Lou Harrison


mode 195

Por Gitaro: Suites For Tuned Guitars



mode 195 Lou HARRISON: Por Gitaro: Suites for Tuned Guitars – Serenade; Suite No.1; Suite for National Steel Guitar; Suite No.2; Ditone Set; In Honor of the Divine Mr. Handel. HMC American Gamelan, Bill Alves, director, John Schneider, guitars with Just Strings: T.J. Troy, Gene Sterling and Erin Barnes, percussion.

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Por Gitaro: Suites For Tuned Guitars
Program notes linked to from resource. John Schneider, guitar ; Just Strings. Recorded 2004 and 2007, at Joshua Tree (Calif.), Harrison House.

Serenade (1978)
   Round   (1:48)
   Air   (3:34)
   Infinite Canon   (2:27)
   Usul – little homage to Sinan   (3:03)
   Sonata   (2:09)

Suite No.1 (1978-92)
   Avalokiteshvara   (2:20)
   Music for Bill & Me   (3:48)
   Sonata in Am   (3:07)
   Tandy’s Tango   (3:19)
   Sonata in Ishartum   (1:31)

Suite for National Steel Guitar (1952/92)
   Jahla   (1:53)
   Solo   (3:31)
   Palace Music   (2:59)
   Threnody to the memory of Oliver Daniel   (2:53)
   Serenado por Gitaro   (1:50)
first recording

Suite No.2 (1978-99)
   Jahla in the form of a Ductia   (1:49)
   Adagio, arioso   (3:41)
   Sonata in Cm   (2:26)
   A Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen   (2:08)
   Beverly’s Troubadour Piece   (1:38)

Ditone Set (1978-2002)
   Usul   (4:41)
   Plaint   (3:22)
   Variations on Walter von der Vogelweide’s ‘Song of Palestine’   (5:08)
   Estampie   (4:15)
first recording of reconstructed guitar version

Interview (1981) with Harrison and Schneider on the guitar   (3:20)

In Honor of the Divine Mr. Handel (1991)   (6:21)
HMC American Gamelan, Bill Alves, director
John Schneider, guitars with Just Strings: T.J. Troy, Gene Sterling and Erin Barnes, percussion
first recording of version for just-intonation guitar & just-intonation gamelan

Even though Lou Harrison rhapsodized about the “dulcet tones” of the guitar, for much of his career he refused to write for it. The problem was that the guitar’s straight, fixed frets resulted in the tuning system known as equal temperament, while Harrison preferred the crystalline purity of harmony found in the types of tuning known as just intonation. In the 1970s, Harrison learned of a guitar with removable fingerboards, allowing the player to simply swap out fingerboards refretted with different tunings.

Energized by this innovation, Harrison completed the first works for just-intoned guitar: the Serenade for Guitar and Optional Percussion in 1978.

He began the next work in the series, the Ditone Suite, but grew impatient trying to acquire the necessary fingerboards. Two and a half movements into the suite, he reluctantly turned away from his ambitious guitar project, adapting the Ditone Suite movements for his String Quartet Set.

In 1981, the guitarist John Schneider met with Harrison and played his first arrangements of his harp works for just intonation guitar. With Harrison’s authorization and encouragement, Schneider began adapting some of Harrison’s other works into suites.

This is the first complete recording of the reconstructed Suites and of the Ditone Set.

The first recording of In Honor of the Divine Mister Handel in the version for guitar and gamelan.

The recordings were made in Harrison’s straw bale house in Joshua Tree, California, where the house’s main hall was intended for musical performances.

Latin Grammy™ nominated guitarist, composer, author and broadcaster John Schneider is a specialist in contemporary music, and Director of the ensembles Just Strings, Partch, and founding artistic director of MicroFest. His weekly radio program The Global Village can be heard at www.kpfk.org.

Liner notes by Bill Alves.


