|An interview with Lou Harrison
Listen to the interview (64:32s)
Editor's note: Lou Harrison passed away February 2, 2003. He will be missed by music lovers everywhere.
ALAN BAKER: Cowell is someone that you knew. What was he like as a man?
LOU HARRISON: Well he was enormously amiable. He was charming, and he taught you things by saying, "Of course ... you know!" You'd never heard of it before, but by the time he had said it, you'd felt you'd known it all your life, and that's the neatest kind of teaching, of course. He was amiable about meeting requests. I fell in love with some of his piano pieces, and all I had to do was say, "Please play," and he would play them, you know. It was wonderful. Also, I had lessons with him, and they were very stimulating; they were in a car, or in a park, or whatever. Odd moments when he had time to give me a lesson, and I learned a lot from him ... Henry wasn't a prickly haired lion, he was an ongoer and a continuer, unlike the reputation he's had of being a sort of blast. But he wasn't; he had a very good background, a solid background, and knew what to do with it, and where to go.
I got a shock recently because Dick Higgins' book, which is writings by Henry Cowell, included John Cage and myself as contemporaries of Henry, and that really jolted me because, after all, it was a seventeen-year difference. And I always thought of Henry as the mentor of mentors, and the old man, you know. And also, to be a contemporary of a Rieger, and Russell, and Ives, and so on ... Ruggles ... all this is listed in the book, and I nearly collapsed when I saw it, because I was still a kid in a sense, and though Henry was taking me seriously already apparently as he took John, too, so ... .
Do you think the public perception of him is different than he really was as a man?
I don't really know what the public perception of him is. I think he's played a little less than what he ought to be, because he had an enormous range of works, and as a matter of fact I'm involved with, and must continue with, the transcription of one of his last works - the second concerto for koto with western orchestra for harp, so it will be played more, of course, because koto players are few and far between, and they're eccentric when they get involved with the westerners, so ... I think it will get much more use. It's a beautiful work, really beautiful. So I have a very good friend who is in the San Francisco Symphony, she's second harpist, and she can do anything, and so I'm working it for her, in the hopes that maybe, [Michael Tilson Thomas] will succumb. He's already played several of the large and contentious works of Henry, but this would be palliative.
When might that be performed?
I have no idea. What I actually have to do is make use of my getaway studio down in Joshua Tree, take the score, and plenty of paper, and at my age I have central tremors it's called, or senile tremor, and I can't even write my signature very often, so I require staves about that large ... about an inch big. I almost feel like Carl Ruggles who made these great things around the wall and on the floor. I could make a score I think, enough to be read by somebody who would then computerize it. That's something I really want to do, and will probably simply take as a project down to Joshua Tree, and do it there, because it's uninterruptible there.
Charles Seeger was important to the young Cowell. Do you know anything about their relationship?
Only that Henry used to go over to the University of California, and work with Seeger. That was all I knew. Henry's admiration for Seeger was enormous. I only met Seeger once. It was after Henry's death when Seeger came to the Cowell house in San Francisco to in fact deliver what amounted to a eulogy of Henry. That was very touching, but that was my only contact. Of course recent literature has improved my admiration of, and understanding of, the life of Seeger and his work, and also it clarified a little bit, the problem between Ruth Crawford and Seeger, which ... you know ... I was indignant when I began to see publications that said "Ruth Crawford dash Seeger" because during her life she never called herself anything except Ruth Crawford. That was her name. To add Seeger's seemed to me a down-falling to it. But at any rate, she's now getting her rights, I think. She was a great composer—one of our best. I used to think of that string quartet as the same branch as the Schönbergian school, and that string quartet of her's is fully the equal of the Berg. Yeah. It's the same thinking. I think even before Berg. But, at any rate, somewhere along the line it's ... [laughter] a magnificent work. Also she wrote a lot of other works that are equally magnificent, but we haven't heard them. One by one, I think Charles Amirkhanian sees to it every so often, and so we do hear them gradually, and they are all impressive. But I don't know how they were preserved, though I suspect that the Seeger family when she married him and got into that... I think they were preservers anyway. I remember they collected folk songs until we were dizzy with them, and maybe began the whole business of producing folk singers, too. You know, I've always maintained that if you have a folk, you have a folk song or folk music. Of course, the United States doesn't really have a folk, so the universities had to turn them out, and so there were hundreds and hundreds of folk singers turned out by the Universities.
Yeah, I wonder if that has something to do with just the size of the country, or what ... ?
