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Cahill Trio at Mendocino Music Festival
2017-07-11
 

 

Celebrating an unusual life – the Lou Harrison centenary

Sarah Cahill- photo by Christine Alcino

All year we’ve seen events about West Coast composer Lou Harrison, as this year marks his 100th birthday (or would have – he died in 2003). On Tuesday, July 11, a trio of pianist Sarah Cahill, violinist Kate Stenberg and percussionist William Winant performed a concert of works that spanned Harrison’s life, from the lively student works of 1939 to the mature and complex Grand Duo of 1988. Cahill, a Bay Area musician with an international reputation, narrated bits of his life to add to our understanding of a composer often described as a maverick.

The afternoon concert was part of the Mendocino Music Festival, and in the intimate acoustics of Preston Hall we were able to look past the performers to see northern cliffs marching down to the sea. “My father was born in Fort Bragg in 1923,” said Cahill. “He told me about stopping in this little town, Mendocino, as he drove down the coast. This coastline inspired Lou Harrison, whose centenary we are celebrating. He was born in Portland and later lived around the Bay Area and then in Aptos. He really was a Pacific Rim composer.”

She went on to describe his music. “He didn’t like even-tempered tuning, like the tuning of this piano, and explored other tunings and cultures, making many of his own instruments. He was an ardent environmentalist and even used paper made out of hemp.” She then showed us the wooden bar he used to play an octave of notes on the white or black keys, creating some of the tonal wealth that he sought in those other tunings. That appreciation for the music of other cultures was something he began to learn from his teacher, Henry Cowell, with whom he studied at SF State and later while Cowell was imprisoned. Like Cowell, Harrison was gay, but Cowell was sent to jail on a morals charge for fifteen years and served four years at San Quentin before being pardoned. Nonetheless, Cowell was prolific during his incarceration, composing and leading a band and even teaching.

Cahill began with an early work, Range-Song, from 1939. Here were slow spectral chords and heavy pedals, and full forearm “clusters.” There was something of the inevitability of the clock tower here, but darkly pentatonic. “He was 22 when he wrote this,” Cahill explained. “I found it at Mills… where Harrison studied and later taught, and it was pretty much unplayed until now.” And with a flourish she held up a hand written score, its cover illustrated by the young composer.

She continued with a companion piece, Jig, also written that year, combining Celtic influences and three-against-four rounds of notes with thick colorful chords. It resolved into something of train tracks and rumbles and high monotonous figures, a little abrupt and sketchy like student works, but brimming with ideas.

Moving forward fifty years, Stenberg joined Cahill in a duet for violin and piano. “Grand Duo is sprawling like Schubert’s work. Throughout, Harrison uses a cluster bar. And it’s written for piano or harpsichord.”

Here was depth and sophistication and long variations, indeed “sprawling” but hardly romantic. The six long movements were acerbic and explored its premises without vanity or regret. Cahill attacked with sharp repeated notes, astringent chords, and odd scales that climbed and fell with paired notes like the octatonic scales of Egypt. Stenberg was serene and other worldly, almost hypnotic in her slow bowing and unlikely intervals.

And later there were bright-lit piano chords and fierce bowing, an anger that cleared the air like sudden thunder.

After intermission Cahill returned with Summerfield, a play on medieval forms. Its three movements questioned form and timbre, all on the piano: percussive but strangely introspective, then crowded and empty with patches of ice, and finally a Baroque fugue in a Japanese temperament. Satisfying and wild!

Lou Harrison percussion performed by William Winant-photo by A. BronerWilliam Winant joined and the three played Varied Trio (1985), a five-movement exploration that was originally written for Winant. This work had a strange beauty, opening with delicate marimba notes and piano arpeggios in an Eastern scale. Stenberg’s violin soared over that plinky sound, a note in a bottle that washed up on our side of the Pacific. And despite those Asian pentatonic scales, the message was instantly readable: fat over thin, the song of a heart supported by the structure and glitter of daily life.

Winant switched to baking pans and rice bowls played with chopsticks, each selected to form an exotic series, and anchored by simple piano notes. These were borrowed from Harrison’s own kitchen (and Winant is their curator), giving us a chance to hear his exact and troubling tuning, somewhere between pentatonic and jazz. Harrison spent much of his career investigating and inventing percussion, beginning with car brake drums and then creating his own gamelan modeled on the music of Java.

And then bongos and tambourine and violin microtones and energetic piano. Good Lord!

With his wild textures, homemade instruments and just intonation, Harrison inspired a generation of composers. In 1962 he helped to found Santa Cruz’ Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, which is still challenging conventions today. In fact, this popular festival opens its doors July 30 and many events sell out. Now that’s a legacy.

 

—Adam Broner

Photo top of Sarah Cahill, photo by Christine Alcino; below, of Harrison’s percussion laid out by Winant, photo by A. Broner.

 

 
     
   
 
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