HARRISON'S GAMELAN MUSIC PRODUCES MELTINGLY BEAUTIFUL SOUNDS
By Lawrence Budmen
Few American composers wrote in such a singular, personal creative voice as Lou Harrison (1917-2003). He was the quintessential California composer. After studies with the modernist and Charles Ives disciple Henry Cowell in San Francisco and the atonal master Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, Harrison teamed up with the avantgardist John Cage to create the nation's first all percussion concert. In the 1960's, Harrison visited the Far East and became fascinated with the music and culture of Bali. Thereafter he devoted much of his compositional efforts to music for the Javanese gamelan - a native instrument which Harrison and William Colvig constructed in Aptos, California. The contrast between the melismatic melodies of the gamelan and the Western classical tradition is the focal point of Harrison's beautiful "Suite for Violin and American Gamelan Orchestra" (co-written with Richard Dee, Harrison's student) - the featured work on the New World Symphony's "Sounds of the Times" concert on April 10, 2004 at the Lincoln Theater in Miami Beach, Florida, USA (The program was repeated on April 22 at New York's Zankel Hall - the new underground performance venue at Carnegie Hall.)
Harrison's work is scored for five gamelans (built of pipes honed to pitch in just intonation - a favorite technique of this composer) and solo violin. Harrison contrasts the meltingly beautiful Southeast Asian sounds of the gamelan ensemble with neo-Baroque writing for the solo violin. (The composer was an early advocate of Baroque music and the early music movement.) The result is less of a culture clash than a beautiful melding of East and West. The vigorous second movement Estampie (a medieval dance from Europe) contrasts with thee Jahla sections (based on a North Indian repetitive ostinato) and a stately Baroque Air and aristocratic Chaconne. Harrison is an inspired melodist. Each movement utilizes wonderful thematic material. This is a score that could only come from the West Coast (with its strong Pacific Rim influences). This unique blend of instrumental timbres and cultural traditions is a work of genius!
Michael Tilson Thomas (a longtime friend of Lou Harrison and champion of his music) led a fervent performance of this one of a kind work. Tilson Thomas evoked the percussive effects and the sensuous lyricism of the gamelan writing. The exquisite sounds of the gamelan players in the third Jahla seemed to make time stop (exactly the Asian effect that inspired this music). Violinist Chee-Yun played the vaulting solo line with gorgeous, almost Russian sounding tone and rhythmic urgency. The lyrical purity of her playing in the Air was memorable. She infused the entire score with tremendous fervor. The magisterial eloquence, singing line, and exhilaration that Chee-Yun and Tilson Thomas brought to the concluding Chaconne were truly wonderful - musical whipped cream on a special artistic journey. Felicitous music making! (Several seasons ago this violinist and conductor gave a passionate, virtuosic performance of Sibelius's "Violin Concerto." Theirs is a special collaboration.)
The French born Edgar Varese (1883-1965) is a composer better known than performed. A pupil of Albert Roussel, Charles Bordes, Vincent d'Indy, Charles-Marie Vidor, and Ferruccio Busoni, Varese would become a follower of the noise theorist Luigi Russolo. Varese's visionary, experimental compositions were ahead of their time and remain challenging even today in the 21st century. "Deserts" (1951-54) is a dissonant, bracing score for winds and percussion with optional electronic taped interludes. For all of the clashing harmonies in this strangely intense work, there are echoes of transformed Impressionism in the music. (Debussy had been an early supporter of Varese.) The taped "industrial noise" sounds rather dated. Far more compelling electronic music has been produced in the five decades since Varese penned this score. "Deserts" seems to suggest "space music." The strident yet elegantly textured wind writing suggests the wonder of the cosmos. Tilson Thomas led his players in a fiercely brilliant performance of this historic work. The New World players seemed to revel in Varese's unique sound world. A visionary work that deserves occasional revival!
"Island Music" (2003) by Michael Tilson Thomas is dedicated to the memory of Lou Harrison, Bill Colvig, and Ingolf Dahl (a distinguished Los Angeles composer who was Tilson Thomas's teacher at the University of Southern California.) "Island Music" is scored for two marimbas and a battery of percussion instruments. A delightful rhythmic subject forms the main thematic content of the work. Elements of jazz and Steve Reich style minimalism find expression in this bouncy score. A contemplative middle section contrasts with the vigorous outer movements. This is entertainment music - written with great sophistication and style. Marimba virtuosi Nancy Zeltsman (who inspired the work) and Jack Van Geem (principal percussionist of Tilson Thomas's San Francisco Symphony) performed the score with irrepressible enthusiasm and gusto. A dazzling display of instrumental virtuosity!
Thirteen of the "Duets for Two Violins" by Luciano Berio (1925-2003) united the New World string players with students from Miami's New World School of the Arts (organized by violist and Professor Richard Fleischman). Here Berio combines café music, Gypsy folk elements, and his own avant garde style into a daunting violinistic technical primer. These vignettes form a charming divertissement. The New World School students did themselves proud. When Tilson Thomas led the entire group in the final piece, there was a palpable sense of exhilaration.
Modernism takes many musical forms. This NWS program celebrated the 20th century's musical mavericks - visionary iconoclasts. The revivals of scores by Edgar Varese and Lou Harrison were seminal musical events. An engrossing and exhilarating evening!