Going Buddhist with Lou Harrison
'That Pope John Paul II took the trouble in his books to attack Buddhism suggests that there might be something valuable here. Why else would he see it as a dangerous rival belief system? It offers hope to those of us who are hurt by the speed and aggression of the modern world, willing to look within to try to moderate our own aggressive pace and notice that we often run the gauntlet of purely imaginary dangers; or inhabit a fog of no-feeling' ~ from Going Buddhist by Peter J Conradi (Short Books ISBN 1904977014). I've just returned from a few days at the Padmaloka Buddhist retreat centre here in rural Norfolk. The accompanying photos were taken by me at Padmaloka, and, believe it or not, the shrine room below is a converted Norfolk barn!
Now playing is Joanna MacGregor's recording of the piano concerto by a composer with a deep commitment to Buddhism. Lou Harrison was born ninety years ago, on May 14 1917, and died in 2003. Here is an interview with him by Dr Geoff Smith, Head of Music, Bath Spa University which explores some of the Eastern influences on the composer's music. The interview is republished from Joanna MacGregor's excellent SoundCircus website.
I'd like to start by asking you about living and composing on the West Coast of America as opposed to the East. What are the differences between the two, and why have you chosen the West?
Well, why would anyone choose the East? The division in the United States is no longer between North and South, it's the Rockies. As I like to point out, starlings and Lyme Disease (a very dangerous disease first found in East Lyme, Connecticut) have both made it to California from the East. The Rockies are the great divide. California is a very different part of the United States - it's a very special civilization. In between the East and California is, from my point of view, the real America, that is to say the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. That to me is America, the rest is peripheral - shore stuff.
How would you describe 'West Coast' music? What would you say is its essence?
Well, there's no one 'is' about it. I have defined it as being freer. We're not bound up with industrial 'twelve-tone-ism' quite so much as the East seaboard is, and also we're not afraid out here if something sounds pretty. I don't see that increased complexity is any solution at all. We also have a very strong connection with Asia. People in New York commute to Europe all the time, and that feels strange to me. I habitually go to Asia. This is Pacifica, that's Atlantica. They're different orientations. I don't think that there is a composer in the West who is not aware of that. We're all aware, from Seattle and Vancouver down to San Diego, that we're part of Pacifica. For some of us it feels more natural than for others. I came to my legal maturity (I've never really grown up) in San Francisco, where every week I went to the Cantonese Opera. I constantly heard Asian music. I heard my first gamelan in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and half of my friends go back and forth to Indonesia and Japan all the time. I mean, gee whizz, yesterday morning I finished one of my boxes of Kellogg's Ken Mai flakes. You can't get them in this country - my Japanese friends send them to me. So we have a regular transit across the
Going back to West versus East, how is your relationship with European tradition changed? Was it always so clear to you that you were looking East?
Well, I lived in Manhattan for ten years and had a breakdown at the end of it, which revealed to me that I was not a true New Yorker. So I moved back here, with an intermission of a couple of years at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, which was very pleasant. After I got back, my parents wanted to give me a little place to work in. Just a couple of doors from here was a place they had looked at. I looked at it, and it was just like my studio at Black Mountain College, so I said, 'That's it.' That was I954, and that's why I'm here. Also, Harry Partch was in San Francisco at that time, and we stayed friends till he died in San Diego. John [Cage] was here for a long time too, but that was early on, in the late 1930's. But there's a tradition in California. For example, Mills College, the Centre for Contemporary Music has been going for a long time- Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, Terry Riley. Cal Arts has been a lively place, as has La Jolla in San Diego. There's a centre in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle is a hotbed. But it also goes along the whole coast and includes Mexico and Vancouver too.
What is it about living in the country that appeals to you?
