The Father of World Music

‘Cherish, consider, conserve, create’ – the motto of 80-year-old Lou Harrison, who composes for baseball bats, flower pots and oxygen cylinders. But this American visionary has method in his madness.

In the USA the terms ‘West Coast’ and ‘East Coast’ aren’t simply geographical. John Cage, who spent the last 50 years of his life in and around New York, was as West Coast as it’s possible to be, ‘West Coast’ here meaning laid-back, off-the-wall (and ‘East Coast’ meaning up-tight). But in another sense those phrases are very geographical indeed. The West Coast of America faces Asia, not Europe, and to get to ‘the East’ from California you must fly or sail westwards.

Lou Harrison, who arrived in California 72 years ago at the age of eight (he was born in Portland, Oregon, itself not far from the Pacific), has always known this. As a boy he heard Chinese operas far more often than European ones, and he grew up with the music of Japan, India, Indonesia and Latin America in his ears. He says that he lives in Pacifica, while Americans from the Eastern states live in Atlantica. His teachers were the most open-eared and open-minded of American experimentalists, Henry Cowell (the first to draw magical new sounds from the piano by plucking and strumming its strings), and the high priest of European modernism, Arnold Schoenberg. Harrison’s music doesn’t sound like either of them. Nor like Charles Ives (whose Third Symphony he edited and premiered; Ives was so impressed and grateful that when the symphony won a Pulitzer Prize he insisted on sharing the money with Harrison). Nor does he sound like his old friend John Cage, though they worked together in the 1930s, pioneering concerts for percussion only, finding some of their instruments in junk-yards (steel brake-drums) and garden centres (tuned flower-pots).

A lot of words that we use to describe Western music aren’t much use in discussing Harrison’s. There’s little counterpoint, his harmonies are simple, he doesn’t go in for ‘development’ much. His rhythms, however, are often complex, and the predominant feature of all his music is melody. Because of his acquaintance with non-Western musics he’s not too happy with the standard ‘well-tempered’ scale (so-called) and has often called for instruments tuned to purer intervals.

He often uses instruments from what he calls the Pacific rim, and with his partner Bill Colvig he has built an ‘American gamelan’ from metal conduit (tin cans welded together serve as resonators), with sawn-off oxygen cylinders, struck with baseball bats, providing deep gong-like sonorities. Native American music has interested him, too, and his fascination with what we now call ‘early music’ predates the current revival of interest: Lou Harrison was playing and writing music for ‘period’ instruments 50 years ago.

In his time (he hasn’t always been able to live by music) he’s been a dancer, a florist, a forest firefighter, a vet and a journalist. He’s a superb calligrapher (his manuscripts are exceptionally beautiful), a painter, a fine poet in both English and Esperanto (which he speaks fluently) and a designer of three elegant typefaces. He makes neither a secret nor a song-and-dance of his pacifism or his homosexuality. And all or most of this can be heard in his music, reflecting his personal motto: ‘Cherish, consider, conserve, create’.

Most of this I knew before I’d heard more than a few moments of his music; it made me reluctant to investigate further, and rather wary of meeting him. I half suspected an elderly hippy, chanting mantras and writing sweet, minimalist music or mock-Asian tinklings. In fact his music does at times sound very convincingly oriental: not just because he occasionally uses the Chinese sheng, the Korean p’iri, the African mbira and all the constituents of the Javanese gamelan. He’s also studied the music and the literature of those countries in great detail. His study of pre-baroque music has been no less thorough; at times his own music sounds medieval or Renaissance, even like Vaughan Williams in his Tallis Fantasia manner.

Indeed Lou Harrison has written music in a bewildering variety of styles. His strange opera Rapunzel, a setting of William Morris’s mysterious poem, sounds at times like updated medieval music drama with its austere chanting and slender accompaniment, at times like Monteverdi in its meticulous word-setting. It’s a shock to realise that it’s quite strictly serial. Elsewhere, perhaps more revealingly, he uses strict serialism and the ‘well-tempered’ Western scale in a single movement of a work – Pacifika Rondo – otherwise enriched with instruments from all round the Pacific. The work pays homage to Korean court music, the sequoias of California, the music of ancient Mexico, the innocent play of dolphins and the orchestras of T’ang dynasty China. The ‘interloping’ movement, its title sounding all the more outraged in Esperanto, is called ‘Malamo pri la malpuregaj bomboj’ – ‘Hatred of the filthy bomb’. Most of Harrison’s music, though, is joyful. Its simplicity and purity (typically a long melody with richly patterned rhythmic accompaniment) are innocent and childlike but by no means childish.

Listeners used to the dense complexities of the Western tradition may at first dismiss his music as thin; some at least will later find it obstinately memorable; returning to it can seem as refreshing as spring water. His pieces are not strenuously-achieved masterpieces, but go on for as long as they need to and then stop, often with little conflict or obvious drama. He refers to the styles and influences that he has used as his ‘toys’. Recently asked to define where he stands in the spectrum of modern music, he said he hadn’t the slightest idea: ‘I can only say, “Lou Harrison is an old man who’s had a lot of fun.”’ Long before the term ‘world music’ was invented, he was writing it.

Classic CD magazine, 1997


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