Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, available on Amazon.

By Bill Alves

In honor of the centennial of composer Lou Harrison, composer and author Bill Alves is blogging about the Harrison works on the concerts of MicroFest 2017. Alves and Brett Campbell are authors of the new and definitive book on Harrison: Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, and much of this information comes from that volume.

Even among Lou Harrison’s many delightful transcultural masterpieces, his Music for Violin and Various Instruments, European, Asian, and African represents a special turning point. Harrison composed it in 1967 for Gary Beswick, a violinist at San Jose State University, where Harrison had just started teaching. That fall, Harrison was working in the music building when the acrid smell of tear gas wafted in. State police in riot gear surrounded and were closing in on San Jose State students protesting the horrific use of napalm in Vietnam. The urge to celebrate and protect the treasures of other cultures at a time when the US military was destroying them prompted Harrison’s uncharacteristically long title and multicultural menagerie of instruments.

But an even more important influence was his meeting that year of the person who would be his life partner, Bill Colvig. Colvig was a musician but also a professional electrician with a knack for anything mechanical. He looked at Harrison’s previous experiments building or modifying instruments and immediately saw how they could be improved. He began building a set of mbiras, African plucked metal tine instruments. These instruments, which show up nowhere else in Harrison’s prolific output, create cascades of bell-like tones that provide an entrancing backdrop for those unforgettable Harrison violin melodies in the third movement of Music for Violin and Various Instruments. Although East Asian and Indonesian influences show up much more frequently in Harrison’s works, he had a long familiarity with the mbira in the form of its Cuban cousin, the marimbula, a kind of bass mbira with a large box resonator. In the 1940s Harrison and his friend John Cage created the first concert series devoted soley to percussion ensemble music, often playing works of Cuban composers such as Amadeo Roldán. A rare photograph of one of their concerts at Mills College clearly shows a marimbula at the far left very similar to the one used in Music for Violin and Various Instruments.

The percussion concert of Mills College, July 18, 1940, with a marimbula at far left. The three men are, from left to right, Harrison, John Cage, and William Russell. Photo by Mary Edwards and Norman Donant from the Dance Observer August/September 1940.

The quick first movement is in the form of a ductia, a medieval form that was a favorite of Harrison’s, in which whirling dance tunes are stitched together in couplet form. This  violin melody is accompanied by a Chinese zither, drums, and a reed organ, sometimes playing percussive tone clusters in the manner of Harrison’s teacher, Henry Cowell. In the second movement, the reed organ adopts the role of the Japanese sho, a mouth organ that plays luminous chordal drones in ancient gagaku court music. In front of this scrim, the violinist plays an enchanting melody that includes pitches of the seventh and eleventh harmonics, pure tones of the harmonic series that lie a startling distance away from conventional tempered notes of the Western scale. Harrison’s advocacy for just intonation, like his inclusivist approach to cultural influences and pacifist ideals, would characterize much of his work for the rest of his long career. But his Music for Violin and Various Instruments, a ravishing milestone in that repertory, remains rarely performed because of the difficulty in bringing together this unusual set of instruments. Now at the lovely Villa Aurora, John Schneider and friends will be resurrecting it along with a panoply of Harrison’s other unforgettable works.