Lou Harrison
Por Gitaro – Suites for Tuned Guitars

John Schneider, guitars
Mode 195

4 stars

In response to the hegemony of equal temperament tuning in Western music, which he saw as a paragon of drab uniform compromise, Lou Harrison began in the early fifties to compose music in Just Intonation.

In this tuning system the intervals are built out of proportions of whole numbers (so an octave = 2:1, a fifth = 3:2, a tone can equal 10:9 or 9:8 etc), not out of multiples of the same basic interval as in equal temperament. The qualities of the intervals are much more idiosyncratic, less homogenised in Just tuning systems, and the basic colour of the music is rich and eclectic in comparison with examples of equally tempered music (which albeit allow much greater fixity and systematisation of sound).

A nice visual analogy of this contrast exists in the frets of guitars. The conventional fretting system replicates the fixed standards of equal temperament tuning. A guitar organised with respect to Just Intonation is fretted quite distinctively, with the usual dull leaden boundary standards replaced by a more playful, more beautiful discreteness (see picture below). The visual contrast is maintained into the realm of sound, as demonstrated on this rather radiant and charming release, where the guitar is subtly revivified as a bearer of the most sumptuously resonant sound.

The highly respected contemporary guitar specialist John Schneider, a collaborator of Harrison’s during the composer’s lifetime, assembled and arranged for Justly tuned guitar (with the composer’s blessing) much of the work on this disc, which in the main originated as harp or harpsichord works. He performs it likewise. The exceptions are the opening Serenade suite and much of the Ditone Set, both of which Harrison wrote in response to Tom Stone’s invention of a guitar with removable fingerboards. Harrison had ipso facto planned to compose five guitar suites, in five different Just Intonation tunings, but other commissions got in the way and the composer managed just these two.

John Schneider with Just tuned guitars, As is typical for Harrison the musical style of the works is highly referential. It mixes an open and potent directness of expression (manifest in the cyclic repetitive structures, the simple melodic ideas, the bare textures and the sonorous tuning), with very clear formal and gestural reminiscences from medieval and baroque European music, and from Eastern folk forms. The guitar is accompanied throughout by simple percussion accompaniment. This accompaniment most often underlines the rhythmic accent of the line, but from time to time takes part in the resonant soundscape of the piece, as for example the gongs do in the Air from the Serenade, or the (Justly tuned) gamelan does likewise in the typical melange of In Honour of the Divine Mr. Handel.

Schneider realises everything here with loving attentiveness to the composer’s idiom. Eastern modes are sinuously brought forth, whilst the lyric sentiment of much of the writing is always gracefully imbued. The guitarist also though instils a real sense of idiosyncratic playfulness to the music, especially to the middle eastern tinge of for example the Jahla from the Suite for National Steel Guitar, the formally baroque but musically worldly Sonata from the Serenade, or the tango in the first Suite.

Schneider wrings a lovely tone from his guitar in the moving and intimate Music for Bill and Me from that first suite, and his sensitive handling of the resonating Solo from the Suite for National Steel Guitar brings all the richness of the tuning to the fore. He is capable also of technical intricacy, as shown in his limpid readings of the Estampie from the Ditone Set and the two Jahla. The guitarist is alive to the baroque clarity required in for example the Infinite Canon of the Serenade, and he shows himself continually capable in creating a sounding poetry of medieval longing, as in the Adagio, arioso from the Second Suite.

Schneider has a clear command of the Justly tuned guitar, and of the possibilities of the tuning system in general, which allows him to bring these pieces forth with a degree of fluency that means they can be judged solely in terms of pure sound. They are not waylaid by theoretical baggage, and they sound all the fresher because of that. The starkness and simplicity of some of the music may not be to everyone’s liking – the percussion in particular can often be overly literal, though the Just Strings ensemble never cloud the guitar’s presence too much in this. But for anyone interested in the intersection of Middle Eastern, medieval, baroque and relatively contemporary experimental music style, particularly with reference to the sort of poetry of longing that runs through all of them, this release comes highly recommended. It offers a unique and valuable opportunity to experience a disc full of direct illustrations of some of the richness that inheres in Just Intonation tuning systems, as realised through the highly sympathetic form of the guitar.