It's not only the size of the country, which means since we have spots, like Appalachia, and the West, and so on ... Yeah, that's true, but we also have now, from those spots, each of them has spread so we have a whole series of layers of things. I've just fallen for country western for example, and I didn't know where it came from or why, but it was something that attracted me. That's a layer thing, because I couldn't say where country western comes from. Is it cowboy land? It's not Appalachia, that's for sure, though some of it sounds like it. It's hard, but we do have layers in our culture, like cake.
With modern technology, with people being able to simply listen to everything ...
Yes, I know.
It changes how it grows.
Yes. Everything can spread very quickly. And also, you know, to one who grew up when the dollar meant something, it seems to me, it's quite easy to do a lot of things that you couldn't have thought of in the old days, because the mechanisms are being made en masse. Of course, alas, the instruments are all tuned to twelve tone equal temperament. Except now that's not true anymore ... There're some that can do other tunings, and that you can adjust, and things like that, which is wonderful. I'm used to—in my students—listening to computer scores, and to keyboard scores electronically, and I don't blame them, you know. They don't have access to a symphony orchestra, they don't have access to this and that, but they can approximate the sound of it. The only problem is, they're only hearing part of their music, because the compression is such, that you don't hear a sustained cello, or a contrabass, or things like that. And even worse up-stairs. But nonetheless, I don't object, because it seems to me, that's the best thing for them to do if they are not going to take up, for example, a whole other kind of music, for which they either build or buy the instruments.
Do you think that affects the way they orchestrate then?
The use of MIDI, and other computerized things.
It is bound to, yes. It is bound to, and I've noticed in movie music ... ohhh boy! The movies I play quite frequently or run always have scores by known composers, and with full symphony orchestra. It's quite wonderful; some of them are pretty far out. Bernard Herrmann, his music for "The Day the Earth Stood Still" is astonishing. It predates Philip Glass's minimalism, and things like that, and has all sorts of attractive orchestration—really attractive orchestration. And so, I like to hear the old scores with movies. It's like having a full stage with ... Actually the stage is now diminished to pocket-puppet size, or home-paper size, but the music can still be heard fully amplified, as well as you can without having a big auditorium.
Now tell me a little bit about John Cage and your relationship.
Well, John was a very entertaining man. We got along very well. In fact I never had an altercation with John. We gave concerts together, and wrote for one another, and he took trips when he decided to move from the west coast to Chicago first, and then he went to New York. I followed later to New York, I skipped Chicago for the moment, but I went there later for a concert with Dennis Russell Davies and his orchestra. We were very close friends, and visited almost daily, and also since I at least was fairly poor, and sometimes had a little trouble because of working irregularly for dancers as an accompanist and also as a writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and Modern Music Quarterly, and this, that, and the other thing, an occasional article, my income was irregular. John and I instituted a floating five. In the long run, we never could figure out whose original five it was. "But, John, I need the five today." Or, as he would say, "I need the five today" or something. But that would get us through the day. Especially during the control situation during the war, because all prices were controlled, and I got one big shock because I had a complete breakdown in '47, and went to a hospital for nine months, but I didn't have a baby, but anyway... I was in a hospital for nine months, and then when I came out, I went to the grocery store, and I would say it doubled. I just couldn't believe it. That's because the price limitation had gone off, and interestingly my rent didn't double, it didn't even go up. So, it was a charming Italian lady, with a very vivid mustache, and she was very nice. She always, whenever I paid rent, would offer me apéritifs, one of the Italian liquors ... she was very nice. But she didn't raise the rent even after the controls went off, and I was interested in that, so she must have had a boss somewhere.
I see. He's as important as a generator of new ideas as he is a composer. Can you talk about that?
He didn't generate too many ideas as a composer. For example, Henry Cowell introduced both John and me and Russell, and several other people to Strang, and other people to altering the sound of pianos and regularly visiting junkyards, to get percussion instruments. That's where Henry found the most beautiful bells at the time were brake drums. So, shortly after that—this was the 30s—brake brums were made of cast steel and lost their pink and became clunk. So now-a-days, I should print a little booklet, "What did they sound like?" Because I keep hearing these ... I heard the slaughtered version of our "Double Music" recently ... It was just unbelievable, and I should write a text on what the instruments were like, and more or less what they sounded like because it all changed. Nobody pays any attention to try to find out ...
In terms of brake drum ...
