Harrison’s timeless concerto highlights luminous American program
Lou Harrison is the Rosetta Stone of American classical music. His career as a musician and a composer connected (or at least touched on) every significant musical language in 20th century America: he studied under Henry Cowell, Virgil Thomson, and Schoenberg; he prepared and conducted the premiere of Ives’ Symphony No. 3 and promoted the music of Varèse and others; he wrote music criticism for the Herald Tribune.
Far more than a historically significant figure, he is one of the great composers of the 20th century and arguably the greatest realization of the idea of American classical music—a new idiom that, free of the need to adhere to European tradition, has the intellectual freedom to pick and choose every kind of material.
That Harrison did. He studied Indonesian music and, inspired by Harry Partch’s book Genesis of a Music, began building his own instruments and writing music in just intonation. And when American music was dominated by atonality, Harrison remained radically committed to beauty.
Thursday night, violinist Jennifer Choi and the Talujon percussion ensemble played Harrison’s gamelan-flavored Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra at Roulette. The concert, produced through the venue’s Generate fund for ambitious performances, put Harrison in excellent company and context, surrounded by Cage’s Haikai and a 2014 work, The Traps, by Nick Brooke.
The concert was notable and memorable merely for happening at all. Harrison, whose music is full of life, expression, and melody, is bizarrely nonexistent on East Coast concert programs.
The concerto may not be his greatest work, but it is a fine example of what makes his music special. The instrumentation combines a traditional instrument and a few improvised ones and the music is a blend of romantic lyricism, rhythmic verve, and the tonal and melodic material of gamelan.
In the standard three movements, the Concerto presents itself as a juxtaposition between the old world and the new. The percussion writing is lively from the beginning, while the demanding violin line is more inward-looking and 19th century in character.
As the piece goes along, the violin discards its long phrases for more compact, repeated melodies, played in a recursive manner that anticipates minimalism (the Concerto’s date is 1959). It also gradually picks up more and more of the pentatonic scales the accompaniment is feeding it, especially in the gorgeous Largo, Cantabile second movement.
The Talujon players jumped to it, while Choi, playing with a rich, dark sound, was arch in her rhythms. Choi gradually began playing with more rhythmic suppleness and swing, matching Talujon’s driving pulse. The fast-slow-fast form and the shape that rises to a point in the end are as traditional as can be, but the means of the music and Harrison’s lovely, charming sounds (the inventive instruments include coffee cans and a string bass played like a hammered dulcimer) made the experience fresh and timeless.
Cage’s Haikai surrounded the Concerto, with two pieces played before, the remaining six after. Haikai comes from 1986, just before the extensive series of “number” pieces, and it looks back to Cage’s earlier sensibilities while using his later techniques. These are haiku pieces, modeled after their 5–7–5 syllabic poetic structure, but using musical events instead of rhythms.
Not all the events produce sound, and the performance was full of silence, but the sounds that came—played on instruments including crotales and prayer bowls—were shimmering, rounded, and ringing. This was a beautiful realization of a piece that itself is full of beauty. The playing (Choi joined Talujon for the last set of Haikai) was ideal for Cage, with a concentration on action without trying to channel meaning. Hearing the music was like staring at an exquisitely made sheet of white paper, the duration clearing the mind to discover tiny variations in the surface that grew in effect the longer one looked.
The Traps is a wonderful, inventive work. Each percussionist played an amplified attaché case filled with tuned metal bars, and the piece opened and closed with a ceremonial touch: the percussionists took the stage one at a time, then reversed the process at the end.
The music is structured similar to gamelan, with layers of repeated patterns, but similar is the key word; there was an improvisational feeling, as if the musicians were all independently exploring shared material. The piece traded the formal complexity of gamelan for some deadpan humor, with the players twirling ringing, mechanical alarm clocks attached to ropes over their heads, and a few spinning tops onto the stage and into the aisles.
The patterns rose and fell, filling Roulette with the endlessly pleasing sounds of metallic percussion. At the end, one player was left, to let the pattern repeat and ring one last time.