Look out for more reviews of recent Mode releases, a label that specialises in the best of contemporary experimental music, on our site in the near future.
— Stephen Graham, MusicalCriticism.com, 7 November 2008

Lou Harrison
Por Gitaro

Mode 195

Performance: 5 Stars
Sound: 4 starshalf star

Although he did not hold grudges against instruments, the standard classical guitar was not one of Lou Harrison’s favorites, although he had used it effectively as early as 1942 in his classic percussion piece Canticle No. 3. Its system of fixed frets indivisibly wedded it to equal temperament, a compromise of tuning that Harrison — and many others — regarded as a conspiracy on the part of the West to deprive music of its depth of color. In 1977, guitarist Tom Stone designed a guitar with removable frets and contacted Harrison, who excitedly launched a series of suites for the new instrument. By 1978, the pressures of external commissions and Harrison’s need to compose music for his gamelan orchestra sidelined these projects; however, guitarist John Schneider volunteered to facilitate them according to Harrison’s plan, using the music already composed and selecting pieces from Harrison’s works for other instruments. Schneider completed his work just before Harrison died in 2002, and mode records has recorded this important cycle of pieces with Schneider inside the specially built, environmentally sensitive straw bale house Harrison designed and lived in just before his death. Por Gitaro — the title given in Harrison’s favored language of Esperanto — is the result, featuring Schneider in a loving and dedicated performance of the five suites Harrison authorized, plus an arrangement of the piece In Honor of the Divine Mr. Handel (1991) that adds the HMC American Gamelan under Bill Alves. Also included is an informative three-and-a-half-minute conversation recorded between Harrison and Schneider in 1981, in which Harrison comments “it is agreeable to me to have my music arranged.”

Schneider utilizes a standard guitar with refitted frets for most of the performances; however, he also employs a National Steel Guitar for one suite, and its slightly nasal tone adds a special bite to Harrison’s preferred temperaments. The interior of the straw bale house also contributes a warm and earthy ambience to the proceedings, though it is used only in the solo works; the guitar and gamelan piece was recorded at Pomona College. If one has little or no familiarity with Harrison’s compositions, this is a wonderful sample; the compass of movements making up these suites range from Harrison’s entire compositional career, from 1934 to 2002. Schneider’s playing is skillful and sensitive, and he is an effective interpreter of Harrison, who, in his mature music, emphasized clarity of texture, tonal color, and melodicity over almost all other considerations. This has led many academics and “serious” scholars to dismiss Harrison’s music, though there is no denying its immediate appeal, communicativeness, and vaguely spiritual properties. In Schneider’s capable hands, both the “serious” and “smiling” aspects of Harrison’s music come to the fore; Por Gitaro is a beautiful recording and is definitive in regards to the literature included.
— Dave Lewis, All Music Guide, 2008

Lou Harrison
Por Gitaro: Suites for Tuned Guitars

Serenade; Suites Nos 1 & 2; Suite for National Steel Guitar, etc.
Guitars: John Schneider
Mode 195

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) is well represented by recordings and these two discs range widely amongst his diverse interests, far from the mainstream classical concert world.

It is all easy listening, but not too simple, and conveys a captivating joie de vivre.

The new MODE disc of guitar music explores Harrison’s interest in the variety of tuning temperaments, which are of course comonplace for early keyboard music, but impossible with fixed fretted instruments.

John Schneider has explored many alternative guitars, with adjustable frets. He also uses steel strings for one of his instruments. At the least, it will sharpen your ears!

A must for young guitarists keen to widen their horizons.
— Peter Grahame Woolf, Musical Pointers online magazine, March 2008


Also by Lou Harrison on Mode:
Lou HARRISON – Works 1939-2000 (mode 122)
For Strings (mode 140)

The Tuning of Lou Harrison – Por Gitaro: Suites for Tuned Guitars, performed by John Schneider – by Bill Alves. Read the Article