Yes, well that's an example. I could suggest alternatives ... and then ... also for example, John's sleighbells. Atrociously mocked ... . And things like that; but I should write a little treatise on how it actually sounded and why. If I ask for suspended brake drums—and John did too—what we did was to hang them up from the axle, and they were spun steel, and made beautiful bells. Now-a-days if you hung them up, you would get nothing but the thunk, and nobody hangs them up anyway. They just play the thing like that. I have three of the originals left, and an old fire alarm that John gave me, which is of the same quality. The only things that have lasted, sort of unaltered, are the gongs, and the instruments of other ethnics that we simply buy. But the junk stuff, as Henry recommended, has all changed. Junk isn't what it used to be. So it's a problem in those pieces in which we used stuff taken from the then industrial—world.
As for John's compositional method, his principal contribution was the concept of making a phrase, and then within it, breaking a phrase, so that there were maybe at least two sections, and then using that structure, both in every phrase, and in the entire piece. It was a microscopic, macroscopic form. That was the basic thing that he did. I've used it, and others have used it, too. It's a fascinating way of making the piece. That was as far as I knew, an original. He never learned anything about Asian music (laughter). I don't know why but he just didn't. He was interested primarily in a career in the West. Of course it was stabilized by his early trips to Germany.
Maybe we should talk briefly about Charles Ives. I know you were close with him.
Well, I did have the fortune of lunching with Charles Ives at the brownstone in New York, and I had worked for and with him through the auspices of Henry Cowell, who suggested to Ives that I was capable of helping with the music. That culminated with the after-lunching meeting with Ives in the little bay-window thing, in which Ives wanted me to be his eyes. Which were going unclear, to do a sort of complete Ives under his direction. Well at that time I decided I couldn't do it. I was much too busy, and I'm glad I didn't, because he never wanted anything finished you know (laughter). He really didn't. I remember working with, right from the beginning, with William Masselos on the First Piano Sonata, which I'd known for ten years because Ives had sent it to me in a crate. Henry Cowell suggested that I write to Ives, and use his name, so this whole crate of music arrived in no time at all. Thirteen volumes of it I was to give to the New Music Society at some time, and I did later in New York do that. But this left me with symphonies and sonatas, and string quartets, and individual pieces with songs. I still have the original book, and so on. So there's a lot of Ives that I lived with for ten years including that Third Symphony before I performed it.
He wanted me to do a complete Ives, but as I say, I went right through the routine for the First Sonata since I had known it, and played it as well as I could, but I new what was in the piece. So Billy Masselos was a friend of mine, and he was at that time a great virtuoso pianist in the grand manner. That is to say, he really did have the grand manner. He could carry it off. I thought, well, that's for the Ives First Sonata. That's the kind of thing that it needs. So, when I decided that, I was at Ben Weber's house. At any rate, I called the house, the Ives brownstone, and Harmony answered, and I explained what I would like, and she said, she'd go upstairs and ask Charles Ives about it, and so she came down, and he says, yes, that would be okay. So I went ahead, and William Masselos and I went through the whole sonata, working, then I came to a fairly extensive passage in one of the movements that was only written in sketch form, and I had to create it. So I did. That's still usable. What this is all about ... he gave them the first performance. It was very well received, and he played it thereafter, and recorded it, and so on. But the minute Ives got the first printing of it, he went through it with a red pencil and started to recompose it. He did this with all of these things. He never wanted anything done. Finished - with his stamp on it, so to speak. I don't know whether it was timidity on his part, modesty, or an aggressive move towards a society which he didn't really quite appreciate or like too much in some senses. Though he was obviously patriotic, when it was necessary to be patriotic, and he did such things as patriotic tunes, and so on. In fact, I orchestrated the one commissioned by the League of Composers, a part of the New York Philharmonic, and I was the one chosen to complete that work for him. It was never done as far as I know, but, at any rate, there it was. I also completed some other work for him, and I did do work for him out of his sketches. Reconstructed, I think "Psalms for chorus", and there were other things. I can't remember, but it was more or less fairly well busy with Ives for a long time.
It was an interesting thing at the luncheon. It was very well served, and Harmony was there, and she sort of intermediated every so often, but Ives at one point said, clear out of the blue, he said, "When I was growing up, just to be a musician or to think of yourself as a musician automatically meant that you were a sissy." Then he looked at me and said, "But all that seems to have changed now." This was after the Henry Cowell affair, and the fact that Henry was continuing a career, and that he must have known then that others of his friends were gay or something of the sort, and all were willing to put up with the sissy label. So that was an interesting item in the exchange.
Did Cowell and Ives ever patch things up?
Oh yes, and again it was Harmony who acted as mediator. She was a nurse you know, and she wasn't about to favor old, old friends. Her husband had also given the New Music Society a regular stipend, and when I was editor I received that to help get it out every time. I chose once—a really daring move—to make only a four-page issue, and this was in his own handwriting, of Ruggles' "Evocation No. 4," I think it was. I thought it was a pricelessly beautiful thing, so we got by with it, too. I was only editor for a short time. I do remember the mechanism, and Mr. Ives helped continuously, but it was as I say. It was Harmony who was the mediator. As you probably know from a number of books, they had problems. It's likely that Harmony had a miscarriage at one point, and it's likely that Charles Ives had a breakdown at one point, and they went to the south for this, and so on. There are a lot of mysterious problems, and that they actually bought a child ... that's what it amounts to ... Edith, who they loved, and who was the daughter of people who worked for them. So, it's a strange and interesting life. Based on a fantasy of a harmonic New England, which may or may not have existed, and a wild imagination about the growth of America.
He seemed torn between being recognized and known, but didn't seem willing to accept recognition.
Well that's true; there was a battle about his relation to society. Particularly when it became obvious that he was really something. Then he had a problem. I think it was all right up to a certain point. Remember that he had a church job as an organist, and he wrote a big cantata during that period, and then he quit that because, according to Henry Cowell, he wanted to have a wife and children, and couldn't support that on a church job at that time, so he went into the insurance business, and wrote the book that was used for a while on the amount to carry in life insurance, of course. By that means, he became wealthy enough so that he had spare funds to help artists with, and music, and thus was able to help the New Music Society and individual artists. I'm still, by the way, receiving funds from the Ives estate. What's interesting about it is, I produced the Third Symphony - the first of any of his symphonies done complete. It got a Pulitzer Prize which he divided with me, and wrote a sort of odd letter, "Prizes are for mediocrity, now please take half of it." That's what it amounted to. That was funny. As a matter of fact, Henry told me that he restricted his own income to $100,000 a year so that he maintained a building in New York, and also the farm in Connecticut, and helped support Edith and whoever needed support. Now this was in addition to the heart help, so he was a fairly rich man in some senses. He had an aerie as you doubtless know way up on the top of his brownstone, and that's where Harmony climbed to, to get permission for the First Sonata. Then, as the story says, he came down the stairs once with tears in his eyes and he said, "It doesn't work anymore, I can't do it anymore." and that was the end.
So when was that?
Oh, it was quite late. I think it was '23 or somewhere around in there. He had just finished, I think, a quarter tone-piece, and that echoed back to his father period, when they were studying that sort of thing. And also, he helped with the building of the first quarter-tone instrument in the United States, and never got credit for it, and that made him mad. It was one of those few things that irritated him. Yes. After all, it was a fairly expensive operation. The thing was toured around with a known pianist, played everywhere so ... .
What music and sounds were around you as you were growing up, and do those come back in your music?
Well, how far?
I mean what do you first remember hearing?
Hawaiian music during the '20s of the last century on the radio. I heard the first crystal set in our area in Portland on the radio, and then we had phonograph records. The lovely old horn kind, and there was an awful lot of that kind of music from Hawaii with the guitars making sliding tones, and all of that. That came back to me this last year now, I wrote a piece for a National steel guitar. Nek Chand, who invented this sort of thing, has got a new factory at San Luis Obispo, and I wrote for a specific installation, and it was premiered without that, but now the instruments are being made so that anyone can play it. What's more, the tuning has been as it was, amplified, by transpositions within the system, so it becomes a fairly complete just intonation guitar. This keyboard is a wild one to look at, you know, little bits here and there and then full ones and so one, but I like the intonation.
For many years I've had the pleasure of working in six tone modes. I don't know why, I just did. I like them, and then made the discovery, when I was thinking of these sliding tones in the guitar, that there is a natural six-tone mode. It's between overtone 6 and 12, and there are 6 tones in it. It's a lovely and fascinating mode, so I wrote for that in my "Scenes from Nek Chand " which was commissioned from Other Minds in San Francisco, and is now being learned again on the new instruments made by the company in San Luis Obispo in its proper intonation.
Is that a result of this piece that they ...
Yes, and one of my assistants tells me that other people are taking it up, and this is sort of a minor industry happening. I'm amazed at what they have been developing out of it, and delighted, and also it's a little hard, but it works if you can do it. I used the bottleneck, which is the part that makes the slides, and that takes some practice from a classic guitar point. I'm not fond of the classical guitar, which does too much thunk thunk for me. So I was interested in going back to my childhood; all my life these guitars going like that, so I took advantage of it; made a piece.
