Lou HarrisonThursday March 27th, 2009
Drums Along the Pacific Day 2: The Music of Lou Harrison

While I was more familiar with Lou Harrison’s music going in to this then I was with Henry Cowell, this program was again almost entirely new to me.  Harrison was a contemporary of John Cage and he also was a student of Henry Cowell (and Schoenberg as well).  Like Cage he caught the percussion bug from Cowell and continued to work with it throughout his life.  During the 30s he and Cage fed off of each other using each others interests, innovations and developments.  Cage’s interest in metallic percussion instruments was taken up by Harrison as was Cage’s Water Gong and prepared piano.  While Harrison continued with percussion throughout his life his interests in the musics of other cultures became dominant and the use of alternate tunings became a primary feature of his music. Of the three musicians presented in this festival Harrison’s music is the least performed so this really was a rare opportunity that I was thrilled to have.

I determined that I was going to be able to attend this show only about an hour before it started and I left for Cornish immediately upon confirmation.  I arrived about a half hour before the curtain to find it sold out and they were putting people on the waiting list! I was about eighth on that list and I hung around ’til a few minutes before showtime to hear if I’d get in. I did and it seemed they also opened up the balcony which means everyone got in. I got a great seat, second row center and the seats next to me never filled in.  Due to filling in all of the wait list the show started a bit later then it had the previous night, but around 8:15 the lights dimmed and the show was announced. This time special thanks went out to people who had helped with all of the tuning needs.

The first set began with Double Music which was jointly written by John Cage with each composer writing parts for two percussionists.  The Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet, operating unassisted for this piece had a vast array of materials including the ubiquitous brake drums and Cage’s water gong along with a thunder sheet, tuned cowbells, tam-tams and so on.  The piece had a really Gamalan feel to it, much more so even than Cowells similar percussion works. The water gong had a fantastic wavery sound to it as it was moved through the water and the mostly metallic percussion instruments gave this the feel a a junkyard band.  The piece was quite uptempo and fascinating, a really great start to the night. This was followed by May Rain for prepared piano, tam-tam and baritone, which came across as a Henry Cowell song with Cage like accompaniment.  The piano reminded me of the more lightly prepared pianos of  Cages earlier prepared piano pieces such as Perilous Night. The song was low, slow and very rich, but thematically I didn’t find much there.

The first chamber piece of the evening was The Perilous Chapel for flute, harp, tom-toms and ‘cello.  This was an interesting composition that was apparently inspired by Persian miniatures but it contained elements that reminded me of certain trends in contemporary composition. It began with the flute playing a short scale, which was then joined by the ‘cello doing likewise and then finally the harp entered.  This movement went on for a while with these three interlocking scales which was interrupted at one point by a brief rather tribal tattoo on the drums.  Later movements were more drum oriented with the harp providing glissando effects, arpeggios and the like. The end of the piece was percussion free with the ‘cello providing a slow drone as the flute and harp floated above it with rather wistful melodies.  A nice piece with interesting elements.

The final piece for the first set was the lengthy Suite for Percussion featuring the percussion quartet along with Bonnie Whiting Smith also on percussion.  This piece made extensive use of the brake drums to provide the melodic content and also had a section that featured the springs from a clock (originally Harrison’s own).  Its three movements were quite different beginning with what seemed like all five percussionists following their own rhythmic structure that interconnected with each other.  This varied in density and it was in the middle of this first movement that there was a very soft section with the aforementioned clock spring accompanied by bells and chimes. Very charming. The second movement opened with just the thunder sheet and a gong whose sound was allowed to decay before being struck again before moving on to a long section of solo wooden blocks.  The final movement again began with a slow, loud rhythm this time set by a big bass drum.  The metallic instruments came back in and the piece came to a head at the end with all members vigorously playing.  I found this piece fully engaging with lots going on, incredible textures and a wide variety of sounds.

Set two began with the most dramatic, energetic and aggressive piece of the night, Simfony #13 composed in 1941. To quote from the program notes, for this piece:

“The orchestration is a mix of instruments in typical Harrison fashion. Players one and two have three sets each of five or six wood and metal instruments: woodblocks, water buffalo bells, and cowbells for one; suspended temple blocks (dragon’s mouths) and muted brake drums for the other. The third player has an elephant bell, a triangle, a suspended cymbal, a gong, and a tam-tam, and the fourth, seven tom-toms and a bass drum. This performance marks the Seattle premiere of this work.” -Matthew Kocmieroski

The Seattle premier of this piece was preformed by the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet who deftly weaved this dense and driving piece.  Like most of the Harrison percussion pieces the use of polyrhythms was quite apparent giving this the feel of both locked and shifting patterns.  The piece concluded with a super loud assault on the drums which stopped dead and was repeated.

Following this dramatic entrance was a piece for a single upright piano, Incidental Music to Corneille’s ‘Cinna’. The piano had a really metallic sound and the piece had an almost player piano feel.  Reading the program description of this piece it turns out that the piano was tuned into 7-limit Just intonation and had tacks added to the hammers to create what is known as a “tack piano”.   This music,  which was scored for a play, was in three distinct movements each with its own character. The first was almost rag-time like, the most Nancarrow feeling, whose tempo shifted constantly throughout. The second had a fugal character to it which the tacks gave almost a harpsichord like flavor thus strongly evoking the baroque. The final movement was more melancholy and romantic with a strong classical feel.  A real varied piece that took full advantage of this strange instrument and its non-standard tuning.

Two shorter chamber works follow, the first In Memorium of Victor Jowers for harp and bass clarinet was defined by low, slow melodic lines from the clarinet punctuated with single plucked notes from the harp. Very melodic and simple as it developed the harp played simple octaves in an ascending scale.  Music for Remy which followed directly afterward was for clarinet and percussion and was written for a long time friend of Harrison’s who was a professional dancer. It began with an almost snake charmer like sound, the clarinet weaving through the simple, but steady, percussion.  It developed from this into a very klezmer feeling piece perhaps utilizing the hijaz scale. It concluded gently, almost soporific, which nicely wound down an interesting and different piece.

The concert concluded with the Concerto in Siendro with a full stage including two tack pianos, trash cans, ranch triangles, gongs, washtub, violin and celesta. The lead violin from the Seattle Chamber Players was right out front and performed with his typical exuberance. He literally bounced around as he played and waved tempo in parts when he wasn’t playing a big grin on his visage the whole time.  The piece opened big with a massive percussive blast which then shifted into a rollicking, almost Russian flavored melody driven by pyrotechnics on the violin. The middle movement of the piece was much less dense, quite sentimental with the violin evoking a nursery rhyme sang by a keening voice and answered with rather staccato interplay from the piano.  For the final movement the energy was brought back up, with dramatic little solos from the violin and answering missives from the percussionists. In the very end all of the musicians were playing and the combination of the percussion, tack pianos and celesta was like a demented mechanical music box.  Very entertaining piece and a stunning conclusion to a great evening.

Following this evenings performance was a champagne reception next door to the recital hall which I briefly attended. The show had run well after 10pm due to the late start and as I was going to be quite busy all weekend with family activities I was not able to linger.  It was a nice affair though with the performers, organizers and staff mingling amongst the audience and supporters.  These first few days of the festival had been really well done, very professionally put on and musically rewarding. I’m really glad I got a chance to see these two rarely performed composers and regret missing the rest of the festival. I’m sure that the rest of it was as great as these first days.