Notes and Editorial Reviews
Scenes from Cavafy.
Concerto for Piano & Javanese Gamelan
A Soedjatmoko Set
Jarrad Powell, cond; Gamelan Pacifica;
John Doukers (voc);
Adrienne Varner (pn);
Jessika Kenney (voc);
NEW WORLD 80710-2 (72:35)
Western and Eastern culture have been gazing at each other for inspiration for many centuries, with ebbs and flows in all of the arts, tempered by politics, commerce, advances in transportation, and a host of other external forces. In music the influence moved decisively from East to West until relatively recently, but a more telling measurement would be the degree to which Westerners are willing to graft “exotic” forces onto their concert music traditions. In this respect, Lou Harrison broke new ground, harnessing far more than a pentatonic scale here or an
point of philosophy there. As this absorbing new disc makes clear, the composer plumbed Eastern ideas as deeply as any previous figure in Western culture for structure, instrumentation, and most importantly a system of tuning built around intervals and harmonies that can be as jolting to Westerners as a blistering Thai curry.
Leta Miller contributes a splendid and lucid introduction to the physics behind these acoustical concepts and Harrison’s long journey of untangling and adopting these tools. The three works on the disc date from the composer’s mature years, after he had fully embraced the gamelan ensemble. The particular instruments on this disc are those of a Javanese gamelan, although an approximate American-made facsimile of the traditional percussion instruments in just intonation was also fashioned by Harrison.
A critical decision for Harrison was the possible blending of non-percussive sounds with his gamelan. The adaptability of the human voice must have been an influence, as two of these three works add singers.
Scenes form Cavafy
spotlights the legendary John Duykers with the Gamelan Pacifica Chorus. The tenor’s voice is showing signs of strain at this point in his career, but I find this to be only minimally distracting, and more than overcome by his expressive and nuanced delivery of Constantine P. Cavafy’s text. The liner notes lay out in exquisite detail Harrison’s formal, melodic, and harmonic designs, but suffice it to say that the arc of the text is well served by his finely wrought methods.
The next work is a concerto for solo piano and gamelan. The term “concerto” (and in fact any term that refers to Western tradition) seems like an awkward attempt to stuff a square peg into a round hole. But this is a criticism of label only; the work itself is a marvel of inventiveness, and like much of Harrison’s work, reconfigures our expectations about the need for time-tested Western-based hierarchies. The harmonic and dynamic framework is quite static, but the intricacies of the tuning keep the ear fully focused. The finale exudes an air of pageantry that is intoxicating and brilliantly colored. Again Miller’s notes give us a wealth of information about the traditional Javanese norms of structure and ornamentation, and pianist Adrienne Varner plays with sensitive but insistent rhythmic transparency.
A Soedjatmoko Set
is the latest of the three works, and it presents as a moving tribute to the pacifism and environmental activism of former Indonesian ambassador to the United States Soedjatmoko. Harrison’s own text is culled from the pages of the
that depict an epic battle of natural forces, sung clearly and vibrantly by Jessika Kenney and the chorus. The disc represent one of the most important strains of American music that remains little known to all but a small band of cognoscenti. Perhaps this will open a few more doors and ears.
FANFARE: Michael Cameron
Harrison first encountered the sound of Indonesian gamelan - a percussion orchestra largely comprising metallophones - in 1939. This was at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. Profoundly impressed Harrison thought it the most captivating experience to which he returned in strength after his breakdown.
The present disc is the latest entry by New World into the Harrison lists. Their previous Harrison CDs are distinguished indeed and are invariably as superbly documented as this one. I have taken the opportunity to review the other three here for the sake of completeness.
Scenes from Cavafy is in three movements. The Cavafy here is Constantine P Cavafy (1863-1933), the Greek poet. The work is laid out for male solo, male chorus and gamelan ensemble. The gamelan chiming patter and fluting of the suling (flute) intertwine with the gravely rounded singing of Gending Cafavy (I). The second movement is Gending Bill/Lancaran Jody. It has a more assertive role for the gamelan - but the solo voice is inward and reflective. There are no surface dramatics or glamour; just a sort of sustained exaltation. The piece dates from some five years after Harrison began his remedial studies with Javanese gamelan masters Pak Cokro and Jody Diamond. I say ‘remedial’ because Harrison had come in for - and had accepted - criticism for writing for Gamelan ensemble since the 1940s without the benefit of study with Indonesian tutors. Late in life Harrison redressed this and Scenes reflect his lessons in a new quintessential sobriety. The words are printed in full in the splendid booklet.
Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan has great muscularity and the surface is not short of rhetoric or drama though this is a little muted in the finale. It was written for Belle Bulwinkle and is one of only eight works produced between 1976 and 1987 in which western traditional instruments are thrown into the melting pot with gamelan. The titles of the three movements are
Bull's Belle - untitled -
Belle's Bull. The untitled central episode is a gently chiming episode with a stilly regularity from which the piano emerges in touching melodic eloquence. Adrienne Varner is the attentive pianist.
Soedjatmoko Set was written to mark the death of the Indonesian intellectual, peace champion and diplomat of that name. It was premiered in Portland at Lewis and Clark College. The sung texts have world peace and nature's realm as their subject matter. Unlike the style of the
Strict Songs of 1950 the singing is declamatory and collegiate - a little like the declamation to be found in the works of Alan Bush.
Isna's Song is the middle movement. Its breathily oriental decoration is set against gamelan and a stratospherically soaring female voice articulating delight and sorrow. The sound of the voice reminded me of symphonies 38 and 47 by Alan Hovhaness in which he used the high fluting soprano of Hinako Fujihara, Hovhaness's wife. The finale has further statuesque declamatory singing.
-- Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Scenes from Cavafy by Lou Harrison
John Duykers (Voice),
Jessika Kenney (Voice)
Gamelan Pacifica Chorus
Period: 20th Century
A Soedjatmoko Set by Lou Harrison
Period: 20th Century
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