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Lou Harrison and Cultural Fusion on NPR

While the present-day conflation of the arts with instruments for social justice is dangerously overdrawn, some musical experiences are unquestionably therapeutic, and some composers are more wholesome than others.

My most recent “More than Music” NPR radio documentary celebrates “Lou Harrison and Cultural Fusion.” Of Harrison’s music, I observe: 

“In today’s terms, it was ‘global’ and ‘inclusive.’ It celebrates ‘diversity.’ . . .

“One cultural influence that proved crucial for Harrison was Indonesian – the palpitating gamelan orchestras of Java — percussion ensembles which reject directional Western harmonies in favor of a kind of poetic stasis. . . .

“He was an early apostle for gay rights. He campaigned for world peace. He enfolded both East and West – without ever dabbling.

“’Globalization,’ we are told, can mean diffusion – a thinning of the cultural fabric, an unmooring from tradition. Lou Harrison – the man, the musician — was both global and anchored. The absorption of gamelan in such works as his Piano Concerto is so complete that the Harrison style, global influences notwithstanding, is all of a piece; the finished product cannot be called ‘eclectic.’ But it could be called ‘American.’ Harrison’s perennial optimism, his self-made, learn-by-doing, try-everything approach, his polyglot range of affinities are all New World traits.

“He was a composer far ahead of his time. We should aspire to catch up with him.”

The 50-minute broadcast extensively samples Harrison’s majestic Piano Concerto – the most formidable by any American, music American orchestras should please program.  


00:00 – Exploring junk percussion and Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion

12:00 – Javanese gamelan and its influence on Debussy (14:30) and Ravel (15:30)

17:40 – Balinese gamelan and its influence on Colin McPhee

21:30 – Bill Alves demonstrates the layers of Javanese gamelan

23:55 – Exploring Harrison’s Piano Concerto

35:00 – Lou Harrison the man, with Sumarsam, Bill Alves, Dennis Russell Davies, and Jody Diamond

A related blog:

The Lou Harrison Centenary
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