Lou Harrison’s “Old Granddad”: A Composer’s Guide
Brady J. Spitz
Rice University, DMA
American composer Lou Harrison was known for his activity in blending the music of the world’s cultures and, later in life, building unique 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 as “Old Granddad”) is a truly significant achievement in the history of Western music.
The first three chapters of this document 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.