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Lou Harrison

September 22, 2013

Maybe of all 20th Century avant-garde classical composers that I have heard, Lou Harrison is the least annoying. Potentially annoying I mean; I like a lot of them but at the same time can appreciate their capacity to drive people crazy. But Harrison’s music is not harsh or dissonant or tedious. It is not abrasive or cerebral or endlessly repetitive. It is pretty. And yet he was a student of Cowell, Ives, and Schoenberg who explored the sonic possibilities of trash cans and brake drums. His achievement was to find a way to combine modernist innovation with sheer loveliness. He did this largely by borrowing from Asian music for rhythm and tonality, to the extent that the his work often sounds more Eastern than Western. With his collaborators he created a modified gamelan ensemble, American Gamelan.

The two Harrison recordings I can recommend are Drums Along the Pacific and La Koro Sutro. The former is, naturally, heavy on percussion, but also very melodic, and four of the pieces are built around soloists on viola or violin. At times it is a little like Moondog, with only a light though definite glaze of sophistication added. The first piece, the sweetly haunting “Threnody for Carlos Chavez”, does not sound like it could ever have not existed. The title piece of La Koro Sutra combines a 100-voice chorus (singing in Esperanto) with American Gamelan, violin, harp, organ and various other instruments, including those trash cans and brake drums. It is like a Buddhist Magic Flute or Messiah; it takes me back to the serene wonder, the purity, gravity and grace, of childhood listening. There is also a piece for a violin-piano-percussion trio and a suite for violin and American Gamelan. Both collections are beautiful and full of light. They should be wildly popular, though as far as I can tell they are not. It is a mystery to me why Harrison is not more widely appreciated. I rate him higher than Philip Glass, Herbie Hancock, or the Kinks.

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