An innovative composer and performer who transcended cultural boundaries, Lou Harrison (1917-2003) synthesized musical dialects from virtually every corner of the world. Virgil Thomson, the American critic and composer, wrote of Harrison's style: "The whole is delicate of sound, thoroughly alive rhythmically and melodically, evocative of some tranquil and vibrant scene. Few composers now alive can fascinate the ear, as Mr. Harrison does, with simple procedures. At once plain and sophisticated, his music reflects a concentration on music's basic elements that is as expressive, surprisingly, as it is intrinsically interesting."
Born in Portland, Oregon, Harrison grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was influenced by Cantonese opera, Gregorian chant, and the music of California's Hispanic culture. Harrison also developed an interest in Indonesian gamelan music through early recordings. His early compositions included a large body of percussion music that combined Western, Asian, African, and Latin American influences with homemade 'junk' instruments. During this period, Harrison worked closely with John Cage and began studies in Los Angeles with Arnold Schoenberg.
A move to New York in the mid-'40s brought Harrison to the Herald Tribune as music critic, where he helped to bring the work of Charles Ives to wider attention. In the late '40s, Harrison taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, a leading progressive school of art whose faculty at the time included Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Buckminster Fuller, and Walter Gropius.
In the early '50s Harrison moved back to California. Residence on the West Coast intensified his involvement in a synthesis of Pacific Rim musical cultures that resulted in such works as Pacifica Rondo and Lo Koro Sutro for chorus and gamelan. He died suddenly in the evening of February 2, 2003.
The Perilous Chapel was composed by Lou Harrison in 1948 as a ballet for Jean Erdman. Exploring the struggles of the subconscious, the work pits the forces of anarchy against the power - and ultimate triumph - of the divine. Although the ballet comprises six movements, the concert version sounds as three large sections, since Movements I and II and Movements III to V are to be played without pause. The sixth movement, in itself a third of the total length of the composition, stands alone, exemplifying, in Harrison's words, "a dance on the floor of heaven." The entire work may be viewed as an emotional arch, beginning and ending in tranquil serenity. The forces of evil, portrayed in the barbaric dance of Movement III, reach the height of their power in the middle of Movement V, a musical representation of chaos. The dramatic close of this section is then abruptly countermanded by the heavenly transfiguration of the final Alleluia.
According to Harrison, the instrumentation of The Perilous Chapel was inspired by Persian miniatures; the title draws from the works of William Blake. A tetrachordal motive pervades the composition, found in the accompanimental figures of Movements I and V, in the repeated ground bass motive of Movement VI, as part of the melodic figuration of Movement I, and, with octave displacement, in the flute line in Movement III.
-- Leta Miller