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26 September 2011

Lou Harrison & John Cage at Bard College

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and John Cage (1912-1992) will be celebrated this season at Bard College's Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, courtesy of New Albion Records, with concerts on Oct. 15 (Harrison) and Nov. 11 & 12 (Cage). Featured will be two rarely performed works by both: Harrison's La Koro Sutro (1972) and Cage's James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet (1982).

La Koro Sutro is one of Harrison's most lavish and optimistic works, scored for 100-voice chorus, American Gamelan, harp, and pump organ. The title reflects the composer's long-time advocacy of the artificial "world language" known as Esperanto, being an Esperanto translation of the 'Heart Sutra,' the essence of the Perfect Wisdom Scriptures belonging to Mahayana Buddhism.

Harrison grew up in the culturally diverse San Francisco Bay Area, where he was exposed to Cantonese opera, Gregorian chant, and the music of both Spanish and Mexican cultures. His music avoids for the most part the traditional trappings of Western functional harmony, substituting with gorgeous melodies, unexpected rhythms, and a flow of unusual tone colors.

With regard to matters of overall style and choice of instruments, in La Koro Sutro as elsewhere, Leta E. Miller sums it up nicely by noting that

"When Lou Harrison couldn't find the sound he imagined within the Western orchestra, he looked elsewhere for inspiration -- to other cultures (Korea, Indonesia, Mexico), other sound sources (flower pots, brake drums, oxygen tanks), or other disciplines (dance, drama, literature). And if he still couldn't find it, he made it. ... He delights in combining disparate styles into untried syntheses; for instance, writing for Chinese instruments tuned in Just Intonation; composing concerti for Western instruments accompanied by Indonesian ensembles; using Esperanto for Buddhist tests; or requiring home made instruments to join the standard symphony orchestra." (from Lou Harrison: Composer a World, with Fredric Lieberman, Oxford University Press, 1998)
Performers for the Harrison program -- which will include his Solo to Anthony Cirone (1972) and Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (a collaboration with Richard Dee, 1973) -- will be the Riverside Choral Society, American Gamelan (William Winant, Ches Smith, Ben Paysen, Shayna Dunkelman), Jacqueline Kerrod, and Krista Bennion Feeney, joined by Bard College Conservatory of Music students, all conducted by Patrick Gardner, long-time director of the Riverside Choral Society.
"New Albion is honored to be a spoke in the wheel of friends, composers, musicians, conductors, labels, publishers, artists, and creative individuals who have been inspired by the deep spirituality and indomitable melodic line Lou offered the world. He is held close to many hearts, a hero in life and art, a courageous iconoclast, a person whose motto was his role on the earth: to cherish, conserve, consider, create." -- Foster and Tricia Reed, New Albion Records
New Albion Records was founded in San Francisco in 1984, dedicated to the exploration of new music. To date its catalog numbers some 138 releases (with many works of Harrison and Cage among them), but in recent years its activity has moved from recordings to concerts. With its relocation to Tivoli in 2007, very near to Bard College, New Albion now greatly enlivens the cultural life of this part of the Hudson Valley. These upcoming performances mark their fourth and fifth events collaborative with and for Bard College's Fisher Center, respectively.

John Cage's James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet (1982) began life as a radio on a commission from the composer's long-time friend, Klaus Schoning, and Cologne's WDR. Working on the principles of collage, Cage brings together a cast of 14 unlikely characters, some near and dear to his heart -- the title characters, along with Vocoder, Mao Tse Tung (as a child), Henry David Thoreau, Rrose Selavy, Thorstein Veblen, Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, Jonathan Albert, Oppian, Brigham Young, and a Narrator, orchestrator of them all -- who are made to speak together, their dialogue comprised of literal quotations, freely adapted historical materials, and lines that Cage has simply made up.

What is modern is surely collage, Cage once said, referring both to the art of juxtaposition itself and to the interactivity heard here between the living and the dead. Alphabet demonstrates a remarkably democratic intermingling of perspectives, an unmitigated humor, and an unmistakable irreverence for the particulars of history.

Performers for this production of Alphabet, a re-staging of the John Cage Trust's original theatrical realization seen in venues around the world throughout the 2001-2002 season, include John Kelly (Narrator), Mikel Rouse (James Joyce), who also constructed the multifaceted sound score from Cage's incomplete manuscripts, Joan Retallack (Buckminster Fuller), Richard Teitelbaum (Robert Rauschenberg), Trevor Carlson (Brigham Young), and others. Merce Cunningham and Jasper Johns are heard as aural spectors (on tape) in the roles of Erik Satie and Rrose Selavy, respectively, created for the original production.

Lou Harrison and John Cage were very good friends for a very long time. This is a little-known item held in the archives of the John Cage Trust, framed and hung very near to Laura Kuhn's hideously cluttered desk.

Laura Kuhn