Post Number: 145
|Posted on Friday, March 09, 2012 - 04:26 pm: ||
THE SECOND LOU HARRISON MOVIE: RHAPSODIC SONG AS CINEMA
Why did you become a Chinese composer?
--Lou Harrison’s mother
Harrison’s facility with the written word...caused him to vacillate, during his youth, between careers as a composer and a poet. At the age of eighteen, he wrote to his mother: “The old inner war about music versus poetry has arisen again...I am in a perpetual state of alternation between doubt and belief in everything I do....”
--Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, Lou Harrison: Composing a World
Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was a wonderful composer and a wonderful person whose rigorous, demanding intellect was firmly implanted within a spirit which was extraordinarily open and generous. Harrison introduced John Cage to the I Ching. Cage in turn described Harrison’s work as a “music of the pacific”—meaning “pacific” in many senses. In The Lou Harrison Reader, Peter Garland sees Lou Harrison as the very centerpiece of “California’s and the West’s contribution to American culture” during the twentieth century. What Harrison offers is “a renewed sense of place”:
"This sense of place differs from much of America’s other regionalist perspectives in that it is internationalist in scope. In that way regionalism becomes a liberating and progressive, rather than limiting, factor. Only in California perhaps, with its already mixed Anglo, Asian, Hispanic and Indian population and heritage, could this viewpoint have developed naturally and without intellectual self-consciousness or 'borrowing.'”
Harrison himself wrote in 1946, “It is a refreshment (and a shock), what with the increasing degradation of our own art into an industry pure and simple, to realize that most of the world (and the Orient is most of the world) considers music a gentle pursuit of the spirit finding its own poetic integration, in religious terms, with the rest of creation.” Harrison’s lifelong interest in melody, in melos *—which he defined as “an adventure in time awareness”—manifested even in his percussion pieces. Miller and Lieberman write: “In hardware stores Cage and Harrison bought iron pipe of varying sizes; at nurseries they found matched sets of resonant flowerpots; and in Chinatown they purchased porcelain bowls. The pots and bowls added a delicate melodic texture to the ensemble, as did the ceramic ocarinas (globular flutes) commonly found in music stores at the time. These instruments allowed Lou to maintain lyric melody even within the context [of] the percussion ensemble...Even his choice of the title Canticle for many of his early percussion works—a word he translates as ‘rhapsodic song’—shows his lyric orientation.” “In California and in the West generally,” Harrison insists, “we’re not afraid if a thing sounds pretty, and we’re not out to terrorize everybody. I don’t think significance is opposed to beauty” (notes to the CD, Lou Harrison a Birthday Celebration). Within the very heart of “dissonance,” “that regrettable bang bang so often associated with the word percussion,” Harrison discovers melody (Harrison quoted by Miller and Lieberman). Similarly, thinking particularly of Harrison’s music—often played upon instruments he made with his longtime lover William Colvig (1914-2000)—critic Robert Hughes writes of “the West Coast openness to sheer uninhibited beauty”: “pouring forth melodies...at a time when length of melody was frowned upon” (Miller and Lieberman).
Harrison’s important and nearly lifelong championship of “Just Intonation” over “Equal Temperament” should be seen in the light of the concept of melos. “Music really can be played in tune,” he insisted and once groused about a Philip Glass piece, “If I hear one more Equal Tempered triad, I think I will scream.” Miller and Lieberman remark that Harrison heard “machine sounds and Equal Temperament as the aural correlates of a passionless society” and quote his complaint that
"We’re pounded at daily by Equal Temperament advocates, by the whole industry which wants to make interchangeable instruments on a planetary basis, all in the same tuning—and an irrational one to begin with. In other places, such as Java, however, the average villager may have a greater understanding, tolerance, and interest in tuning variation than some of the most refined musicians in the West. My classic example is the young Widiyanto. He played on two gamelan whose tunings differed only in one pitch, which varied by the interval 55:53 [32 cents]. 'Oh,' he immediately remarked, 'they are very different.'”
I know of two films about Lou Harrison. The first is Eric Marin’s 1986 Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create. The title quotes Harrison’s motto, which, Harrison says, he applies to “practically everything.” Marin’s film is a charming short piece, more an homage than a portrait. It isn’t an attempt to cover the entire ground of Lou Harrison’s complex career but an attempt to catch some of Harrison’s marvelous energy in mid flight. It has some beautiful performances of his music—we see his gamelan group in action—and Lou speaks about his involvement with Just Intonation as well as his “hatred of the dirty bomb.” There are some wonderful comments from Virgil Thompson, who bows to no one in his admiration of Lou’s work, and John Cage, who believes that Lou receives the prize of being "the most prolific composer."
Eva Soltes’s LOU HARRISON: A World of Music—the title echoes Miller and Lieberman’s Lou Harrison: Composing a World—is quite a different kettle of fish. The motto of this film is not “Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create” but “Freedom is the right to do one’s best work without intimidation.” In fact, Harrison seems to have seen his life’s work as being more about cherishing and conserving than about the quest for “freedom,” though of course freedom is a necessary component of cherishing and conserving.
