“... the traditional Buddhist text the Heart Sutra, with the Providence Singers. This piece ends in a glorious burst of musical joy”
Anthony Tommasini
The New York Times
5 November 2015
(CD: Harrison La Koro Sutro)


Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison  |  La Koro Sutro

Notes by Patrick Gardner

When Lou Harrison couldn’t find the sound he imagined within the Western orchestra, he looked elsewhere for inspiration — to other cultures (Korea, Indonesia, Mexico), other sound sources (flower pots, brake drums, oxygen tanks), or other disciplines (dance, drama, literature). And if he still couldn’t find it, he made it. ... He delights in combining disparate styles into untried syntheses; for instance, writing for Chinese instruments tuned in just intonation; composing concerti for Western instruments accompanied by Indonesian ensembles; using Esperanto for Buddhist texts; or requiring home-made instruments to join the standard symphony orchestra.

Lou Harrison: Composing a World
By Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman

While the most obvious aspects of a work such as La Koro Sutro are the use of an unusual sonority, the pentatonic modes, and compositional figures derived from Asian music, this work and others also show the influence of Lou Harrison’s close musical interaction with several of the 20th century’s most significant musical minds. The original American maverick Henry Cowell was an early teacher of Harrison’s; Lou studied with him as an undergraduate at San Francisco State starting in 1935. Cowell’s influence is seen in Lou’s composition of “melodicles”, short cells of three- or four-note motives in combinations of retrogrades, inversions, and inverted retrogrades. These became an important part of Harrison’s strict compositional style — a style constant to nearly all of his music, whether a serial composition or a piece in modal counterpoint.

Lou Harrison was perhaps the only musician in America with access to the complete works of Ives in the 1930s. At Henry Cowell’s suggestion, Lou wrote to Ives requesting scores that he might perform in San Francisco. Ives replied by sending him a large crate containing most of his chamber music, all of the songs and several of the symphonies — almost none of which had received performances. Lou was “probably the only living composer who had a ten-year access to the complete works of Ives, in effect ... and I absorbed them like a sponge.” (Miller and Lieberman). While Ives’ specific methods of composition did not have as significant an effect as did those of Cowell and Schoenberg, the spirit of liberation from European models in these compositions was an important influence. He related to Vivian Perlis, “one of the things so very exciting to me as a young man about the scores of Ives was their proclamation of freedom.” Harrison took Ives’ ideal of freedom at face value. His percussion works of the 1930s were truly radical experiments. Harrison and his friend and collaborator John Cage made the most important contribution to the furthering of percussion sonorities since Edgard Varèse (Harrison having already written more than 14 percussion symphonies and his Canticles by 1942), and these two had been the first to write for tack piano and prepared piano.

In 1942, Harrison studied with Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA, producing works of such high quality that Schoenberg mentioned the young Harrison among those whom he considered America’s most characteristic and promising composers — a list that also included Copland, Sessions, Cowell, and William Schuman. Harrison was also influenced by the strictly chromatic music of Carl Ruggles, and his own “chromatic” style is probably more reminiscent of Ruggles than of Schoenberg.

Despite his mastery of the styles of music prevalent in Western music in the 20th century, Lou found himself increasingly drawn to the music of the East and dissatisfied with tempered tuning, the modern tuning system used in Western classical music since the time of Mozart. Influenced by the writings of Harry Partch and his own experimentation with “just intonation” (mathematically pure tuning systems), Lou found himself studying the music of the world that did not rely on the compromises inherent in the tempered tuning system. Writing works with mathematically specified tunings, then building instruments such as the American Gamelan, and finally creating his own tunings and scales for the Indonesian-style gamelans he built, Lou found a creative freedom that pervades his works from the late 1960s until his death on February 2, 2003.

