The Music

Notes on music at “Pacific Harmonies”

Posted by SoundBox

December 7, 2016

HARRISON  Kyrie from Mass to Saint Anthony
HARRISON  Concerto No. 1 for Flute and Percussion
HARRISON   Canticle No. 3
HARRISON   Selections from Pacifika Rondo
HARRISON & DEE  Selections from Suite for Violin and American Gamelan
HARRISON   Selections from Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra



THE GRAND MASTER OF SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA COMPOSERS, Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was witness to most of the major developments in 20th-century American music. He was a West Coast phenomenon. A mystic and visionary. He was outstandingly versatile and flexible. He was a devotee of melody, rhythm, and counterpoint over harmony. Articulating political views of multiculturalism, ecological responsibility, and pacifism, there seem to have been no barriers of geography nor history that stood between Lou and the world’s music.

1917 - 1920s | BIRTH & THE BAY AREA
Lou Silver Harrison was born on May 14, 1917 in Portland, Oregon.

The Harrison family moved to San Francisco in the mid-1920s. Lou’s father, for a time the proprietor of one of those grand automobile palaces on Van Ness, was not a musician but got great pleasure from music. His mother was a good pianist and her sister Lounette a fine violinist. Lou was named after his Aunt Lounette—as he told it, “when they discovered I had . . . ornaments . . . they cut off the ‘-nette.’”

Lou studied Gregorian chant at Mission Dolores, went to dancing class where he learned to maneuver his way through waltzes and polkas, and listened with curiosity and delight to whatever music came out of the Chinese and Japanese communities. It was a varied diet that led naturally to a life in which, along with being a prolific composer, Lou had at different times been a florist, record clerk, poet, dancer, music and dance critic, music copyist, and playwright.

In 1934, Lou met and began studying under Henry Cowell. It was probably the single most critical decision of his musical life. Years later, Harrison would recall with special gratitude a “Music of the Peoples of the World” course, taught by Cowell, that he took at the University of California Extension at San Francisco. The encounter would change the course and reach of American music.

MASS TO SAINT ANTHONY (1939) is an earnest protest to world events. Lou began writing this Gregorian-like chant when Hitler invaded Poland; it was an expression of his outrage and hope. The Kyrie heard tonight is sung to the sounds of a marching Nazi army, represented here by the vibraphone, snare, field, bass, and brake drums.

Already clear this early in the game was that Lou’s music would always be touched by Cowell’s aesthetic. “It was Henry Cowell,” he said, “who first pointed out to me the fact that an enormous amount of the world’s music consists of a melody with some sort of rhythmic support.”

His FIRST CONCERTO FOR FLUTE AND PERCUSSION (1939) captures this to a T. He described the piece as percussionists playing “short ostinati [a short, constantly repeated rhythmic pattern] while the flute, often ‘crossing’ the rhythms of the accompaniment, makes tune-like music for which only 3 intervals are used.” Notable here is Lou’s interest in exotic tunings removed from traditional 12-tone equal temperament; this interest would become more explicit in the coming years.

The 1940s saw Lou becoming more and more interested in Korean, Chinese, Mexican, and other non-European music.

His CANTICLE NO. 3 (1941) was written during what Lou called his Mexican Period. “In the time during that I composed my Canticle No. 3,” Lou said, “I was intensely interested in the history of Mexico, in all its elaborately beautiful arts . . . . The ocarina in this Canticle is intended to remind of ancient things, of Mexican pyramids and frieze carvings, while the shamelessly strummed guitar suggests a later, Hispanic mode. The musical texture is composed of a number of small rhythmicles and melodicles woven together (so to speak). . . As the piece gained power and intensity it occurred to me that the climax would be a contrast between full silences and full sounds, thus the interruption in the center. The ending suggests a kind of procession moving off into the high distance.”

A year after writing Canticle No. 3, Lou moved to Los Angeles—at Cowell’s suggestion—to study with Arnold Schoenberg. It’s hard to imagine two composers more different from each other. Nevertheless Lou remembered his year with Schoenberg fondly: “He was very open and he took you seriously. Schoenberg constantly moved me—and all his students—in the direction of simplicity—bring out only the salient.”

Steeped in Schoenberg’s serialism and atonality, Lou left the West Coast (or “Pacifica,” as he called it) and struck out for New York. He spent the most of the '40s on the East Coast (his “Atlantica”). There, also through Cowell, Lou met the esteemed music critic and composer Virgil Thomson. Through Virgil, he became close with a bevy of brilliant, experimental and world artists, among them John Cage, the Korean musician Lee Hye-Ku, and Javanese gamelan player Pak Chokro.

1948 - 1963 | FROM “PACIFICA," WITH LOVE
In spite of his endeavors and successes in New York, Lou adjusted poorly to the stress, first developing an ulcer and then in 1947 suffering a nervous breakdown for which he was hospitalized for 9 months. He used the experience as a catalyst for change in his compositional style, eschewing the dense counterpoint of his early New York years. The period immediately after his hospitalization was one of his most productive, with his SUITE FOR CELLO AND HARP (1949) among his new works. It is testament to his altered compositional voice.