Unlike Eric Marin, Eva Soltes attempts to trace the entire arc of Lou Harrison’s life. The film is skillfully put together, with some wonderful superimpositions, and presents a considerable range of music—though, unlike Marin, Soltes barely touches upon Harrison’s concerns about Just Intonation. LOU HARRISON: A World of Music is at its most successful when Harrison is in it. Harrison—whose name, incidentally, was “Lou,” never “Louis”—is totally at home before the camera. His ebullient energy is as captivating on celluloid as it was in life. There are also other commentators—some better than others. (Michael Tilson-Thomas is to be loudly applauded for his championing of Lou’s music and for his always intelligent presentation of it—but in the film he says banalities like “Music allows us to be in somebody else’s skin...and it’s great to be in that person’s skin”: it’s possible that music allows us to escape the “skin” entirely!) There is also a moving if somewhat limited portrait of Lou’s life partner, William Colvig, whom we see on his deathbed as well as in his trademark short pants. There is a touching moment when Lou tries to assure his lover that the things he did in his life will endure. Colvig replies tersely, “Good.”
Where I find the film lacking is in its presentation of Lou Harrison as poet—his sense that music and poetry interpenetrate, fuel each other. ("Rhapsodic song" would presumably involve words as well as music.) If, early on, Lou was undecided about whether to become a poet or a composer, his choice of composing as his primary activity did not lead him to abandon poetry. Far from it. He had many poet friends. Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan—with whom Lou studied poetry—and James Broughton were dear companions throughout his life. Harrison and Colvig appear in Broughton’s film, Devotions (1983). A Lou Harrison Reader includes contributions by Charles Olson—whom Harrison knew at Black Mountain College—and James Broughton, who calls Lou a “magicker”: “Blessed Lou / He who lives in melodiosity...He who resounds with gloryations.” And of course Harrison wrote poetry. When I voiced my concerns to Eva Soltes, she answered, “There will be other people from his esperanto [sic], sign language group, calligraphy fans who would have the same complaint as you that there was not enough mentioned.” But it seemed to me that poetry was absolutely central to Lou’s artistic life—more so than Esperanto, sign language or calligraphy, important as these were. Miller and Lieberman point out that Lou set his own texts “on numerous occasions,” and in 1992, Jonathan Williams’ Jargon Society, in collaboration with the University of California, Santa Cruz, library and the Cabrillo Music Festival, published Joys and Perplexities, a collection of eighty-eight Harrison poems graced by eighteen of the author’s black-and-white drawings. These random examples show that Lou was far being from a “Sunday poet”:
Bright lady—-bird-drawn in the sky of light,
Oh move us all to unstrict affection.
Oh love of the great and broken smithy,
Send the full strength of your beautiful son
Against this suiciding, kill-worn world.
What delight Thais take in light!
Brilliants glitter ev’rywhere,
on mirrored walls & pillars,
on doors & stairs & railings,
on chairs & shrines & tables.
Even at night, & even
on newest concrete buildings,
(Bauhaus & boring & square)
they mount up sequences of
lights that flash at random, like
supersparks & photoflash.
Dancers move within a veil
of silver shimmer, & curve
their arms within reflecting
light that molds & follows them.
Sequins & bright threads amaze
the air about Thai dancers.
Their eyes are bright, & they smile.
Brilliance in & over hues
collects to spark & shining.
The love of spark & shining
here rises, surmounting gold,
a cresting coruscation.
Above gold, the diamonds.
Suddenly the Tree of Life
enflames, turns fire & shine, &
rises, burning, to aether.
(“Thais’ Light: Sevens”—for the syllable count)
Lou held “maverick” opinions about poetry just as he held “maverick” opinions about music. I remember discussing Sara Teasdale and Adelaide Crapsey with him—poets whose names would scarcely be recognized by most poets writing today—and my delight in discovering that he wrote cinquains! We only begin to understand Lou Harrison’s work when we realize that language, poetry, is an aspect of that melos which he sought everywhere—that language and music meet precisely in the area of “melody.” Note that word “kill-worn” in “To Aphrodite.” And speak “What delight Thais take in light” aloud: notice the gorgeous interweaving of vowels and consonants. Notice what it does to your tongue. Isn’t that “music”?
The limitations of LOU HARRISON: A World of Music are the limitations of the filmmaker, not of her subject, whose "gentle" music stunningly marries tradition to revolutionary practice (conserve...create). When I asked Eva Soltes whether Harrison’s book of poetry ever even appears in the film, she ended the conversation with “You know what Jack...do your own movie about Lou!” This lame comeback is not at all in Lou Harrison’s spirit. Happily, Soltes did better with the film. There, she had the good sense to point the camera at Lou and let him go. In the end, one might say of Lou Harrison what he said of Charles Ives: that he was “carried along on a kind of loving wind": "He [could not] resist the ubiquity of his affections.”
a lamentation for Lou Harrison 2/3/03
A light’s gone out
that won’t go on
what happened with Vietnam
placed in the ridiculous position
better than Stalin
still an army
A light’s gone out
and we are left
LOU HARRISON: A World of Music will run at the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco March 9–15. Visit www.roxie.com for show times.
* An ancient Greek term meaning a tune, a melody, or a lyric poem intended for singing. In ancient Greek music theory “melos” meant the melodic basis of music. The teaching of harmonics and melopoeia was associated with melos.