The American Gamelan

The American Gamelan designed by Lou Harrison and built by Lou and his colleague Bill Colvig consists of four high bells called “sarons” after the Indonesian percussion instrument they resemble, two large “genders” and a collection of traditional Western percussion instruments, and “found” instruments such as the sawed-off oxygen tanks and wash tubs. The sarons and genders are tuned to a mathematically “pure” scale that resembles the D Major scale but is in fact Ptolemy’s Diatonic Syntonon or “stretched diatonic” scale. One of the earliest “just” tunings, it was described by both early Chinese and Greek theorists.

The text of La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra)

The Heart Sutra is one of the most beloved and famous sutras (a literary form of Buddhist scripture) of the Mahayana Buddhist religious tradition. It has been recited by millions of Buddhists since approximately the time of Christ. It describes the path one must take to attain Nirvana. Harrison set the Heart Sutra in Esperanto, a synthetic language created for universal use by Dr. L. Zamenhof in 1887. Harrison’s use of this language in many of his compositions was intended as both a political and a social statement, reflecting his commitment to world peace and a hope for society to transcend national, religious, and ethnic boundaries.


The text is a simple declaration of praise “to the Perfection of Wisdom”

This palindromic movement reflects the Heart Sutra’s basic philosophical idea — that when one reaches the center, one is at rest. A tone cluster that resembles a chord one would play on a Japanese sho (a mouth organ used in Gagaku music) played by the organ, a sweet gerontak (a bell tree), unpitched percussion, acetylene tanks, gongs, bass drums, and ranch triangles accompany the chorus. The melody is from a mode Lou called “the prime pentatonic, practically the human song.” Harrison said that this D major pitch set was picked as a consequence of the choice of this mode; the final movement will return to this exact “D Major” pentatonic and all major tonal areas presented in La Koro Sutro are relative to it as the original mode.

First Paragrafo

Avalokita, the holy Lord and Bodhisattva, was moving in the deep course of the perfect wisdom. He looked down from on high; he beheld but five heaps; and he saw that in their own being they were empty.

The description of Avalokita moving in the course of perfection implies that he is a “transcendent” rather than earthly Buddha — he can assume bodily form in order to help lesser beings. He sees the “five heaps,” the compounds out of which all material objects are composed in the illusory world. An understanding that the material world is illusory is necessary for the attainment of Nirvana.

This movement is a lyric vocal strophe with an introduction and a postlude played on the sarons (the high bells) accompanied by two metal drums (inverted galvanized washtubs). A regularly recurring ostinato, functioning as a tala in Indian music or a Western talea in mediaeval music, is heard in the washtub part. The C-sharp drone that “fills in” the melody, played on the sarons, functions as an Indian “jahla” — which Lou called “India’s answer to the Alberti bass.”

Second Paragrafo

Here, O Sariputro, form is emptiness and the very emptiness is form, emptiness does not differ from form, nor does form differ from emptiness; whatever is form, that is emptiness, whatever is emptiness, that is form. The same is true of feelings, perceptions, impulses and consciousness.

Shariputra was one of the original disciples of the Gotama Buddha. Here, in dialogue with Avalokiteshvara, he describes Nirvana as the “absolute void.”

Harrison called this his “Perotinus” movement, and the 13th-century Notre Dame style of organum (a type of harmonized chant) is apparent immediately. The syncretic ideal is reinforced here by the use of this through-composed polyphonic conductus; Harrison reminds us that polyphony before 1500 utilized the same quintal, vertical, and horizontal materials that are found in the rest of the world’s musical systems.

Third Paragrafo

Here, O Shariputra, all dharmas are marked with emptiness; they are neither produced nor stopped, neither defiled nor immaculate, neither deficient nor complete.

Dharmas are elements of the illusory human beings which are constantly rearranged, as beings are disintegrated and then reborn in the cycle of rebirth (samsara). The five heaps mentioned previously are dharmas, as are the five sense organs (i.e., the ear) and the five sense objects (i.e., that which is heard by the ears) and the 18 elements which include the six consciousnesses (vijnana) of the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Shariputra tells us again that these are empty and as such are part of the emptiness that is Nirvana.