When would you say you first found your voice as a composer?
I never have, I'm still at it.
When did you first consider yourself a composer?
That's a question of outsider and insider. I've always basically been an outsider, and that's why I think [Michael Tilson Thomas] adopted the notion of maverick, because actually what happens is the "outsiders" become the classicists of the next period. That's what it amounts to. As Debussy said, it's the same thing, "I've never really considered myself fully an insider." Yes, I've received large commissions, and executed them, and had performances, but I was again, like Ives. It's not that I don't want things finished, I do, but I want to putter with them until they are. Dennis Russell Davies was wonderful about the Third Symphony, which was commissioned by the Cabrillo Festival here, and I wrote it for him, for large orchestra. I puttered with that, making three or four different versions as I went along, and then he would say, "We'll schedule it again". It would turn up in Kansas, or in somewhere else he was conducting, and I would go and hear the new version. Until finally after [Michael Tilson Thomas] did it, last year I guess it was. I heard something I'd never heard before in the horn section. I hear that, and now it's got a new finale part, and then there is also a string section in the slow movement. Maybe the audience didn't hear, but I did feel that the strings had to make a leap that was awkward, and it's a lyric kind of thing, in which that's not really very good. So what I did was to add a measure in which you creep up on the high note. So that's two alterations. The third movement and the fourth movement are both altered now, so I think that that will probably be premiered this coming year. Well, I learned from [Michael Tilson Thomas] about that in the finale of course, because there's a section where the horns enter in a complicated sleigh ride, and they sound very noble, and I wanted more of it, so during rehearsal I said, "Michael, can you give me more horn?" and so he said "Yes, it sounded glorious when it came out," and I said, "What did you do?" He said, "Well I simply added the rest of the horns." So then that gave me an idea, so I added the rest of the horns, carried it on up into the full trumpet section, back down into the horns and trombones and so on. So it makes an arch that was never there before and carries the melodic idea further. I learn from my musician friends, and I've learned a lot from [Michael Tilson Thomas], too, as I have from Dennis, because it's they who play the music. In a sense, they embody it. I never fail to learn something like that. There are composers I learn from, too. Last night for example, [Lenay Creen] in San Jose played the Firebird by Stravinsky. I have yet to hear a Stravinsky score from which I do not learn something.
Maybe we should talk a little bit about gamelan, and what it is, what lead you to it.
Well, for me the gamelan is the ... particularly the central-Javanese gamelan is the most beautiful single musical ensemble on the planet. Its tone color is ravishing, it has a range of sound from top to bottom like a western orchestra does when it's fully used, and its repertoire goes back to about the time of Charlemagne. Imagine a western orchestra playing something in the time of Charlemagne, and the actual first gamelans were founded—by that I mean laid in metal—in 235, which is during the time of the Emperor Alexander Severus. I've seen Roman sarcophagi in which there are statues of a smithy making quirasses—the shields for warrior use—and the tools used in those images are exactly the ones still used in Java and Bali for building great gongs, and the instruments of a gamelan - in short, what a difference. There, the creation of a magnificent musical work of art using the same tools that were used for war business in Rome. It's a fascinating difference, but it's interesting that the same tools are used. My connection with gamelan began with Henry, I guess, who drew my attention to it phonographically, when I took his Music of the Peoples of the World course, on which I later founded a course of my own, which went on for 18 years, and still goes on by one of my old T.A.s.
