Lou Harrison, the grand master of San Francisco Bay area composers, turned 85 in May, and to celebrate the milestone Stephen Burns and his Fulcrum Point New Music Project presented an all-Harrison program as their 5th annual Candlelight Concert for Peace on Monday at St. James Cathedral.
The generous program, sponsored by Performing Arts Chicago, brought together two defining currents of Harrison's workhis outspoken pacifism and his absorption in Javanese gamelan music. Works in which Harrison incorporated the sound of the gamelan (gong-chime percussion orchestra) into his musical vocabulary were set alongside his pieces that mix Western and Indonesian instruments. Playing the latter were members of the University of Chicago Friends of the Gamelan Performance Ensemble.
It was Burns' brilliant idea to unify this sprawling global panorama with readings, by Chicago actors, of antiwar verse and prose by Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and others. Harrison's own powerful poem, "Cluster III," was a chillingly timely rebuke of all who would defile the earth with their hideous playthings of war.
Hearing the serene patterns of Harrison's music alongside his fierce denunciation of militarism reminded me of those young Chinese dissidents who stuck flowers in the gun barrels of tanks during the Tiananmen Square riots of 1989. His pieces, with their synthesis of Eastern and Western musical traditions, carry a gentle message for all with ears to listen.
Like his close friend and colleague, John Cage, Harrison is a true American maverick in the sense of asserting the primacy of the artist's imagination over collective tradition. His huge creative output stands apart from almost every stylistic advance of the 20th Century, immune to shifting fashion.
The concert's two central works were ballet scores for small ensemblesselections from "Solstice" and "New Moon."
Piquant instrumental touches abound. "Solstice," a 1949 suite meant to evoke the sun and the rotation of the seasons, uses a tack pianoan upright keyboard with thumb tacks driven into the hammers to create a dry, metallic simulation of a gamelan sound. "Stampede," the final section of "New Moon," echoes the earthy drumbeats of Renaissance dance music.
Melody and rhythm are primary in both pieces, harmony unimportant (if not absent entirely). While traditional gamelan music can have a soporific effect on Western earsI admit the first of the two gamelan-ensemble pieces had me fidgetingone of the nice things about Harrison's use of pentatonic melody is how varied, colorful and luminous his instrumental use of it is.
And when you have the excellent Mark Brandfonbrener weaving his solo cello through the clanging sonorities of a Solonese gamelan, the result is a feeling of spiritual exaltation unlike any other music.
Everybody threw themselves into the performances exuberantly. Special praise to Michael Becker, suling (Javanese recorder); and Burns, trumpet and piccolo trumpet. Bravi, too, to the poetry readersAlma Washington and David Darlowthe gamelan group and Burns' ever-enterprising Fulcrum Point Ensemble.