Research and Dissertation
American composer Lou Harrison was known for his activity in blending the music of the world’s cultures and, later in life, building instruments. An example of this is the creation of his “American Gamelan” in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He and William Colvig created a set of tuned pipes and aluminum slabs that were fixed to a single key; and, because the instruments were highly resonant metallophones, they became known as the “American Gamelan” (even though Harrison’s own compositional practice with them bore little resemblance to the music of Indonesia at this point). The music of these instruments (which came to be known at “Old Granddad”) are a truly significant achievement in the history of Western music.
My research into this collection of instruments (and the subsequent repertoire) led me to consult with Richard Cooke, who built many of the instruments in collaboration with Harrison and Colvig; members of The Industry, the opera company that staged a re-envisioned Young Caesar production in 2017; and Jody Diamond, Harrison's gamelan teacher and close friend. The research culminated in my doctoral dissertation and a collection of field recordings of the instruments.
The first three chapters of the dissertation include a history of the Old Granddad instruments, technical diagrams and descriptions, and a discussion of their tuning. Their purpose is to help future musicians build a replica. The following three chapters analyze Harrison’s three major works for Old Granddad: the opera Young Caesar (1971); the oratorio La Koro Sutro (1972); and the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (1974). Their purpose is to provide a model for composers who wish to write more works for the instrument. A synthesis of this historical, technical, and theoretical information offers practical details that may be of use to future composers. The document concludes with Laurel—a commissioned piece by Shane Monds that tests the conclusions of my research.
I've also included links to the score to the field recordings I've made below.
In the fall of 2016, I traveled to Cambridge, MA to visit Old Granddad #4, which was being housed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the care of Evan Ziporyn. The students at MIT and Gamelan Galak Tika (the Balinese gamelan in residence) had recently begun to experiment with the Harrison/Colvig instruments in their compositions.
One of the goals of the research project was to document the instruments, including their sounds. Since Harrison and Colvig's conception of the instruments required a very specific and precise type of Just Intonation, having adequate sound samples would be important to any future compositions.
These sound samples were captured using a Zoom H4N recorder and, with the exception of being scrubbed for some latent room noise, are unedited.
A note on file names: each .wav file is named for its instrument (e.g. "SBA" = Soprano Bells Aluminum), the note and its corresponding frequency (e.g. "B489" = the pitch B, 489 Hz), and whether it was struck softly or loudly.
For more resources on Old Granddad, as well as all things gamelan, please visit:
The American Gamelan Institute