Learning about gamelan, however, took something else. It was a group headed by Robert E. Brown called the American Society for Asian Arts. It finally devolved. I was a board member finally, and it finally devolved on me to separate him from the society, and this was millions of dollars, and it was a very tense situation between the two leaders, and I was trapped in the middle. I literally bled from the experience. It was during a session of the society at Berkeley when everything was there. All of the wonderful Indonesian masters were there. There were three or four gamelans, and we got acquainted with all these people, and then I decided to try to help, and I invited them to San Jose State, where I had been teaching for years, to establish a section there in the music department which was for the study of Asian music, and it lasted only for one semester. The state couldn't afford it for one thing, but, while there, they took houses, and lived there, and Pak Chokro, the leading composer and conductor of his time - and he's still alive in Yogyakarta with a new palace and everything; he's a prince—he taught there, and he was my principal teacher along with his assistants. Jodi Diamond, founder of the American Gamelan Society, and Janet Smith, and so on. And I had the gamelan, at one point, in the room right next to my office. Well, you can imagine where I spent most of my time, and also studies. Whenever I've gone to Asia and taken up a music that I like, I run back and try to make an instrument in our own way that is like that, and can be used as such. I thought, well, how can we build a gamelan? So I was designing tunings, for one thing, and Bill (Colvig) had run me up for metalaphones, each with a resonator, I mean each slab of which had a separate resonator, and it ran from over 'til one up to 32, and I was hunting in the upper overtones, because I thought, somewhere along there there's a pelog ... a scale from the gamelan, and I was putzing around in my office with that, and all of a sudden there is a knock on my door, and there stood Pak Chokra. He said, "What are you doing?" So I told him I was hunting for a pelog in the upper overtones. He said, "Play the last one that I heard." So I repeated it, I played it. He thought very seriously. Then he said, "It's a good pelog. Once more, it would be good to sing with." Had you told me that it would be easy to sing overtones 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 21, I would have said, NO WAY. But we did use it, and it's here in fact. When we did try with chorus the first time, it was like falling off a log. No problem. But there is a problem with pitch 13 when used with instruments. Western ears don't like that, and so it proves to be a problem. For the recording, I switched the tuning a little bit to accommodate Western ears, and then I decided no. The pelog had lost it's majesty. So we retuned it back, and it is now back in the original thing, and when you hear the piece as a classic pelog kind, it has that majesty again. And it's just that one little pitch. But it makes all the difference, and that's true of tunings. It's either there or not there.
So you still feel like you're exploring as opposed to ..?
Oh, yes, that's part of my outsider world. Fusing with a little thing here and there, which isn't presenting a fully done score to a symphonic organization, having them play it, and you get a check. That's different - my world of the outsider.
It seems that West Coast composers have been freer to do that than the East Coast composers.
I think so—even our poets. Robinson Jeffers for example felt himself on the edge of a continent, and the end of Western Civilization. Well, the next poet simply crossed the ocean. Kenneth Rexroth for example even invented a female Japanese persona for himself in his last poem to get more acquainted with Japan. Gary Synder studied for years in Japan as a monk, and so on. My friends quite often are commuting to Java for gamelan and even make recordings there of American pieces. The Javanese love us for doing this, they're more interested in the fact that we build and make new pieces and find new things, than they are that we should import a gamelan and play Javanese classics. That they can do. It doesn't really interest them as much as the fact that we do new things with it. That means to them of course that it's the children growing, it's their thing going on. That's important to any art, that it have a growth.
I was at a party a long time ago, decades ago, in Santa Cruz, and there were 15 of us there, and it finally dawned on me that every single one of us there owned a gamelan. And this was only in Santa Cruz. So, it spread, and Jodi tells me we are sort of in the 200 realm in the United States now of gamelan, which is the largest number outside of Indonesia itself. Britain is following fast too, but we have a greater variety than Britain does so far.
Have you played a role in spreading it to Britain?
Actually yes. I taught twice at Dartington Hall in alternate summers, and they were kind enough because I said that I taught and was interested in Javanese gamelan. They borrowed a Javanese gamelan for me, though the hall actually owns a magnificent big Balinese Gamelan, but it's not part of my realm, and I wouldn't be able to teach properly on it, where as they had already a director who was terrific, and he helped me during those summers with the students and with any translations that needed to be done.
The early counterpoint in Europe comes from layering over chant. As a matter of fact, in all of east Asia, the same thing is true, for example, you listen to a large Javanese gamelan piece ... you think you're listening to intricate and complex counterpoint. You're not, you are listening to patterns that always resolve on the one tone of the next part of the chant you see. But everybody goes off on the two; they all have their own things—patterns to make—and the result sounds highly polyphonic, but it isn't. It's all monothematic like that, and it's like, I'm sure, the early singing was in Europe in the cathedrals, too. At any rate, there is a huge repertoire. Pak Chokra says that in one mode alone—Balag Balan, which is a most popular mode—he says there are over a thousand pieces. You know, ask yourself on the concerto grossi you can think of in a-minor! Like that.
You think he knows all those thousand pieces?
