglected the possibilities of rhythm and melody to worship instead at the altar of harmony. Harrison was fascinated. In Fall 1935 he approached Cowell for private composition lessons. Cowell taught him to work with small germinal cells -- both melodic and rhythmic -- interweaving them in complex patterns. He also urged Harrison to explore new instrumental resources. "Henry encouraged us to forage through junkyards," Harrison recalls.
In the same year, Harrison wrote his first percussion piece for dancer Carol Beals. Her overtly political Waterfront--1934 memorialized a bitter labor dispute between the Longshoreman's Union and the shipping industry that resulted in a crippling West Coast port strike followed by a confrontation with police and a three-day general strike in San Francisco. Harrison wrote the score for a single percussionist (himself). The premiere took place in the boxing ring of the Longshoreman's Union headquarters, Harrison sitting on the floor surrounded by his instruments while the dancers swung out against the ropes above him.
During his San Francisco years (1935-42), Harrison composed works for percussion alone (such as those for Cage's ensemble) as well as for solo instrument accompanied by percussion. His First Concerto (for flute and two percussionists) was written in 1939 and premiered in Vermont with Henry Cowell playing one of the percussion parts. A concerto for violin and percussion --now one of Harrison's most frequently performed works -- took its initial form in 1940 and was completed 19 years later.
In 1940 Cage moved back to San Francisco and the two composers began active collaboration. Together they staged percussion concerts in Oakland and San Francisco, which Harrison continued after Cage moved to Chicago in 1942. They even jointly composed a percussion quartet, called Double Music. Four works on the present recording were written for these 1941-42 concerts: Song of Quetzalcóatl, Simfony #13, Canticle #3, and Fugue.
Harrison completed Song of Quetzalcóatl on Feb. 6, 1941; it was premiered on his twenty-fourth birthday (May 14, 1941) at a concert he and Cage presented at the California Club in San Francisco. Like many of Harrison's works, the inspiration for this piece was visual, in this case, "a small book of reproductions from Mexican codices." Among the images that caught Harrison's attention was the Feathered Serpent, an Aztec deity of learning which he honored with this vibrant quartet. The six-and-a-half-minute piece traverses three broad sections: a quiet opening, an energetic central portion, and an altered recapitulation. After a unison forte entrance, Harrison introduces a gentle opening theme played in counterpoint by sets of five glasses and five suspended brake drums (which have a dulcet quality resembling mellow chimes). The center section begins with a four-note syncopated motive followed by a flurry of sixteenth- and eighth-notes, played on five muted brake drums. The various themes interact and eventually evolve into a series of simultaneous ostinatos. The central section concludes with a dramatic contrapuntal climax, ushering in a recapitulation in which Harrison added a dry guiro (scraped gourd) to the ensemble. Song of Quetzalcóatl ends as the opening section concluded: the first motive (progressively more spread out in time) supported by metric markers in the windglass, tam-tam, triangle, and gong.
Unlike Cage, Harrison was committed to melody as an expressive device, and his works for percussion typically have recognizable themes. The titles themselves ("Song," "Canticle") highlight their lyric content. Harrison typically includes some tuned metallophones and he carefully balances high and low, resonant and dry instruments. He often calls for families of instruments such as brake drums and metal pipes so that he can create recognizable motives even when the pitches are approximate. These characteristics are immediately apparent in his Simfony #13, premiered on the same concert as Song of Quetzalcóatl. The work is scored for variously pitched wood blocks, water buffalo bells, cowbells, temple blocks, suspended and muted brake drums, and tom-toms, along with an elephant bell, triangle, suspended cymbal, gong, tam tam, and bass drum. Simfony #13 is unified by motivic development: themes are forefronted and then manipulated or transformed, for instance by the use of two- and four-part canons. The overall effect is lyric, despite the lack of a melodic solo instrument.
At the end of the May 14, 1941 performance, the audience was told that the ensemble had money to record one piece; they were asked to vote for their choice. Simfony #13 was selected and recorded shortly thereafter. It was issued as Harrison's first commercial recording. For many years, the score was lost. As I carried out research for my book, Lou Harrison: Composing a World, in 1996 I came across a copy of the score in the Paul Price archives at the University of Illinois. The piece has now been published and made widely available.
Canticle #3, premiered at the Holloway Playhouse in the Fairmont Hotel on May 7, 1942, includes a melodic wind instrument that acts as soloist in the manner of Harrison's concerti for flute or violin and percussion. In this case, however, the wind instrument is an ocarina -- a terra cotta flute in a torpedo shape used by the Aztecs. Harrison, who had studied recorder at San Francisco State, played the ocarina part at the premiere. The five percussionists perform on a wide array of instruments; one even doubles on guitar, strumming a series of bar chords. Like Song of Quetzalcóatl, Canticle #3 is in a tripartite form, but in this case vastly extended. The work opens with a lively pentatonic melody in the ocarina which blossoms into a boisterous and dramatic percussion section. The middle portion provides a striking contrast, exposing a haunting ocarina melody characterized by expansive legato phrases. For this recording, Harrison revised his 1942 score, adding a plethora of grace-note ornaments. After an extended build-up, rising to a series of irregularly spaced fortissimo crashes, the ocarina returns with its opening theme in an abbreviated recapitulation. The coda gradually decreases both in volume and tempo, finally fading into nothingness, leaving only a subdued heartbeat in the bass drum.