This movement utilizes a quite different sonority. All of the instruments used are non-pitched, with the exception of a drone G on a muted saron. The percussion accompanies a vocal line which uses all 12 chromatic pitches composed in such a way as to imply a tonality centered on the pitch G.

Fourth Paragrafo

Therefore, O Shariputra, where there is emptiness there is neither form, nor feeling, nor perception, nor impulse, nor consciousness; no eye, or ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or mind; no form, nor sound, nor smell, nor taste, nor touchable, nor object of mind; no sight-organ element, and so forth, until we come to; no mind-consciousness element; there is no ignorance, nor extinction of ignorance, and so forth, until we come to, there is no decay and death, no extinction of decay and death; there is no suffering, nor origination, nor stopping, or path; there is no cognition, no attainment and no non-attainment.

This paragrafo enumerates that which does not exist and is a statement of the paradoxical nature of Nirvana. If Nirvana is the Absolute Void which is all of reality, then there is no Path to Enlightenment, for it is an illusion as well. One cannot wish to attain Nirvana, for that is desire and desire is part of the cause of the perception of phenomenal existence. This leads us to the next paragrafo which contains the quintessential definition of Nirvana.

The sonority of this F-sharp pentatonic movement is quite similar to that of the First Paragrafo, and once again we hear the use of the Indian jahla figure and a tala, or rhythmic ostinato. Formally it displays characteristics similar to a rondo from a late French Baroque keyboard work. Eight vocal refrains are surrounded by a palindromic arrangement of instrumental refrains, recalling the experiments with rondeaux by Couperin and Rameau, two of Harrison’s favorite composers.

Fifth Paragrafo

Therefore, O Shariputra, owing to a Bodhisattva’s indifference to any kind of personal attainment and through his having relied on the perfection of wisdom, he dwells without thought-coverings. In the absence of thought-coverings he has not been made to tremble, he has overcome what can upset, in the end sustained by Nirvana.

The Bodhisattva has reached a point of mental, physical and emotional quiescence. He will remain there forever, in a state of bliss.

Formally this movement resembles a responsorial chant similar to a Gregorian Gradual or Alleluia of the Roman Catholic Mass written in the 11th century. There are four polyphonic sections followed by four sections of melismatic chant. 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. Lou had this in mind when he composed this movement, so he “removed the offending tone.”

Sixth Paragrafo

All those who appear as Buddhas in the three periods of time — they are fully awake to the utmost, right and perfect enlightenment of wisdom.

This text asserts that the Buddhas of the past, the present and the future have all reached Nirvana through the Prajnaparamita.

The statements of Virgil Thomson, Ned Rorem, and Peter Yates that Lou Harrison is one of the finest melodists of the 20th century are borne out in the relationship of melody to form in this paragrafo. The pitch series is nearly identical to that of the pitch series of the other chromatic movement, paragrafo three. By altering the points of emphasis through a different rhythmic construction, Harrison creates a new melody which sounds quite different from the previous chromatic movement. These two movements center on G and A respectively, forming subdominant and dominant plateaus in the total formal design. The clangorous ritornello played on the gamelan alternates with the vocal line to create what Harrison describes as a “folk rondo” or French Rondeau in his Music Primer (Frog Peak Books).

Seventh Paragrafo and Mantro Kaj Kunsonoro

Therefore one should know the Prajnaparamita as the great spell, the spell of great knowledge, the utmost spell, the unequaled spell, allayer of all suffering, in truth — for what could go wrong? By the Prajnaparamita had this spell been delivered. It runs like this: gone, gone, gone beyond, gone altogether beyond, O what an awakening, all hail!

In the penultimate movement the gamelan drops out and the chorus is accompanied by harp, allowing the piece to move out of the basic D-major tonality. It returns to the D-major pentatonic melody used in the first paragrafo for a triumphant epilogue that begins with a massive gamelan sonority and ends with the non-pitched percussion that emphasizes the deep sounds of the big bells — oxygen tanks struck with baseball bats!