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Talking Music by William Duckworth (c) 1995 by Schirmer Books ISBN 0-02-870823-7 excerpts 1791w

- pg 99,100 -

DUCKWORTH: I'd like to back up just a little bit. Were you interested in jazz when you were young?

HARRISON: Oh yes, yes. I used to play it in Oakland, this must have been the early thirties. later, I was working at Mills College when Pauline Benton came by with the Red Gate Shadow Players, a Chinese shadow show. At that time her musician, who played Chinese instruments and arranged all the music for her, was William Russell. I became acquainted with him then. He stayed in San Francisco because they were also playing there, and we got sufficiently acquainted that he brought stacks of records up to my apartment and sat down very seriously and gave me my first education in jazz, beyond the jazz piano I'd had. This was a general, how shall I say it, Class A appreciation course of the then state of things.

DUCKWORTH: Who influenced you when you were growing up? Who did you listen to?

HARRISON: I don't know, I don't even know who they were. Jazz was a product that everybody shared. There were no personalities except in the movies ... Jon Hall singing "Island Paradise" ... this kind of thing. It was a very popular education that I had. I should add that there was another class of music at the same time. Nowadays people tend, I think rather badly, to think of pop music as a kind of homogeneous tyranny. But when you crossed San Francisco bay on a ferryboat, or when you went into a cafeteria or a restaurant in San Francisco during the twenties and thirties, those ferryboats and cafeterias had, at least, a string trio playing the fifty standard classics. Everybody knew them. And in school we had already learned to sing "To the Evening Star." And we learned Wagner and Verdi as well. All of this has totally disappeared in the name of educationism and commerce. Somebody discovered that you could write a book for say the fourth to fifth grades with new examples to learn. In the course of this, just in a few years, the common culture that we all shared was wiped out. And now music itself doesn't exist in most of the schools. So there was this other heritage which was wiped out by commercial enterprises and by educationism. It's very difficult to retrieve a common culture; we don't have it anymore. There is an effort on the part of the pop people to impose it. And I don't think that that should be done, myself.

- pg 101,102 -

DUCKWORTH: I know by 1934 by were studying with Henry Cowell in San Francisco. You must have made some kind of a decision toward music by that point?

HARRISON: No, I've never made a decision. The word "decision" I've always thought of as implying those people who can think. I can't think. I just go where the attraction is. I eat my way through life, as you can see by my shape.

DUCKWORTH: What do you substitute for thinking? How do you maneuver in the world?

HARRISON: Actually by affections, and by personal relationships and enthusiasms, that's what it amounts to. I'm a sensualist, so anything that appeals to me sensually will get investigated. That's too dull a term ... will get grabbed. I'm greedy.

DUCKWORTH: What was studying with Cowell like?

HARRISON: Well, it was quite marvelous, and I don't think it ever stopped, you know. In the first instance I went to him to take his course in world music, which was called Music of the People of the World, at the University of California, San Francisco. And I was delighted by it and we got acquainted. He made me his monitor in class, and then I showed him pieces, and I began to study with him. Well, it was catch as catch can; we would meet here and there and yon. I invited him to the house finally and Mother made dinner. And Dad and Mother were just awfully nervous ... a composer coming. You know, they just didn't know what they would talk about, so they were completely out of water. And Henry sat down and in, I suppose, an exchange of three or four sentences had the whole family entranced. He somehow quickly found out that Dad was interested in automobiles and knew something about them, so he described a complete transcontinental trip that he had made in a converted diesel-engine car, which at that time was far out. Dad was absolutely awestruck. It was Henry; he could deal with anything. Then I attended the Cowell house and became a friend of Olive Cowell. She ran a salon in the old style. Olive was very instrumental in introducing me to everybody. In her house, for example, I met and played for Varese, and I met Schoenberg, and just oodles and oodles of people, because everyone was invited to the Cowell house.

DUCKWORTH: What did you play for Varese?

HARRISON: It was a ricercare on the name of Bach, in dissonant counterpoint.

DUCKWORTH: That you had written?

