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Before the mid 20th century, composer and environmentalist Lou Silver Harrison (1917-2003) made his own idiomatic mark. A skilled craftsman, he combined an awareness of global cultures, a passionate belief in social equity and a love of melody, whatever its forms. In over three hundred compositions for western, eastern, and custom-made instruments, Harrison wrote for a comprehensive inventory of groups and soloists including Keith Jarrett, Yo-Yo Ma, The Mark Morris Dance Group (Brooklyn) while Dennis Russell Davies premièred several of Harrison's works.
In 1942 he studied with Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA, and also became recognized as a critic under the watchful eye of composer/writer Virgil Thomson. From 1975, instructed by Javanese gamelan orchestra guru Ki K P H Wasitodiningrat (also known as 'Pak Cokro'), Harrison mastered the performance and theory of gamelan music.
During the following decade he composed approximately fifty pieces for gamelan, often in combinations with Western instruments, among them Philemon and Baukis; from Ovid (1984 -- violin and gamelan), Main Bersama-sama (1978 -- horn and Sundanese gamelan), and Bubaran Robert (1976 -- trumpet and gamelan).
He received many awards, including membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 'Humanitarian of the Year' (American Humanist Association) and Musical America's composer of the year (2002).
Harrison -- influenced by Cowell, Cage and McPhee -- became a pioneer in the use of alternate tunings, world music studies and new instruments. He favoured Balinese music like Mcphee but used more of Cage and Cowell's inspiration ... frequently utilizing percussion instruments, especially those of Far Eastern origin.
Listen -- Harrison: Polka (Grand Duo)
(track 11, 2:17-3:19) © 2008 Cedille Records
Throughout Harrison's eccentric Grand Duo (1988 -- 31 mins), Koh and Uchida display commanding fire and finesse -- the opening Prelude is a quixotic, multi-colored fantasy of the arcane and mysterious; the Polka is positively seismic and in both Stampede and Polka, Harrison incorporates 'strident octave clusters' that Uchida performs using a special 'octave bar'.
The first and fourth movements -- 'Prelude' and 'Air' -- suggest a French baroque suite, though the remaining movements bear less obvious titles -- 'Stampede,' 'A Round' (Annabel & April's) and 'Polka'. 'Stampede' (an act of mass impulse in which animals or people collectively begin running with no clear direction or purpose) is self explanatory and 'A Round', a relative of the Rondo. As for the Polka, 18th century French suites end similarly with a lively Gigue or Passepied.
Harrison's Asian influences emerge most conspicuously in the moderately paced Prelude. It embodies scales unusual to Western ears: an amalgam of Bach and the East as intriguing as Piazzolla's wedding of Western and Latin forms. The brisk, frenetic 'Stampede' is both vigorously dancelike and deadly serious, with exciting forward propulsion. Harrison's expansive, melancholic 'Air', almost eleven minutes in length, lies at the core of the work, and the liberated 'Polka' is agreeably rollicking.
Copyright © 2 July 2008
Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand