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How Do You Play a Flower Pot?

How do you play a flower pot? What makes washtubs sound best? How about coffee cans?

For the answers, check out Lou Harrison’s instructions, in his exquisite hand, for his Concerto for Violin and Percussion, e.g.:

“For the washtubs, drill holes (4) up from center on the sides of inverted galvanized iron tubs & suspend by strong elastic cords.” For the coffee cans, “cork or rubber-ended pen-holders make good beaters . . . & are best for the clock coils as well.”

So far as I am aware, Harrison’s violin concerto is the most memorable, most original by any American. It also creates a visual spectacle ideal for Covid-era streamed performances. And here it is (above), streamed by PostClassical Ensemble and accessible on the web until March 5. The soloist is our concertmaster Netanel Draiblate. The conductor is our Music Director Angel Gil-Ordonez. Our principal percussionist, Bill Richards, contributes a tour of all the musical junk at hand.

Harrison invented the percussion ensemble with John Cage and Henry Cowell. With Cage, he plundered junkyards and import stores in search of new percussion resources. Their implements included old brake drums and a variety of Japanese, Chinese, and Indian instruments. The eminence gris of American percussion, William Kraft, once told me:

“It was totally new to explore Asian percussion and junk percussion, as Cowell, Cage, and Harrison did.  I found Lou’s percussion writing more fascinating than Cowell’s or Cage’s. I think he was the most musical, and the most in tune with sound.  I think the Harrison Concerto for Violin and Percussion is a masterpiece – you don’t find music like that written by Cowell or Cage. The solo part for the violin is a virtuoso part, extremely well written. And all the sounds, whether produced by maracas or flower pots, are so well integrated that you forget that they’re exotic.”

You could say that Harrison’s concerto combines the experimental panache of an amateur with the craft of a professional. The first two movements were composed in 1940, then revised in 1959 when the finale was added. Harrison gratefully acknowledged the influence of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto of 1935: “among the highest musical achievements of the century. . . . It really walloped me.” Berg’s molto espressivo violin writing echoes through Harrison’s score. 

Harrison’s music is an original, precise, and yet elusive product of  far-flung cultural excursions.  He espoused “world music” before there was a name for it.

an ArtsJournal blog