The composer Lou Harrison would have turned 100 this year, and if you don’t know his music, it’s time.
Viewed against the backdrop of modern classical music over the last 75 years, Harrison’s art seems to live on its own island. It’s a serene and sensuous place, joyful yet reflective, big-brained and big-souled.
There are of course ways of situating him. Harrison studied with Arnold Schoenberg and, while his music could not sound less Schoenbergian, the two men shared a rigor in their engagement with the deeper mysteries of the art form’s fundamental building blocks. Harrison was very close to John Cage, and shared something of Cage’s winking spirit of work as play and play as work. He also won the support of kindred “mavericks” Charles Ives and Henry Cowell.
But Harrison’s best works are completely sui generis, and often feel as if they’ve wandered out of a different 20th century — far from the agonies of Europe and just as far from the dry academicism of the elite postwar musical establishment.
In fact, the metaphors that spring to my mind in characterizing Harrison’s music all hail from the West Coast landscapes he knew best. His music is at home under that broad and endless California sky, or alongside those giant slabs of rock you can find in the canyons of the Sierras — the ones that, after baking in the sun all day, then glow with a sustaining warmth even as the light fades and the air turns cool. So too does this music.
Harrison did in fact live much of his life in California, but also kept his ears open to sounds from distant cultures, and absorbed much of what he heard with dazzling acuity. Long before the advent of streaming services that these days deliver music from far-off continents with the flick of a fingertip, Harrison was deeply attuned to the ancient traditional musics of Korea, China, and, perhaps most of all, Indonesia.
Indeed, Harrison loved the sound of the gamelan — the traditional court orchestras of Indonesia, made up mostly of pitched percussion instruments that, when played in their interlaced rhythmic patterns, send up a “golden rain” of sound, a deeply layered and majestic plinking of astonishing richness and complexity.
Harrison called the gamelan “the most beautiful musical ensemble on the planet.” And so it was only natural that he would want to learn from it, to write for it, and perhaps best of all, to build a gamelan of his own.
Marking the Harrison centenary in high style this Thursday, the Institute of Contemporary Art (and co-presenter Massachusetts Institute of Technology) will host what promises to be a memorable program titled “Mr. Harrison’s Gamelans.” The night will feature a number of gifted performers including violinist Johnny Gandelsman and pianist Sarah Cahill, and it will include new Harrison tribute works by composers Evan Ziporyn and Jody Diamond. But the brightest stars of the evening may well be the instruments themselves. At center stage will be two gamelans built by the composer and his life partner, William Colvig. The first is a so-called “American gamelan” named Old Granddad, and the second, a more traditional Javanese gamelan named Si Betty, after the prominent Los Angeles arts patron Betty Freeman.
Both are wondrous sights to behold, though they could not be more different. The original Old Granddad was built in the early 1970s as a way for Harrison to produce the special pure tunings he sought out for his music at that time. It’s a kind of homemade percussion orchestra, with cut metal tubes, xylophone-like instruments, enormous resonators, and bells made from oxygen tanks sawed off at precise lengths so that they clang at the required pitches.
The version of Old Granddad that will be played on Thursday was built for conductor Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, when they performed Harrison’s music in 2009 and later recorded it. This week’s concert will feature the instruments in Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan — a gorgeously melodic work in which the violin stomps, dances, and ultimately soars above the deep-voiced, mellow tolling of the percussion.
Meanwhile Si Betty is the composer’s original collection of floridly decorated traditional keyed instruments and gongs, all tuned to Harrison’s specifications. His own ear was legendarily sensitive — so much so that, according to Diamond, who now owns both gamelans — Harrison had to keep his refrigerator on his porch because its quiet hum was, for him, impossible to ignore. Si Betty will be heard in Harrison’s Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan, a transfixing work from 1987 in which the piano sounds as you’ve never heard it before, thanks to its special tuning to match the gamelan.
Harrison was hardly the first Western composer to fall under the gamelan’s sway. As early as 1889, Claude Debussy heard gamelan music at the Universal Exposition in Paris and was deeply taken by it. But Harrison perhaps embraced the possibilities the gamelan offered most affectionately, composing over 50 pieces for it.
Taken together, these two samples from that body of work, and the accompanying Harrison tributes, should provide a welcoming point of entry to this composer’s musical world. “The wide life of his mind . . . was serene and free,” Harrison wrote of Cowell, in words that best describe himself. “[And] he was also perfectly fearless in his melody.”
Mr. Harrison’s Gamelans
Presented by the Institute of Contemporary Art and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the ICA, Thursday night, 8 p.m. www.icaboston.org