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MATURE STYLE (1961–1998)

Harrison’s return to California after his East Coast odyssey also marked a reopening of his ties to Asia. Though he had been fascinated by Chinese music and Indonesian gamelan since the 1930s, he did not visit Asia until 1961 when he was invited to the East-West Music Encounter in Tokyo. Funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Harrison boarded a freighter on March 25 for the journey across the Pacific. Along the way, he made a study of pentatonic modes with pure intervals and, using two of these modes, wrote a new work: a concerto for solo violin accompanied by an orchestra of percussion and keyboard instruments—six triangles, six gongs, four suspended galvanized garbage cans, two tack pianos, and celesta—which he titled Concerto in Slendro. (Slendro is an Indonesian pentatonic mode with no half steps, or, as Harrison describes it, one with "wide seconds and narrow thirds." There are many varieties of slendro, but they all lack semitones, in contrast to pelog, a hemitonic mode having "narrow seconds and wide thirds.")
   Following the Tokyo conference, the Rockefeller Foundation funded a trip to a second Asian country of Harrison’s choice. He had arranged to visit Thailand, but was seduced by the beauties of Korean music from recordings brought to Tokyo by one of the most influential scholars of Korean traditional music, Dr. Lee Hye-Ku. Harrison abruptly changed his plans and went to Korea instead. With additional help from the Rockefeller Foundation, he brought Lee to California later that year, and returned to Korea himself for three and a half months the following summer. Harrison studied Korean instruments, including the double-reed p’iri, and worked with Lee on a history of Korean music (only partially completed). He coupled his second trip with a visit to Taiwan as well, where he studied cheng (psaltery) with the renowned master Liang Tsai-Ping.
   The decade following Harrison’s trips to Asia was marked by a devotion to, and exploration of, Korean and Chinese music. He composed for the instruments he had studied, built replicas of them, and taught his students to play them; he wrote works for ensembles of mixed Asian and Western instruments (Pacifika Rondo, Music for Violin with Various Instruments, and others); and he lectured widely on various traditional Asian musics. He even founded a Chinese music ensemble with his student Richard Dee and his partner William Colvig, whom he met in San Francisco in 1967. Together the trio presented hundreds of concerts of classical Chinese music throughout California, often joined by the singer and cheng player Lily Chin and the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who would narrate and read his own translations of Chinese poems.
   Harrison earned a living during his early Aptos years primarily through non-musical jobs (such as that at the animal hospital), supplemented by working as an accompanist for several dance studios in the San Francisco area. His love of teaching led him to take a part-time position at San Jose State University in 1967, where he offered courses in orchestration, composition, and world music until 1983. (He also taught for short periods at Stanford, the University of Southern California, and Mills College, and, for many years, offered a popular world music course and ran the gamelan at nearby Cabrillo College.)
   The period was also one of intense political activism, prompted both by the atomic bomb attacks on Japan and by the arms race and nuclear testing of the following decades. Harrison bought his own Geiger counter, which he set up in front of his cottage and read daily, and wrote a short Political Primer, part of which he set to music using the Geiger counter as background commentary.145 Equal temperament came to represent for him an undifferentiated grayness, symbolizing the leveling tendencies of modern industrial society. Coupled with serialism—which by now he had largely abandoned as a primary compositional tool—he called for this "mechanized post-industrial tuning" in several political works of the time, including anti-bomb movements in Pacifika Rondo (1963) and Nova Odo (1961–68). The latter includes a Morse code message in the woodwinds ("Class struggle between church and state was won; will layman win struggle against military?"), as well as the voices of children who appeal for sanity in the face of an escalating Cold War.
   The Vietnam War (particularly with its persistent media images of Americans killing Asians) only exacerbated Harrison’s outrage and inspired the Cabrillo Music Festival’s 1968 concert of "Peace Pieces"—a protest in sympathy with the increasingly virulent anti-war demonstrations on college campuses throughout the country. Harrison actively supported the pacifist non-commercial radio KPFA in Berkeley and became increasingly outspoken in support of humanitarian and ecological causes. He has continued his political activism to the present day, waging personal battles against noise pollution, economic waste, and the despoiling of nature (he uses exclusively paper made from kenaf, a member of the hibiscus family, and in 1997 began building a straw-bale house in the Mojave desert as a getaway). He has continued to compose political works, the most dramatic example from his mature style period being Homage to Pacifica (1991), which blends sardonic commentaries on American imperialism with a celebration of Native American culture and a vision of a united world.
   Meeting Colvig in 1967 (see plate 6) spurred the instrument-building side of Harrison’s life as well. An electrician and amateur musician, Colvig helped Harrison explore a variety of tuning systems by constructing metallophones and measuring their frequency ratios with an oscilloscope. The two men also built an accurate and versatile monochord, on which they could easily set up and compare different modes, both those of ancient or non-Western musics and those of their own invention. They then transferred these modes to other instruments via a specially constructed harp, appropriately dubbed a "transfer harp."
   The pair’s first gamelan, built in 1971 for Harrison’s opera Young Caesar, was not intended as a replica of an Indonesian original but as a percussion ensemble in just intonation, with metallophones tuned in pure non-beating intervals in D major. Harrison and Colvig used readily available materials: aluminum slabs and conduit tubing for keys and stacked #10 tin cans for resonators. Discarded oxygen tanks cut to random lengths and struck with flattened baseball bats added a bell-like timbre to the ensemble, which was rounded out with suspended garbage cans and a small organ (see plate 5). Noting the similarities of this home-made orchestra to an Indonesian ensemble, Harrison and Colvig dubbed it "An American Gamelan" and now refer to it fondly as "Old Granddad." Harrison composed three works for this unique orchestra: Young Caesar (since rescored for Western instruments), La Koro Sutro (1972, with chorus), and the Suite for Violin with American Gamelan (composed jointly with Richard Dee in 1974 and now available in two alternative versions for Western instruments).
   Unlike Old Granddad, two later gamelan built by Harrison and Colvig (one for San Jose State University in the late 1970s and the other for Mills College in the early 1980s) were modeled directly on traditional Indonesian percussion ensembles. The two men have constructed numerous other instruments as well: harps, bell trees, plucked and bowed psalteries, and drums built from suspended wooden crates, to name a few.
   Harrison engaged with the last major influence on his mature style beginning in 1975 when he met the renowned Indonesian gamelan master and teacher K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat (Pak Cokro) at the Center for World Music in Berkeley. Under Pak Cokro, Harrison began a disciplined study of traditional gamelan instruments, musical styles, and performance practices, a project he undertook with the same fervor he had brought to previous endeavors. He learned to play most of the instruments of the ensemble, mastered works from the classical literature, and gained an in-depth understanding of the structure of gamelan music from various regions within Indonesia.
   Soon Harrison began composing for traditional gamelan; his first works for the ensemble appeared in 1976. Within two years, however, he was combining the Indonesian orchestra with Western solo instruments (Main Bersama-sama for french horn and gamelan and Threnody for Carlos Chávez for viola and gamelan). Harrison’s more than fifty gamelan works include pieces for gamelan alone, gamelan with voices, or gamelan with solo instruments (among them a Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan [1987] in which the piano must be tuned to the Indonesian instruments). Rather than exploring the extended instrumental techniques used by some of his contemporaries (such as bowing, rather than striking, the bonang—knobbed gongs laid horizontally on rope supports), Harrison uses the instruments of the ensemble in a traditional manner, adapts standard organizational structures, and welcomes idiomatic elaboration by performers. His personal voice is heard in the novel instrumental combinations, in the just intonation tuning systems he has used for his three sets of instruments, and in the mixing of compositional processes. Although Harrison had become adept at simulating gamelan sounds on Western instruments long before his studies with Pak Cokro, his new knowledge of traditional practices enabled him to do more than just mimic its timbres: he was now equipped to utilize Indonesian compositional processes as well. Such cultural transference is apparent in works like the Fourth Symphony, one movement of which calls for a baritone chanting California Indian "Coyote Tales"146 over a murmuring percussion accompaniment evoking Javanese sounds. In the second movement of his Piano Trio, he introduced typical gamelan elaboration patterns such as mipil (a oscillation between two pitches) or cèngkok (longer embellishment patterns arriving periodically at unisons with the main melody).
   The 1980s and 1990s have witnessed a revival of Harrison’s interest in standard Western ensembles. To date, he has composed two operas, four symphonies, and a series of chamber works for various instrumental combinations (string quartet, piano trio, etc.). Despite repeated vows to retire, he has not stopped, or even reduced his compositional activity. Between 1994 and 1997 alone he completed five major commissions: incidental music for a radio broadcast of Eugene O’Neill’s Lazarus Laughed; a fanfare for the San Francisco Symphony entitled Parade for M.T.T. (honoring musical director Michael Tilson Thomas’s first year with the orchestra); Rhymes with Silver for the dancer and choreographer Mark Morris and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma; a solo work for Japanese shamisen (Suite for Sangen); and a Concerto for P’i-P’a (a pear-shaped Chinese lute) with String Orchestra commissioned by New York City’s Lincoln Center.

   145Harrison’s Political Primer is published in Frog Peak Anthology (Hanover, N.H.: Frog Peak Music, 1992), 77–83.
   146Two of the tales are taken (by permission) from Bruce Walter Barton’s The Tree at the Center of the World: A Story of the California Missions (Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson Publishers, 1980). The third was written by the Wintu, Daniel-Harry Steward.

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