HARRISON: Yes. And he like it very much, right off the bat. He was a very good friend to me. In New York, he sponsored a concert in which I was sort of featured. He was very impressive to me, and also , since he was very friendly, it made quite an image. I visited him every so often.

- pg 104, 105 -

DUCKWORTH: How did the idea of the percussion concerts the two of you organized come about?

HARRISON: Many years before, when I was just getting acquainted with Henry, he did a piece ... actually, it was a theater piece and he did music for it. The Palo Alto Community Theater was just opening and this was one of their earliest productions. What Henry did, of course, from his vast background in world music, was to make a box on the stage just like the Kabuki has it. But you didn't know this until later, it was part of the set. Inside it was a tiny little piano, and percussion everywhere -- both melodic and nonmelodic percussion. And every scene was accompanied by a percussion ostinato. As I recall, there may have been one or two songs, but I'm not quite sure of that.

At any rate, it was accompanied; the whole drama had this musical background, and only at the end was the curtain drawn aside and you saw that this was what it was. And I became fascinated with that idea. Not too much later, Henry introduced me to [Varese's] Ionization, and [Amadeo] Roldan and [Alejandro Garcia] Caturla, and such percussion music as existed. So I started writing for it right away. And then John Cage and I organized concerts. We used Mills College when the Bauhaus was there and they helped us stage it. We did the big masterpieces on one of those concerts. We did the Varese, the Caturla, and the Roldan Ritmicas, which is for a large ensemble too. It was fun. We continued to give concerts. I had introduced John by this time to Bonnie Bird and that took, and he went up to the Cornish School and worked. So we were in communication between San Francisco and Seattle. In the meantime, I was busy working with dancers at Mills College. So we did keep in touch, and we had a summer session at Mills and we invited William Russell, too. Then at some time John moved back to San Francisco and we gave a fairly famous concert the California Hall concert, in which we alternated our pieces. And at his suggestion we wrote Double Music together, which is still holding the boards. All of this, plus the work of Gerald Strang, Ray Green, and a number of others, produced what is now thought of as a classic age of percussion orchestra on the West Coast that spread everywhere after the second World War.

DUCKWORTH: How were those early concerts of percussion music received?

HARRISON: The last one I gave in San Francisco at the Fairmont Hotel, for example, the man who sold tickets sold them twice over. People were hanging on chandeliers and clinging to windows...

- pg 108 -

HARRISON: Yes, along with one other: the San Francisco Public Library. I haunted it. I took out every book I could. And the music department was well equipped. By the time I was a midadolescent, I had gone through all of the Rameau and Lully operas; I'd gone through all the Pedrell collection from Spain; I'd gone through all the organ works of France in the nineteenth century; I'd gone through all the standard literature; and every work of Schoenberg, which they collected. This is just to begin with, not speaking o theory and so on. By the time I had finished my two years at San Francisco State, I was an expert madrigal singer and had gone through the entire Tudor collection of madrigals and church music, as well. So I have a background in European music that precedes all the rest. Also, remember this: San Francisco's Chinatown was where you went and sat in opera all evening, too, every night of the year.

- pg 116 -

DUCKWORTH: Do you have any worries, given the current influence and control exerted by Western European instruments of the nineteenth century, that people like yourself are in some ways beating their heads against a wall?

HARRISON: I would first remind you, Bill, and over 85 percent, nearly 90 percent, of the music that I experience during a week is not such music. It is not current practice. It's Javanese gamelan tuned in just intonation. That's what I spend twenty hours a week teaching, and I hear a whole orchestra of it in my house all the time. And the other gamelan (that's plural) that I'm associated with are all in just intonation, too. For example, the pelog of both Si Betty and the Mills gamelan, Si Madelene, are overtones 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, and 21. That's regarded as high stuff. But it was, in fact, chosen by a Javanese out of things I was doing who, when he said it's a good pelog, also said, "It'll be very good with voices." So immediately I knew that there were gamelan that were harder to sing with than others. Well, if you had told me fifteen years ago that voices could easily sing overtones 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, and 21, I'd have said, "No way." The minute we tried voices it was like falling off a log. So there you go.

Typed by C. Vega dec 1 1995


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