From the notes to the Young Caesar recording.
“I had all the way through a feeling that I need to leave an opera on an overtly gay theme between two men of status and character,” said Lou Harrison. “ There is a pride in fact, over a long period of time, to see that I do this well.”
Young Caesar was to be an opera that treated homosexuality not as exotic or threatening but as natural, honest, a normative, and human. But while the subject matter was straightforward and humane, the opera’s musical form and language took several restless iterations and progressed through three different versions, its roots in Asian music, American experimentalism, and traditional opera all commingling in different proportions until this final, posthumous edition.
Harrison’s love of Asian music was part of his lifelong attraction to beauty. To him, there was nothing “exotic” about the music— rather, the attraction was natural, honest, affirmative, and human. From an early age, he investigated percussion instruments with John Cage in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and after living in New York for a while, he returned to California in his thirties and became further enamored with different tuning systems and homemade instruments. His early compositional journey toward Asian music was a natural extension of his enthusiasm for the maverick experimentation of Henry Cowell and Harry Partch. He traveled to Asia in the early 1960s, absorbing the musical cultures as much as he could, and said that, unlike some who see Western civilization as ending at the California coast, “I’m one of those who simply went across the ocean. I don’t see any reason for stopping at the California coast.”
One thing making this journey easier was that many Asian musical traditions, especially Indonesian music, neatly paralleled Harrison’s own focus on timbre and melody. And like Harrison’s own music, those traditions pay relatively little attention to anything close to Western harmonic complexity. Indeed, the absence of functional harmony in Harrison’s music gives room for his melodies to unfurl over large units of time, sometimes in repetitive cycles that gently fall in and out of sync with other simultaneous melodic sequences.
These processes are evident throughout the opera. Overlapping rhythmic cycles sometimes function as a sort of bed over which recitative takes place, or sometimes they function as a more tightly controlled foundation for some of the choruses and arias. The overall effect is similar to different-sized wheels gradually turning within one another, which provides architectural elements that can support the progression of the story.
This spacious lack of concern with Western harmony gives further space to let new and alternate tuning systems ring out and express their own subtler contrasts. The D-major just- intonation tuning of his homemade metallophones means that normally similar triadic constructions sound very different from one another. For instance, a B-minor melody in D-major just-intonation tuning is a wildly different color than what one would expect in an even-tempered tuning system. And finally, the additional Asian instruments each assert their own tuning world. Somehow the combinations throughout the opera are either spare enough or clamorous enough that they just work.
The original version of Young Caesar was, in a nod to Balinese tradition, a puppet opera. Importantly, it had unusually extensive recitative sections that Harrison explained had to be understood in the context of Chinese Opera narrative traditions. The score called for the homemade instruments that later became the American gamelan; an assortment of Chinese, Korean, and Indian instruments; and a few Western instruments as well. Although the music was wonderful, the premiere at Caltech was scandalous, perhaps not so much for the subject matter as for the explicitness of the puppets in a socially conservative theater. The opera languished.
The 1988 Portland version shortened the recitatives and, furthermore, added choruses, which not only took over some of that narrative function but also contributed moments of repose, just like in traditional Western operas. In addition, to make the work more performable, the non-Western and homemade instruments were replaced with a lovely orchestration for a Western chamber orchestra. The production was delightful, but still the work seemed incomplete.
Several years later, the version John Rockwell worked toward realizing at the Lincoln Center Festival seemed to be heading still further toward a Western-flavored work. This time Harrison added about seven arias, bringing Young Caesar closer to the kind of Western opera aesthetic that pauses for the characters to express their emotional states. The arias are beguilingly simple and short, some of them sneaking in a chromaticism that contrasts with the more basic modality of the earlier versions of the work, giving a deeper emotional contrast. They still maintain a hybrid aesthetic though: musical virtuosity is never the object, and the arias are permeated with an austere, aching beauty. Still, the work was a little long. With Harrison’s desire to be as inclusive as possible—to incorporate different kinds of tableaux, and to gleefully include seemingly every possible gay stereotype—the opera didn’t quite move.
In this edition, Yuval Sharon and I have attempted to bring Young Caesar back to its joyful, colorful origins. We have kept the new choruses and arias and trimmed the recitatives. We have reintroduced all the non-Western instruments alongside the orchestra, reserving them for the second act in order to add a large-scale structural element.
We encountered some tricky decisions and reconciliations between different editions. For instance, there originally was a slow migration in the modes of some of the movements from one performing version to the next. The new modes, however, sometimes didn’t work with the reintroduced non-Western instruments, so we reverted to the original musical modes along with the original instrumentation. We were comforted knowing that Lou Harrison himself constantly revised the work, and we felt that we were continuing his own trajectory as honestly as possible, being true to his vision, and hopefully leaving a work that will live in the repertory.
Toward these ends, we have been greatly aided by many of Lou’s friends. Bob Gordon, the librettist, instinctively grasped what we were trying to do and was immensely supportive. When dealing with a new cross-cultural musical form, the pacing can be very tricky, especially when there are varying concepts of musical and theatrical time in the different musical cultures represented. Trying to find the right edits and tempos was a delicate dance, combining the best of the Asian and American aesthetics.
In these and in so many other matters, both Bob Gordon and Bob Hughes, the conductor of the Portland version, were generous and kind with their detailed advice. And finally, this work would not have come to life without the support of Eva Soltes, founder and director of Harrison House Music, Arts and Ecology, who, with love, guided us through the thicket of the existing documentation of all the different extant versions.
Bill Alves summed it up this way: “Lou Harrison dedicated his life to bringing beauty into the world, and those of us who remember his warm generosity, his integrity of spirit, and his irrepressible joyfulness, owe a great debt of gratitude that he did.” Editing and recording this new performing edition of Young Caesar was a wonderful encounter with that joy and integrity. We deeply hope that this edition will help Lou’s spirit of warmth and humanity endure.