The great American composer Lou Harrison tried his hand at many things: painting, calligraphy and poetry, to name but a few. He went through a great many musical phases as well, inspired by the experimental work of both Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, when he began to explore the music of the Javanese gamelan, a type of percussion ensemble, that Harrison truly found himself.
Harrison’s love affair with Javanese music will take center stage at the kick-off concert for this season’s MIT Sounding series on October 12 at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. The concert wraps up a year replete with Harrison-themed celebrations, as the composer would have turned 100 last May.
The MIT program features violinist Johnny Gandelsman and pianist Sarah Cahill, along with MIT’s gamelan ensemble, Gamelan Galak Tika. Gandelsman will perform Harrison’s incandescent Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, while Cahill will help to resurrect the rarely heard Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan. Together, they will debut By the Numbers, an homage to Harrison by Evan Ziporyn, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music and MIT CAST Faculty Director.
In order to be performed, the violin suite and the piano concerto require instruments—large percussion orchestras, really—which were designed by Harrison himself. Both are on loan from influential gamelan composer and educator Jody Diamond, who is teaching Javanese technique to the gamelan members and co-directing the piano concerto with Ziporyn.
The so-called “American gamelan”—also known as “Old Granddad #4”—is made of metal piping and only resembles an Indonesian gamelan in the most superficial sense. By contrast, Harrison’s “Javanese gamelan”—dubbed “Gamelan Si Betty” after its benefactor Betty Freeman—was built to resemble the court gamelan of central Java, though its keys are fashioned from aluminum instead of bronze.
“[Harrison] was trying to make a percussion ensemble … that was beautiful and chimy in the way a gamelan is beautiful and chimy,” Diamond says of Old Granddad #4. And indeed, in Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, those metal pipes reverberate sonorously beneath the violin’s sweet call.
Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan is similarly lithe and lyrical, even as it brushes up against dissonance. Like all traditional Javanese gamelans, Gamelan Si Betty boasts its own special tuning system. The piano, too, underwent a tuning transformation in order to match the ensemble. “It’s kind of unsettling when you first play it,” Cahill says of the piece. But therein lies the magic—in its own peculiar language, it sings.
Everyone Has Their Own Role
The experience of performing with a gamelan ensemble is quite distinct as well. “There’s no conductor, so it’s all kind of democratic,” Cahill says. “I think that’s why a lot of people like playing gamelan, because everyone’s equal, and everyone has their own roles.”
According to Diamond, that “cooperative aspect” is precisely what Harrison loved about gamelan music. And it’s an attitude that he carried with him in all aspects of his life. “He was a wonderful person,” says Diamond, who met Harrison in 1976 and worked with him until his death in 2003. “He made all his students feel like his colleagues. So, you know, a student would write a piece and he’d say, ‘Oh, let’s put that on the concert. Let’s put your name on the poster.’ I mean, he was so encouraging.”
A Bridge Builder
Harrison is often talked about as one of the first great innovators of East-meets-West, a bridge builder between musical worlds. But Diamond says that’s wrong. “What he was good at was taking in musics and understanding them in an essential, deep way, so that what then came out wasn’t imitative,” she says. “It was his integration of other musical ideas with his own creativity.” Harrison never went about trying to create fusion music—he simply wrote for gamelan, and couldn’t help but do so in his own particular way.
For Cahill, it was Harrison’s taste for loveliness that set him apart from his colleagues.
“There has been a prejudice against music that’s pretty, or that’s immediately appealing—that you like right away,” she says. “Something must be wrong with it, because it’s contemporary music, and so it’s suspect if it’s too beautiful. And Lou Harrison was always too beautiful for critics and the people who say what modern music is supposed to be.”
These days, more and more composers are letting their music sing. “I think,” Cahill says, “the world is only just now catching up to Lou Harrison.”
Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, At Lou’s Table and the world premiere of By the Numbers
October 12, 2017 / 8:00pm
Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA)
25 Harbor Shore Drive, Boston, MA
Tickets are $15 for ICA members and students; $25 for nonmembers.