Sunday, May 21, 2017

Other Minds 22 Concludes with Stunning American Gamelan Sounds

Last night the second of the two concerts for this season’s Other Minds 22 festival of new music played to a full house in Mission Dolores Basilica. The title of the program was Lou Harrison Gamelan Masterpieces, putting a splendid cap on the entire festival entitled Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison. The second half offered about an hour’s worth of music performed on the instruments of Old GrandDad, the proper name of the American Gamelan collection of instruments designed and constructed by Harrison and his partner William Colvig to put a contemporary American spin on the long tradition of Indonesian gamelan music. Harrison used just intonation as his tuning system, working with the 3:2 ratio for the perfect fifth and the 5:4 ratio for the major third. The result was a pentatonic scale with the elimination of all chromatic semitones:

The pentatonic tuning system for Old GrandDad (created by Hyacinth for Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

Physically, the instruments reflected a junkyard aesthetic, including aluminum slabs with tin can resonators, galvanized garbage cans, oxygen tanks truncated at different lengths, and iron gongs. These instruments were played by the William Winant Percussion Group. including Director Winant himself along with Ed Garcia, Jon Meyers, Sean Josey, Henry Wilson, and Sarong Kim. Every performer was responsible for at least two instruments, often playing more than one at the same time. What may have been most impressive was that the resources of the ensemble were deployed in both an intimate setting and a truly massive one.

The first selection was the 1974 suite that Harrison composed jointly with Richard Dee for violin and American Gamelan. Violinist Shalini Vijayan joined Winant’s group, and they were all conducted by Nicole Paiement. This was followed by Harrison’s half-hour cantata La Koro Sutro (the heart sutra), which calls for a large mixed chorus, organ, and harp, along with the American Gamelan. Three vocal ensembles joined forces to provide that large mixed chorus, the Mission Dolores Choir (Jerome Lenk, Music Director), the Resound Choir (Luçik Aprahämian, Artistic Director), and Sacred and Profane (Rebecca Petra Naomi Seeman, Director). Lenk played the organ part on what appeared to be a harmonium, and Meredith Clark was the harpist. Once again Paiement conducted.

Needless to say, the setting of these two pieces differed significantly; but they were equal in expressive impact. Harrison and Dee selected just the right combinations of Old GrandDad’s instruments to balance Vijayan’s violin work. Balance was never a problem, yet instruments were selected from the full collection to endow each of the suite’s movements with its own distinctive voice; and, consistent with the gamelan instruments, the violin part maintained diatonic constraints and just intonation tuning. As had been the case with the 1951 suite for violin, piano, and small orchestra played at the first Other Minds concert, Harrison was able to endow each movement with its own thematic identity.

The international flavor of La Koro Sutro was enhanced with a libretto in Esperanto. The original source was a sacred Buddhist text, and the translation was prepared by Bruce N. Kennedy, who also prepared the English translation given in the program book alongside the sung Esperanto text. The vocal lines amounted to incantation but frequently in homophonic settings that involved striking deployment of just intonation intervals. If it had been Harrison’s intention to evoke an expressiveness that was ancient and modern at the same time, he succeeded most impressively. New Albion Records (whose founder, Foster Reed, was in the audience) produced an impressive recording of this piece back in 1988; but there is no substitute for the stunning immediacy and sonorous diversity of an actual performance.

The first half of the program was devoted to far more limited resources. However, because one of those resources was the Mission Dolores Basilica pipe organ (played, again, by Lenk), it was hard call it the “chamber music” portion of the evening. Lenk began the concert with a performance of “Praises for Michael the Archangel,” which is probably Harrison’s most sophisticated approach to working with the constraints of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique. He then concluded the first half of the program with the four-movement organ sonata Harrison composed to be played only by the pedal keyboard. This involved some imaginative approaches to chords requiring the heel to hold down a “white key” while the toe depressed a “black” one. In also imposed tempo markings that demanded some impressive footwork, all of which Lenk managed with stunning dexterity.

The middle selections of the first half were both performed by Clark. She used a diatonic harp, again with just intonation, for the 1990 “Threnody for Oliver Daniel.” She was then joined by cellist Emil Miland for a performance of the duo suite that Harrison composed in 1948. As was the case with the 1951 suite, the movements reflected a diversity of genres, departing from the traditional concept of a suite as a collection of dances. The individual movements were all relatively brief, almost the auditory equivalent of snapshots; and, indeed, three of the movements had been composed for a film about the Lascaux Cave paintings. There was also an Aria with rich arpeggios in the harp and a “singing” cello line that, as Virgil Thomson observed, amounted to a rethinking of “Le cygne” (the swan) from Camille Saint-Saëns’ own suite, The Carnival of the Animals.

The entire evening ran for about two and one-half hours. However, that expanse was necessary to do justice to the rich diversity of styles and rhetorics across the six works performed. Any attempt to trim down that diversity would have been unfair in accounting for the breadth of Harrison’s influences and the imagination with which he harnessed those influences.

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