Harrison Centenary

"A poet is, before anything else, a person who is passionately in love with language." - W.H. Auden

Join Sacred and Profane Chamber Chorus THIS WEEKEND for the final installment of Waxing Poetic: A Celebration of Poetry. We'll be exploring more settings of poetry and celebrating the 100th birthday of iconoclastic composer Lou Harrison. We're excited to be collaborating with Thingamajigs to present the world premiere of a brand-new work by Edward Schocker in conjunction with their Harrison 100/Thingamajigs 20celebration. In Love with Language also features works by Jan Sandström, Rudi Tas, and our very own Will Raymer! This program is not to be missed!

Dear Friend of Sacred and Profane,
In the mid-1990s the University of California, Santa Cruz music department, where I completed my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, was dedicated to the music of our beloved neighbor, Lou Harrison, who lived just down the road in Aptos. As the celebrated composer in our midst, Lou shared more than just proximity with UCSC. He shared his vision of what it means to be a musician and a human being with the faculty, and thus with the students, who eagerly absorbed his all-embracing approach to musical identity. Lou was a scholar of several East Asian music traditions, including Indonesian gamelan, and also studied medieval chant, polyrhythmic music, pure intonation systems, Buddhist philosophy, the Esperanto language, and many other ideas with relish. (Most of my UCSC professors similarly had multiple areas of specialty – several had published research in Western classical music, in ethnomusicology, and had produced well-reviewed recordings. It was a heady place to study.) Two of my professors, Leta Miller and Fredric Lieberman, published a book about Lou shortly after I left UCSC, in which they referred to him not as “Mr. Harrison,” but “Lou,” in honor of his informal, caring nature. My conducting mentor, Nicole Paiement, also edited a number of Lou’s scores for publication and produced several recordings.


Lou was a kind man who resembled Santa Claus, and it was always a thrill to see him at concerts and to hear his music. During my studies at the University of Iowa, I enrolled in a course on “music since 1945.” Our end-of-semester project was to write a paper on a work by a living composer with whom we could arrange an interview. Most of my classmates  wrote papers on peer-composers whom they knew from their master’s programs, but I thought I might be able to write a paper on Lou’s great work, La Koro SutroLa Koro Sutro is a setting of an Esperanto translation of the Mahayana Buddhist text, the “Heart Sutra,” for choir and American Gamelan, a gamelan-like percussion ensemble that Lou and his long-time partner Bill Colvig built. I contacted Lou’s assistant, who was a friend of a close friend, to see if an interview might be arranged. Lou asked to see my questions before agreeing to speak to me, and after he received them graciously offered an interview. I asked him questions about his Buddhist practice and commitment to social justice and about his musical proclivities and influences. When I returned to teach at UCSC in 2000 as a teacher, I discovered that the conductor I was replacing had coincidentally reserved the American Gamelan for a performance of La Koro Sutro in the spring of 2001. So, after extensive study of the work and my interview with Lou, I was able to conduct a performance of the work with the UCSC Concert Choir. Lou was still alive at the time, but due to poor health was unable to attend the performances. I still recall the moment that I learned of his sudden death in 2003, and my deep sadness at his loss.

In May 2012, Sacred and Profane collaborated in two performances of La Koro Sutro with the University of San Francisco University Choir, the UC Berkeley Chamber Singers, and the William Winant Percussion Group. Several of our singers will sing the work again this coming May 20th under the direction of Nicole Paiement with Other Minds.
Meanwhile, last year, I was contacted by Edward Schocker, a local composer, improvisational musician, and director of Thingamajigs, a music collective that explores instrument building and holds music camps for kids. Edward and I had worked together several years ago when he sang with the St Ignatius Church Choir in San Francisco and we remained in touch through the East Bay avant garde music community. He explained that Thingamajigs was looking to create several works to partner with Lou’s compositions in celebration of Lou’s centenary on May 14, 2014, and wondered if Sacred and Profane might be interested in participating. Lou had been a close mentor of Edward’s at Mills College, where he received his masters in composition, and had encouraged him to create Thingamajigs. I agreed to the collaboration and chose Lou’s Mass for St Cecilia’s Day, a work of similar musical language to La Koro Sutro written for unison choir, harp, hand percussion, and unspecified drone instruments. Edward has composed a setting of Lou’s romantic poem for his partner Bill, titled On Bill's Return, for the same instrumental requirements as the Mass. The drone for both pieces will be played on my wineglass organ, an instrument that is making its way into Sacred and Profane’s concerts with increased regularity (expect to see it again in December 2017). I’m very happy that we’ll be presenting both of these wonderful works on Lou’s 100th birthday, a fitting way to celebrate the life and work of a truly delightful man and an important contributor to the musical fabric of the 20th century.
You can hear both of these works, plus our performances of beautiful settings of 19th and 20thcentury poets, at our upcoming concerts on May 13th in Berkeley and May 14th in San Francisco! I look forward to seeing you there!