Skip to page content

Composed: 1983-1985
Length: c. 32 minutes
Orchestration: 3 trombones, percussion (bongo, bass drum, medium drums, side drum, snare drum, glockenspiel, maraca, sleigh bells), 2 harps, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances

In some ways, as John Adams suggests, Lou Harrison was the quintessential West Coast composer. Born in Portland, Oregon, Harrison grew up in northern California, studied with Henry Cowell in San Francisco, studied with Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA, and had a life-long fascination with Asian music, among many other musical and cultural interests that connect him to the Pacific Rim. (His move to New York City in 1943 resulted in an ulcer and nine months of hospitalization for a nervous breakdown.)

“He was a living example of what 19th-century California-born philosopher Josiah Royce termed Provincialism with a capital P,” Adams wrote in Hallelujah Junction. “Royce used the term in the most positive sense of the word, meaning it to be ‘any one part of a national domain, which is, geographically and socially, sufficiently unified to have a true consciousness of its own unity, to feel a pride in its own ideals and customs, and to possess a sense of its distinction from other parts of the country.’ Royce, like Bartók, felt that true culture thrived in these pockets of focused self-identity, that uniqueness and originality lay in the local rather than in the global. In an era of instant communication, compulsive globe-trotting, and cultural cosmopolitanism, Lou Harrison possessed that ‘true consciousness’ of his West Coast birth, and he reveled in what made the local culture deliciously different.”

“After Ives, Henry Cowell & Harry Partch were in essential agreement — the overtone series is the rule, world music the font,” Harrison wrote in 1975. Harrison’s belief in the primacy of the overtone series led him to compose works in a variety of different tuning systems, among them the Piano Concerto that he began in New Zealand in 1983 and completed two years later at his home in Aptos, California.

Harrison “was the first major composer in the Western world to seriously incorporate alternate tuning systems into his music,” Adams wrote, “composing pieces in a variety of just-intonation systems and bringing back long-forgotten temperaments, as he did in his Piano Concerto (written for the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett), in which he calls for the solo piano to be tuned in an archaic mode called ‘Kirnberger 2’ that is subtly different from our garden-variety equal-tempered scale.”

The orchestra also participates in this tuning. Its unusual scoring calls for instruments, as Harrison wrote, “chosen basically for ability to play the intonation with some grace and because I like an integration of percussion with other facets of my music, and besides, who can resist writing for harps?” The results are a piquant sound, fresh but not jarringly “wrong.”

The opening Allegro is a classically structured movement of thematic exposition, development, and tonally rounded recapitulation. It includes several big piano solos with a sweetly chiming, allusively mixed character, like pentatonic hoedowns.

The Stampede is a kinetically obsessive exploration of the darker flat-side of this tuning force. A large-scale version of a medieval estampie (one of Harrison’s favorite traditional Western dance genres), with persistent percussion and zesty keyboard banging much to the fore, it is almost a non-stop chase scene, with only a brief oasis of gentle calm midway through.

In complete contrast, the quiet slow movement is a blissed-out, classically unfolding reverie. Its calm, however, is undercut by sinuous chromatic slithers, rising to a climax in lushly divided strings, with an ambivalent coda that sets up the finale.

That is another perpetual motion romp, but much lighter in sound and spirit than the Stampede. Harrison gives it over almost entirely to the piano and light percussion (bongo and glockenspiel), creating a lacy but rapidly moving filigree, its restless patterns gradually descending to emphatic finality.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.