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CD Review

Lou Harrison

Chamber & Gamelan Works

  • Concerto in Slendro
  • Main Bersama-Sama
  • Threnody for Carlos Chávez
  • Serenade for Betty Freeman and Franco Assetto
  • String Quartet Set
  • Suite for Percussion
Scott L. Hartman, French horn
Susan Bates, violin
Lou Harrison, suling
Gamelan Sekar Kembar
Kronos Quartet
Manhattan Percussion Ensemble
Ensemble conducted by Robert Hughes
New World Records 80643-2 ADD 66:14 (Originally issued as CRI CD613)
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This CD is the perfect introduction to the music of Lou Harrison (1917-2003) although it will appeal to the converted as well. In her notes to this CD, Leta Miller, Harrison's biographer, correctly identifies him as having contributed to American music in three main areas: the establishment and legitimization of percussion ensembles, the blending of musical styles from Asia and the West, and experimentation with alternative tuning systems. Examples of all three can be found on the current CD, which includes music written between 1942 (the Suite for Percussion) and 1979 (Threnody for Carlos Chávez).

The former piece is a product of Harrison's studies in San Francisco with Henry Cowell, who inspired Harrison to delve into Asian music more deeply, and also to delve into the possibilities of percussion instruments. Even in this work, Harrison proves himself to be a melodist, and possibly even a sentimental guy, despite the number of instruments that are being hit at any one time!

The unaware listener might well guess that Harrison's Concerto in Slendro (1961) is Vietnamese or Indonesian folk music. The Concerto is scored for violin, two tack pianos (a predecessor of the prepared piano), celesta, and two percussionists who play an array of "junkyard percussion," including brake drums and metal washtubs. The influence of the Balinese gamelan, implicit in the Suite, becomes explicit here: Harrison's recreation of a traditional gamelan ensemble is uncanny. The music is both exotic and comfortingly familiar, as if these were melodies played to us when we were in out "ur-wombs," if you will. In this work, Harrison also specifies the use of just intonation.

The Threnody, Serenade, and Main Bersama-Sama were written in 1978-79. In two of them, Harrison combines an actual gamelan orchestra in the Indonesian style with western instruments – French horn or violin. In the third, the Serenade, Harrison combines the gamelan with the suling, a type of flute. These combinations are easier to propose than to do, because even the notation system for the gamelan differs greatly from Western musical notation. Harrison himself was one of the players in the Sekar Kembar gamelan ensemble, as was his partner William Colvig.

The String Quartet Set (1978-79) calls for an ultra-traditional group of instruments, but don't be fooled. Here, the experimentation has as much to do with looking back as with looking forward, even in the title. ("Set" is an old-fashioned equivalent for "suite.") There are allusions to medieval music, to the French Baroque, and in the final movement, to a Turkish usul in which the cello is turned into a percussion instrument, leaving the other three strings to sing the plaintively swooping and soaring melody in unison. The String Quartet Set is immediately appealing; Harrison was not a composer who rubbed his eclectic knowledge in listeners' faces like sandpaper. Velvet would be a more apt material. Velvet with a whiff of incense, perhaps.

This originally was a CD on the CRI label. In turn, the CRI disc was a compendium of several even earlier recordings (from 1965 to 1980) originally released by CRI and Desto. In other words, these performances have quite a history, but all of them are first-class – nay, definitive – and even the older recordings remain amazingly potent, in terms of engineering.

In addition to Miller's annotations, there are comments on each work written by Harrison himself, plus New World's usual bibliography and discography. The latter will be particularly useful for listeners who like this disc and who want to hear more Harrison. Who can blame them?

Copyright © 2006, Raymond Tuttle