Lou Harrison

CMA Recorded Archive Editions

Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan

Sarah Cahill

Gamelan Galak Tika
Evan Ziporyn and Jody Diamond

On the occasion of the centennial celebration of American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003), the Cleveland Museum of Art presented a concert featuring pianist Sarah Cahill with Gamelan Galak Tika under the direction of Evan Ziporyn and Jody Diamond on Friday, October 20, 2017, in Gartner Auditorium. This recording of the rarely performed Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan marks the launch of the CMA’s Recorded Archive Editions, a series of select concert recordings of historical significance and artistic excellence. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s concert series is the longest-running series among all museums in North America and is home to a performance legacy unlike any other.

Thomas M. Welsh
Director of Performing Arts

Video URL

A Paradise of Garden Delights

By Sarah Cahill

Normally, pianists don’t concern themselves with matters of tuning and temperament, unless a few wobbly pitches require the attentions of a tuner. Since pianos are always in equal temperament, that is the sound we hear day after day, year after year. And that, to us, is the sound that is “in tune.” Equal temperament also sounded “in tune” to Lou Harrison as a young man, until his life was forever changed by just intonation and the gamelan.

In a way, the first third of Harrison’s compositional career can be traced through his piano music. There are the early works inspired by his teachers—Henry Cowell’s chord clusters in the 1939 Usonian Set and Arnold Schoenberg’s thorny contrapuntalism in the 1943 Suite; many exuberant works to accompany dance; the experimentation with medieval and Baroque forms and ancient modes; the small occasional pieces for friends. Starting as a teenager, Harrison wrote solo piano pieces every single year. And then, in the early 1950s, he abandoned the piano and its equal temperament. That was when he became immersed in just intonation, when reading Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music motivated him to buy a tuning hammer for his piano, and when he began to describe equal temperament as “displeasurable.”

By 1986, with his Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, Harrison found a way to coax the grand piano into his “paradise garden of delights,” as he described just intonation, and also found a way to bring together his pianist friends and his gamelan friends. When else will a pianist ever have the great fortune to perform with a gamelan? While the concerto is one of several of his works synthesizing East and West, the retuning of the piano makes this one by far the most radical in terms of preparation and logistics; it takes several retunings, weeks apart, for the piano’s strings to adjust before a performance. And for the pianist, it is disorienting at first, since the keys typically associated with corresponding pitches now ring out with a completely different result. The disorientation, however, provokes more intense listening.

The year before, Harrison had composed his great Piano Concerto, an expansive four-movement masterpiece in the traditional lineage of Beethoven and Brahms. The soloist sits at the piano at the front of the stage, next to the conductor, signifying the customary hierarchy of importance over the mass of orchestral players in back. As in a Romantic concerto, soloist and orchestra are continually in dialogue or in conflict; there is tension and resolution, and the soloist is always front and center. The later Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, however, more closely resembles a Baroque concerto grosso, with the pianist integrated into the ensemble, both physically and musically. The ensemble is democratic, without a conductor, even though the pianist has a solo role. While the Piano Concerto score is notated in meticulous detail, as befitting a classical work, the piano score for the Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan is more sketch-like, implying greater freedom. Harrison does make it clear in his score, however, that the pianist and gamelan need to work closely together at all times. Most classical pianists are used to the give-and-take of chamber music with string players, but performing with a gamelan requires a different sense of rhythmic accuracy, and the pianist needs to learn how to listen and where to pick up cues.

One of the great pleasures of studying Harrison’s music involves his community, as his friends and colleagues have continued his legacy and performance practice. For the Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, I consulted Belle Bulwinkle, to whom the concerto is dedicated, and met with musicians with the most intimate knowledge of Harrison’s music, including Robert Hughes and William Winant. Best of all was performing the piece with Jody Diamond, who worked so closely with Harrison on his gamelan compositions and was so essential to the premiere in 1987, and with Evan Ziporyn, who has championed Harrison’s music for decades. Our work together culminated in performing and recording at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which brings together its extraordinary collections of Eastern and Western art “for the benefit of all the people forever.” It’s hard to imagine a better home for Lou Harrison’s concerto.

