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Musical Chairs

[whitespace] Terry Riley
Sally Davis

Coming Up With a Real Lou-Lou: Composer Terry Riley reflects on his collaboration with 10 other artists on 'Party Favors for Lou,' a piece which New Music Works performs on Sunday at UCSC's Recital Hall.

Esteemed composers pay tribute to a musical great as part of the New Music Works' yearly ode to contemporary music

By Karen Reardanz

IN THE LATE SPRING of 1997, a coterie of renowned musicians chose to throw compositional caution to the wind and delve into a whimsical musical relay, putting to paper a musical love child. They christened it Party Favors for Lou, and presented the charming offspring to its godfather, Lou Harrison, in celebration of his 80th birthday.

On Sunday night, New Music Works Ensemble performs the Harrison-inspired piece, along with five other compositions, as part of its Night of the Living Composers concert at UCSC's Music Center Recital Hall. This annual chamber concert seams together the works of living composers in a showcase of modern classical music.

This year's concert features an archetypally eclectic grab bag of sounds, including three NMW-commissioned, world-premiere pieces: Michael McGushin's highly spiritual and beautiful 508 Buddhas, the dramatically diabolical Gargoyles by Allen Strange and Barry Phillips' sweet, East Indian-influenced Reflections on Jaunpari.

While all of this is well and good, perhaps the piece that scores highest for putting the most creative spin on a childhood game is Party Favors for Lou, the spry collection of vignettes written by 11 separate composers. Taking the musical reins from the trail-blazing Lou Harrison himself, New Music Works director (and a fine composer in his own right) Phil Collins gathered together a core group of Harrison's musically inclined friends to pay instrumental homage to the maestro at the entrance into his ninth decade.

The idea was to play a compositional version of musical chairs: One composer would write a short piece, fold it up and pass it along to the next, who then would compose a diminutive arrangement of his or her own, and so on. Easy enough. Except for the tiny fact that the next composer in line was to get nary a peek at what the predecessor had done, save for a few naked notes left exposed. It would all be a matter of chance.

Lou Harrison had done the same sonorous deed himself back in the mid-1940s, when he and musical revolutionaries Henry Cowell, John Cage and Virgil Thomson shook off the era's stifling conventions and borrowed this Dadaist bit of creative music making. The end result was the charmingly refreshing The Exquisite Corpses.

So it was in May of '97 that Collins and his friends and peers Robert Hughes, Paul Dresher and Larry London ventured to Emeryville to set up shop in Hughes' studio for the first installment of Party Favors for Lou and what would be a night of merriment and magic.

Here the foursome ate, drank, talked and, oh yes, made music. "The fun for the four of us was that none of us knew what the other was doing," says Hughes, a Cabrillo Music Festival founder and a longtime Harrison collaborator. "The name of the piece, Party Favors for Lou, implies a game, and composing it was just that--a game."

New Music Works Ensemble
Victor Schiffrin

Living Well: The New Music Works Ensemble gathers for its annual 'Night of the Living Composers' concert, highlighting works by some of the best contemporary composers, on Sunday night at UCSC.

Spontaneity and Nuance

PART OF THE FUN was not simply that the musicians were reveling in the company of old friends or paying tribute to an honored colleague, but they were collaborating musically in a way that none had experienced before. "As ephemeral and creative a process as writing music is, it's exciting to be in a room with other people as opposed to being alone in the studio," Collins muses. "It was nice because collaboration is rarely encouraged when studying music."

Paul Dresher, an electronic musician and a student of Harrison's in the early and mid-'70s, also saw this union as a unique experience. "It's certainly different collaborating with others," he observes. "You don't have control over the situation. In the studio, it's brooding and private, but with this piece, we were working and chatting and eating, and there were moments of quiet, but we were functioning in a completely different way."

This way was an obvious success, eliciting enchanting works from these creative minds. Collins believes he heard nuances from the composers unlike any he'd heard before.

"Naturally," says Dresher. "You perform differently in a project like this. You don't have to be responsible for a thematic cohesion to the piece." This, in turn, allows for a mercurial sense of spontaneity.

After that spring night, Collins sent the work off to another six composers around the globe--Jack Body, Terry Riley, Jon Scoville, Sasha Bogdanowitsch, Janice Gitek and Daniel J. Wolf, again all friends and colleagues of Harrison's. Henry Brant then added his own work, "Fragment for Lou Harrison's 80th Anniversary," to the mix.

The result was a delight to everyone involved. "It was a big pleasure," says Hughes. "The fun is listening to the pieces. We weren't expecting some profound experience, but the satisfaction was wonderful."

Each composer heard different things in Party Favors. Hughes found continuity in the composers' works with what they'd composed before. "Part of the satisfaction was listening to where one composer stopped and the next one began. Those with similar styles, like myself and Larry [London], were continuous. Then you'd follow it with Phil, who's the most complicated, or Paul, who has visceral push, and you get something totally different."

Collins was equally impressed with the outcome. "We were all delighted to hear the finished pieces. You may hear some weird or different things in them, but they're short, so it doesn't matter."

And one person's weirdness is music to another's ears. "One of my pieces I thought most problematic turned out to be Phil's favorite," Dresher says. "Even if the piece turns out differently than what you were hoping for, the transition or the context could work so well with the next."

As artistically pleasing as the experience was for the composer, all concur that the most inherent pleasure stemmed from having the opportunity to give a little back to Lou Harrison. "It was an enjoyable way to honor [Lou's] birthday musically in a way he developed himself," Collins says.

Dresher agrees. "It was great to do this for Lou."

Harrison, of course, is not the only one who benefits from this collaboration. A piece like this embraces the musical community as well as the listening public.

"It's delightful to have something like this in contemporary classical music. It called upon something higher," Collins concludes simply. "There was something in the air."

Party Favors for Lou will be presented as part of the Night of the Living Composers concert on Sunday (8pm) at UCSC's Recital Hall. A composers' panel discussion--including Philip Collins, Allen Strange and Michael McGushin--precedes the concert at 7pm. Tickets cost $12/$10/$5. For more info, call 459-2159.

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From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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