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Name of Work

Harrison, Lou (1917-2003)
Varied Trio for percussion, piano, and violin

Bowl Bells
Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard


May 16, 1999

Todd Manley, Percussion
Stefan Hersh, Violin
Deborah Sobol, Piano

HARRISON - Varied Trio

Composed in 1987

Long before he visited Asia for the first time, Lou Harrison had already incorporated the sounds of its music into his own work. Born in California, where he lives today, Harrison began, with his earliest works, to move toward a synthesis of the musical cultures bordering the Pacific. He never felt it necessary to acquire a European pedigree. His first musical mentor was the American pioneer Henry Cowell, who urged him to explore the world's many musics—Harrison took Cowell's course, "Music of the Peoples of the World" in 1935—and encouraged him to find his own style by uniting disparate influences. ("Don't put hybrids down," Harrison said in a recent BBC interview, "because there isn't anything else.")

Harrison began to build his own instruments, starting with the "tack piano," an upright with thumb tacks driven into the hammers. Cowell brought him together with John Cage, a kindred spirit, and the two worked together on a repertory of pieces for "junkyard" percussion ensemble—automobile brakedrums, coffee cans, plumber's pipes, and flower pots. Harrison's own early works, mostly scored for everyday western instruments, imitated the "honeyed thunder" of the gamelan that he first heard on Cowell's records. (He saw a real gamelan for the first time at the Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939.)

Harrison studied briefly with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, and later moved to New York, where he was a music critic, and won the admiration of Virgil Thomson. (At various times, he also worked as a florist, record clerk, poet, dance critic, playwright, and music copyist.) In New York he also edited several of Ives's works for publication, and conducted the world premiere of his Third Symphony (in 1947, nearly fifty years after its composition).

On March 25, 1961, the forty-three-year-old composer boarded a freighter for Tokyo to attend the East-West Music Encounter Conference. As the recipient of a Rockefeller grant, for two years he immersed himself in a culture he had only imagined, studying Korean court music and Chinese classical music. After that, his own work snapped into focus, particularly in its quest for a new synthesis, not only of musical sensibilities, but also of Asian and Western instruments.

He immediately wrote for a chamber orchestra of both kinds of instruments in Pacifika rondo, a work of staggering multi-culturalism that also incorporates Mexican and Spanish colonial music, serialism, and Chinese court music, and "common Atlantic modernism." (In his vocal music, Harrison has set Esperanto, the invented language that strives for a similar union of the different languages of the world.) In the early 70s, he began to collaborate with William Colvig on the construction of an "American" gamelan. Harrison has also built jade flutes and entire families of instruments based on oriental wind and string models. In all its many phases, Harrison's music is, by his own definition, essentially "a song and a dance"—a view he owes to Cowell, who taught him that music around the world is primarily melody with a rhythmic accompaniment. (Harrison has always written generous melodic lines—"the audience's take-home pay.")

The Varied Trio is a quintessential Harrison work, in which the mix of western and eastern elements carries over into the instrumentation. The first movement, Gending, is scored for piano, gong, and vibraphone. The second, Bowl Bells, is for rice bowls played with chopsticks, pizzicato violin, and piano. The central Elegy is for violin with vibraphone and piano. The fourth movement. Rondeau in Honor of Fragonard, is a duo for violin and piano. The final Dance calls for piano, violin, Chinese drums, and bakers pans.

Ariadne, performed immediately after the intermission of this evening's concert, is an even richer blending of genres, styles, attitudes, and artforms. The first part of Ariadne is scored for flute and vibraphone; the second part for alto flute, flute, piccolo, two tambourines, five bakers pans, and three Chinese tom-toms. Harrison wrote Ariadne for his friend Eva Soltes to choreograph. (She is the dancer in tonight's performance.) As he explains: "Her long background in Barata Natayam dancing suggested to me a modal and 'talic' work which I then composed in the form of a 'kit' for flute and percussionist. This may be 'assembled' in a number of ways so that the dance, or the musicians, or both, may order the work to their hearts' desires."

Program Notes by Phillip Huscher

Performed May 16, 1999

Performance Audio

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