Pan Harmonia artists Kate Steinbeck, flute, and Byron Hedgepeth, percussion, presented a recital entitled “John’s friend Lou” at the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center. The “John” in this concert’s cryptic title is John Cage and “Lou” is Lou Harrison. There were many firsts during the brief history of Black Mountain College, including the first-ever multi-media “happening” created in 1952 by Cage with choreography by Merce Cunningham and sets by Robert Rauschenberg. Cage may have been the most notorious composer who spent time at this avant-garde college but Harrison is in the long run the most important.
Before the music began, a film “Lou Harrison, A World of Music” introduced people to the aesthetic sense of a California-based man who referred to himself often as a “Pacific Rim composer.” Harrison used modal music and instruments from the Pacific nations and invented his own ensemble called the American gamelan. But Harrison also wrote for small ensembles, and two of his works for flute and percussion formed the focus of this concert. The other four pieces were by Cage, Alan Hovhaness, Tom Siwe and Asha Srinivasan.
The concert began with Cage’s “Composed Improvisation for Snare Drum,” a work shaped by a random scrambling of 64 pieces of paper to determine timbre and duration of sections. Cage’s use of aleatoric (chance) music has always left me cold. I feel that music is based on tension and release, and Cage’s compositions that depend on chance events provide tension but no resolution. What I heard was an excellent performance of an unsatisfying piece.
There is aleatoric music that I like. Lutoslawski and Penderecki have written works that are less blatantly “chancy” and which work, and so has Lou Harrison. His Ariadne for flute and percussion uses independent decisions by the two players about the sequence of phrases in movement two. This performance included some fine marimba passages in the first movement and some virtuosic mixed meter passages in the second.
Tom Siwe’s “L.H.” is a percussion piece honoring Lou Harrison. It makes prominent use of a flexatone, an instrument that allows pitch modulation and vibrato through thumb pressure on a small piece of spring steel that is being struck with beaters. While the work is a little academic in tone, it forms a nice tribute to Harrison.
Steinbeck and Hedgepeth played three movements of Hovhaness’s Suite for Jade Notch Flute. The Largo Solenne set the tone, the Allegretto tightened the noose, and the Allegro sprung the trap. This was one of two high points in the concert.
Srinivasan is an Indian-American composer and musical educator at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. Her “Alone, Dancing” is scored for flute and electronics. Ms. Steinbeck, using her foot to control the electronics, made the case for this composer. I want to hear more of this young woman.
Concerto #1 for Flute and Percussion was composed in 1939 by a 22-year-old Harrison. The work uses shakers, blocks, drums, bells, gongs ... many elements that he would later use in his American gamelan. Mr. Hedgepeth kept very busy, often using three instruments in the same measure. The two performers were in rapport with each other and with the composer, and this final work on the program was the highlight of the day.
You don’t often get an opportunity to hear a concert where every work is by American composers born in the 20th century, but an audience of more than forty did on Sunday.