Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lou Harrison: La Koro Sutro

This New Albion recording, released in 1988, is a brilliant collection of three works by the great composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003). 

The title piece is the one for which he is best known and it is a gorgeous rendering on this album with the 100-voice chorus singing from the Buddhist Heart Sutra, rendered here, however, into Esperanto, the language intended to be universal, though it has, so far, been anything but so.  In any case, the singing is complemented by harp, organ, and American Gamelan, Western-tuned percussion instruments built by the composer's partner and collaborator William Colvig.  Component parts include oxygen tanks, garbage cans, brake drums, sheets of aluminum, a metallophone made of PVC pipe, and other wonderful combinations of material.

Harrison and Colvig titled the instrument to distinguish it from the Indonesian gamelan from which it derived and the effect is, in conjunction with the voices, harp and organ, stunning.  "La Koro Sutro" was first performed in San Francisco in 1972 and this November 1987 recording was done by The Chorus and Chamber Chorus of The University of California, Berkeley under the direction of Phillip Brett.  The harpist was Karen Gottlieb, the organist was Agnes Sauerbeck and the American Gamelan players were Peter Thielen, Todd Manley, Gino Robair Forlin, Scott Evans, Don R. Baker and director William Winant, also a co-producer of this album.  It is a sure sign of a masterpiece when the work is so well constructed that it seems to end far too soon, even though this piece is nearly a half hour.

Fans of Anthony Braxton might recall Gino Robair as one of Braxton's many collaborators--the two making an album of duets in 1987 that this blogger owns.  William Winant is very well known as a percussionist, who has frequently performed Harrison's works and has also been on several John Zorn recordings, such as Kristallnacht (featured on this blog), Music for Children, and Elegy, these other two also being in this listener's collection.

The "Varied Trio" for Winant, pianist Julie Steinberg, and violinist David Abel was written for the trio, which has recorded many albums over the years, in 1986 and was first performed in February of the following year.  Winant, especially, is outstanding for his playing of the gong, vibraphone, rice bowls played with chopsticks, Chinese drums and bakers' pans.  Of the five movements, the fourth is performed without percussion and the interplay between Abel and Steinberg is tremendous.  Steinberg and Abel also performed on Zorn's Music for Children.

The last work is "Suite for Violin and American Gamelan" which Harrison and Richard Dee wrote in 1973.  Here Abel, who made his concert debut at only age fourteen, gets to demonstrate his skills on the violin in the seven parts of the 28-minute piece.  John Bergamo, an avid student of music from India, Bali and Java, conducts this piece, in which the gamelan effect merges so harmoniously with the violin.  The delicacy and feeling of this piece is extraordinary and it is as staggering as "La Koro Sutro."

Simply put, this album is a fantastic example of modern music that might be experimental but is also approachable, non-traditional but not off-putting, intellectually stimulating but exudes warmth.  Harrison is one of the giants of modern classical music and this record amply demonstrates why.

Lou Harrison:  La Koro Sutro  (New Albion Records, 1988)

1.  La Koro Sutro  28:50
2.  Varied Trio  15:19
3.  Suite for Violin and American Gamelan  28:14

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