Here are two of the most interesting and original American composers of the 20th century, each interviewed by Richard Kostelanetz. Reading them is an illuminating insight into that particular time in the history of American music. As Kostelanetz puts it, “Though many American advanced composers have been great conversationalists, few could say as much about so many subjects as Nicholas Slonimsky (1894-1995) and Lou Harrison (1917-2006).”
Nicolas Slonimsky, colorful, unique and diverse in his musical roles, conducted the premieres of Charles Ives's Three Places in New England and Edgard Varèse's Ionisation (which was dedicated to him), performed as a pianist around the world, composed a wide range of music, and wrote many books that ranged from the profound, as in his Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, to the hilarious, as in his Lexicon of Musical Invective. Frank Zappa featured him as a guest performer in a Mothers of Invention concert and, according to The New Yorker, introduced him as “our national treasure”. The crowd went wild.
Lou Harrison, often referred to as a classical American maverick, was a member of a particular American avant garde that included Virgil Thomson, Henry Cowell, John Cage, and many others. He was known for his work with Cantonese opera, native American music, and gamelon instruments that were built and tuned with his partner William Colvig. In this conversation, he describes his work with his gamelon, he talks about his poetry, home in California, visual art, puppet operas, and a wide range of other media that he used. As he said, “When I was quite young, I laid out my toys on a very large acreage, and I go from one to the other and have all the rest of the time.”