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Lou, At Last

The Philharmonic’s final con-cert of the old year began with Lou Harrison‘s Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra, magic made audible. James DePreist conducted, replacing the indisposed Franz Welser-Most; Robert McDuffie and Christopher Taylor were the soloists. The 10-member performing ensemble looked lost on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion -- before, that is, the music. Then everything became very grand, as Harrison’s music usually does.

This was the first music of Harrison ever to appear on the orchestra‘s regular subscription series: recognition overdue for a much-loved composer, now 83, who has served California’s musical life as long and as graciously as anyone you can name. The suite is early Harrison, written at 34, but the seeds of the later creator are already there: the world-view, the eloquence of simple things simply put and, most of all, the radiant beauty. In a radio series on West Coast music that I concocted in 1981, Harrison was the first one to speak; when I asked him what it meant to be a California composer, he answered, disarmingly and directly, “I suppose it means that you don‘t have to be afraid to be pretty.”

There’s a special kind of beauty in Harrison‘s music, and it goes beyond what mere “prettiness” implies. The best of it meanders on and on, as someone might make up a very personal tune to fill a big empty space -- on a mountaintop, say. Matters of greater artifice -- regular phrase structure, or the notion of beginning and ending in the same key -- assume relatively minor importance. Music and listener become extremely close; a simply harmonized melody, naive at first, has a way of ensnaring you almost before you notice.

The music seems to come at you from everywhere. “Cherish the hybrids” is another famous Harrison watchword. The suite was composed long before Harrison’s first delighted journey to Asia, so its exoticisms -- the two movements subtitled “Gamelan,” for example -- have a made-up, storybook quality compared to the deeply observed Asianisms of his later works. “A honeyed thunder” is Harrison‘s own description of this haunting, teasing music; at the end, as the final Chorale trails off toward silence, you might also suspect the presence of fireflies.

The Harrison suite shone a beacon light in the celebration of California’s state of the arts that has gone on for the past few months, most notably at the County Museum. I‘ve already dealt with the first two concerts in the museum’s “Focus on California” series, planned with great resource by LACMA‘s music director, Dorrance Stalvey, and, praise be, attended by crowds almost as big as they deserved. The last two in the series, which ended on January 8, were no less interesting and drew equally large turnouts.

December’s program offered a look back on the goings-on at the lively and influential San Francisco Tape Music Center of the 1960s, a creative swirl half-hidden in a creaky old building on Divisadero Street, where fantastic experiments in electronic music, abstract filmmaking, dance and poetry -- separate, or sometimes combined -- served to draw a timeline across the century. Nothing after the Tape Center was in any way like anything before. On his first visit to S.F. in 1957, Pierre Boulez had brought along the new 10-inch DG LP of Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Song of the Youths. For a couple of weeks I programmed it several times a day on KPFA. Inflamed by these first tricklings from the electronic studios of West Germany, composers (Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender and Pauline Oliveros), video artists (Tony Martin and the single-named superstar Pablo) and their colleagues set about inventing an entire new artistic language, strange in its sound-sources, wonderfully rich in its lines of juncture. Multimedia was born at the Tape Center; later ventures in combining the arts, including New York’s Electric Circus and Walt Disney‘s wacko dream that eventuated as CalArts, were the direct descendants.

Inevitably, the Tape Center program at LACMA -- consisting of multimedia works that had toured to astonished audiences across the U.S. in 1964 -- had a touch of the archaic about it, like a display of a wind-up Victrola. But the energy was there, and when all eyes were captured by the video of a younger, svelter Pauline Oliveros meditating into her accordion -- the same thing the present-day Pauline did a few months ago in the new-music festival at Beyond Baroque -- some message about the timelessness of important art came triumphantly across. Eventually, the spirit of the Tape Center dwindled, not for the reason of poverty that usually besets noble experiments, but because of a big-money foundation grant that required its absorption into aca-deme. Its wings clipped, it oozed into Oakland’s Mills College, where its echoes still resound.

Last week‘s final program captured some of those echoes, since both the performing group -- that local icon known as the California EAR Unit -- and most of the composers have been entwined with CalArts for part of their respective careers. There was lots of prettiness that night, and also some genuine beauty. Flutes live (Dorothy Stone) and on tape blended in Rand Steiger’s haunting memorial piece For Marnie Dilling; in her Blind Window, Robin Lorentz‘s soft, distanced solo violin melted along with small percussion and Angie Bray’s wisps of video to create a kind of Japanese twilight; Steven Hoey‘s Coloratura, living up to its name, involved the EAR Unit in the whoopee they do better than anyone I know. At the end there was Paul Dresher -- not of CalArts, not of the Tape Center, but of kindred spirit as his lush, throbbing Chorale Times Two hovered on the edge of many kinds of music, led this way and that by the urging of his own electric guitar.

“This way and that”: It’s as good a description of California‘s music as you could want.

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