Although Harrison composed his percussion Fugue in the same year as Canticle #3, the work was so difficult that it was not performed in concert until the 1960s. (A scheduled 1951 premiere at Columbia University was cancelled so late that the Fugue still appeared on the printed program after Canticle #3 had been substituted.) In this piece Harrison follows principles of baroque counterpoint, but translates melodic intervals into corresponding rhythmic proportions. For example, the first and second entries of a traditional fugue subject are related by fifth, an interval that vibrates in a 3:2 proportion. Harrison thus related the first two entries of his fugue theme by a 3:2 rhythmic proportion. The opening theme, played by a metallophone, is answered by meditation bells in note values a third longer. The third entry in a traditional fugue is played at the octave (2:1) in relation to the opening statement; in Harrison's fugue it appears in note values twice as long. The fourth entry uses values double those of the second.
In 1942 Harrison left San Francisco for Los Angeles, where he spent a year teaching music history and form to dancers at UCLA and studying with Arnold Schönberg. The following year he moved to New York. There Cowell introduced him to Virgil Thomson, who hired Harrison as a reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune. Harrison wrote more than 300 reviews for the paper from 1944-47. But he found it difficult to cope with the tensions of New York life and in 1947 was hospitalized for several months due to a stress-related illness. Harrison emerged from this crisis strengthened and began to re-evaluate his compositional style, turning more decisively toward melody, diatonicism, and pentatonicism. He also embarked on a more intensive exploration of non-Western musical cultures, creating hybrid works that unite disparate influences. In 1951 he was hired by Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina, where he spent two idyllic years completing numerous compositions, including his first opera Rapunzel. In 1953 he returned to the West Coast and the following year settled in Aptos, just south of Santa Cruz, where he has lived ever since.
The Music for Violin with Various Instruments - European, Asian and African (1967, revised 1969) clearly illustrates Harrison's cross-cultural syntheses. He had been fascinated by the medium of the violin concerto since his San Francisco years, and even wrote an article about the genre during his time in New York. Though he composed several concertos for violin, none uses a traditional orchestra. Harrison completed his concerto for violin and (five) percussionists in 1959, then wrote the Concerto in Slendro (1961), in which the violin plays in an Indonesian pentatonic mode along with two tack-pianos, celesta, and percussion. The Music for Violin with Various Instruments continues this trajectory: here the solo violin is set against an ensemble of reed organ, percussion, psaltery, and African mbiras (thumb pianos). Harrison specifies that the organ be tuned in Pythagorean intonation: all fifths but one are pure (in 3:2 proportion), resulting in wide major thirds. The psaltery, designed and built by Harrison and his partner William Colvig, is modeled on the Chinese cheng and is tuned to match the organ. The four mbiras appear only in the finale. The first player doubles the violin melody while tapping on the body of the instrument with his fingers and stomping his feet on the floor, an African technique that creates the effect of a one-man percussion ensemble. The mbiras used on this recording were built for Harrison by Daniel Munyi of Kenya in 1966.
Harrison's interest in gamelan an Indonesian percussion ensemble composed of knobbed gongs (some hanging, others laid horizontally on rope supports) and keyed metallophones with trough or tubular resonators also dates back to his San Francisco years. He heard recordings of the ensemble in Cowell's course and saw a Balinese gamelan perform at the Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939. But his gamelan work truly blossomed in the 1970s. Harrison and Colvig's interest in pure tuning systems led them to build a set of metallophones tuned in just intonation for Harrison's second opera Young Caesar (1971). Using an oscilloscope, they tuned their instruments with precision, according to historic or newly invented systems. Among the instruments they built were sets of tubes and slabs (some with tin-can resonators) that they called "An American Gamelan." The Solo to Anthony Cirone (a percussionist with the San Francisco Symphony and on the faculty of San Jose State University) was written soon after they completed this new instrument set. The work uses a set of tenor bells tuned in a just D-major scale.
In 1975 Harrison met the renowned Javanese gamelan composer and teacher K. R. T. Wasitodiningrat (known as Pak Cokro) at the Center for World Music in Berkeley. The following year the University of California, Santa Cruz, hired Undang Sumarna, an expert in the gamelan music of Sunda. Harrison studied with both men and began composing for traditional instruments after Pak Cokro invited him to do so in 1976. He was soon using the gamelan as a back-up orchestra for western solo instruments much as he had accompanied flute and violin with the percussion ensemble. Among the earliest pieces to call for this type of cross-cultural mixture was the Threnody for Carlos Chávez for viola and Sundanese gamelan, written in 1978. Harrison's gamelan compositions always bear a personal stamp. In this case, he applied a metric system characteristic of medieval Western music to a Javanese form, the ketawang. Traditional gamelan music is always in duple meter, characteristically featuring several layers with various degrees of elaboration over a basic melody called the balungan. In the Threnody for Carlos Chávez, however, Harrison drew on his knowledge of medieval music to explore multiple layers of triple meter. Medieval theorists postulated three levels, which they called perfect modus, tempus, and prolation. Harrison extended their theories further: Threnody includes eight layers, all triple.
This recording, though entirely focused on percussion, aptly demonstrates most of the essential characteristics of Harrison's music over a forty-year period: his concern with melody, supported by intricate rhythmic interplay; his attention to instrumental color; and most importantly, his commitment to cross-cultural interaction. Music, for Harrison, provides the opportunity for "transethnic" explorations. He is committed to a single "world music" in which disparate subcultures are brought into harmony.
University of California, Santa Cruz
Reviews"What's impressive is how richly tuneful the music sounds. Harrison was a supreme melodist, and in his hands, even an all-percussion program manages to be beguilingly beautiful." - Andante