Harrison: The Family of the Court, from Pacifika Rondo

Lou Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon, on May 14, 1917, and died in Lafayette, Indiana, on February 2, 2003. He composed Pacifika Rondo for the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii, where the work was premiered in May 1963. This is the first San Francisco Symphony performance. The score calls for flute, miguk piri, trombone, bass drum, chango, daiko, elephant bells, gong, barrel drum, triangle, vibraphone, celesta, organ, and strings. Performance time: about five minutes.

Lou Harrison was one of the San Francisco Bay Area's most distinguished musical citizens and engaging personalities. He studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, collaborated with John Cage, and worked as florist, record clerk, poet, dancer, dance critic, music copyist, and playwright. Among his most remarkable attributes were his versatility and flexibility. In New York, where he moved in 1943, he was an important music critic. He also contributed to the invaluable journal Modern Music, served as editor for New Music Editions, and conducted.

Harrison returned to the West Coast in 1948, moving to Aptos, near Santa Cruz. When he settled there, Harrison became more and more interested in Korean, Chinese, Mexican, and other non-European music. Much of his work was composed for orchestras of Asian instruments, Indonesian gamelan, or ensembles that mix Western and Asian instruments. He identified the two coasts of the United States as “Atlantica” and “Pacifica.” His time in New York, he felt, had given him a good grounding in European music. But, as he told Maria Cizmic in a 1995 interview, “I am part of Pacifica and as I point out my origins are in the Pacific region.” His decision to return to California and live in Pacifica, says Cizmic, was “also a decision to turn away from the dominance of the Western European art-music tradition.” Harrison believed that those rooted in Pacifica felt other cultural allegiances. “Here you assume you are American and are fascinated by Japan and Java and China and all around the Pacific basin.”

Lou Harrison wrote the following commentary on his Pacifika Rondo. Although only the opening movement will be performed at this concert, the composer’s words on the entire work offer insight into his inspiration for this music:

“Each movement [of Pacifika Rondo] refers to a section of the Pacific Basin except for the sixth, which is a protest against the bomb and its contamination and destruction of Pacific life.

“ ‘The Family of the Court’ largely refers to Korea and its court life; ‘Play of the Dolphins’ is in a sense mid-ocean music and the sound of the psalteries suggests the movement of waves and the dancing of dolphins. ‘Lotus’ is a tribute to Buddhism, a ‘temple’ piece; ‘In Sequoia's Shade’ refers to California, particularly to its colonial days. The fifth movement (an Homage to [Mexican composer] Carlos Ch├ívez) looks to Mexico and Netzahualcoyotl, the Aztec emperor, a king of great wisdom and goodness. ‘From the Dragon Pool’ refers to the Sinitic Area and particularly China in which the dragon is considered benevolent.

“I have been told to try several of the ways in which I think classic Asian musics might of themselves, and together, evolve in the future, and have combined instruments of several ethnics directly for musical expression.

“In composing Pacifika Rondo I have thought, with love, around the circle of the Pacific.”

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: Robert Hughes conducting the Oakland Youth Orchestra (Phoenix USA)

Readings: Lou Harrison: Composing a World, by Leta Miller and Fredric Lieberman (Oxford)  |  Joys and Perplexities, a collection of Harrison’s poetry (Jargon Society)  |  Michael Steinberg’s “Visit With Lou Harrison” is included in the collection For the Love of Music (Oxford University Press).