LOU HARRISON: Scenes from Cavafy; Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan; A Soedjatmoko Set – John Duykers/ Jessika Kenney, voice/ Adrienne Varner, piano/ Gamelan Pacifica and Chorus – Jarrad Powell, director – New World 80710, 72:35 [Distr. by Albany] ***:
I will warn you now; if you don’t like pentatonic scales—lots of them—avoid this disc. Or if you have an aversion to Asian music in general. And if you don’t like the gamelan, well, you’re dead where you stand.
Lou Harrison’s musical aesthetic was a little weird by almost anyone’s standards; his early music reflected Schoenberg and the twelve-tone influence, but he had a lifelong attraction to all things Asian—especially music, and particularly the gamelan—and devoted over 36 pieces to the instrument. He also attempted a “fusion” music as such by combining both instruments and this type of music with western instruments and forms. I am not sure it works—after all, the Asian experience is something that doesn’t really fit the notion of western classical music, and I daresay that the music on this disc could just have easily been classified as “world” music instead of “Classical/Contemporary” as New World has it. It certainly doesn’t sound contemporary at all.
Personally I find it timeless, ancient, enthralling, and yet very tiring; perhaps my ears are just not attuned to the idiom to fully appreciate this music, but its scalar similarities, monotonous rhythm (very minimalist in approach) and unyielding sameness of tempos prescribe a world into which I am not acclimated, and of which I believe that other cultural accoutrements must be present and/or subscribed to in order to fully understand and appreciate.
There are moments of great beauty; the second movement of the Piano Concerto is ethereal and quite moving, while the catchy melodic phrases at the beginning of Scenes from Cavafy, based on poetry of the Greek Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), is rather haunting. Perhaps this will grow on me, I am not sure. But I do know that during the first hearing I was really starting to get a headache from the incessant sameness of it all. Those into this sort of thing will think me a barbarian, while others will thank me for warning them.
The recorded sound is close, narrow, and somewhat distorted during louder passages—I am sure the gamelan is a tough instrument to capture, though the Gamelan Pacifica is one of the oldest ensembles of its type in America, and plays with an assured confidence. You probably already know if you want this disc, and Harrison is an interesting, if marginal, composer.
— Steven Ritter