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The Music of Lou Harrison.

With the exception of A Lou Harrison Reader (Santa Fe, 1987; reviewed in Music & Letters, lxxi (1990), 596-7) - Peter Garland's glorious but intentionally anti-scholastic, celebratory assemblage of mainly biographical flotsam and jetsam - Heidi Von Gunden's The Music of Lou Harrison is the first extended study of one of America's senior composers. This fact is in itself immediately indicative of the very different ways in which composers working within supposedly related traditions are treated by the musical establishment, as is made manifestly clear by comparing Harrison's relatively limited bibliography and discography with those of his close friend and contemporary John Cage. However, the review pages of Music & Letters are not an appropriate forum for a detailed exploration of this complex and fascinating topic: thus, interested readers are directed to a forthcoming article by the present writer, entitled 'Trans-Ethnicism and the American Experimental Tradition', due to appear in the Musical Quarterly.

The Music of Lou Harrison has much to commend it. In general Von Gunden is an engaging and spirited writer, keen to communicate her enthusiasm for the composer and his work, and anxious to 'explain the phenomenon of a Lou Harrison in the latter part of the twentieth century' (p. vii). That she is reasonably successful in achieving this aim is noteworthy, for Harrison is a bewilderingly unconventional figure, not least in his ability to write music which can simultaneously challenge and delight its listeners. As Von Gunden remarks on more than one occasion, 'Lou has often said that at an early age he "laid out his toys upon a large acreage"' (loc.cit.); in other words, like his mentor Henry Cowell he has employed the widest possible range of technical resources in his music, while showing little enthusiasm for the development of a personal audibly recognizable style. Moreover, Harrison has demonstrated a very Ivesian tendency to assemble multi-movement works from a hotchpotch of chronologically (and ethnically) diverse sources, thereby ensuring polystylistic results. An extreme, though by no means untypical, example is the Elegiac Symphony (first performed in 1975, revised in 1988), the five movements of which bring together material written over a 30-year period, and show the influence of Schoenberg, Islam and much else.

However, not all in The Music of Lou Harrison is as praiseworthy: perhaps inevitably in what (despite its title) is a life-and-works, biographical asides interrupt the flow of the otherwise analytically-descriptive text (pages 226-9, which hop disconcertingly from one topic to another, are particularly poor in this respect). The analyses themselves are not uniformly convincing or penetrating, while much of the technical writing concerning Harrison's obsession with intonational systems other than equal temperament will be lost on all but the most mathematically minded (or temperamentally inclined) readers. There is a plethora of minor typographical and related errors, while the music examples are all one would expect from Scarecrow Press: given the elegance of Harrison's calligraphy, this is particularly unfortunate. More positively, Von Gunden provides a useful series of appendices, between them occupying some 70 pages, including a chronology, catalogue, discography and bibliography.

In December 1957, writing in Arts and Architecture, Peter Yates opined that 'Lou Harrison is writing music of a future unanticipated by Pierre Boulez' (quoted by Von Gunden on page 131). Forty years on, the earlier excesses of modernism appear increasingly irrelevant to our multi-cultural, postmodern world, but Harrison and his music seemingly grow more pertinent by the day.

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Author:Nicholas, David
Publication:Music & Letters
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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