CD Review: Lou Harrison, Scenes from Cavafy

Lou Harrison
Scenes from Cavafy: Music for Gamelan (New World)

I was lucky enough to spend some time with Lou Harrison in the year or two leading up to the premiere of “Rhythms with Silver,” the score he wrote for Mark Morris. Two of the gayest artists I’ve ever known, they had a natural affinity. Though he’s one of the most musically smart and sensitive choreographers out there, Morris seldom commissions new scores and so it was an especially great thing that he got Lou to write something for his company. While the commission and the premiere were in the offing, I remember Lou saying more than once, and with a typical laughing tone, something like:  “Well, he needs me to write something new since he’s already set everything of mine.” That was a huge exaggeration, of course, but spoke to Lou’s pride in the dedication and appreciation Mark showed for his music.

All this came to mind when I saw this new recording of some of Lou’s gamelan works. My first thought was, “Hasn’t everything of his already been recorded?” I must have at least 15 full-length discs of his music in my collection. But apparently – and luckily – there’s still plenty of material to be plumed.

This is a beautiful instrumental recording. The performances by Gamelan Pacifica are radiant and precise. And for those that care to learn more about or can understand a rather detailed discussion of the inner working of gamelan music, as well as Lou’s east-meets-west take on it, there are lengthy program notes by Leta E. Miller, Harrison’s biographer.

But two of the three pieces on the disc include extensive vocal material and from that perspective the performances are mediocre. “Scenes from Cavafy,” the first of the three pieces on the disc, features tenor John Duykers (the original Chairman Mao in “Nixon in China”). From the sound of this disc, he’s more of a baritone lately as he has consistent trouble hitting the high nights with any clarity and accuracy. The men of the Gamelan Pacifica Chorus (directed by Jessika Kenny) have the same strained reach for the note at the peak of every arched line. Maybe, MAYBE, there’s some alternative tuning system involved here that I’m not catching but I doubt it.

The alternative tunings are obvious and consistent in every register in the Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan. The piano was completely re-tuned to match the percussion instruments and is played by Adrienne Varner.

In the final selection, “A Soedjatmoko Set” (1989), the vocal soloist is Jessika Kenney and she does a better job than Duykers with pitch though like Duykers she just doesn’t display a very strong or attractive tone.  Also in this piece the men and women of the Gamelan Pacifica Chorus, some of whom are also members of the instrumental ensemble, sound like a middling church chorus, earnest but ragged. The big lush resonant character of the metallic gamelan instruments makes all these vocal problems especially apparent and annoying.

Nevertheless I’m glad to have this disc because Lou writes unfailingly beautiful music and I try to be a Harrison completist. It’s also worth noting that there’s a touch of overt gay eroticism in one of the pieces. The “Scenes from Cavafy” has Lou’s own translations of the Greek poet and the central movement goes like this:

At the table next,
he sees all youth of twenty-two
in the man before him.
Remembered or forgot, drunk or not,
the poet sees the lines of the limbs
of a lad he loved.

The poet remembers the two of them
in the empty tavern,
in the empty tavern almost unlit and much past midnight,
in their light clothing,
in the soft summer heat,
in their great intensity.

He remember the hasty flesh,
the pressured flesh,
revealed that summer night,
and that sight and sense
savored in older years
and in hs very lines of verse.

Previously on My Big Gay Ears:

Remembering Lou Harrison’s gentle queer spirit



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