Lou left “Atlantica” in 1948. His time in New York had given him a good grounding in European music. But, as he explained, “I am part of Pacifica and as I point out my origins are in the Pacific region.” His decision to return to California and live in “Pacifica” was also a decision to turn away from the Western European art-music tradition. Harrison believed that those rooted in Pacifica felt other cultural allegiances. “Here you assume you are American and are fascinated by Japan and Java and China and all around the Pacific basin,” he said.

The move West likewise saw Lou for the most part abandoning 12-tone serialism, which he used thereafter primarily for anti-war statements to symbolize the mechanization of Western industrial society. Lou eventually settled in the (then-rural) town of Aptos, near Santa Cruz, where he would live for the remainder of his life. He developed closer ties to Asia, which he visited for the first time in 1961. In 1961 and ’62, Lou spent several months in Korea and Taiwan studying and learning Far Eastern instruments.

A number of his works from this period, including his PACIFIKA RONDO (1963), nod to this time in his life, calling for ensembles of mixed Western and Asian instruments. With the exception of the last section (A Hatred of the Filthy Bomb), each movement of Pacifika Rondo refers to a section of the Pacific basin. Three are performed tonight: The Family of the Court largely refers to Korea and its court life. In Sequoia's Shade refers to California, particularly to its colonial days. A Hatred of the Filthy Bomb is a protest against the bomb and its contamination and destruction of Pacific life.

Lou remarked, “I have been told to try several of the ways in which I think classic Asian musics might of themselves, and together, evolve in the future, and have combined instruments of several ethnics directly for musical expression. In composing Pacifika Rondo I have thought, with love, around the circle of the Pacific.”


“Well, for me the gamelan is the . . . most beautiful single musical ensemble on the planet.
Its tone color is ravishing, it has a range of sound from top to bottom like a Western
orchestra does when its fully used . . .”

In 1967 Lou met William Colvig (1917-2000), an electrician and amateur musician, who became his partner as well as a dedicated collaborator on instrument building and tuning experiments. In 1971 they constructed a set of metallophones and found materials (like steel conduit tubing, aluminum slabs, stacked tin cans as resonators). Noting the instruments’ superficial resemblance to a gamelan, they named theirs the “American gamelan.” To these instruments Lou and Bill added galvanized garbage cans and cut-off oxygen tanks struck with baseball bats. The American gamelan thus became an integration of junk material, a percussion ensemble, just intonation, and Indonesian sounds.

In the early 1970s, Lou collaborated with Richard Dee to compose a piece for their violinist friend, Loren Jakey. The success of that piece warranted going further and so they accepted a commission from the San Francisco Chamber Music Society for the SUITE FOR VIOLIN AND AMERICAN GAMELAN (1973). Lou remarked, “I always enjoyed working with other composers and my “Double Music” with John Cage attests to that, as well as works with Robert Hughes, this one with Richard Dee, and the fact that I have reconstructed sections of work by Charles Ives and by Henry Cowell, and so on. Co-op composition is fun if the rules are set up and nobody cheats.”

The San Francisco Symphony enjoyed an especially close relationship with Lou during Michael Tilson Thomas’s first year as Music Director. That season, 1995-96, opened with Lou’s Parade for MTT, written for Michael and commissioned by the SFS. Lou was also an important presence in the Symphony’s 1996 American Festival, during which portions of his Organ Concerto were performed. That music proved so popular that Michael Tilson Thomas programmed the entire work for the American Mavericks festival in 2000, a celebration of incredible “outsider” music that featured works by Lou and his contemporaries. MTT and the SFS later recorded the work with organist Paul Jacobs (SFS Media), captured as part of the 2012 American Mavericks festival.

Lou tells us this about his CONCERTO FOR ORGAN WITH PERCUSSION ORCHESTRA (1973): “In 1972, I was asked by Philip Simpson, who was then teaching organ at San Jose State University, for a work for his instrument. Within a day or so I also received a request from Anthony Cirone (SFS percussionist from 1965-2001), director of the San Jose State University Percussion Ensemble, for a work for his year’s concert. The two requests came so closely together that it occurred to me to try combining the two. It also seemed to me that since the percussion orchestra can make a lot of sound and the pipe organ can make a lot of sound too, to put them together and see what would happen.

For this work, Bill [Colvig] made for us some stunning new wooden drums . . . very large cubelike instruments suspended from a large rack, and he also added to the set of large gas cylinder bells. Because the organ is a sustaining tonal instrument, and much of the percussion I wished to use was to be of abstract sound without specified fixed pitch, I felt that an intermediate group of percussion instruments of fixed pitch ought to be used.

Thus, there is a chorus of piano, glockenspiel, vibraphone, celesta, and tube chimes which bridge between the organ and the abstract percussion section. My pleasure in the keyboard treatment of Henry Cowell lead me to the use of large sections of ‘cluster’ writing for which Bill provided felt padded slabs and which require special techniques from the organist. My feeling in the last movement was originally meant as a kind of homage to those syncopated sections in César Franck. Although it is composed entirely in an inverted mode from ancient Greece, and is commonly construed by audiences as a sort of jazz festival, the central largo movement is another of my works using that eight-tone mode which runs half step, whole step, half step, whole step, etc., a mode which I always find a pleasure to use.”

Lou loved it when people cared about music—he made no bones about that. He was big-hearted, funny, and absolutely immune to self-importance. He radiated generosity, and his very presence was a gift, as is his music—so unlike any other music in the world, yet born from the music of the world.


Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.