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.
Each of these virtuosi are given license to improvise with 24 eighth note beats in Dorian mode. Freedom within tight constraints is the secret to good improvisations. This is what I have enjoyed most in my work with Paris1919, a band led by Chris Strouth. We are by no means as accomplished as these people (John McLaughlin - guitar; Jan Hammer - keyboards; Jerry Goodman - violin; Rick Laird - bass; Billy Cobham - drums) but they are our heroes. In their day, the Mahavishnu Orchestra was the popularizer of high-octane improvisation in mixed meters and octatonic scales. I have been listening to a number of young bands online testing their wings in this same mix of approaches (now nearly 50 years old!).
I'm fascinated with composing for virtuosi. Making a performance that looks and sounds nearly impossible while at the same time making it completely routine to execute is one of the great challenges for any composer. It is a magic trick well-worth the effort. And once an audience understands the trick it only adds to the enjoyment.
So, enjoy 1971. You know you know.
"Anton (Antonín, Antoine) Reicha (Rejcha) (26 February 1770 – 28 May 1836) was a Czech-born, later naturalized French composer. A contemporary and lifelong friend of Beethoven, he is now best remembered for his substantial early contributions to the wind quintet literature and his role as teacher of pupils including Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz and César Franck. He was also an accomplished theorist, and wrote several treatises on various aspects of composition. Some of his theoretical work dealt with experimental methods of composition, which he applied in a variety of works such as fugues and études for piano and string quartet.
None of the advanced ideas he advocated in the most radical of his music and writings, such as polyrhythm, polytonality and microtonal music, were accepted or employed by other nineteenth-century composers. Due to Reicha's unwillingness to have his music published (like Michael Haydn before him), he fell into obscurity soon after his death and his life and work have yet to be intensively studied."
Thus, Wikipedia provides some context. I found this music on a recent NYTimes playlist and article by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim. Somehow I'm reminded of Thom Yorke's latest music coming out this Fall with a simple (and yet deeply-felt) piano. Simple is good. Deeply-felt to this listener is even better and what this blog is all about.
"The number of works I finished in Vienna is astonishing. Once started, my verve and imagination were indefatigable. Ideas came to me so rapidly it was often difficult to set them down without losing some of them. I always had a great penchant for doing the unusual in composition. When writing in an original vein, my creative faculties and spirit seemed keener than when following the precepts of my predecessors."
In this fascinating clip, we can see and hear how Mr Evans and bassist Eddie Gomez work out their "improvisation" for the TV director. We can see how musicking is happening. I so appreciate this documentation of a rehearsal because it dispels the idea that jazz is just made up on the spot. There is certainly freedom of interpretation in jazz and Mr Evans, trained as a composer, took liberties in a performance. BUT there is so much that is planned and rehearsed prior to performance.
And Bill Evans' music is inspired and continues to influence musicians in all genres to this very day. Love this music.
This performance by Phantasm is one among many that I have on my iTunes' frequently played list. At last count, I've listened to this fantasy eighty-seven times.
There are a few reasons why I am moved by this music.
I consider this work one of the masterpieces of the latter part of the 20th-Century. As John Rockwell, formerly the new music partisan and advocate at the New York Times, Johnston is "one of the best non-famous composers this country has to offer..." Repeated listening has only underscored how magnificent this work is (to me). Love love love this performance by the Denali Quartet. Music for the Ages as far as I'm concerned. Dr. Johnston taught at the University of Illinois in Champ-bana from the early 50s to the mid-80s. He lives to this day in North Carolina. More information about Mr. Johnston is here.
Rodgers & Hammerstein worked in post-war American, back in that time when many Americans of a certain age remember that the USA was Great. This musical looked at sexual predators and spousal abuse square in the face and some would say it flinched. This final footage of the film chokes me up every time, even to this day, because it flinches and tries to wriggle out of the grip of terror and violence and manipulation. In fact, I think some could see this scene as a grand manipulation, as well.
I would disagree based on what we know (through factual reporting) that abused women often rationalize their love for their abuser. This musical's undertow is that the only escape from Billy Bigelow (the abuser) was for him to die in an accident. The abuse is not resolved. The abuser avoids punishment. The abused gives her unqualified forgiveness and love. And we do not have any "justice" in the story...and the music romanticizes and puts a gloss on what has happened. We still use music this way.
Except, we might want to listen again to the opening measures of the musical, "Carousel."
The happy theme of the eponymous carousel is put into a darker, more foreboding context which I think is absolutely intentional on the part of Richard Rodgers. R&H wrote other musicals that addressed social injustices of their day: "South Pacific," "The King & I," "The Sound of Music," and "Flower Drum Song." As they worked together, each new musical they premiered seemed to carry deeper and deeper social (in)justice messages. Their work becomes more important with each passing year, as well.
I'm working with my band, Paris1919 on a show in February 2019 that is tentatively titled "Dark..." The dark is something we all fear, and rightfully so and it is in part due to Trump, who is never far from our thoughts these days because he never wants to be out of our thoughts and often those thoughts are horrifying and threatening. As we create the music for our February show I will be thinking of "You Never Walk Alone." It gives me creepy, dark and hair-raising chills every time I hear it.