(All Lou Harrison quotes are from the marvelous biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, published by Indiana University Press.)

A Gong for All Reasons

By Jody Diamond

“Jody, you better go help Lou, because he won’t know what all the instruments are supposed to do.” This instruction from my teacher, the eminent K. P. H. Notoprojo, followed his 1976 invitation to Lou Harrison to compose for a Javanese gamelan. This was the beginning of my relationship with Lou, one that would continue until his death in 2003. During that time, I was Harrison’s gamelan teacher, orchestrator, music director, publisher, and friend. Lou and his life partner, Bill Colvig, were the witnesses at my wedding and “honorary Grandpas” to my daughter.

Because Lou was already a famous composer and much older than I was, people sometimes thought that I studied composition with him. He was always quick to say that I was his teacher for gamelan. I did learn one important lesson from him, though: that humans are by nature creative beings, and that we will create with the elements of all that we experience in life.

Lou Harrison loved gamelan instruments and gamelan music. He loved the resonance of the gongs and the metal keys and the wooden keys and the drums—all these beautiful sounds woven together into one magnificent tapestry. When he was drawn to a music, he wanted to know everything about it, so he took lessons, read voraciously, and built instruments. Lou liked that each set of gamelan instruments had a unique tuning, chosen by the instrument’s maker. His first Javanese-style ensemble, named Gamelan Si Betty for the Los Angeles arts patron Betty Freeman, was modeled on the royal court orchestras of Central Java, so Lou could teach students that tradition as well as compose new works.

Lou Harrison loved composing for gamelan. Javanese gamelan music is an ingenious combination of fixed and flexible elements. Lou would write a melodic framework of a piece and decide where the gongs would punctuate that line; that part would always be the same. But he did not have to write for all the instruments, since the players would create their own parts in real time in response to Lou’s melody; those would always be different. Gamelan music is like an ideal community, where each person makes a contribution—some complex, some less so but structurally important—all equally essential and valuable. And Lou Harrison loved being part of a community.

Lou Harrison wanted to share the joy of playing gamelan with everyone, including his friends who played other instruments. He wrote the Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan for pianist Belle Bulwinkle when we were working together at Mills College in Oakland, California, where he had invited me in 1981 to direct the gamelan with him. In this piece, Lou composed the piano part and the core melody for the gamelan—which can be heard as a slow-moving progression of steady notes beneath the flourishing elaboration of the other instruments—and then I arranged all the parts (with input from the players), including the drums, which I played myself most of the time to lead changes in tempo. We had a small grand piano in the gamelan rehearsal room that was tuned to match the gamelan at Mills College.

There was a piano at the Harrison/Colvig home in Aptos, California, that had belonged to Percy Grainger and Henry Cowell. It was kept in a big room along with Lou’s library of hundreds of books about everything and all the instruments of Gamelan Si Betty. That was where we did the first performances of the concerto.

Lou had decided that I would inherit Gamelan Si Betty. We had worked together for so long, and he knew I would be the person to be sure Si Betty was played. When we emptied his house after his death, I had to put all the instruments in storage, which made me very sad. I posted a notice to an ethnomusicology listserv: “Looking for a home for Lou Harrison’s gamelan instruments, because I think musical instruments should be played and not kept in storage.” I heard immediately from Kay Shelemay, an ethnomusicologist in the Music Department at Harvard University: “We’ll take it!” Our ten years with Si Betty at Harvard ended in 2017, the year of Lou Harrison’s centennial, and was followed, to my great delight, by an invitation from Evan Ziporyn to bring the gamelan to MIT, with a plan for concerts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

We set the instruments up and brought in a piano to be tuned to the gamelan. The players were members of Ziporyn’s group Gamelan Galak Tika, based at MIT and specializing in Balinese music. Lou’s music and the instruments of Si Betty are inspired by Javanese music. Those two Indonesian islands (Bali and Java), although right next to each other, have subtle differences in musical practice. The highly skilled members of Galak Tika learned to make Javanese-style parts and, perhaps most challenging, worked on a different feeling of time, playing at the back of the beat, moving a bit more languidly toward the gong. Lou would have been thrilled with their accomplishments.

