Song of the Innocents

EVEN IF WILLIAM BOLCOM’S SONGS of Innocence and of Experience were less excellent than it mostly is, it would rank as a monument to rampant artistic ambitiousness and, for that matter, sheer artistic gall. The fact that last week’s performance at Orange County’s Segerstrom Hall by the Pacific Symphony was the work’s first West Coast hearing – 22 years into its life span – should, however, surprise nobody. It isn’t easy to market a work lasting three hours (with one intermission), by a contemporary composer not yet a household name, demanding the services of an orchestra, a folk band and a rock combo, plus eight vocal soloists, two choruses and a children’s chorus. The first of two performances took place before a smattering of audience, which dwindled further as the evening wore on. None of this had anything to do with the quality of the performance under Carl St. Clair, which was extraordinary top to bottom, or the enterprise of the Pacific Symphony management for producing the work as the centerpiece in a two-week American Composers Festival. Somebody in Orange County is getting things right.

In 1956 the adolescent Bolcom first became obsessed with the 46 doggerel segments of William Blake’s ironic, sardonic survey of the human condition; in 1981 the completed musical setting had become an epitome not only of Blake’s ecstasies and catastrophes but of Bolcom’s own eclectic musical physiognomy. If you know his music at all – the opera A View From the Bridge, recently broadcast by the Met; the slimy gorgeousness of his piano rags; the musicological zeal with which he and his wife, singer Joan Morris, have reconstructed the totality of the American song repertory; the tensile strength of his symphonic works – there should be nothing surprising in the processional over three hours of folk ballads, Handelian pomposities, rock and gut-wrenching outcry.

Moments stand out. A sweet, fragile setting of “The Shepherd” gives way appallingly to a shriek of orchestral pain as Bolcom and Blake go on to survey the underside of life’s meaning. For the best known of the poems, the “fearful symmetry” of Blake’s “Tyger” is framed in the menacing tone of men’s voices hurling out a growling speech-song over a roar of percussion. Near the end the poet visits London, where “the harlot’s curse blasts the newborn infant’s tear,” and Bolcom lights his steps in the glare of screaming synthesizers in “apocalyptic rock tempo.”

A bit overstuffed here and there, somewhat raggedy now and then, Songs of Innocence and of Experience still has the feel of a masterpiece. The performance was, in a word, stupendous. Notable among the soloists were the rock vocalist Nathan Lee Graham, the uncredited harmonica virtuoso Tommy Morgan and, of course, Joan Morris, evergreen, enchanting.

“I SUPPOSE IT MEANS THAT YOU don’t have to be afraid to be pretty . . .” That was Lou Harrison, on a series I produced – some 20 years ago, when KUSC still stood for adventurous radio – exploring the differences between being a composer in California and a composer anywhere else. Since Harrison had spent most of his long life creating music both beautiful and, now and then, rather pretty as well, his disarming and direct statement could be taken to heart. Now Lou has left us, but the words and the music remain.

Beyond question, California’s music is different. The onshore breezes bring in exotic scents and flavors: not the fugues and sonata forms of centuries-old musical methodologies but the clangorous improv of gamelan and raga, the roar of surf, the purr of a Sierra brook. Lou helped in stipulating those differences, along with Henry Cowell, John Cage and, a little later, Robert Erickson. They worked at a time when California also served as a temporary refuge for practitioners of the far different European outlook, and it’s an interesting irony that both Cage and Harrison, the most resolutely free-spirited of West Coast composers, studied for a time with the most resolutely rigid-spirited of visiting composers, Arnold Schoenberg. They then rejected everything he had taught them.

The fine Lou Harrison biography – by Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, published by Oxford in 1998 – bears as its subtitle “Composing a World,” which is exactly what he did. Proof of this lies in the 73-minute-49-second compact disc slipped into the book’s back cover: bits, pieces and whole compositions culled from over 50 years of exuberant creativity. We join Harrison first at 30-something, in an all-American muscle stretcher, clearly beholden to the jagged-edge modernism of good ol’ boys Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles. Around 1941 he decides that music isn’t necessarily the polite resonances of symphony orchestras. He re-defines – for himself and for a widening circle of admirers – the very nature of musical sound. He and Cage join forces to create a whole new range of sonority by banging away on junkyard salvage: brake drums, old trolley springs, metal sheets. For entertainment as well as inspiration, he spends nights at San Francisco’s Chinese opera.

His horizons expand; he is lured into explorations of distant times and places. He rebuilds a beat-up piano to reproduce the outlines of ancient Greek tuning systems, melding these ancient harmonies into songs whose singers must first unlearn – as Harrison himself did – everything they know about the sounds of “standard” concert repertory. A New York decade (1943­53) forms an interlude, and the few quotes from Harrison’s four years as assistant music critic to Virgil Thomson at the Herald-Tribune of sad memory – peppery and marvelously observant (e.g., of Leos Janácek’s Sinfonietta: “New Jersey with peasants added”) – whet the appetite for a full volume of his writings. I knew him then, and he told me he couldn’t wait to get back to California.

The thrust of Harrison’s life, and its passions, identifies him as the embodiment of the glorious fullness, and the strangeness, of the archetypal 20th-century West Coast artist. Jovial, wise, constantly delighted and delightable, Harrison composed like none other, forging grand, eloquent music that draws upon everything there is in the world, sometimes all at once: Greek poetry, say, translated into Esperanto, sung to an ensemble of American percussionists trained to imitate the exotic, hypnotic clang of an Indonesian gamelan. His best works seemed to take the shape of bridges, but they were actually rainbows – and, now and then, indeed pretty.

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