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  • Playing Apart as “Playing Together”: Lou Harrison’s Threnody for Carlos Chávez for Gamelan and Viola
  • Rachel Chacko (bio)

On 22 February 2003, twenty days after the sudden death of Lou Harrison, the first memorial tribute for this musical maverick took place at the University of California, Santa Cruz Recital Hall. Organized by musicologist/flutist Leta E. Miller and Harrison archivist Charles Hanson, the memorial honored Harrison’s rich, art-filled life by intertwining many of his wide-ranging creative interests. Spoken reminiscences were joined with a display of several of Harrison’s paintings, readings of his poetry, video presentations of dance performances for which Harrison had written the music, and performances of a handful of his compositions.1 Music selections included an early work for flute and cello, a recently discovered piece for tubular bells (constructed by Harrison and his partner, William Colvig), a work for guitar, and a composition for piano. But it was the memorial’s final performance—Harrison’s Threnody for Carlos Chávez, played by Geraldine Walther on viola and by Gamelan Sekar Kembar, directed by Trish Neilsen—that best captured the complexity of Harrison’s artistic vision. Whether by happenstance or by design, Harrison’s memorial service concluded with a piece that showed him at his least sentimental, yet most sophisticated, in dealing with “cultural fusion”—a piece in which he entertains the possibility that playing apart is also a way of playing together.

Credited by Mark Levine with “fashioning . . . America’s first important body of ‘multi-cultural’ music,” Harrison took particular delight in writing for central Javanese and Sundanese gamelan, ensembles primarily comprised of bronze gongs and metallophones.2 Harrison’s initial [End Page 423] exposure to gamelan occurred in the mid-1930s, first through his enrollment in Henry Cowell’s course Music of the Peoples of the World at the University of California Extension in San Francisco and from listening to recordings owned by a housemate at the time, and then through hearing Balinese gamelan live at the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition.3 What ensued was a decades-long fascination with this performance tradition that resulted in more than fifty works for gamelan. Among these compositions are several that combine gamelan and Western instruments, works that are frequently cited as some of Harrison’s most important East-West fusions. Threnody for Carlos Chávez (1978, for Sundanese gamelan degung and viola), his second attempt at this combination, not only stands out as a central part of Harrison’s legacy but also offers a compelling view into what “playing together” meant to him.4 This well-worn phrase has come to represent Harrison’s philosophical worldview and was employed by the composer himself: Harrison titled his first work for gamelan and a solo Western instrument Main Bersama-sama, which means “playing together” in Indonesian, and his original title for Threnody was Main Bersama-sama II. But contrary to an expected expression of musical cooperation, what we find in Threnody for Carlos Chávez is an effort to have East and West play apart.

It is striking that Harrison would experiment with discovering how two musical forces could play together as if at odds with each other right on the heels of completing his first work that integrated a Western instrument with gamelan. This experiment challenges our conception of his pioneering East-West fusions as works that embody cultural acceptance and accommodation. This is not to suggest that Harrison’s intent was cultural discord; indeed, the California-based composer boldly declared that hybrid musics are all that we have.5 Rather, I reveal not discord but an underlying friction between the highly patterned structure of the gamelan and the rhapsodic character of the viola in Threnody—a friction that shows the power of Harrison’s thinking.6

To fully understand this distinction of “playing together” as playful resistance versus “playing together” as steadfast synchrony, we must examine the music in some detail. Although Harrison’s identity as a hybrid composer has been emphasized by numerous critics and scholars, what has been missing are enough adequately detailed analyses that can bring into focus Harrison’s compositional approach to combining disparate musical resources. This essay...


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