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Borrowed Finery 

Thursday, May 6 2004
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Photo by Betty Freeman

“Cherish the hybrids,” Lou Harrison used to say, and say again, as a kind of mantra. “They’re all we’ve got.” Two big works, 33 years apart in the infinite variety of his legacy, were on hand last week, each a different kind of mix and, as it happened, each a different kind of marvel. What they shared were those cherishable qualities we are only now coming to discover about Harrison’s music, its beauty and its strength.

That latter quality in particular eludes some listeners. Harrison never concealed his fondness for writing pretty music, and some of it, to be sure, simply melts in your ear. The final moments of The Perilous Chapel, which the USC Thornton Contemporary Music Ensemble performed at last week’s Green Umbrella concert, fades out in a haze of pure diatonic velvet for which no better word than pretty will suffice. But the music in context, as the resolution to previous barbarous goings-on — all scored for soft-spoken ensemble of harp, flute, cello and small drum, and therefore sounding off in the distance like a bunch of garrulous toys — is exactly the proper sweet resolution.

That music dates from 1948. Harrison was in New York; his circle included Virgil Thomson and John Cage, and he had made a name for himself editing and performing the Third Symphony of Charles Ives and guiding it toward recognition 40 years overdue. Some of that work’s naive and folkish melodic style rubs off on the young (31) Harrison’s work, but the sound of this early piece, the wonderful “open” scoring of those solo instruments, points unmistakably ahead to the fascination with matters exotic and otherworldly that would seize his imagination many years later.

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The Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Javanese Gamelan dates from 1981 and reveals that fascination in full flower. Harrison had by then journeyed around the Pacific Rim and absorbed the languages of its musics until he could make those languages his own. He then set himself up in California as a missionary, teaching college kids fresh off the beach how to compose in the tuning systems of Bali and Java, how to build and tune their own gongs and drums and form their own gamelans, and yet — this is important — how to merge these sounds and these harmonic systems into their own Western melodic and rhythmic instincts. Cherish the hybrids, he taught, and become them. His own music led the way.

This Double Concerto, which concluded a splendid XTET program at LACMA in a burst of glory, with Susan Jensen and Roger Lebow as soloists and Bill Alves’ Harvey Mudd American Gamelan from the Claremont Colleges, is pure mongrel, and wonderful of its kind. The background is, of course, the rich, subtle sounds of the excellent small gamelan — and that’s already a sight, five very undergrad-looking kids whomping away at the devices from a culture half a world and half a millennium away. Against this the solo instruments play an almost continual rhapsodic line that seems to have both shape and no shape at all. There is other music like this: some of Terry Riley’s long works for the Kronos, but there the melodic impetus seems more Celtic than Pacific.

It’s probably pointless, however, to seek out resemblances; there are just so many notes in the world, after all. What has happened here — and it is more delightful than anything else — is that Harrison has accomplished an overlay of Western concerto principles onto this alien foundation, made it adhere in some strange and cockeyed way, and turned out something close to a masterpiece. The exhilarating Double Concerto is just that. It’s easy to make the distinction in dealing with new music, as I wrote for another magazine in 1987 and do so again, that diatonic harmonies plus tunes equals conservative and that abstruse harmonies plus bristling melodic lines equals progressive. But those equations break down constantly in the real world, and they do with Lou Harrison.

 

Donald Crockett conducted both the USC ensemble and XTET Harrison performances; if that establishes him as the local authority on that composer, so much to the good. Also on the USC program — planned as a celebration of Pacific Rim music — was a work by Australia’s Liza Lim, whose Ecstatic Architecture, commissioned by the Philharmonic, comes up later this month at Disney Hall’s Building Music Festival. The Heart’s Ear, based on the 13th-century mystic poet Rumi, a 10-minute-or-so piece of attractive floating adrift in a just-intonation tuning system, finished too soon after its start. It does make her next piece worth the expectation. At the end came AC/DC by Vietnam’s P.Q. Phan, which on one hearing seemed like a lot of aimless noise. Mr. Phan, says a program note, is “currently composing music which integrates the musical aesthetics of Southeast Asia and the West.” Plus ça change . . .

The XTET program boasted an all-star list: Luciano Berio (his O King), Morton Feldman’s second The Viola in My Life and Olivier Messiaen’s Pièce for piano quartet, along with the Harrison. Feldman’s Viola pieces are too seldom done; their reputation probably suffers from their composer’s reputation for diffuseness, which is unfair because these pieces go somewhere — and beautifully. At LACMA, Kazi Pitelka’s viola seemed to fill the stage with little points of light, greeted and echoed by the soft “pings” from David Johnson’s percussion on one side of the stage and Vicki Ray’s celesta on the other. Magical.

Messiaen’s Pièce for piano and strings was his musical farewell, written a year before his death. Surprise seemed to dominate the intermission conversation, that this master of the transcendental panorama had gone off so tersely, yet this four-minute piece seemed loaded with explosive power, full of twists and turns that, if left to their own devices, might easily go off. Daisietta Kim, too seldom on our stages, sang Luciano Berio’s harrowing lament on the death of Martin Luther King Jr. in the version consisting of nothing but the syllables of his name sung shudderingly against musical dots from a small ensemble — the version that Berio later expanded for his Sinfonia. Here is music that says exactly what it means, no more and no less. Composers tempted to add extra measures to whatever they may be

working on are urged to study this work and take heed.

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