Music specially composed by American composer Lou Harrison for his unique hand-made “American Gamelan” tintinabulated through the bosky hill country of Peterborough New Hampshire this past Saturday evening, courtesy of an enterprising and clearly invigorated Monadnock Music and its new Artistic Director Gil Rose.
And who (what?!) is Old Granddad, you may rightly ask. It’s Lou Harrison’s fond moniker for a purpose-built set of marimba-like percussion instruments struck with mallets whose overall compelling sound recalls similar though more complex ensembles from Java and Bali that have become known to Westerners as Gamelans. In those balmy and far-away isles of the imagination, Gamelans accompany religious rites and ceremonies following centuries-old rhythmic and melodic patterns that are learned by rote from handed-down tradition by senior virtuosos and passed on to their youthful apprentices.
Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was fascinated by exotic music from other countries at a very early age, and by the time he had begun studying the Asian gamelan he was moved to dub it “…the single most beautiful musical ensemble on the planet, “and he began to echo its sounds in the ensembles of western instruments which he scored to accompany many of his compositions. As Monadnock’s program annotator Sandra Hyslop has it:
Beginning in the late 1960s, Harrison and his life partner William Colvig began work on a new multi-unit instrument out of the materials they had on-hand. Carefully observing the acoustic properties of tin cans, oxygen tanks, steel conduit tubing, and other found items, the two men painstakingly built an American gamelan, which they named ‘Old Granddad.’
The resulting instrument was employed in three Harrison works: a racy 1971 puppet opera Young Caesar, a more chaste La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra) for mixed chorus with instruments from 1972, and the 1974 Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. The last two aforementioned works formed the majority of the music heard in last Saturday’s concert.
In a helpful pre-concert chat Gil Rose explained that the array of instruments spread across the stage was actually Old Granddad #3, which is presently owned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. The original “Old Granddad” as built by Harrison resides in the protective confines of the University of California at Santa Cruz. BMOP obtained #3 at the time a Colorado instrument builder was building #2. The marimba-like instruments ranged from a deep bass behemoth which throbbed tellingly when struck through several additional higher-pitched versions with hollow horizontal metal tubes as resonators, and then a remarkable rack of sawed-off former oxygen tanks suspended by chains from a steel rack. There were also metal trash cans…
Rose opined that as intriguing to him as his original program had been, it struck him as too short for a full-fledged concert, so he asked the evening’s guest violin soloistthe remarkably gifted Gabriela Diaz—if she would be willing to play some Bach as the concert’s opener. Willing she was, and her offering of J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied Sonata for Violin in G Minor, BWV 1001 was a wonder of natural, unforced yet appropriately dramatic and musically informed playing, with no hint of the work’s inherent difficulties.
Bach may seem an unusual opener of this concert, but Rose cannily legitimized his choice by pointing out that the Sonata’s dance-form movement titles were echoed by the Harrison Suite’s movement titles and contents: Estampie, Air, Chaconne, as examples. Even so, this seemed a bit of a stretch, but this was of no consequence at all to the deeply engaged audience.
Fully to describe the individual movements of each of Harrison’s works would become tiresome for the reader, so let me give overall impressions instead. First of all, one must appreciate the remarkable enterprise of Monadnock Music and Gil Rose in programming this music. To perform it requires, as noted, the cost-heavy importation of a whole slew of unique instruments, of which there are only 3 sets in the world. Second, Harrison’s tonal palette is in both of the works offered restricted to the Asian-influenced set of scale notes to which Old Granddad is tuned. To Western ears, this runs the risk of becoming a bit tedious. That this can happen was clearly shown on the disbelieving face and the upward rolled eyes of an audience member in the row forward of mine as she slowly but surely tuned out the often similar-sounding tones emanating from the stage. But for those of a more adventuresome and open-minded sort—the clear majority of this audience, in fact—the effect can be hypnotically bracing. And indeed, with the singular help of the wonderful Diaz’s solos, Harrison’s seven-movement Suite for Violin and American Gamelan was fascinating and life-affirming to hear. Rose’s careful attention to his percussionists’ control of dynamics helped immensely, each player becoming an essential cog in a cycling wheel of sonority. Once accustomed to Harrison’s (and Old Granddad’s) unique sounds, one was inexorably swept along up and into the 9-beat cells of the final Chaconne, which rose to a fittingly ringing climax that moved the mesmerized audience to a standing ovation.
After intermission, the newly constituted Monadnock Festival Singers, as prepared by Krystal Morin made its debut as the chorus in Harrison’s La Koro Sutro. In this work, the chorus—singing in Esperanto! —joins Old Granddad in a Prologue, seven “Paragrafos,” and a final Mantra. As Hyslop’s note eloquently explains:
Esperanto (the very name suggests ‘hope’) is embraced by advocates for world peace and intercultural harmony. Harrison signaled his union withthose ideals by translating the Buddhist text of La Koro Sutro (the Heart Sutra into Esperanto and setting the words in an oratorio for mixed Voices and Gamelan. The chorus opens with the universal chant “OM,” and continues with a set of commentaries by the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who meditates upon the emptiness of human striving…”
Harrison thoughtfully added harp and an organ to his American Gamelan for this work, hoping the latter would help the chorus maintain pitch. Though it did not have total success in choral pitch maintenance last Saturday, it did provide a necessary grounding, and also, for this listener, a refreshing and pleasant alternative timbre to the music’s overall sonority. Once again Rose provided clear and concise direction, offering all on stage a reassuring anchor in the sonorous sea of sound.
Throughout the evening, the intrepid and unflappable percussionists were Craig McNutt, Jeffery Means, Robert Schulz, Nick Tolle, Aaron Trant, and Mike Williams.
After the concert, I went up on stage to thank Gil Rose for bringing this music to us all. Up until this concert was announced several months ago, I despaired of ever hearing this music in performance without a trip out to the West Coast if it were ever to be programmed there. On my way home, I thought about this concert a lot. Who would have thought one would hear Lou Harrison’s American Gamelan—Old Granddad himself—resounding through the summer skies and verdant trees of New Hampshire?
That it did was something of a miracle, for which those of us there were truly grateful. Brava/o to all concerned!