Lou Harrison's later works, notably the many pieces that call for Indonesian gamelan--either alone or in combination with Western instruments--show the results of his considerable immersion in the music of the Far East. But so does the earlier, marvelously subtle Suite for Violin, Piano, and an Orchestra, consisting of three winds, two cellos, bass, harp, celesta, tam-tam and a "tackpiano" (an upright with tacks in the hammers so as to give off a harpsichord-like clangor), composed in 1951, ten years before Harrison's first visit to the Orient. Two of its six movements are entitled "Gamelan;" with their simple, open sonorities and their accompaniment obsessively repeating, they do indeed capture the essence of this haunting, teasing music-- a "honeyed thunder," as Harrison himself describes it.
Nearly 35 years separate this work from the large-scale Piano Concerto completed in 1985. Harrison's fascination with exotic musical sounds and designs led him to the actual building of Oriental instruments, including two complete gamelans. This activity, in turn, led him to a consideration of the manner in which instruments are tuned, and of systems of intonation in use throughout the world in the past and present.
Given the invitation to write a concerto for the noted jazz and classical composer Keith Jarrett (who, like Harrison, has crossed musical boundaries throughout his career), Harrison suggested a work in which the piano would be "mistuned" to an earlier, pre-compromise system. "[This] Concerto," writes Harrison, "is an exploration of the many beauties of...this astonishing tuning." Briefly put, the black keys are tuned to produce the mathematically precise 4ths and 5ths beloved of medieval theoreticians; the white keys come off resembling the "just intonation" of the Renaissance and Baroque. The orchestra consists of strings, two harps, three trombones and a large percussion section; each group, furthermore, tunes to different facets of this system.
New Japan Philharmonic, Naoto Otomo; Keith Jarrett, piano; Lucy Stoltzman, violin