Lou Harrison’s unheard complexities

Central among Lou Harrison’s pioneering East-West fusions, his works for gamelan and Western instruments are frequently cited either as exemplars of the composer’s Californian, postmodern musical sensibility, or as noteworthy instances of cultural hybridity. However, close examination of Main bersama-sama (1978) and Bubaran Robert (1976/1981) shows that these pieces can and should be understood for what they tell us about Harrison’s deep engagement with melody.

Harrison has mistakenly been regarded as a West Coast musical dabbler, writing tuneful pieces that lack the complexity that characterizes the work of his East Coast contemporaries. Yet analysis of the pitch structure of these pieces reveals intricate compositional games similar to the pre-compositional strategies of composers more typically associated with algorithmic compositional methods. Because these intricacies lie beneath the melodic surface of the music they have largely been unheard and unappreciated in Harrison’s work.

The melodic nature of these games challenges the widely accepted depiction of Harrison as a mere tunesmith, showing how he explored the ability of melody—as opposed to large-scale tonal or harmonic schemes—to create form and serve a central generative function in his music.

This according to “Unheard complexities in Lou Harrison’s Main bersama-sama and Bubaran Robert” by Rachel Chacko (Journal of the Society for American Music VII/3 [August 2013] pp. 265–94).

Today is Harrison’s 100th birthday! Below, the two pieces in question.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music

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