Captain Kirk and the Buddha Speak Esperanto: Other Minds 22 Commemmorates Lou Silver Harrison at 100


Esperanto is a constructed language brought into being in an 1887 book by a Polish-Jewish doctor by the name of L. L. Zamenhof (1861-1917).  This constructed language was intended in part as an intellectual exercise which might contribute to greater international discourse and perhaps understanding.  He outlined his intentions as follows:

  1. “To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”
  2. “To enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with persons of any nationality, whether the language be universally accepted or not; in other words, the language is to be directly a means of international communication.”
  3. “To find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.

Esperanto did gain a great deal of popularity and there are still adherents today (an estimated 2 million people worldwide).  Lou Harrison was one of the users of this language (users are known as “Esperantists”).

L. L. Zamenhof (1859-1917)

In 1966 a horror film, “Incubus”, written and directed by Leslie Stevens (of Outer Limits fame) was released starring the just pre-Star Trek William Shatner.  Once thought lost, this film was restored from a copy found in a French film library.  It was only the second (and apparently last) feature film done entirely in Esperanto (the first being the 1964 French production, “Angoroj” or Agonies).  It was thought that the use of Esperanto would add a mysterious dimension to the production though detractors challenged the actors’ ability to properly pronounce the dialogue.  A link to a Shatner scene is here.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=accFmyaOj7o

And if you want to sit through the entire film (definitely a cult film experience) you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHUfHj2lTaM

Curiously 1917, the year of Dr. Zamenhof’s death, is also the birth year of Lou Harrison, the principal subject of this essay.  This patriarch of 20th century modernism was a composer, conductor, musicologist, performer, teacher, dancer, calligrapher, and Esperantist.  He used Esperanto to title many of his works and set some Esperanto texts to music.

Lou Silver Harrison

And the Buddha Becomes an Esperantist

In his masterful big composition, La Koro Sutro (1972) translated portions of the text of the Buddhist Heart Sutra (into Esperanto) are set for mixed chorus and American Gamelan.  Gamelan is an Indonesian mostly percussion orchestra which Harrison studied extensively following the example of pioneering Canadian ethnomusicologist and composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964).

Gamelan was first introduced to western audiences at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair where composers such as Claude Debussy and Erik Satie heard the instruments and later incorporated some of those sounds in their music.  (That Gamelan now resides in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.) Harrison’s life partner Bill Colvig, an instrument maker, constructed a percussion ensemble which they called the American Gamelan to differentiate it from the traditional Indonesian ensemble.  The American Gamelan, consisting of five percussion instruments (augmented with organ, harp, and chorus) was first used in the cantata La Koro Sutro.

Harriso (left) with Bill Colvig

This composition is very much a synthesis of the composer’s musical and philosophical ideas.  Harrison was an avowed pacifist and the Heart Sutra is a key Buddhist scripture which supports introspection and non-violence.  Here he uses his expertise as an esperantist, his knowledge of Indonesian as well as western classical music to create one of his largest and finest works.

Lou Harrison with Charles Amirkhanian (curator of this concert series) in 1966

It is a testament to Harrison’s influence that this is the fourth performance of La Koro Sutro in the Bay Area.  It was written for an Esperanto conference in Seattle in 1972 with a translation by fellow esperantist Bruce Kennedy and was premiered that same year at Lone Mountain College  in San Francisco (now part of the University of San Francisco).  Additional performances (available on You Tube) were staged in Berkeley in 1973 and again in 2012.  This is truly an American masterpiece as well as a prayer for our times.

The performances will take place in the Mission San Francisco de Asís Basilica, better known as Mission Dolores.  The mission was founded in 1776 and the still active small adobe church next to the Basilica, built in 1791, is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco.  The much larger Basilica next to the adobe church (and the actual location of said concert) was dedicated in 1918.

Interior of the historic Mission Dolores Basilica

For the record, a Basilica is a reference to both architectural and spiritual aspects of any church so designated.  In the Catholic Church a Basilica is a pilgrimage site, a place to which the faithful travel in a spiritual quest.  I don’t believe it is too much of a stretch to view this event as a musico-spiritual pilgrimage open to all ears and minds, and hearts.  You won’t come out speaking Esperanto but you will never forget what you’ve heard.
The program will include:


Threnody for Oliver Daniel for harp (1990) 

Suite for Cello & Harp (1948)

Meredith Clark, harp

Emil Miland, cello

Pedal Sonata for Organ (1987/1989) Praises for Michael the Archangel (1946-47)

Jerome Lenk, organ

Suite for Violin & American Gamelan (1974, composed with Richard Dee) 

Shalini Vijayan, violin

William Winant Percussion Group

La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra, 1972)

For large mixed chorus, organ, harp, and American Gamelan

The Mission Dolores Choir, Resound, Jerome Lenk, organ, Meredith Clark, harp, and the William Winant Percussion Group conducted by Nicole Paiement.
Saturday, May 20, 2017- 7:30 p.m. 

Mission Dolores Basilica

3321 16th St.

San Francisco, CA
The very affordable tickets ($12-$20) are available at:

http://om22concerttwo.brownpapertickets.com/

Revido tie. (See you there.)
 

A Piece of the Action, or How Other Minds Brought Out My Inner Trekkie


 

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I have been a fan of Other Minds for many years.  While I lived in Chicago I read the reports on the concert series with great interest and was fascinated with the choices of composers since they tended to mirror my own interests in new music as well as introduce me to tantalizing new artists.  I am not a professional musician but I have a long-standing passion for new music and attended many concerts of new music while I lived in Chicago reading liner notes and music history texts eager for more of the exhilarating experience of great new music as it was happening and wanting to know what was just around the corner.

