Lou Harrison was a Eusonian composer. He disliked the term "American" because it improperly consolidated two continents' cultures in naming one country. But to consider him a cranky PC-er would be to misunderstand the pure joy he found in exploring and celebrating musical cultures on every continent.
Ironically, his repertoire - his legacy - may become controversial because it can be heard to appropriate those very cultures he embraced. Lou and his colleagues, including Henry Cowell and John Cage and Steve Reich, built their musical catalogues around the inspiration they've taken from "world musics." Their repertoires can be seen as an "appropriation" which often happens when White, privileged, male composers adapt and profit from the musical sounds and practices of non-White cultures.
This uniquely evocative and sumptuous suite for violin, piano and small orchestra is exhibit A. It is one of my favorite pieces by Lou. I came to know Lou's music while working for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Dennis Russell Davies was the music director and championed Lou's music before and after leading the ensemble.
The piece evokes the meter changes and the ostinati of gamelan music, pentatonic scales, melodic parallels at the 4th and 5th and the minimization of Western musical development. To Western ears, it can be heard as "oriental." To uninformed ears it can be heard as appropriation.
Lou Harrison, this incredibly important composer, this Eusonian and world composer who was a generous and enthusiastic advocate for many cultures, may become the victim of deliberate suppression as a result of our new and widely held, cultural, world-view. The important role Lou played in awakening musicians to each other's presence may have the unintended consequence of limiting awareness of his music. That would be a cultural crime, I think.
Long live Lou Harrison! Long live the intersections between West and East, North and South! May Lou's music draw these worlds together for ages to come.
Composer Randall Davidson creates music, and performs, produces, and promotes music of others. This blog is an annotated, virtual playlist of the music that he loves and that he calls "sticky" (aka memorable).