Sites of Formation 1956

Lou Harrison Four Strict Songs

Dr. Matthew Welch

I had a kid—late 2016—and like many, my 2017 turned to politics. Because of this, I failed to celebrate the centennial of one of my favorite composers, Lou Harrison (1917–2003). My entry point to Harrison as a listener was through his compositions for American-made gamelan. This was mature work composed for the Bill Colvig-crafted aluminum gamelan, “Si Betty” (after Betty Freeman, arts benefactor, built 1979), and that reflected a life-time of composing and musical curiosity; imaginative lyricism balanced perfectly with the results of research in both just intonation and Java­nese Karawitan.

My time at the Database of Recorded Amerian Music (DRAM) and New World Records in New York allowed me access to much of Harrison’s recorded output. Like a proverbial kid in a candy store, I devoured past and imminent releases of his music. And in doing so, I got a real handle on his life’s work despite its broad outlook and his prolific oeuvre.

Lou Harrison’s importance within the development of the American sound is vital. His unique world fits somewhere between Henry Cowell’s and John Cage’s. It acknowledges both the transcendental and the futuristic but is dreamy in its approach to modern multiplicity. One over-arching aspect of his composing that has kept me listening is a persistent warbling of melody that propels every work. Also present is a sense of a place—far-off or far-fetched—in the construction of each work’s sonority.

Suggested Listening

Lou Harrison: Four Strict Songs performed by the Louisville Orchestra and the Choir of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Davis Bingham, soloist (First Edition, 1958)

Matthew Welch: The Favrile Opalescence (Kotekan, 2020)

Matthew Welch: A New Compleat Theory For The Highland Bagpipes (Kotekan, 2020)

Four Strict Songs for Eight Baritones and Orchestra from 1955 represents a turning point in Harrison’s music where the melodic organization and fabric of gamelan music offers pervasive inspiration (and overt reference). Commissioned by the Louisville Orchestra, started at Black Mountain College, and finished when Harrison returned to California, Strict Songs (for short) consists of four pieces, each using a pentatonic set of pitches derived from the slendro and pelog combinations used in Javanese gamelans.1 Each pentatonic set was given its own micro-tuning in just intonation (secured by re-tuning the harp and piano) so that the intervals sound crisp and crystallize stability and movement on their own acoustic terms.2

In Strict Songs, I hear a re-birth in composition for Harrison, where his interest in melody and timbre could reign and spin out its own patterns of accompaniment. The application of slendro and pelog to the scale formula of these four movements clearly shows his blossoming love for the melodic shapes and infinite forward motion that arise from these modes.

The text for Strict Songs was Harrison’s own. Supposedly “modeled on Navajo ritual song,” the four movements are a salute to holiness, nourishment, tenderness, and splendor, respectively. The text is an ecstatic exaltation of the natural world. “Here is Holi­ness” is an upbeat declamation with a clear “nuclear-gamelan” orchestration concept (faux-gamelan from within the orchestra)3 in the bright, slendro-like G-major pentatonic. Praises abound to crystalline-leafing begonias, mountain deer, and the star Aldebaran lighting the night sky. “Here is Nourishment” creeps along slowly in a darker and more plaintive pelog mode, dominated by a melody trading back and forth between the harp and strings; Harrison explores each little and big interval in the pelog mode with a sort of beginner’s luck. The text sings of the swamps and blackbird’s song, and also of the meteorite of the fallen star. “Here is Tenderness” returns to slendro, this time in another transposition and tuning. This movement pushes forward again with a bright rhythm and tempo, but with perhaps a more serious and purposeful determination. The song covers ancient redwoods, ageless goldfish, and Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede. “Here is Splendor” returns to pelog, yet another variety that exudes Splendor! It moves in stately waves in a bright major-seventh sounding pelog as the text expounds on the sky and cosmos.

The whole work’s joyous sound and audience resilience has led to both its setting for a dance by Mark Morris in 1987 and being rearranged for a more conventional SATB and solo baritone line-up, helping popularize the already extroverted songs. What I hear in this work is Harrison “finding his religion”: after some years of experimenting in sounds and in abode—including reportedly stressful years out East—one feels the freedom of a personal homecoming in this set of songs. He has fallen in love, in a way, with the basic materials of Javanese Karawitan’s modal and stratification grammar, and this set off a wave of exploration—and renewed a melodic tap—for years to come. 

For many composers like Harrison, gamelan became a path to liking music again: after all he was a student of Arnold Schoenberg, whose academic importance in creating twelve-tone music must have weighed heavily on the younger composer. That a music like gamelan could be so sophisticated without being part of the social fabric of modern classical music attracted valid counter-arguments to the prevailing notion of what the modern musical language was to be built on. Harrison’s work—from Concerto in Slendro of 1961 to Concerto for Piano and Gamelan of 1987—shows an entrenched dedication to exploring the chemical capabilities of a mixed approach in composition heavily balanced by a long study of gamelan.4

It is fascinating to see Strict Songs as something that is, in actuality, not that strict. To me, the piece represents Harrison at his most free: clearly in the present; looking at redwoods in the California mountains and the boundless universe above; feeling both at home and upon the cusp of a new musical journey. From here—where holiness, nourishment, tenderness, and splendor first arose—Harrison moves forward, fashioning his own gamelan-inspired sound, and beyond, by collaborating on and catalyzing the creation of the rare instrument-building tradition known as American Gamelan. For me, Strict Songs represents the birthplace of this focus. Because it precipitated a lot of research into gamelan and led to some composition-modeling afterwards, the work sounds, to my ears, the least gamelan-informed but the most gamelan-inspired. From this vantage point, it is nice to bask in the pure joy of freedom that makes up Strict Songs. Its encapsulation of a first encounter gives it an endearing naivete that many of his more conventional-sounding gamelan works miss.

1 Slendro and pelog in their original context are not just “scales” but often slendro and pelog are housed in completely separate yet compatible sets of gamelans, built often in complement. To inadequately describe the general difference between slendro and pelog, one would characterize the overall intervallic distance between the steps, further noting these sounds on separate bronze slabs or gongs placed in a row. Slendro is naturally a five-degree collection, approaching equidistant interval and falling on the Western keyboard somewhat like the black notes—no half-steps. Pelog is a set of seven steps, of which five are used in sub-modes called pathets. Pelog is very different than slendro, and the five-note pathets feature a variety of intervals between steps, falling on the western keyboard with half-steps and thirds. 

2 Just intonation advocates argue that these intervallic colors have been lost as instruments have been equal-tempered to accommodate more complex scales, keys, and more notes.

3 A “nuclear gamelan” is a term borrowed from composer and gamelan specialist Colin McPhee, whose works predate Harrisons, but share this feature. The idea is that some of the instruments of the orchestral body that sound most like a gamelan are treated together to represent a gamelan (vs. composing for gamelan itself) routinely as a textural and extra-musical device. In McPhee, his Tabuh-Tabuhan of 1936 explores this concept in depth. Perhaps more importantly, the nuclear gamelan serves to propel the rhythm and timbral/tuning of the piece, in which the “very Western instruments, such as the string body adhere to a new practice set from within, but borrowed from without. In Strict Songs, the piano and harp, both retuned, serve many of these roles.”

4 Harrison spent years with vocalist/composer Jody Diamond and Pak Cokro of Java, modeling his style in comparison to the canon of Java’s Court music.

Lou Harrison Four Strict Songs