Lou Harrison

Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published June 15, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

in the 1930s, composer Lou Harrison and his partner John Cage were building instruments out of old brake drums and oxygen tanks, and in the process inventing a new kind of percussion music. A quarter-century before the Pacific Rim was all the rage and the word "multicultural" permeated pop culture, Harrison was successfully integrating Western and Asian music forms, writing accessible, melodic music as innovative as any in this century.

Now, on the occasion of his 80th birthday (May 14), it seems the world is finally catching up with Harrison. Performers such as Keith Jarrett and Yo-Yo Ma have started playing his music, critics like the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed have begun calling him perhaps the greatest living American composer, and he has been the subject of several recent tribute concerts in New York, London and other cities. But one phase of his creative life has been seriously overlooked and undervalued in all this celebration: the 1940s and '50s, when he left California to seek new challenges in New York.

This new CD should remedy that oversight. It shows that Harrison's gifts for melody and beauty transcend any of his formal innovations -- they permeate everything he touches.

In 1951, Harrison found that New York's urban bustle wasn't conducive to his creativity. He had recently suffered a nervous breakdown when his friend Cage called from Black Mountain College in North Carolina, inviting Harrison to join him on the faculty of a unique artists' cooperative alongside choreographer Merce Cunningham, artist Robert Rauschenberg and other prominent writers and artists. There Harrison plunged into his biggest project yet: a setting of the English poet William Morris' reinterpretation of the fairy tale "Rapunzel."

Harrison said he chose the text in part as a vehicle to help him work through his own emotional upheavals, and the music reflects his attempt to soothe inner demons. In New York, Harrison, like many other composers, had worked in the dominant, often-dissonant "12-tone" style. Though Rapunzel uses 12-tone music, it sounds nothing like others' dense, thorny forays into the method. Instead, Harrison simplified and clarified, using a small-scale instrumental ensemble and focusing on melody. Though its melodies occasionally chafe against the 12-tone restraints, "Rapunzel" points the way to the simple yet powerful lyricism that was to make Harrison's music so attractive to listeners in years to come. In "Rapunzel's" gentle internal tussles, we can hear Harrison's own struggles: between past and future, innovation and accessibility, East Coast and West.

Harrison's setting of "Rapunzel's" third act was sung by Leontyne Price in Rome in 1954, winning an international award handed to the composer by Igor Stravinsky. Harrison agreed to this new recording last year and, in typical fashion, made revisions as it was being recorded.

The CD's other works maintain the chamber opera's limpid spirit. "Songs From the Forest," sketched at Black Mountain and completed later, features Harrison's deep baritone narrating his own poetry; the music is appropriately pastoral. The "Air in G Minor" features Leta Miller's flute traversing Harrison's dance-like rhythms.

Some of Harrison's happiest music was created during the two years he spent at Black Mountain. By the time his contract expired, he knew he could not return to the musical and urban constraints of New York, and instead he escaped to the mountains and forests -- and creative freedom -- of California. He moved to Aptos, just south of Santa Cruz, where he has lived ever since, writing beautiful, imaginative music that the rest of us are finally getting to hear.

By Brett Campbell

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