Performing at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and recording the piece there, was an experience of artistic excellence in many ways. It was wonderful to be hosted by Tom Welsh, who honored the music we brought. Working with Sarah Cahill, an amazing musician and a good friend, was a pleasure. I have boundless admiration for Evan Ziporyn’s musical sensitivity and deep understanding of gamelan, and the respect and love he has for this music. And I know that Lou would have been ecstatic with the realization of this composition by the players of Gamelan Galak Tika, a group of musicians who exemplify the joy of community that made Lou say, “Gamelan is the most beautiful music on earth, and I see no reason to compose for anything else.”

Tuning Treasure Hunt

By Evan Ziporyn

Lou Harrison and Bill Colvig built Gamelan Si Betty based on Central Javanese court gamelan, a huge undertaking in its own right. Lou was famously fascinated and particular about tuning, something that is also of utmost importance in the Javanese court tradition, but in a different way. Almost all Eurasian tuning and scale systems—whether stemming from Ling Lun in China, Venkatamakhi in India, or Pythagoras in the West—are based on the harmonic series, on pure octaves, on perfect fifths, and on a notion of consonance that is mindful of the naturally occurring overtones that give complexity and character to the sounds of violins, French horns, sitars, and pianos. Lou was particularly passionate about just intonation, a method of tuning that eschews modern equal temperament and instead goes back to Pythagorean principles, in which intervals are derived and tuned in accordance with geometric ratios, producing chords and resonances of astonishing clarity and beauty. He was determined to tune Si Betty based on these principles, because, as he put it, “Just intonation is the best intonation.”

There was no precedent for this in Javanese court gamelan; in fact, the attempt to devise such a scale was something of a paradox. To begin with, there is no single standardized tuning system in Javanese music: while gamelan makers have their own rigorous methods and propensities, and individuals and groups have strong preferences, no two sets of Javanese instruments are necessarily tuned similarly.

A full Central Javanese court gamelan—including Si Betty—is in fact two sets of instruments, in two scales or modes: five-toned slendro and seven-toned pelog, usually with one pitch in common, for a total of 11 pitches per octave. In traditional practice, the two modes never overlap and are never combined. This is reflected in the physical layout of the instruments themselves, which are mostly set at right angles from one another (even the shared pitch is not a shared object, but rather two different bars or pots depending on the instrument). Slendro and pelog are categories rather than definitions: in context, for practitioners and afficionados, it is immediately apparent which one is which and even possible to name some general characteristics of either.

One thing traditional Javanese tuning definitely is not based on is the overtone series, perhaps because so many of its melodic instruments are cast from metal, which is by nature inharmonic: its partials—the higher frequencies that give individual notes timbre—do not line up with the relatively tidy, predictable harmonic overtone series one hears on a violin or a piano. Think of the clangor of church bells or orchestral chimes: part of their beauty is their seeming unruliness and unpredictability. So while Javanese gamelan makers and musicians pay close attention to the spectral array of their instruments—as mentioned, these are what give sounds their character, and overly pesky or persistent partials can be a problem—that array is not an overt determinant for fundamental pitch. For example, the “perfect” 3:2 fifth—the gold standard of Pythagorean, just-intonation tuning—is seldom found in Javanese or Balinese gamelan. This is not through a lack of awareness in the culture; that same interval abounds in various other regional forms, to the point of being a kind of central harmony in Balinese kor vocal music and a home-base drone in east Javanese gandrung. Yet they are avoided in most metal gamelan traditions, giving plausibility to the possibility that overtone-based intervals are not so much ignored in the tuning of Central Javanese court gamelan as they are actively eschewed.

The miracle Lou achieved with Si Betty’s tuning is that it is a just-intonation gamelan, while still sounding like a traditional Javanese set. Lou described working very hard to achieve this, setting as his sine qua non the approval of his teacher Pak Cokro, for whom he auditioned dozens of possible just-intonation tunings until he hit upon one that Pak Cokro felt was viable, or “good to sing to.” That became the tuning of Si Betty (see enclosed chart).

