I have often extolled Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto as quite possibly the most formidable concerto by any American. And I have often extolled the South Dakota Symphony as a national model. This Saturday night at 8:30 pm ET, the South Dakota Symphony performs the Harrison concerto – a concert that will be livestreamed (but not archived), if you would like to sample how the South Dakota Symphony does things.
The concerto will be directly preceded by a 30-minute scripted preamble with a film created by my colleague Peter Bogdanoff. We will begin with some Ravel (“The Princess of the Pagodas” from Mother Goose), then explore the 1889 Paris Exposition, with its Javanese Pavilion, which introduced Paris (and the Western world) to gamelan. All of this will eventually lead to a sampling of the Harrison concerto, and a little demonstration of how the piano writing is indebted to the layered textures of Javanese music.
I wrote the script, and will narrate alongside Music Director Delta David Gier. Our soloist – an inspired Harrison exponent – is Emanuele Arciuli. Though Italian, Emanuele has performed more American piano music than anyone else I know, and has also written a book about it (awaiting an English translation).
The second half of the program features Rimski-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a prime example of musical “Orientalism” preceding the East/West fusion seminally clinched by Harrison.
There will also be a pre-concert talk with film and a post-concert discussion. Tonight, Emanuele and I present an “American Fusion” program at South Dakota State University, which will bus students to Saturday night’s concert.
To my way of thinking, all this embodies how symphony orchestras should function these days, with dwindling audiences and dissipating cultural memories.
Here’s my program note for Saturday’s concert:
“But my poor friend! Do you remember the Javanese music, able to express every shade of meaning, even unmentionable shades which make our tonic and dominant seem like ghosts? . . . Their school consists of the eternal rhythm of the sea, the wind in the leaves, and a thousand other tiny noises . . . that force one to admit that our own music is not much more than a barbarous kind of noise more fit for a traveling circus.” – Claude Debussy
Debussy discovered Javanese music at the 1889 Paris Exposition – the one with the Eiffel Tower. Its Javanese Village was just that, with sixty residents from the Indonesian islands of Java and Sunda. They inhabited a kind of pre-industrial paradise, crafting batiks, weaving straw hats, and – most notably – performing a kind of music and dance as yet wholly unknown in Europe. There were no films or recordings to prepare the shock. France’s musicians and painters were more than galvanized; their vocabulary of gesture and ambience was actually transformed. For Debussy and Maurice Ravel, gamelan embodied sounds and textures previously unimagined. They were merely the first of countless influential Western composers to undergo an Indonesian epiphany.
A towering figure in this narrative is one of the most formidable of all American composers: Lou Harrison (1917-2003); that he remains little-performed (outside the West Coast) is scandalous. That he doesn’t felicitously fit any musical map is both a proof of his originality and a penalty he pays. The absorption of gamelan elements in his music is so complete that the style, global influences notwithstanding, is all of a piece; the finished product cannot be called “eclectic.”
Born in Portland, Oregon, in 1917, Harrison was a product of the West Coast: facing Asia. He eventually settled in rural Aptos, near Santa Cruz. Ongoing explorations of other cultures was an ongoing Harrison life motif. As a child he studied dance and Gregorian chant. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, he imbibed Chinese opera and purchased huge gongs to supplement instruments he himself created out of discarded brake drums and springs found in junkyards. The 1939 San Francisco Golden Gate Exposition introduced him to Indonesian gamelan: a life-long passion. He acquired a similar expertise in Korean and Chinese music.
Harrison’s music is an original, precise, and yet elusive product of these and other far-flung cultural excursions. And yet his American roots are identifiable. American is his self-made, learn-by-doing, try-everything approach. So is his polyglot range of affinities, unchannelled by any linear narrative of advancement. A composer far ahead of his time, Harrison espoused “world music” before there was a name for it.
Harrison’s 30-minute Piano Concerto celebrates the grandeur and variety of his musical vision. Harrison’s biographer Bill Alves comments: “It’s easy to get lost in Lou’s eclecticism. He’s really a Romantic at heart.” In fact, it is hard to think of a more persuasively expansive concerto by an American composer. The big sonorities and lean, uncluttered textures connect with the “prairie” mode of Aaron Copland. But Harrison is more polyglot, more idiosyncratic, more remote from European models and experience.
The concerto begins with a fortissimo flourish forecasting its exceptional scope. What follows is an equally exceptional 12-minute movement in sonata form; Sudip Bose, the editor of The American Scholar and a Harrison connoisseur, memorably calls it “as vast as a canyon.” The piano writing is itself highly unusual – and indebted to the layered textures of Javanese gamelan. The second movement “Stampede” is a patented Harrison genre of which the composer writes: “[It] is a large and rambunctious expansion of the European area’s medieval dance form Estampie. The two words are cognate and refer to general noise and bruha-ha and not, as I had originally thought, to any form of ‘stamping’ dance.” The raucous affect is reinforced by occasional use of an octave bar, to produce dissonant tone-clusters. The third movement is an eight-minute Largo hymn. Of the concerto’s brief finale, Harrison writes: “I have written Jalas in a sort of perpetuum mobile style . . . This last movement is meant as a kind of quiet ‘lace-work.’” (By “Jalas,” Harrison refers to a technique in North Indian classical music in which the player interpolates a repeated drone.) The Harrison Piano Concerto is at once original, melodious, and formidably grand.
Our program closes with music as familiar as Harrison’s is not: Rimsky-Korsakov’s sublime Scheherazade (1888). It is perhaps the most famous embodiment of “Orientalism” – an arm’s-length infatuation with the exotic that galvanized many a Russian and European composer before the turn of the twentieth century. In other words: Orientalism prefaces the 1889 Paris Exposition – it celebrates a mainly imaginary East, preceding direct exposure to the real thing. And there is nothing wrong with that, especially when the creative imagination is as opulent as Rimsky’s is here.
In 1874 Rimsky visited the town of Bakchisaray, near Sevastopol on the southern coast of Crimea. He marvelled at “the coffee houses, the shouts of its venders, the chanting of the muezzins on the minaret, the services in the mosques, and the oriental music.” Thirteen years later, he embarked on an orientalist fantasy inspired by The Arabian Nights (collecting Arabic, Persian, and Indian tales) and called it Scheherazade. It is she, in the Arabian Nights, who spins a vast web of tales, one per night, for 1,001 nights in order to pre-empt the Sultan’s vow to kill each of his wives. Rimsky discouraged an overly programmatic reading of the four movements (he later suppressed the movement titles listed on tonight’s program page). He did concede that the solo violin evoked Scheherazade “as she tells her wondrous tales to the stern Sultan.” He further wrote: “In composing Scheherazade I meant these hints to direct only slightly the listener’s fancy on the path that my own fancy had traveled . . . All I wanted was that the hearer. . . should carry away the impression that it is undoubtedly an Oriental narrative of numerous and varied fairy-tale marvels, and not merely four pieces played one after the other and based on themes common to all four.”