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Composer of Note

Music series' guest Lou Harrison goes beyond the usual 12-tone scale.


The schedule for the ninth annual "Musics Alive!" series, taking place this weekend, might suggest deja vu all over again. The global points of focus, primarily on Balinese music, American composers with an Indonesian leaning and Polynesian music and dance, have been in past Musics Alive! programs.

But who's complaining?

It's also true that Lou Harrison, by now acknowledged as one of America's greatest living composers, is no stranger to Ventura County. He has appeared as a guest at the Ojai Festival, and two years ago was the featured guest of the New West Symphony's venturesome and admirable "Musics Alive!" series. He returns this weekend as the special guest for this year's series, which has always been based on the crossroads of contemporary classical and world music.

We'll hear Harrison's Majestic Fanfare and Piano Concerto on Saturday night at the San Buenaventura Mission. On Sunday afternoon at Ventura City Hall, the program includes Harrison's Suite for Cello & Harp and his "Double Music," written in collaboration with his longtime friend, the late John Cage. Also on that program are other works by Cage, including music for prepared piano performed by the famed Gloria Cheng. Capping off the concert, and the mini-festival, will be Terry Riley's proto-minimalist classic "In C."

Harrison, who lives in Aptos, near Santa Cruz, is making a notable imprint with his trip to Southern California. After stopping in Ventura this weekend, he'll be the subject of a tribute at the "MicroFest 2001" conference and festival at Claremont College next weekend. The dual events point up at least two prominent features of Harrison's music. For decades, he has been influenced by gamelan and other Asian music, and, by extension, is perhaps the most famous composer actively engaged in microtonality--the use of notes outside the standard 12-note Western scale.

One of Harrison's recent recordings that is well worth hearing is "Rhymes with Silver," released last year on the San Francisco-based New Albion label. Originally commissioned by choreographer Mark Morris in 1997, and premiered by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, this wonderful performance is by the Bay Area's Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, along with former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. In this music, you can hear the buoyancy, intelligence, and, yes, Indonesian melodic contours characteristic of Harrison's style.

In an interview, Harrison recalled his first encounter with Indonesian music, at "the great Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco was in 1939. . . . It seems to me I had been studying with (composer and teacher) Henry Cowell and he introduced me to recordings of gamelan. Then I heard my first live gamelan at the fair in what was then the Dutch East Indies pavilion--this was before they were independent. There was a Javanese gamelan and a Balinese gamelan, I believe. They were on a lake on a pavilion. God, it was beautiful.

"Then I saw my first Javanese dancer in a theater in San Francisco, who had come over in a troupe. I was startled, because I'd never seen anyone move that slowly or that gracefully while slow. I remember those very vividly. Also, my association with Henry Cowell brought a lot of that to the fore. That was my first hearing and studying."

Harrison's reputation has grown through the years, and his music has finally filtered into mainstream classical circles. Last year, for instance, the Los Angeles Philharmonic finally ushered Harrison into its repertoire. In general, though, he has been something of a happy outsider, garnering respect at 82.

Part of his outsider status has to do with his distrust of the equal temperament tuning system that classical music--and Western music at large--is rooted in. He has strong views on the subject: "I think it's only in the last century and a half, and largely due to the Steinway, that we have allowed ourselves to be imprisoned into 12 equal intervals," he said.

Harrison, a basic American free thinker, also has an innate resistance to institutional stodginess. As he said of the "serious" music world, "There are a lot of polemics about what you should and shouldn't do. I'm afraid I don't do any of that. My view is that, if you don't have any fun, why do it? I'm a man-child. Also, if I hear something or see something I like, my first impulse is 'me too.' I dash in and learn."


"Musics Alive!"--"Dances of Fire!" 8 p.m. today at the Pierpont Inn in Ventura. Tickets are $25; 643-6144. "Bali and Beyond!," 8 p.m. Saturday at the Serra Center, San Buenaventura Mission in Ventura. Tickets are $20; 497-5839. Free Family Concert with the Cal Arts Gamelan, 11 a.m. Sunday at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art. "Island Extravaganza," 2 p.m. Sunday at Ventura City Hall. Tickets are $20; 497-5839.

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