MicroFest’s April 26 concert will present premieres from the American musical pioneer Lou Harrison as well as another composer who considered him one of his most important mentors, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, John Luther Adams.
“Lou Harrison was a generous friend and wise mentor to me for almost 30 years,” Adams wrote in his notes for his 2004 composition, For Lou Harrison. “His faith in and support of my music was a decisive influence in my life. I learned more from my time with Lou than from any of my institutional studies. And he was an inspiring model of how to live, without regret or bitterness, as an uncompromising independent composer.
“For Lou Harrison was not commissioned. I composed this work because I was compelled to do so in response to the passing of one of the most important figures in my life. Amid the daunting realities of today’s world, Lou Harrison and his joyful ecumenical life and music seem more vital and more pertinent than ever.”
Lou as Role Model
“The music of Lou Harrison was a very powerful model for me and other composers of my generation,” Adams said at last summer’s Ojai Festival, allowing them to make music that was both “intellectually airtight and unabashedly beautiful.” Harrison also provided a model for how to live a life as a creative musician. “In my mid-thirties I found myself weighing the risk of quitting my day job to devote myself to composing full-time. My boss offered me the opportunity to continue working half-time. As I often did, I called Lou for his perspective. As usual, Lou spoke directly to the situation: “There are no half-time jobs, John. Only half-time salaries.”
“I promptly quit my job and never looked back.”
Adams wrote about his memories of Harrison for the festival:
“Thirty years ago, as an aspiring young composer, I won second place in a composition contest. I was especially thrilled since one of the judges was Lou Harrison, whose music I very much admired. Emboldened, I made the pilgrimage to San Jose State University, where Lou was teaching at the time. I was delighted to find the man himself to be every bit as scintillating and engaging as his music. From that day on, Lou was a generous mentor, an attentive friend, and an inspiring model to me, as he has been for many other younger composers. Lou always treated me with respect as a younger colleague. His matter-of-fact embrace of my aspirations removed any shred of doubt in my mind that I would make a life as a composer.”
“One summer when an orchestral work of mine was performed at the Cabrillo Music Festival, I spent a memorable week with Lou and Bill. After the concert that included my music we had dinner. My piece had been well performed and well received, and I was in an upbeat mood. At the time Lou was enjoying a surge in performances of his orchestral music, and I suggested that this must be gratifying to him. ‘It’s nice,’ he said. ‘But it’s not really what we do.’ I asked him to elaborate. ‘The orchestra is a glorious noise. But the heart and soul of our music lies elsewhere. We’re the ones who form our own ensembles, make our own tunings, build our own instruments and create our own musical worlds. We’re the “Do It Yourself” school of American music!’”
Lou as a Teacher
“Over the years Lou taught me many lessons about the art of composition and the life of a composer. He also gave me the best conducting lesson I ever had. In 1988 Lou and Bill came to Alaska for a concert of Lou’s music with the Fairbanks Symphony. On the program was his Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra, which I conducted. As a percussionist I’d always had steady time. And as an occasional conductor I’d always prided myself on my precision and attention to detail. After the dress rehearsal I asked Lou what he thought.
‘You remind me of John Cage,’ he said.
Intrigued and vaguely flattered, I asked: ‘How so?’
‘Well, you’re more kinesthetic than John . . .’
I grew more intrigued and more flattered.
‘When John used to conduct he wanted to hear every detail of the music and he tried to show every nuance of the score. So, of course, the tempo would gradually slow down.’
Instantly I recognized that I was doing the very same thing. At the next night’s concert my conducting was leaner, crisper, and steadier in tempo—a style I’ve tried to maintain ever since. This lesson from Lou was not just about conducting. It was also a lesson about teaching. Lou was fond of recalling that his teacher Henry Cowell would often begin a sentence by saying, ‘As you know…’ and then impart some wonderfully unexpected pearl of wisdom. In his own teaching Lou employed this technique brilliantly, using the gentle touch of flattery to prepare receptive minds for the gifts of learning.”
Adams honored Harrison’s with a poem upon his death:
The great redwood has fallen.
Light streams into the forest.
The sound will reverberate
for generations to come.
He also wrote a musical tribute, the large scale piano and orchestra composition For Lou Harrison, mentioned above, (performed at Ojai last summer) and even named this year’s Pulitzer winner from John Cage’s mesostic for Harrison that compared Harrison music to a river opening into a delta:
Listening to it
we become ocean.
Adams’s music on this year’s MicroFest program probably comes the closest to his mentor’s. “Occasionally I do hear the influence of Lou’s sound,” Adams told me recently, “probably most notably in two little pieces for solo harp based on Alaskan music: Five Atabaskan Dances and Five Upik Dances. In 1991 I composed Five Yup’ik Dances, based on traditional songs of the First People of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. These pieces are composed entirely of ‘white notes,’ with no sharps or flats. After looking through the score Lou was very enthusiastic, saying: ‘You’ve rediscovered those seven tones as something wild, fresh and new.’ Encouraged by Lou’s reaction, I went to compose Dream in White on White—a larger work in Pythagorean diatonic tuning which led eventually to the seventy-five-minute expanse of In the White Silence.”
Adams detects Harrison’s influence less in actual sounds he created and more in their attitudes and choices. “One way Lou’s influence is audible is in the way my work embraces extremes from extreme sensuousness to extreme noise and experimentation,” Adams continued in our interview. “People are more familiar with his gamelan and chamber music, but what often gets overlooked is Lou Harrison the experimentalist and disciple of Cowell. I think that has influenced my work in that I see no reason you can’t explore the whole terrain. ”
“There’s also the breadth of his music which audibly influences my own explorations. His music is not afraid to be unabashedly beautiful, and encouraged by that I’ve found similar resolve in my work.”
“Because he was so authentic in who he was and what he did, it challenged me to be equally authentic and honest as a composer and what I did.”