Back in the 1940s, composer Lou Harrison quietly began his own musical revolution.
Born in Portland in 1917, Harrison moved with his family to different locations around the San Francisco Bay Area. There, he studied world music with composer and mentor Henry Cowell and became interested in Cantonese opera and Indonesian, Japanese and Korean music, along with jazz and classical. Later at the University of California at Los Angeles, Harrison studied under Arnold Schoenberg and learned the Austrian composer's twelve-tone technique.
In the mid '30s, Cowell introduced Harrison to composer John Cage, and the three formed a life-long friendship and together scoured San Francisco's Chinatown looking for percussive instruments for their music ensemble. By the '40s, Harrison, Cage and Cowell had relocated to New York City.
The percussive pieces Harrison wrote at that time, however, used homemade and found instruments, such as automotive brake drums, as musical instruments. He also composed many pieces for Javanese gamelan and became a poet, artist and music critic. He and Cage composed many works for percussion ensemble, especially quartets.
Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University will present a celebration of Harrison's music — and a tribute to Harrison's 100th birthday — performed by SOU's Percussion Ensembles, directed by Terry Longshore, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 18, in the Music Recital Hall, 405 S. Mountain Ave., on the SOU campus in Ashland.
Tickets are $10, $5 for seniors, and can be purchased at oca.sou.edu/box-office, by calling 541-552-6348 or at the music hall box office. Students get in free.
Unlike a string quartet in which every piece is for the same instruments, percussion quartets can vary widely from piece to piece and include dozens of instruments, Longshore says in a press release.
"For the Lou Harrison Centennial Celebration, three of Harrison’s percussion quartets will be performed, all composed in 1941," Longshore says. "All of the quartets combine instruments from around the world with found sounds from junkyards, antique shops and kitchens. Harrison and Cage were true curators of sound, choosing instruments based on their sonic qualities, not their ethnic identities or price tags."
The concert will open with “Double Music,” a piece composed by Harrison and Cage. It will feature large Swiss cowbells, brake drums, a water gong, a thunder sheet, elephant bells, cowbells, Chinese gongs and temple bowl gongs.
"Symphony No. 3" uses one of Harrison’s favorite compositional devices, the canon. Families of instruments — brake drums, wood blocks, cowbells, drums, cowbells — play melodies in various canonic and unison relationships throughout the work.
The final quartet, “Fugue,” also combines some beautiful sounds — clock coil gongs, cast-iron Bundt cake pans, tuned pipes, musical saw, washtub — in the form of a fugue, but substituting rhythmic relationships for the typical harmonic ones. “Fugue” was so difficult that it was not performed for 20 years after its composition. It will be performed by Left Edge Percussion, a contemporary percussion group in residence at SOU’s Oregon Center for the Arts.
"Threnody for Carlos Chavez" for gamelan and solo viola, featuring Kimberly Fitch on viola, also will be featured. The melody will be accompanied by resonant sounds of Sundanese gamelan degung, also performed by Left Edge Percussion.
Harrison’s “May Rain” for soprano, prepared piano and tam-tam gong will be performed by Jennifer Longshore and Terry Longshore. An invention of Cage’s, a prepared piano uses screws, bolts, rubber and other materials placed between the strings to emulate the sound of a percussion orchestra.
Harrison's poetry will be read by members of the Percussion Ensembles between the musical pieces.