“Old Granddad” sounds like something you might ask a bartender to mix up, but it’s actually what you get when you manipulate scrap metal, trash cans, and oxygen tanks into a percussion instrument played with baseball bats. Given its resemblance to a gamelan it is often also referred to as an “American Gamelan,” but I think we can all agree that “Old Granddad” is a much cooler name. It was built by Lou Harrison and his partner William Colvig and is heard throughout Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan and La Koro Sutro. So what does this thing sound like, anyway? I’m so glad you asked! Pretty much like gongs and chimes, turns out.
Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan opens with a haunting folk melody before morphing into what Harrison calls “stampedes” in recognition of the “lively and unrelenting rhythms” used to reflect Balinese dance. The final Chaconne of the suite brings the entire piece to a peaceful, dreamy conclusion. Harrison successfully fuses his strong Asian influence with a Western compositional attitude in this suite, and the CD only gets sweeter from here.
La Koro Sutro is the second piece on this album and translates from Esperanto as “The Heart Sutra,” which is one of the most beloved and famous sutras of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition and describes the path one must take to achieve the pure distillation of wisdom (Nirvana). Harrison’s use of Esperanto, the most widely-spoken constructed language in the world, is a clear social and political statement reflecting his hope for a united world and the transcendence of ethnic & national boundaries.
While the suite on this disc is lovely, this reviewer was utterly captivated by the title track La Koro Sutro, largely because of the astounding choral performance by The Providence Singers. The warmth and precision they bring to this recording cannot be overstated, especially in “5a Paragrafo” where, in the text, The Bodhisattva (enlightenment being) reaches total tranquility & euphoria and will stay there forever. Do I understand Esperanto? No. Am I educated about Buddhism? Not really. But I learned what pure bliss sounds like the moment “5a Paragrafo” hit the 1:30 mark. On their website The Providence Singers describe the selection this way: “It is in a six-note B-minor scale — the E-natural is left out as it would be out of tune in justly tuned syntonon diatonic.” Since I don’t know what any of that means I can only describe it as… glowing.
La Koro Sutro concludes with a return to the original Sanskrit text and heavy emphasis on the deeper sounds of Old Granddad (created by whacking oxygen tanks with baseball bats – don’t try it at home!) as well more of the gorgeous plinking heard throughout the entire sutra. Lou Harrison said that “making an instrument is one of music’s greatest joys,” and this reviewer is very grateful for his contribution. La Koro Sutro is a rewarding album for patient listeners and makes me want to bring 1995 back so I can just lay on my floor and listen to it all day.
Go here to purchase the album, performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Gil Rose!