By Bill Alves

I can think of no more fitting way to inaugurate the MicroFest blog than to introduce the first event of our 2013 season, as it pays homage to a pioneer of music beyond the keys of the piano. The enchanting sounds of Lou Harrison’s music have become so well known today that we may need Eva Soltes’ acclaimed documentary to remind us what a radical he really was. In the 1980s, Soltes became a collaborator, manager, and confidant of Harrison and was soon capturing the last decades of his life for the film that became Lou Harrison: A World of Music. This portrait of his astonishing life will have its first Southern California screening at Redcat theater at Disney Hall on March 2.

Among many other stories of his colorful life, Soltes’ documentary relates the incident in New York in 1949 when Virgil Thomson gave Harrison a review copy of Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music, telling him, “Here, Lou, see what you can make of this.” Harrison was hardly unaware of alternatives to the standard equal temperament tuning. As a youth, he had played in an early music ensemble with a harpsichord tuned in a historical meantone temperament and read about the harmonic series in Henry Cowell’s seminal New Musical Resources. As a teenager, he had even heard Harry Partch perform on the radio in San Francisco, and, much later, reviewed a Partch performance in New York. However, in that review, which Harrison later came to regret, he heard Partch’s microtones only as inessential (if interesting) decoration rather than the basis of a tonal system.

At the same time, Harrison was struggling with his own compositional voice. Unlike his good friend John Cage, Harrison was by nature an eclectic, passionate about the music of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg but unwilling to give up his love for tonal melodies. During his New York years, Harrison would write deeply brooding tangles of atonal counterpoint, but then turn around and write “white key” diatonic music influenced by his friends Thomson and Carlos Chavéz. Next he would allow himself a single accidental, F-sharp say, then another, until he was writing another serial piece. “Well, that constituted a squirrel cage, you know,” Harrison said. Partch’s book showed the way out of that cage by treating pitches not as abstract quantities in an arbitrary game but as working with nature’s own structures.

Through this book (and others, such as one by Indian music historian Alain Daniélou), Harrison came to realize that his ignorance of the fundamental nature of sounds had created this compositional prison. Partch advocated aligning the tuning of pitches to the harmonic series present in the natural acoustics of instruments. Harrison went out and bought a tuning hammer and soon discovered for himself that when one tunes in this way, known as just intonation, not only do major triads, for example, sparkle with a crystalline clarity, but new harmonic resources not even approximated by equal temperament become available — the delicious sound of the natural seventh for example, or the biting ambiguity of the eleventh harmonic, which lies squarely in between the notes of the piano.

To finally hear the modes of the ancient Greeks, the music of the Renaissance humanists, the keyboard music of the Baroque in the tunings intended by those composers was like stripping away centuries of grime from the frescos of the Sistine Chapel. Next to them, the sounds of equal temperament sounded to Harrison like “industrial gray.” Soon Harrison was creating microtonal masterpieces of his own, including his Serenade for guitar, Cinna for tack-piano, and Simfony in Free Style (all of which have been presented on MicroFest). Unwilling to make so extreme a commitment as Partch had by inventing his own instruments and training his own players, Harrison mostly adapted conventional instruments to his own tunings. For example, his lovely String Quartet Set, composed in Pythagorean tuning, will be presented on MicroFest 2013 by the Eclipse Quartet.

Even so, Harrison became perhaps best known for his adoption of another culture’s instruments, the Javanese gamelan. Since the 1930s, the gongs and metallophones of this Asian orchestra had entranced Harrison, and beginning around 1969, he and his partner William Colvig began to build their own “American Gamelan,” still tuned to just intonation. MicroFest will be presenting several of Harrison’s rarely heard masterworks for gamelan. On the same program as Lou Harrison: A World of Music, musicians from the California Institute of the Arts will perform his ravishing Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (composed with Richard Dee). In May, the HMC American Gamelan will perform his Threnody for Carlos Chavéz in Claremont.

In 2001, two years before his death, Lou Harrison was guest of honor at the MicroFest conference at the Claremont Colleges. In his keynote address, he said, “I often think of a few instruments in a smallish place sounding in lovely just tunings and realize how important that is in my heart and how rare that is in my life. Thus to come here, where something of the sort is an assumed norm, is a joy indeed.” Although, sadly, Lou can no longer be with us, his musical legacy will continue to be a foundation for MicroFest and a joy to experience.