Lou Harrison's tuning schema of Gamelan Si Betty

But that is not the end of the story. As Jody Diamond describes, Lou very much composed the concerto for Si Betty—that is, for the instruments he and Bill had built as well as for the individual musicians in his group at the time. He titled the piece Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, notating the gamelan parts in standard cipher notation (so they could be realized by players trained in traditional Javanese practice, much as a jazz lead sheet is meant for players who understand chord changes and common practice in that idiom), while writing out the piano part in the more complete manner that concerto-playing pianists expect to see: all pitches, rhythms, dynamics, etc. The piano part also contains cipher numbers at the beginning of every measure, indicating the corresponding gamelan pitch for that moment. This allows the piece to be played not just by Si Betty but by other Javanese gamelan (i.e., groups with different tunings), with the unstated—or at least unwritten—assumption being that the piano will need to be tuned to match each particular gamelan. A comparison of multiple performances allows one to hear how supplely Lou’s beautiful melodies shape-shift to match the differing contours of each new set, and how much this changes the feel of the music, its emotional affect, while still retaining its identity as a piece. But while Lou elegantly diagrammed the tuning of Si Betty in Pythagorean intervals, as shown in the accompanying chart, he never (to my knowledge) did the same for the piano tuning itself. This creates a unique and rather nice symmetry in process: the gamelan tuning is specified down to the ratio, while the gamelan parts are meant to be realized; the piano part is completely written, but its tuning has to be figured out!

While much of the piano tuning can be simply deduced, there are a couple of problems. As mentioned above, Si Betty only has 11 total pitches—how does one tune the 12th note of the octave? Furthermore, performance practice and Lou’s own notation seems to suggest that there is actually a second note in common as well, leaving two of the 12 piano tones “to be named later.” On top of that, while gamelan instruments may not resonate to the overtone series, a piano is built to do just that—so how to find a tuning that matches with the gamelan, allows for those final two notes to make sense, and still sings?

Finding the answer—or at least the answer that worked for us, the answer you hear on this recording—was a multi-month, trial-and-error labor of love, first by consultation with Jody Diamond and with Jarrad Powell of Gamelan Pacifica, and then in robust collaboration with piano technician Victor Belanger of MIT, to whom I am deeply grateful. The tuning Victor and I devised was then meticulously replicated by Matthew Logan for this concert and recording. Because pianos need time to “settle” in a new tuning, preferably weeks but certainly days, with constant touch-ups as strings try to revert to their more accustomed lengths and tensions, this required the cooperation of three institutions—MIT, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and the Cleveland Museum of Art—and the patience of all the performers in dealing with various not-quite-there-yet attempts. You can hear the result on this recording, but it is not “the” definitive tuning for this piece, because there isn’t one. After the first performance in Boston, a curious audience member asked, “How many strings had to be retuned?” I told him, “All 88,” but then realized that the real answer was 230—because most piano hammers strike two or three strings, and all of them need to be adjusted. But even that is an understatement: two tuners, three pianos, at least five complete tunings per piano in the weeks prior to performance . . . How many strings need to be retuned? Six thousand nine hundred.

Lou Harrison Centennial

Friday, October 20, 2017 (performance)

Recorded Saturday, October 21, 2017, in Gartner Auditorium at the Cleveland Museum of Art

Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1986–87)
Lou Harrison (1917–2003)

  1. Bull’s Belle
  2. [Untitled]
  3. Belle’s Bull

Sarah Cahill, piano

Gamelan Galak Tika, performing on the instruments of Gamelan Si Betty, directed by Evan Ziporyn and Jody Diamond

Recently called “a sterling pianist and an intrepid illuminator of the classical avant-garde” by the New York Times and “a brilliant and charismatic advocate for modern and contemporary composers” by Time Out New York, Sarah Cahill has commissioned, premiered, and recorded numerous compositions for solo piano. More than 40 composers have dedicated works to her, including John Adams, Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, Evan Ziporyn, and Ingram Marshall. Keyboard magazine wrote, “Through her inspired interpretation of works across the 20th and 21st centuries, Cahill has been instrumental in bringing to life the music of many of our greatest living composers.” She was named a 2018 Champion of New Music, awarded by the American Composers Forum (ACF). Recent and upcoming appearances include the Barbican Centre, the San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Her four-CD set Eighty Trips Around the Sun: Music by and for Terry Riley was recently released on the Irritable Hedgehog label. She is on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and her radio show, Revolutions Per Minute, can be heard every Sunday evening from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. on KALW, 91.7 FM, in San Francisco.  

