Threnody for Carlos Chávez (1978) by Lou Harrison
for gamelan and viola

Composed in 1978 by Lou Harrison, Threnody for Carlos Chávez uses a gamelan orchestra to lament the death of the great Mexican composer. The piece is written for viola and gamelan degung, a small ensemble originating in the Sundanese area of West Java and the kind that the will be using tonight. Carlos Chávez (1899-1978) composed hundreds of works and enriched the musical life of Mexico as an educator, conductor, public administrator, and scholar. From 1970 to 1973, he directed the Cabrillo Music Festival that Harrison had helped establish in Aptos, California. He and Harrison shared a love of percussive instruments and of tunings based on natural harmonics.

The acceptance of subtle difference in tuning systems, especially systems different from the one used in most Western music today, is one of the reasons Harrison was so attracted to the music of Asia. He and his life partner Bill Colvig constructed a gamelan in 1971, and Lou began to compose for it. Later he studied with gamelan masters and traveled to Java; he had already studied and performed in several other East Asian countries. He composed more than three dozen gamelan works, stretching the boundaries of traditional gamelan music.

Gamelan orchestras use xylophone-like instruments to elaborate a core melody (balungan) within strict constraints of pitch, rhythm, and range. The orchestra plays the core melody as well as simpler and more elaborate versions of it simultaneously. In this way the melody is said to "flower". Bells and lower-pitched gongs and drums indicate larger rhythmic cycles. In traditional gamelan music the meter and its expression in larger formal structures are duple. Nevertheless, Harrison was inspired by his studies of medieval Western music to write this piece using multiples and divisions of three. The phrases of the melody consist of groups of threes and each section has three phrases. The three sections are played in the order AAB AAB CCB, delineating an overall form of XXY, with each division lasting about three minutes.

In addition to pure intonations and percussive sounds, Harrison’s musical interests always turned strongly toward melody. Many of his pieces for gamelan include a solo instrument that carries a more lyrical melody than the ones imbedded in the metallophones. In Threnody it is a viola. The beginnings of the B sections are marked in the viola by an upward leaping motion followed by rocking triples. The C section and its repeat begin with long low notes interspersed with pairs of shorter notes.

Gamelan music has long charmed Western composers from Debussy to Messiaen to Britten. But for Harrison "a good gamelan is the most beautiful musical ensemble on the planet", and perhaps the perfect medium through which to express a feeling of grief for the dead.

— R. W. M.    

[from program for May 18, 2015 concert]