In the last conversation I had with him, a few weeks before he passed away, Lou had just heard the edited version of this recording. He said, "I love every minute of it! But I'm late, I have to go. Goodbye!" I write this just days after his death, not only filled with sadness but also gratitude for his life and work and the privilege to have known him.
The guitar works of Lou Harrison span fifty years. The earliest piece on this recording, Serenado por Gitaro (a title in Esperanto), was included in a letter to Frank Wigglesworth dated February 12, 1952. For many years the piece remained unpublished, and guitarists circulated photocopies of the piece in Harrison's beautiful calligraphy. The music reflects Indian and other Asian influences, and represents a rejection of the densely textured modernism prevalent on the east coast at that time. "I don't think increasing complexity is the answer to anything," Lou has said. "I don't think significance is opposed to beauty."
Twenty-five years later the composer set out to write five suites for guitar, each in a different intonation. But the only completed work from that time was another Serenade (1978) in five movements with optional percussion, written in an eight-tone mode with a flatted second and raised fourth.
From that period also come the Plaint and Variations on Walter Von der Wogelweide's "Song of Palestine" (1978), remnants of an unfinished guitar suite which ultimately became the first two movements of Harrison's String Quartet Set. Harrison characterized the variations as being in a European-style quintal counterpoint of medieval origin.
Although often approached by guitarists for more music, almost twenty-five more years went by before Lou was again ready to write for the instrument. It turned out that one of his hesitations about the guitar over the years had been the relative lack of sustain of the classical guitar. After I made several trips to his house with trunkloads of guitars, he immediately recognized in the National Steel guitar the sound he yearned for. For the program notes of the premiere, Lou wrote:
While mother played an afternoon of Mah Jong with friends, we children listened to records or the radio. We heard a lot of Hawaiian music and I can remember the sliding and waving guitar tones over a gap of almost eighty years. The wonderful sculpture and architecture of Nek Chand, near Chandigarh (India) set me to composing three small pieces in admiration. My friend Dave Scully very kindly lent his richly-toned steel guitar for me to explore for composing. National Reso-Phonic Guitars of San Luis Obispo loaned an instrument to the consummate artist David Tanenbaum for the premiere performance. Unlike the classical guitar, the National Steel has a cone resonator inside the body that acts as a kind of amplifier. Invented in the late 1920s for players to be heard with jazz bands, the genre has been revived and there now is an exotic array of these wonderful instruments. The score, commissioned by Other Minds, is dedicated to Charles Amirkhanian & Carol Law, with thanks for many kindnesses, and to David Tanenbaum, who was willing to play it.
I played the premiere of Scenes from Nek Chand (2001-2) on March 7, 2002, on a borrowed instrument in equal temperament. Soon after, the factory made me the instrument used on this recording, with the well-tempered modified fret-board for the tuning that Lou preferred. A few days before his death, Lou had agreed to write another piece for the National Steel with ensemble.
The harp music of Lou Harrison transfers to the guitar very comfortably without the need to alter any notes, just as the little Serenado can also be played on harp or harpsichord. Each of these pieces has a little story.
Avalokiteshvara (December 12, 1964) is the Buddha of compassion who vowed to save all beings. The piece is in the Korean mode called "The Delightful."
Threnody to the Memory of Oliver Daniel was written in Aptos on New Year's Eve, 1990.
The transcription of Sonata in Ishartum, which is originally for two Troubadour harps, lowers the pitch by a fifth. The "Ishartum" mode is the "white key" mode on E. It was first found on a tuning tablet from the 18th century BC, with the name "Ishartum" written in Old Babylonian cuneiform.
Beverly's Troubadour Piece was written at a party one night in 1967 when several of Lou's friends in Aptos composed pieces for Beverly Bellows to play on a new troubadour harp.
Music for Bill and Me (1966-67) is for the composer's longtime companion and fellow instrument maker William Colvig, who died in 2000.
The transcription Jahla in the form of a Ductia - to pleasure Leopold Stokowski on his ninetieth birthday (March 28, 1972) moves the key from C to D, but, as in the other transcriptions, changes no notes. The Ductia is a medieval form. (My earlier recording of this work, which was heard and endorsed by the composer before the recording, was in mixolydian mode. Here the piece is heard in its original Ionian mode.)
In 1997 I directed an 80th birthday festival for Lou Harrison at the San Francisco Conservatory and transcribed Tandy's Tango (1992), a piano piece for Lou's dancer/friend Tandy Beal. Tandy had never before choreographed her piece, so we premiered the transcription and dance at the festival. I later made this version for two guitars.
At the time of composing the Waltz, Harrison wrote, "A Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen (written for C.F. Peters' 'The Waltz Project' in 1977) takes the form of an homage to a remarkable woman and friend who used to help me as music librarian when we were both young at Mills College and who is now the thoughtful, generous and endearing matriarch of the publishing house of C.F. Peters Edition."
Reviews"Superlative...a delectable collection of Harrison's gutar pieces performed with vigor and sensitivity by David Tanenbaum." - Joshua Kosman