Jody Diamond, a composer, performer, and scholar, is well known for her work in contemporary music for Indonesian and international gamelan. Beginning in 1976, she served as Lou Harrison’s gamelan teacher, orchestrator, and ensemble director. She has received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for her work on contemporary Indonesian composers and the gamelan music of Lou Harrison. She is the director of the American Gamelan Institute (founded in 1981) and the editor and publisher of Balungan, an international journal on Indonesian performing arts and their international counterparts. Her compositions for gamelan, voice, and other instruments are performed internationally. Diamond is currently an associated artist in music at MIT, and she has recently been an artist in residence in the Harvard University Music Department and both a senior lecturer in Asian and Middle Eastern studies and gamelan director at Dartmouth College.

Evan Ziporyn’s musical work is informed by his 40-plus-year involvement with gamelan and is directly inspired by Lou Harrison’s visionary example. His groundbreaking compositions for cross-cultural ensembles have been commissioned and performed by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble, Wu Man, Maya Beiser, Kronos Quartet, American Composers Orchestra, Brooklyn Rider, and Sō Percussion. He shared a 2017 Grammy with Silkroad Ensemble for Best World Music Album, and his work with Silkroad is featured in Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War. He has performed and conducted at major venues throughout the world, including leading the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra in the European premiere of his Blackstar Concerto, which he debuted at MIT with his own ensemble, the Ambient Orchestra. His Gorecki Project was featured at the Warsaw Autumn and Sacrum Profanum Festivals. He co-founded the Bang on a Can All-Stars in 1992, performing with the group for 20 years, and produced and arranged their landmark recording of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. His collaborations with visual artists Tomás Saraceno, Matthew Ritchie, and Design Earth have been featured at the Seville Biennial, the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, and the Venice Architecture Biennale. He was a long-standing member of the Steve Reich Ensemble. Other collaborators have included Paul Simon, Ornette Coleman, Terry Riley, Cecil Taylor, Matthew Shipp, Iva Bittová, Don Byron, Meredith Monk, and Ensemble Modern. At MIT he heads Music and Theater Arts and is faculty director of the Center for Art, Science, and Technology.

Gamelan Galak Tika
Djenet Bousnaine, Jody Diamond, Donovan Edelstein, Alicia Garza, Nick Joliat, Minjae Kim, Andreas Liapis, Evan Lynch, Ryan Meyer, Kep Peterson, Ponnapa Prakkamakul, Sachi Sato, So Yeon Shin, Christine Southworth, Mark Stewart, Ilya Sukhotin, Daniel Wick, and Evan Ziporyn

Produced by Thomas M. Welsh, Director of Performing Arts, Cleveland Museum of Art
Recorded and mixed by Bruce Gigax, Audio Recording Studio, Cleveland
Piano technician: Matthew Logan, The Sun and Moon Piano Shoppe, LLC

Special thanks to Victor Belanger; MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) (Leila Kinney, executive director, and Susan Wilson, producer); MIT Music and Theater Arts (Michelle Carmichael, administrative officer); the American Gamelan Institute; and the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (John Andress, Bill T. Jones Director and Curator of Performing Arts)

Concerts and recordings are made possible in part by the Musart Society, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s affiliate group supporting music in the museum since 1946.

Artwork: Waist Cloth (Kain Panjeng) (detail), 1800s–early 1900s. Indonesia, Central Java. Cotton: batik; 248.9 x 181.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1925.488

Drawing made during the live performance of Lou Harrison's "Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan"
In-concert drawing by Imogen Dalby