Gamelan Pacifica / Jarrad Powell

Lou Harrison: Scenes from Cavafy

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For nearly a quarter of a century before he undertook a thorough and systematic study of Indonesian gamelan in 1975, Lou Harrison had been incorporating elements of gamelan in his work. It's no surprise, then, that even after he had mastered an understanding of the authentic instruments, the tuning systems, and the structure of gamelan, his works for the ensemble did not mimic his Indonesian models, but continued to display his individualism as an American composer. Two of the three works here, written between 1980 and 1989, include vocal soloists and chorus singing in English. Scenes from Cavafy is made up of Harrison's own loose translations of three poems by early 20th century Greek writer Constantine P. Cavafy. The intersection of the three cultures -- near Eastern, contemporary American, and traditional Indonesian -- makes for fascinating juxtapositions, and yet manages to maintain an integrated cohesion. A Soedjatmoko Set, with a text taken from the Hindu Ramayana, makes a similar impression; the distinctive gamelan sound is flavored with Harrison's idiosyncratic voice. In the Concerto for piano with Javanese gamelan, the piano is tuned to a non-tempered scale, and for the most part functions simply as another pitched percussion instrument in the ensemble. In most of the first movement, the piano plays only a single line, in imitation of the instruments of the gamelan, and it isn't until the end of the movement that it is given anything close to pianistic writing. The three works are intriguing examples of a Western composer's efforts to incorporate an entirely foreign musical tradition without compromising either the integrity of that tradition or his own vision. The performances by the Gamelan Pacifica are rigorously precise but full of life. The singing may require some adjustment for listeners accustomed to the bel canto style. The chorus has a decidedly rough, untrained sound, untrained in Western professional singing, but certainly thoroughly versed in the demands of the Indonesian tradition. The same is true of the vocal quality of the soloists, John Duykers and Jessika Kenney, although Duykers has also had a career in opera. The sound is warmly resonant and balanced, and it's not overly bright considering the sonic potential of a large group of ringing metallophones.

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