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Nathan Williamson: How a tiny masterpiece by Lou Harrison changed my life

I first came across Lou Harrison’s music when a first-year undergrad, being tasked with deciphering by ear the first movement of his Concerto for Flute and Percussion. It’s one of those ingenious movements of about two minutes duration which you can literally fit on a postcard – there’s this simple flute dance thing, and a percussion ostinato which could have been made up by an 8 year old. Combined, they make (for reasons I still cannot quite put my finger on) a tiny, ingenious masterpiece.

Multiple time signatures dutifully analysed, what really struck me about the music was how fresh and joyful it was. Not in a humorous, jokey sort of way, nor ecstatic, but a real rejoicing in simplicity. ‘Simple’ as a word doesn’t cover it – it has rather base connotations – clear is perhaps better. Except for the fact that it isn’t clear what the composer is doing at all, until you see it: like a good riddle, its all the better for being so obvious once you have the answer, but few can figure it out unaided.

Best of all, the music had no seeming point to it whatsoever: no goal, no climax, no recap, no competing themes, no sense of resolution – but, again, neither was it not any of those things. It just was. To a Mahler-, Berg- and Sonata Form-stuffed 18 year old, achieving something so profound through such light means – namely a concerto for only two people (and I mean just two people, not two people plus orchestra) one of whom plays the same thing over and over again – was big news. The nearest thing I had to compare it to was Debussy, but no Debussy was as simple as this, and no Debussy was (imho) as uplifting to listen to either.

I felt like a chef who had spent half his life trying to make the perfect cream sauce only to find the naked ingredients, delicately cooked and expertly combined, could be just as delicious. Answers to my numerous adolescent artsy questions about life, love, the meaning of everything and ‘what must I DO!!!’ were being answered not by Nietzsche and Berlioz, but by ‘Zen and the Art of Archery’ and the ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ (the original ‘Inner Game’ book, and the only one worth reading, even if you have never so much as picked up a tennis ball).

This new (to me) freshness and clarity of musical approach was key to my developing interest in American music, and I embarked on a wonderful period of discovery enormously aided by the year-long ‘Inventing America’ Festival at the Barbican Centre in 1998. I knew then that when the opportunity to study or work abroad came, it would have to be in America.

Accordingly, when presented with the opportunity to record some American solo piano works, it seemed natural to start with Harrison. Of the works I recorded, his sensual, peaceful Largo Ostinato is the most popular, revealing his more romantic side, but his 3rd Piano Sonata, on the other hand, shows much of that stripped down quality of the Flute and Percussion Concerto. Its musical language tends towards either melody or rhythm – whatever harmony is present is itself usually comprised of melodic lines. Certain specific intervals are used between these melodies to create different colours and textures throughout the work – but the harmony has no specific or structural function at all. It’s not very often actually dissonant, but somehow not exactly consonant, or ever resolving, either.

In the rugged second movement dance, cluster-chord effects add to the percussive effects of the piano, before the last movement – ‘Very slow, very singing, and solemn’ – imitates an expansive folksong, suggestive perhaps of some sort of ritual or eulogy. Men and women’s voices sing in unison throughout, before just a couple of chords add a splash of colour and a sense of consummation and arrival at the work’s conclusion.

Lou Harrison’s output is remarkably diverse – alongside these more concise and shorter piano works, as well as pieces like the Concerto for Flute and Percussion, he wrote expansive orchestral works, operas, concertos and symphonies – in fact the Largo Ostinato for piano was re-worked as a movement in his Third Symphony. He fused Western and Eastern musical forms with a success few others have achieved. But in whatever genre or language he is using, I find the remarkable freshness and sheer delight at music, and music-making, in his works to be one of their most remarkable qualities. His music is never trite or smiley, but is always optimistic and uplifting. I was fortunate enough to be obliged to listen to this remarkable man’s music as a student – and I hope your own choice may be to do the same.

Nathan Williamson

Nathan’s acclaimed new recording of the Great American Sonatas is available to order or download now:

“A release of distinction.” Gramophone

“All fascinating…”The Guardian

“A pianist of striking insight.” Musical Opinion