Well that raises the question because it was the king, as a matter of fact, who wanted to hear a well-known ancient piece, and he asked his musicians, and they were a little bit "dismemorate." They couldn't quite remember, and so it was contingent, I mean, they had to make it mandatory to make a notation, which they did, and it was one of the best that's ever been invented. Then they made another one based on the Jean Jacques Rousseau presentation to the French Academy using numbers. So it is that cipher system which is now practiced everywhere and its called Ki Pati Han, and it was because it was invented in the palace. The Ki Pati Han palace in Suri Karta. When I went there, I thought, I'm going to visit the shrine, well it had burned down. But at any rate, that's what we use always as a cipher notation. It's very easy as a matter of fact, it's useful if you're in a restaurant, and you have a doily or something, you can turn it over and write a Schönberg quartet ... whatever, because it's very very useful. With one distinction it's used both in Indonesia and in China and Japan—the same thing. The distinction is, in China and Japan they use bar lines just like we do in the West, and the same thing the rhythm counts that way, the beat comes after the bar line. But in Java there are groups of four and then a gap. Nothing. The accent is just before the nothing. So it's hard for people to think one, two, three, four, but I thought of an answer for that. We have an answer for that; it's a countdown: four, three, two, one. Away we go! And that works—they get over their fear of the four right away.
That's the only difference, otherwise everything is the same. It's very useful.
In your gamelan writing is it the same process where it's in sync on the ..?
Oh, yes! And then also I've written for western instruments. I've written gamelan-like pieces, using the techniques of Javanese composition. My Fourth Symphony, for example, has two movements that contain only Javanese practice within western orchestra, and I've written other things too that involve that idea. They're very useful you know - it works anywhere. It'd work even in a highly chromatic structure. One of my students startled me, having learned mepiola, a way of dealing with the melody in gamelan. He wrote a chromatic piece for woodwinds using it, and it sounded wonderful. I thought, well here we go, and so I've used it since then in the same context, chromatically, and it works.
Combining western and eastern. Say, in your suite for violin and American gamelan.
Yes. I'm known for combining a western solo instrument with a Javanese gamelan, or for that matter a gamelan de-gung for which I've written three pieces that are recorded. The other thing I cannot do. I would not write for a gamelan with a western orchestra - that is to say, the gamelan as soloist, and the western orchestra as accompanist. I couldn't do that because there is no congruence in the tuning systems, for example. And also, the performance seems to be terrible, but it's fairly easy—and for me quite easy because I know a lot of solo instruments and how to write for them—to write for a Western soloist with Javanese accompaniment. That works very well. I've done a lot of it. Sometimes people then record the accompaniment and take it around on tour.
Did you have to change the tuning of the violin for that piece?
No. You know the piece, the Philemon and Baukis. That is a very good recording done by Dan Kobialka who is first, second violin of the San Francisco Symphony. At least he was as far as I know. No. I just gave him a score written in D-sharp I think, or something like that, and the gamelan sounds in E flat. He didn't pay any attention, he just listened and played. Americans can do that to an astonishing degree. We tried that in England and it did not work. They see an E-flat, and they play an E-flat as they've been taught to play, and that's that. They don't adjust to say, the E-flat that's in the gamelan. But in the United States we have much more freedom of sound, and ways of adjusting.
What makes the American gamelan in that piece American?
Well it's all played by Americans, number one. It's written by an American, and that was one of Bill's first gamelans. It was made with pipes and slabs, and [Michael Tilson Thomas] used it in a concert with, I think, Midori playing the violin. He did very well. They did very well, too. He contributed a part—you know, puttering with pieces; he puttered with that in Japan when he first did it, and he liked the final thing, which he says, "This should be a wedding march everywhere." So, he added a final section, which repeats the main theme of the section. It's wonderful, so I've approved it. Yes. It's by far the best ending.
Another piece that was on that series, speaking of mixing solo with gamelan, was the concerto for organ.
Yeah, the concerto for organ is for organ. This was an interesting problem. The new organist at San Jose State asked me one day for a piece for his performance, and .... Tony Cirone, who ran the percussion department, asked me for a new piece, and I thought, "well, they can both make a lot of racket, let's put them together and see what happens." But, in writing it, I discovered I had to have a third section in the middle because the organist sustained pitches, for as long as you want, and the abstract percussion instrument is not, and what's more, I don't like using things like mallet instruments very much. So what I did, was add a gamelan section, as I call it, which is piano and vibes and celeste and things like that, and so it is a middle section between the organ and the abstract percussion, and it works.
Tell me a little bit about the Third Symphony and what listeners hear in that. Coming to it fresh.