Well, as I said, I 'did' ten years in Manhattan and finally had a breakdown. Three days in a city now and I'm quite flipped. There's too much noise. I just can't do with it. But these days a fax can come in from anywhere in the world, books and records can be ordered from anywhere. When I first moved here, to Aptos, there was very little: no real bookstores, the university was not here, neither was Cabrillo College. It was really rural. Then it gradually piled up, and now it's a classy metropolitan area. I used to go to San Francisco almost monthly, not only for sex but for books and galleries. Now there are lots of bookstores, galleries, craftsmen and intellectuals. There's a Shakespeare festival and the Cabrillo music festival every year. I see no reason why anybody has to live in depraved surroundings, in deteriorated air etc. Be yourself. If you want a calmer life then take it, for heaven's sake. The mind doesn't stop.
You studied with Henry Cowell first, then Schoenberg. What did they give you?
Lots. Cowell gave me an enormous amount of 'how to' knowledge, including how to write a serial piece before I went to Schoenberg. Also an immense stimulation about world music. He was an absolutely fascinating man, because of his knowledge not only of world music but also of how to do different things. His book New Musical Resources continues to be very stimulating, as does the symposium that he put out years ago, American Composers on American Music. From Schoenberg, oddly enough, I learned simplicity. I got myself into a corner one day, so I took the problem to him. He extricated me by saying, 'Only the salient. Only the important. Don't go any further. Just do what is going ahead and in its most salient form.' In short, no complications - strip it. I've sometimes wondered whether, when I write a Balungan for a Javanese gamelan for only five or seven notes, it might have something to do with Schoenberg's admonition. When I left he said that I was not to study with anybody, that I didn't need that. He said, 'Study only Mozart'. That was his admonition - simplicity. He was a wonderful man, incidentally, quite unlike the image a lot of people seem to have of him as some sort of German militarist. I mean, he was Viennese! His liquor bills were very high and he smoked too much. His fingers were iodine-coloured. But he also had a good sense of his own virtues and faults.
Could you tell us something about the American gamelan, and how it differs from the Indonesian gamelan?
Firstly, the shapes and forms are different, because for the most part we do not do bronze, which is a very difficult metal to deal with. We use aluminium and/or iron. On the West Coast, Bill Colvig pioneered the use of aluminium (he's built two very large gamelans) and on the East Coast, Dennis Murphy and his pupil Barbara Benary used iron in a more or less traditional way. This country is flooded with gamelans - about one hundred and fifty or so - and a fair proportion of them are American-built. Bill's first gamelan was pipes and slabs, and it was his discovery that an aluminium slab resonated with cans soldered together that first stirred the enthusiasm for building, both in Berkeley and San Jose.
So the main difference is in the material they're made of?
Also the tunings and the range. Some gamelans in the United States have wider ranges than the Balungan instruments; instead of six or seven tones, they have maybe two octaves. All Bill's gamelans have two octaves. They run from five to five in both pelog and slendro. Predictably, there are melodies that will not work unless you have those extra tones. That's why they're there and, sure enough, some of my best music requires them. So it's range and tuning- some of us use just intonation of various sorts. In fact, the slendro part of the gamelan C Betty (which is one of the gamelans that Bill made, dedicated to Betty Freeman) is, to our great surprise, tuned to a schema attributed to Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD in Alexandria. I thought I'd invented it, but it's hard to invent anything these days.
Was there a point in your career or a particular piece where you felt you'd found your own voice?
Well, some day I probably will!
Is your music performed in Indonesia?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I'm astonished to find that there may be a retrospective of my work in Jakarta. Well, what Western composer would have a retrospective in Jakarta?! So yes, I'm well-known. In fact, I am told that my Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Javanese Gamelan is required listening in the state conservatories.
How did Harry Partch inspire you?