I recall vividly New Music America 1982 which was held in Chicago and was hosted by Charles Amirkhanian, the executive and artistic director of Other Minds.  He spoke with authority and seemed to know just about every musician whose work I admired and countless whose work I hadn’t yet heard.  He conversed knowledgeably with the likes of John Cage, Robert Ashley, Glenn Branca, Meredith Monk, Tom Johnson, Robert Moran and the list goes on.

10+2 Anthology

10+2 Anthology

Early on I had purchased and listened with delight to the masterful spoken word anthology: 10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces [OM-1006-2] containing a couple of Amirkhanian’s compositions  alongside other contemporary masters of that genre in the original vinyl release and listened with great interest to the landmark recordings of Conlon Nancarrow’s Player Piano Studies [OM-1012-15-2] both discs largely the work of Mr. Amirkhanian who managed to get these recordings made in Mexico City on Nancarrow’s own player pianos.  So I have been familiar with him as both composer and producer.  He had been for many years the broadcast broker of contemporary music at KPFA in Berkeley where he served as music director from 1969 to 1992.

Charles Amirkhanian with Rex Lawson

Charles Amirkhanian holding the microphone while Rex Lawson sings along with one of his piano rolls.

When I moved to the bay area in late 2008 one of my first priorities was to attend my first Other Minds concerts.  I saw the OM 14 concerts and was not disappointed.  But my recollection was that it was at OM 15 that I checked the little box on one of the audience surveys saying that I would be willing to volunteer for the organization.  I did not know what to expect but shortly after OM 15 I was contacted by the OM office and asked to provide a résumé.  Well I have worked my entire career as a psychiatric nurse so I added to that résumé that I had what I termed “extensive knowledge” (not to mention a near obsession) of new music.  I got a call back and wound up spending 4 hour shifts approximately weekly over much of the following two years doing various tasks but mostly scanning photos and other materials for use in their web page and archives.

Dohee Lee at OM 18

Dohee Lee at OM 18

My first direct interaction at the office was with Adrienne Cardwell, a pleasant, hard-working young woman who I would later learn was (and remains) the longest  tenured employee other than Mr. Amirkhanian and his co-founder (now President Emeritus) Jim Newman.  Adrienne is in charge of the massive archival goings on and would direct my tasks over the next 2 years.

I worked in the same room as Adam Fong, the associate director at the time (now director of the Center for New Music and a composer/musician in his own right).  I also had the pleasure of working with fund-raisers Emma Moon and later Cynthia Mei who are also highly accomplished musicians and arts advocates.  I had  the pleasure of meeting the Other Minds librarian Steven Upjohn and the hard-working OM radio host Richard Friedman as well as the opportunity to meet interns and even some very interesting scholars and musicians who visited the office while I was there.  In short it was a great volunteer experience which garnered me more than I originally bargained for.

Adam Fong performing at “Something Else” The F...

Adam Fong performing at “Something Else” The Fluxus Semicentenary he produced in September, 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the course of those two years I had many conversations with the OM staff particularly with Adam and later Mr. Amirkhanian about music and programming as I went through scanning, filing and doing whatever tasks were needed at the times I was there.  I recall making some references to some relatively obscure composers which resulted in Charles asking me (somewhat rhetorically), “How do you know that?”.   I just replied that I read a lot but later gave some thought about the nature of my relationship with this fine organization as well as the nature of my interest in new music.

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In the ensuing two years I would have some fascinating experiences meeting some of my heroes in new music and dabbling in the inner workings of Other Minds.  My enthusiasm was responded to by the staff at OM by allowing me to work on some of their other projects.  I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to participate and I was thanked most wonderfully once from the stage of one of the OM concerts by Charles Amirkhanian and at least a few more times by having special thanks acknowledged in various concert programs and, most notably for me, in the liner notes of their CD release of the complete music of Carl Ruggles (OM-1020-21-2).  I knew and loved those recordings when they were released on vinyl and was ecstatic to participate in the work on the CD release.  It was great on vinyl and it’s even better on CD.

OK, here is where Star Trek comes in:

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After some reflection I came up with what I think is an apt metaphor that fairly accurately describes my experience of my relationship with Other Minds.  Some may recall (you can fact check this if you aren’t old enough to have seen the original broadcast) an episode of the original Star Trek series which was titled, “A Piece of the Action”.  The plot involved Captain Kirk and his crew beaming down to a planet where the inhabitants were living out the equivalent of prohibition era gangsters’ lives.  At one  point this little boy (that would be me in this metaphor) offers some information which would allow Kirk and his crew to get over on the bad guys but only at a price.  The price, he says, is, “a piece of the action”.   The resolution of the plot involves the Enterprise crew successfully resolving the conflict and the little boy being able to experience just a taste of the perceived glamour of the experience of the Enterprise crew (dressed as depression era gangsters to fit in), as Captain Kirk says to him in his best cool gangster voice, “There ya go, kid.  A piece of the action.”

Star_Trek_William_Shatner

I came away from my volunteer experience even more impressed and pleased with this organization and I continue to support them in any way I can.  My thanks to Captain Kirk and his crew for bringing out my inner Trekkie and for availing me of more than just one piece of the action.  You guys run a truly great ship.  Live long and prosper.

I look forward to the upcoming 20th Other Minds concerts.  More on that in blogs to come.