Well, it was commission by the Cabrillo Music Festival by friends of the festival, and that means personal friends. So it's actually a sort of dedication hoping my friends would find something that they liked in it. It has an opening which is practically pure Carlos Chavez whose work I very much admire. I think he was a great composer. I've always admired and been influenced by Chavez. It piles up great masses of sound and then thins out to almost nothing, and then repeats and so on. But the second movement was again a suite, and it starts out with homage to Henry Cowell ... an Irish jig. With the spoons clattering and everything. I have each time to ask the solo violinist who begins with the spoons to try to sound a little cruder. They dolly it up you know, as though it were Victorian lace work or 18th century rococo. I want it to be country western. At any rate it works, and the piece is very entertaining. This is part of my scherzo program, and then the next section of that is the waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen, and the third section is an estampie for Susan Summerfield. Those three constitute the scherzo of that symphony. With the slow movement—and this I guess is what most people think about—it's just got two chords. It's all ostinato. It persists the whole length of the piece, and then it has a lyrical string line, and then a kind of another little sort of chorus that happens every so often in it. Mind you the ostinato still goes on, and everything harmonizes with it, but this little section, I can't help it, it comes from my listening many many decades ago to a first recording of Charles Ives, "In the Night." It has that quality to me, it may not to other people, but it does to me. Distant horns, and the possibility of the night, and this is the one I finally corrected, because there is a reach in the strings and now it's okay. Then the finale is a big canon and it starts out sounding like "Jingle Bells", that is to say there are canons of diatonic sounds and so on, and it's richly orchestrated, and has trumpet fourths and fifths—very open. That finally dominates the whole texture, but it's long, and it culminates with a long passage, too, just before the climax in which a drum starts, and then there're kind of little soloist things as though you're walking through villages. The villages get a little bigger and more formalized until finally it climaxes in a big thing, and it's as if a boat had been launched - a big sea-going boat. Then the ocean waves are slightly irregular through the coda, and the horns are in their glory, and so on. That's the end of that. It works.
I think I've seen it somewhere written that you mentioned that you were concerned within that piece about the balance; that the piece is a world contained unto itself.
Yes, well, all of my symphonies are like that. You are making a world. The world contains interesting humorous small objects, and it contains the heart and expression from the inside, and then it contains action, movements, and sometimes the monumental. Yes. You're building a world of that sort. It represents your civilization in a sense. That sounds high-faluting, but the expression of your culture is there. You're a part of it.
What is a maverick composer? What is that tradition?
A maverick composer I think is an outsider. The art people have made categories for this. There is a magazine called Raw Vision, and there are books, and there are explorations, but there are whole galleries devoted to the outsider artist. I think [Michael Tilson Thomas] is using "maverick" as outsider artists. None of us really took commissions until very late. I still think of myself as a maverick artist. My newest work is one. Demands a new kind of instrument and a new kind of tuning, new kind of technique and so on.
Is this something that's been recorded?
It's the "Scenes from Nek Chand." It will be, yes.
The composers you're contemporary with, do you feel like you fit in with that crowd, or do you stand alone?
We all do. We're all ourselves, and as we get older we have to because it's harder to get around, number one. But, for example I feel close to Henry Brant, and that's recently been written about, that we're both outsider artists of a special kind, but we also present something that is available to every American. Terry Riley, I just got a lovely birthday letter from him. He's a dear friend, and I want to go up to Moonshine Ranch and visit him. I've got to make time to do that. Invite him down to Joshua Tree too. Lovely family. He's very proud now because he's giving concerts with his son who's also a composer.
There are a lot of us around. Also John Adams. John Marshall Adams, not John Luther. It was fun because one summer Bill and I loaned our house to both of them, and Luther had a huge mobile home out on the parking system, and John Marshall Adams and his family lived here. And so, Bill and I were in a trailer and we'd answer the phone, "May I speak with Mr. Adams?" "Well certainly, which one?" (laughter) They would have to describe. It was lots of fun.
The one from Alaska, the one from Berkeley?
I'm fond of both of them, and again I think of them as fellow artists. In a sense, though, John Luther gets about as an insider artist. He's an outsider too at heart. He has movements from one shift to another, and really quite radical ones are quite amazing. And those operas, "Nixon in China" for example and the "Death of Klinghoffer" and of the world of New York, the one I like best, or feel closest to, and it's likely because I know him and like him, and that's Philip Glass. He's a good composer and Dennis brought him here... I didn't like his improvisation on the piano, which was equal temperament triads till I thought I was going to scream, but nonetheless, the orchestral works were stunning. I admire him. He's an insider artist, there's no doubt about it, but I do admire him and like him, and he's a nice man, too.
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