You either love US trailblazer Lou Harrison’s music or you haven’t heard it.
Albums by Lou Harrison, Jennifer Higdon and Emil Jonason
Composer Lou Harrison fits into that splendidly American artistic tradition of eccentric trailblazers; it includes his collaborator John Cage, his teacher Henry Cowell and pioneers Harry Partch and Charles Ives, outsiders who discovered remarkably original ways of making music.
Harrison’s Violin Concerto substitutes “found” percussion and Indonesian instruments for an orchestra. This and the Grand Duo for Violin and Piano show his usual light touch – a hint of jazz in the rhythm, hypnotic repetition and a subtly folk-influenced approach to the violin. Like his friend, New Zealand composer Jack Body, Harrison loved the sounds of the Indonesian gamelan; he visited New Zealand in the 1980s, at Body’s invitation, and composed for the gamelan orchestra at Victoria University.
Most fascinating here is a 20thcentury landmark, the Double Music Harrison composed with Cage. They famously mounted percussion concerts in San Francisco in the 1940s, buying gongs from “oriental” stores and picking up resonant vehicle brake drums at wreckers’ yards. For Double Music the pair agreed on a few rules, then composed two separate works and played them simultaneously, an early example of Cage’s influential “indeterminacy”.
Choreographer Mark Morris, who has a Harrison tribute at the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music this year, declared “you either love Lou’s music or you haven’t heard it yet”. This centenary release is bound to move many people from the second group to the first.
LOU HARRISON, Violin Concerto, Grand Duo, Double Music (with John Cage) (Naxos American Classics)
Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon writes music that lives outside – on horseback, on the trail, over the prairie – occasionally nipping indoors for some toe-tapping hoedown fiddling. Her world view is much more nationally focused than Harrison’s and her language is the tonal idiom of postmodernism, with a touch of Americana.
These viola and oboe concertos have the unashamed beauty of neo-Romanticism. The soaring melodies may be a little sentimental, but the orchestration is that of a composer in full command of her craft.
The four movements of orchestral suite All Things Majestic evoke mountains, lakes, rivers and the “cathedrals” under the tall trees of America’s national parks. Film music cliché lurks at times, but Higdon doesn’t succumb; she is very popular in her own country and the grandeur of this music explains why.
JENNIFER HIGDON, All Things Majestic, Nashville Symphony (Naxos American Classics)
This release from Swedish clarinettist Emil Jonason reveals the quirky Nordic flamboyance of Christian Lindberg’s entertaining clarinet concerto, The Erratic Dreams of Mr Grönstedt. Fast-running lines, jazz-band interludes and a few rude multi-phonics conjure a characterful Mr Grönstedt, named for the cognac the composer imbibed before dreaming of his charming anti-hero. Composer and soloist collaborated in the creation of the work.
The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the
Blind by Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov has the clarinettist in more serious mood. Writing for klezmer clarinet and string quartet, the composer draws on his Jewish background with devastating impact. The sophisticated piece is emotionally raw, with ancient history and the pain of exile; no listener could be unmoved by the heartrending skirl of the klezmer melodies. The piece is difficult, but the Vamlingbo Quartet is immersed in the klezmer idiom and marvellously intertwined with Jonason, whose clarinet sobs, sings, howls, prays and dances. Breathtaking.
Gamelan fan Lou Harrison. Below, “breathtaking” Emil Jonason.
EMIL JONASON, Lindberg & Golijov (BIS)