When the first printing of Harry's book came out, Virgil Thomson was sent a review copy because he was writing for the New York Herald Tribune. He gave it to me the following day and said, 'See what you can make of this.' Of course I was utterly fascinated and within the week I'd bought a tuning wrench for the piano, and I've been doing it ever since. The piano in here, which used to be a favourite of Percy Grainger's and was given to me by the Cowells, is tuned in Kirnberger Number Two, as is my Piano Concerto, and I keep it that way. Harry and I had a very close relationship which went on for years. Betty Freeman was his patron. She set him up in houses, underwrote his work, and gave him money if he wanted to do a big thing, which he often did. There was a movement to make copies of Harry's work and put the original instruments in the Smithsonian Institute. That's been going on for ever. When I last saw Danlee Mitchell, a few years ago, he and some friends had reconstructed some of the dilapidated instruments but with new and more durable materials. They sounded better, as a matter of fact. Harry wasn't a luthière, you know. He was, as he said, a musician seduced into carpentry. So some of them could profitably be rebuilt in more resonant and more durable materials. He accepted a large psaltery I had built - it's part of that instrumental collection and he gave me a set of instruments too, bamboo things. So yes, we exchanged instruments, ideas, and pleasantries- and he made wonderful mint juleps too!
You're written some of your texts recently in Esperanto.
Yes, a few. It's a language I like. And I'm having the astonishing discovery that when I practise sign language now, occasionally in my head I slip into the Esperanto version. This morning I had an insight from reading this month's Scientific American, which is devoted to the brain and the linguistic centres. I suddenly realized that my recent interest in sign language is not only because Bill and George (a close friend) are getting deaf, but also because I had heart surgery three or four years ago and the first thing I noticed afterwards was that my linguistic centres were screwed up. I'd been doing spoonerisms like 'I don't want to work and work and die in my salad' instead of 'saddle'. Clearly, my interest in sign language is partly in getting into my linguistic centres again to try to remedy that.
Do you use European models for the structures of your pieces?
I'm mad for one European form, the medieval estampie. I've written too many of them, in fact; my latest symphony is the last one, and I'm not going to go any further. I like ABAs and rondos too. I'm particularly fond of the French rondo with no variation - not the Viennese rondo with its transposition of the subject, as in Mozart and Haydn. I also like some of the contrapuntal forms - passacaglias and things like that - though I use them less. I have quite a good historical background in European music.
Did your studies of Indonesian forms throw up whole new ways of working?
Indonesian forms are different from European forms. It knocks you numb when you first realize what the formal range is in Indonesian music. ABA would be simple-minded in Indonesia. There are forms whose first line lasts, say, eight counts and there are forms whose first line lasts, say, 385 counts. Then they go through a process known as irama, which is tempo layers. If you take a form of ten lines of 385 counts, for example, take one ten times that, and then shift it to the fifth irama - which means that it would expand by five geometric times - you get some idea where you're going. There's also the practice of using certain instruments to mark off where you are. It's a little bit like the chords: you know that you're not at the tonic when you're on V or IV- those are subsidiary cadences. Similarly, you know when you come to the great song, which is the equivalent of the tonic. So the shape, tonally, is very controlled, and it's instrumentally indicated. Its size, its interconnections and what you can do are breath-taking, that's all I can say. I will never, for the rest of my life, be bored as long as there are gamelans and players around. And writing too. If I write now, just out of my head, there are only two things I really like to do. One of them is harps and other tuned instruments playing modes, usually from the antique world but sometimes made up. And the other is gamelan compositions. I instinctively write Balungans now, which is the skeleton line for a gamelan piece. Up on Mount Hamilton, we just premiered my Gending in honour of Max Beckmann. It eliminates the pitch two in pelog, which makes a fascinating mode. The next one is in honour of Munakata Shiko - the other great artist of the century, I think.
Do you have any specific way of working, like so many hours per day or certain times?
They don't let me. The phone or the fax or visitors or whatever are happening all the time, and I do well if I get a half an hour in during the day. I have a load of work that I can never really accomplish. I've also been designing my own type fonts - I made four last year and my book of poems uses two of them. I now have a subsidiary career as a poet! I'm also sending slides of my paintings and drawings to the Los Angeles County Museum of Contemporary Art, which is originating an exhibition that's perhaps going around the world.
Many thanks to SoundCircus and Dr Geoff Smith for the Lou Harrison (photo above) interview. Now read about Lou Harrison's straw-bale studio
Photographs of Padmaloka Centre taken by Pliable May 19 2007 and (c) On An Overgown Path. And yes, I know that Padmaloka is run by the Friends of Western Buddhism, and I'm aware of the baggage. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk