TWO WORKS FROM THE 1980S
Harrison’s compositions from the 1980s and 1990s do not eschew the
eclectic influences of the past (percussion, dance, Medieval music,
the French Baroque, tuning, and instrument building), but rather
integrate them in novel combinations typified by the two latest
chamber works in the present collection. Completed within a year of
each other, the Varied Trio and the Grand Duo illustrate
the syncretic process Harrison has cultivated over the past half
century and summarize the influences that have guided him during his
long career. Both works have been performed repeatedly and recorded,
yet neither has heretofore been published.
The Varied Trio, like many compositions throughout Harrison’s
career, arose from a personal friendship, in this case with the
percussionist William Winant, who began working closely with the
composer at Mills College in 1980. Although Harrison envisioned the
piece for three players from the start (intending it for Winant and
two colleagues, Julie Steinberg and David Abel), he first composed it
as a quintet so that he and Colvig could join the group for the
premiere on February 28, 1987.
By the time of this concert, Harrison had known
Winant for eight years; Winant, in turn, had been playing Harrison’s
percussion music since he was an undergraduate at the California
Institute of the Arts in 1972. "Lou was one of my idols,"
says Winant, recalling his early percussion studies with John Bergamo
and James Tenney; "I was in awe of him."147
The two did not meet until 1979, however, when Winant was completing
his undergraduate work at York University in Toronto and Harrison came
to the city to hear the premiere of his String Quartet Set.148
The following year Winant enrolled in the master’s program at Mills
College, where he was assigned a graduate assistantship helping
Harrison and Colvig build a new gamelan. "They set up a little
workshop for Bill in the loft above the concert hall," says
Winant; "I spent every day there making resonating boxes, and
helping him cut the wood for the gambangs [xylophones] and file
the metal bars for the metallophones."149
(Their completed gamelan contained two sets of instruments, one in
slendro tuning, the other in pelog, which Harrison named Si Darius and
Si Madeleine in honor of Darius Milhaud and his wife.)
For Harrison’s sixty-fifth birthday concert at
Mills (May 10, 1982), Winant played in the first performance of the Double
Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Gamelan and premiered the finished
version of Tributes to Charon with its new opening movement,
"Passage through Darkness" (see above). Also on the program
was the Concerto in Slendro in which faculty member Julie
Steinberg played the tack-piano. After the concert, she introduced
Winant to her husband, violinist David Abel, and the three planned a
future collaboration. The opportunity did not arise until two years
later, when Winant was organizing a concert called "Three
Generations of American Music" for Cal Performances, a series
sponsored by the University of California, Berkeley. He programmed
Cowell’s Set of Five as well as Harrison’s Music for
Violin with Various Instruments, European, Asian, and African
(1967), for which Harrison played the psaltery part and Steinberg
performed on a reed organ. The concert was so successful that a tour
to other University of California campuses was arranged, during which
Harrison resolved to compose a new piece for the ensemble. The
resulting quintet later evolved into the Varied Trio.
In the original version, Harrison performed on harp
and Colvig played bells. In place of piano, Steinberg played a
virginal, tuned in the composer’s favorite eighteenth-century
temperament, Kirnberger II.150
Shortly after the February 1987 premiere, Steinberg, with Harrison’s
permission, arranged the score for trio by assigning the bell parts to
a vibraphone or gong and adapting the harp and virginal parts to the
piano (at times calling for the instrument’s strings to be plucked
with the finger or the frame to be hit with a hard yarn mallet: the
original harp part had called for some percussion effects, including
knocking on the instrument’s frame.) The Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio
performed the new version for the first time at Mills on Harrison’s
seventieth birthday (May 14, 1987).
The Varied Trio provides a case study of
Harrison’s cross-cultural approach to composition. Each movement
draws on different compositional resources (percussion, dance,
gamelan, the music of India, the French Baroque, Rococo painting, the
teachings of Henry Cowell), from which he created a unique personal
synthesis. Harrison’s percussion ensemble experiences of the 1930s
are most apparent in the Trio’s second movement and finale.
The former features the jalataranga, an Indian instrument
comprising a set of rice bowls struck with thin bamboo sticks. The
bowls are tuned to different pitches by filling them with various
amounts of water. Harrison had used the jalataranga in various
works for years; in fact, he first heard it on a 1930s recording by
Uday Shankar (the elder brother of Ravi Shankar).151
Henry Cowell also called for the instrument in Ostinato Pianissimo
The finale, a lively dance, was partially inspired
by a routine shopping trip in downtown Santa Cruz. Passing a kitchen
supply store one day, Harrison and Colvig noticed a display of baking
pans in the window, reminding Harrison of the days he spent shopping
for new percussion instruments in San Francisco: "Those are
musical instruments," he said to Colvig, and the pair went into
the store to test them. They promptly bought a set of six in various
sizes for the Trio’s finale.
Indonesian gamelan influences (specifically those of
the Cirebon region of northern Java) appear in the Varied Trio’s
opening movement, titled "Gending," which means simply
"piece." The opening two measures constitute a traditional
gamelan buka, the solo introduction that defines the mode, in
this case a type of slendro (anhemitonic pentatonic): D–E–F#–
A–B. The texture of traditional gamelan is a type of elaborate
heterophony (often called polyphonic stratification), in which
different instruments perform various levels of rhythmic diminution
over a structural melodic pattern called the balungan. The
balungan, which may never be heard as an integral line in any one
instrument, is built from four-note groupings in which the second and
fourth notes are stressed. In the Trio’s first movement, the
balungan is A–F# D–B E–F#, first sounded on the quarter-note
level in measures 3 through 6 as the initial note of each group of
sixteenths (see the circled pitches in example 8). The vibraphone’s
three off-beat sixteenth notes lead to the following balungan pitch by
anticipating and decorating it. Beginning on the second beat of
measure 6, an additional layer appears, not through the use of faster
notes, but by the slowing of the balungan itself to half speed. The
vibraphone material from measures 3 through 6 is transferred to the
piano in augmentation, the balungan now articulated on the half-note
level instead of on the quarter-note level. Although the vibraphone
continues its rhythm of sixteenth notes, each set of four notes now
represents an eighth, rather than a quarter of the balungan. This
change in note density, created through alterations in the speed of
the balungan, is typical of traditional gamelan works; density levels
are called irama. The effect is one of speeding up although the
structural melody has actually slowed down. Still a fourth metric
layer begins in measure 12, though in this case without alteration of
the balungan speed. The original irama is restored at the end.
The violin, which enters in measure 13 with a line
that sounds free and improvisatory, mimics the gamelan’s two-string
bowed rebab (fiddle), which plays a similar solo role in
traditional works. Meanwhile, the right hand of the piano, through its
thirty-second-note figuration, imitates the elaborate embellishment
patterns typically played by the gendèr, a metallophone with
thin ribbed plates and individually tuned tubular resonators. The gendèr,
which is played with two soft padded disc-shaped mallets, is among the
most difficult of the instruments of the gamelan. In typical fashion,
all of the various layers, including the violin (rebab) part,
meet on downbeats on unison "goal tones," articulating the
notes of the balungan (example 8b).
From the gamelan influences of the opening movement,
we move to India for Movement Two, "Bowl Bells." In addition
to the jalataranga reference cited above, Harrison uses a jhala
technique (borrowed from North Indian practice)—the intermittent
reiteration of a single tone between the notes of the main melody. In
Harrison’s usage, the jhala functions as an interrupted drone, or
what he calls "India’s answer to the Alberti bass."152
While the compositional process and instrumentation
of this movement are Indian, the overall form is borrowed from the
French Baroque: it is cast in a typical eighteenth-century rondeau
form, ABACA. Another rondeau appears in the fourth movement, this time
identified as such in its title. Harrison’s tribute to
eighteenth-century France is seen not only in the fourth movement’s
form, but also in its texture, rhythms, ornaments (standard French agréments),
and dedication to the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732–1806).
Struck by the classical grandeur of Fragonard’s work during a visit
to New York’s Frick Museum, Harrison purchased several volumes of
reproductions: "Violent Romanticism before its time," he
calls Fragonard’s style, "with an astonishing breadth of
That breadth includes representations of mythology, classical
antiquity, theater, and puppetry, all of which parallel long-term
interests of Harrison as well. (Harrison himself is an accomplished
visual artist whose works have been shown in public exhibitions.) This
fourth movement is another Harrison hybrid, blending the French
Baroque with the gamelan, for the violin’s melody is based on the
hemitonic (pelog) scale of the "gamelan degung," the
classical orchestra of the region of Sunda (example 9).
Movements Three, "Elegy," and Five,
"Dance," hark back to Cowell’s teaching that (in
Harrison’s words) "most of the world’s music is melody with
some sort of rhythmic support."154
The central slow movement features the type of expansive melody for
which Harrison has become widely recognized—in this case, an
unmeasured rhapsody for the violin. In the finale, the tune is joyful,
supported by drums, tambourines, and those baking tins from the
kitchen store, as well as a recurrent low E in the piano that
functions as an interrupted drone. The conclusion of the Varied
Trio recalls one of Harrison’s most memorable quotations:
"Music," he has often said, is "basically a song and a
Like the Varied Trio, the Grand Duo was inspired by
personal friendship. At a casual lunch with Dennis Russell Davies in
October 1987 (after Davies had conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in
Harrison’s Third Symphony), Harrison remarked, "Dennis,
I think I’ll write you a polka."155
And indeed, an energetic polka, reflecting the social dance classes of
Harrison’s childhood, eventually became the Duo’s finale.
The following year, when he was in Portland for the rehearsals and
performance of his opera Young Caesar, Harrison began working
out ideas at the piano for a largo movement, which eventually became
the work’s "Air" (Movement Four). "An Ivesian hymn
tune began to emerge,"156
he says, recalling the delight he felt in the reappearance of this
early influence (see mm. 55ff). "Mr. Ives ... left us the most
wonderful of playgrounds, a kind of People’s Park in which we are
all arrangers of lovely things."157
A commission from the Cabrillo Music Festival prompted the expansion
of these fragments into a five-movement, thirty-five-minute Duo,
which was premiered by Davies (piano) and violinist Romuald Tecco (the
Festival’s concertmaster) on July 28, 1988.
Harrison composed the first and fourth movements
using "interval control," a technique that had served him
well since his early San Francisco days: he simply restricts (rather
severely) the number of admissible intervals. In the Duo’s
opening movement, melodic motion is confined with one exception to the
minor second, minor third, and minor sixth (ascending or descending);
in the "Air," he uses only the minor second, major third,
major sixth, and an occasional perfect fourth between adjacent
pitches. (Each voice in a contrapuntal texture is treated
independently; the harmonic intervals between them are not subject to
the restrictions. As a case in point, see the piano’s opening
introduction to Movement Four, in which two interwoven contrapuntal
lines are each built from the four permitted intervals, while the
intervals between them include the perfect fifth and the minor sixth.)
Through the years, Harrison has found this technique one of the most
useful of his compositional "controls" and has employed it
often, for instance in his flute concerto (1939), in three piano
pieces from the 1930s (Saraband, 1937; Prelude for
Grandpiano, 1937; and the Third Piano Sonata, 1938), and in
the Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra (1959).
The second movement ("Stampede") is one of
Harrison’s most vibrant estampies, though its form varies slightly
from the traditional pattern of paired phrases (AxAyBxByCxCy,
the repeat of section D is postponed until after section F (example
10a). Harrison first used the estampie, a medieval dance form, in the Suite
for Symphonic Strings (1960), and has included it in works as
diverse as the String Quartet Set (1979), the Double
Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Gamelan (1982), the Fourth
Symphony (1990), and the Concerto for P’i-p’a with String
Orchestra (1997). The Duo’s estampie also uses one of his
favorite scales: the octatonic (alternating half and whole steps;
In his later works, Harrison often used the term
"stampede" in place of "estampie," stemming from
an inadvertent slip by William Winant during a rehearsal of the Double
Concerto in 1982. Unfamiliar with the word estampie, Winant
blurted out "stampede" instead, sending Harrison to the
dictionary to track down etymologies. He discovered that "estampie"
denoted a general brouhaha, an implication he accentuated in the Duo
by the use of an "octave bar." This device, about two inches
high with a sculpted rubberized-foam bottom and light wooden handle,
spans the length of an octave, allowing the performer to replicate the
keyboard clusters pioneered by Henry Cowell at a breakneck tempo.159
The arch shape of the sculpted foam makes the outer notes of the
octave speak louder than the intervening pitches (see illustration and
instructions preceding the score). Although the tone cluster passages
in the Duo have distinctive melodic contours, their overall
effect is rhythmic, recalling Harrison’s percussion ensemble
background. For the pianist, the octave bar sections in the "estampie"
(sections D and D9) are truly an athletic exercise; for the audience,
they are a delightful visual treat (a distinct advantage of live
performance over recording). The difficulty of this passage may well
have encouraged the variant in the movement’s form as well: the
pianist’s right arm simply needs a rest before the repetition.
Splitting section D from its recurrence further enhances the
movement’s dramatic momentum as the technical display creates
climactic arrival points both in the middle and at the end. The octave
bar also makes a dramatic reappearance in the Duo’s polka
finale, where it brings the thirty-five-minute piece to a crashing
To balance the dynamic stampede and finale, Harrison
introduced at the Grand Duo’s center a gentle
"Round," a duet in quintal counterpoint that he had written
seven years earlier for Davies’s two daughters, Annabel and April.
The original composition was an idiomatic French rondeau
("round") with a refrain and two couplets (ABACA). For the Duo
Harrison expanded it by adding a third couplet (ABACADA) in canon (mm.
82ff.). Reflecting traditional eighteenth-century practice, he
repeated the A section once at the beginning (mm. 9–17), and then
ornamented it differently at each subsequent recurrence (beginning in
mm. 34, 66, and 100 respectively).
In 1992 Mark Morris asked Harrison for permission to
choreograph the Grand Duo’s polka. Morris, who served for
three years as director of dance for Belgium’s state opera house
(the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie), had been intrigued by
Harrison’s music ever since he heard the Louisville Orchestra’s
recording of Strict Songs (1955) as a teenager. By the time
Morris heard the Duo’s polka, he had already choreographed
the Strict Songs for his own troupe, using the entire 120-voice
Seattle Men’s Chorus in place of the original eight baritones. In
Morris’s hands, the Duo’s polka became "five minutes
But he was dissatisfied with the lone movement as an independent dance
piece: it lacked the climactic exhaustion he had envisioned. So the
following year he (uncharacteristically) choreographed backwards,
setting the earlier movements with the exception of the long
"Air." In that way, the polka became the culmination of a
dramatic curve. The dance has since proven to be one of Morris’s
most popular works, and he has programmed it frequently.
Both the Varied Trio and the Grand Duo
have prompted some of Harrison’s most enthusiastic reviews. To quote
a few examples:
Together the Varied Trio and Grand Duo
encapsulate most of the major influences that have guided Harrison’s
compositional development over the years:
|On first live hearing the recent [Varied]
Trio seems to have hit a peak. Deceptively accessible, it
flaunts the elegance of simplicity. Ever-humble, it rises to
eloquence. Minimal in its materials—Harrison was a
minimalist 40 years ago, when today’s composers of that
persuasion were children—it utilizes them with a
thoroughness and rhetoric that make the total irresistible.
(Daniel Cariaga, Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1988.)
At the end there was the best music of all, Lou Harrison’s
"Varied Trio": full of the old codger’s flowing,
genial melodic invention, with piano and percussion ...
filling in with Oriental evocations at one moment and
something medieval the next. Sheer loveliness this music.
(Alan Rich, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, May 4, 1988.)
Harrison’s impressive range as a composer was demonstrated
fully in the "Grand Duo for Violin and Piano." ...
Harrison has a gift for impassioned lyricism in the grand
romantic manner that few can rival today, and showed moments
of intensity worthy of Brahms or Beethoven at their peak.
(Robert C. Marsh, Chicago Sun-Times, August 8, 1989.)
[Harrison’s Varied Trio is] a treasure house of
exotically tinged modal melodies, rhythmic vivacity and subtle
instrumental color. In one of the movements, the percussionist
plays with chopsticks on an array of eight differently pitched
... rice bowls; another one calls for Chinese drums and a row
of baker’s pans. From another composer, these would seem
like stunts (albeit amusing ones). But the integrity of
Harrison’s music is so clear—the notes so obviously call
for these exact sonorities—that the listener hears only the
ravishing melodies and intricate rhythmic counterpoint.
(Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle, October 10,
• Percussion: in the Trio and the octave bar sections
of the Duo
• French Baroque music: in the three rondeaux (two in the Trio,
one in the Duo)
• Compositional "controls": in the restricted
interval vocabulary of the Duo’s first and fourth movements
• Medieval music: in the Duo’s "Stampede"
and the quintal counterpoint of its "Round"
• Gamelan: in the Trio’s opening movement, "Gending"
• Other Asian musics: the jalataranga and jha-la-
in the Trio’s "Bowl Bells"
• New instruments and extended performance techniques: the Trio’s
baking tins and the Duo’s octave bar
• Dance: the Duo’s "Stampede" and
"Polka," the rondeaux, and the Trio’s finale
• Painting: in the dedication to Fragonard of the Trio’s
• Expansive melody: in all of the slow movements
• Tuning: in the specified pentatonic mode for the jalataranga.
|EXAMPLE 8a. Varied Trio, Movement 1 ("Gending"),
|(circled notes = balungan pitches)
|EXAMPLE 8b. Varied Trio, Movement 1, mm. 13-17
|EXAMPLE 9. Varied Trio, gamelan degung scale used in
the violin part of Movement 4
|EXAMPLE 10. Grand Duo, Movement 2.
|a. Form: Ax Ay Bx By Cx Cy D Ex Ey Fx Fy D' Coda*
(measure numbers rounded to the nearest
*AxAyBxBy...is used instead of AA'BB'...in
order to demonstrate the point of variance in each major
section. The various x and y sections are not necessarily
related to each other. †374–91 related to 189–205;
392–405 = 205–19; 419–34 = 232–47
|b. Octatonic scale, showing pairs of half steps alternating
with whole steps
Winant, interview, Aug. 21, 1996.
The performance by the Orford Quartet took place on April 28, 1979.
Winant, interview, Aug. 21, 1996.
This tuning was described in 1779 by J. S. Bach’s student Johann
Philipp Kirnberger. All fifths are tuned pure except D–A and A–E,
the pitch A being raised from its equal tempered position. The result
is that, despite compromising these two fifths, three important thirds
(C–E, G–B and D–F#) become pure. Harrison used this tuning in
his 1985 Piano Concerto as well.
Uday Shankar led a music and dance troupe that played a kind of
popularized Indian music and toured widely abroad in the early 1930s.
Although Harrison no longer has the recording he heard, a possible
candidate would be the album "Hindu music / Shan Kar and His
Company," directed by Vishnudass Shirali, RCA Victor, Victor
Musical Masterpiece series M-382, ca. 1937.
Harrison, personal communication, n.d..
Harrison, personal communication, Aug. 6, 1997.
Harrison, interview, Jan. 31, 1994.
Harrison, personal communication, summer 1997.
H. Wiley Hitchcock and Vivian Perlis, eds. An Ives Celebration
(Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1977), 82.
Note: "x" and "y" represent open and closed
section endings that in traditional estampies are similar, but not
Ives used a device similar to Harrison’s octave bar in the Hawthorne
movement of the Concord Sonata.
Morris, interview, Nov. 6, 1995.