San Bernardino

Big Black and Bulwinkle at Harrison House

Bulwinkle Residency.jpeg

At sunset, pink clouds smear across a faded, aqua blue sky, looking out from inside a capsule-shaped temple, made of earth and straw. The dome ceiling is hung with a flock of plasma-cut, aluminum birds, with a powder finish, in turquoise, gold and copper, like giant, shiny ornaments. The artist, Mark Bulwinkle, had discovered his style while working as an arc welder, post-design school, and enjoyed a rise to fame in the 1970's, left his day job and then proceeded to watch all of his curator friends fall away from AIDS.

Harrison House in Joshua Tree is decorated inside and out with Bulwinkle's "Brake Job Sculptures."

Fifteen years after his last show of new work, Bulwinkle's residency at the home of his old friend, the late composer Lou Harrison, has rekindled the blue flame in his welder's torch.

In the years between, imitators took it upon themselves to make their own rusty, steel-cut "Bulwinkles" and sell them to designers without access to the real thing.

Invited by Harrison House curator, and longtime friend, "the salubrious, multi-talented desert hostess" and acclaimed dancer, Eva Soltes, Bulwinkle paraphrases his other-world host, Lou Harrison, "I am thankful for this opportunity to be free to do my best work."

Harrison House was the final work of Lou Harrison and his lover/collaborator, Bill Colvig. Fabricated from straw bales, it was the first building of it's kind to be permitted in San Bernardino County, resembling a small chapel. It was made for acoustic instruments and voices to ring out and sing within it's adobe walls and high ceilings.

Bill, Eva and Lou at Taliesin. | Photo: Courtesy of Eva Soltes.

Bill and Lou in Japan. | Photo: Eva Soltes.

While Lou Harrison envisioned this house, his final acoustic 'instrument,' as a place for unamplified music, it has been transformed into a living, breathing space for all of the arts by his friend, Eva Soltes, who brings forty-plus years experience, as an artist and arts presenter, to this high desert temple of culture. Soltes has presented countless Bay Area performances, including early work by composer/performer Laurie Anderson.

"I honor Lou for making such an amazing place and for being the miraculous person that he was," Eva says, but the activities that go on at Harrison House are the result of her own dreams and hard work. Harrison House is the venue for Eva's personal vision of how she can "make the world a better place."

Harrison House, under the guidance of Soltes, since Harrison's death in 2003, has presented numerous world-class (and 'world') musicians, ranging from experimental Cambridge guitarist Fred Frith (from the 70's prog band, Henry Cow) to Cameron Powers, oud player and author of the book, "Harmonic Secrets of Arabic Music Scales." There have been Butoh dance workshops with Koichi and Hiroko Tamano, performances by Russian violin duo Movses Pogossian and Varty Manouelian and many more, lovingly hand-selected by Soltes.

In Joshua Tree, a town on the edge of the Mojave desert, with a population of under 10,000, Soltes has found an eager, supportive audience for Harrison, his "House" and the varied sounds of their eclectic friends and contemporaries.

Eva Soltes. | Photo: Vera Topinka.

Harrison had a long career as a composer, having worked alongside fellow 20th Century masters Charles Ives and John Cage. But while most Modern American classical music took Arnold Schoenberg's 12 tone as a jumping off point, Harrison's optimistic compositions found their inspiration in the sounds of nature, rainfall, and the Gamelan music of Indonesia.

Soltes has recently completed a documentary, a labor of love for her dearly departed friends, Lou and Bill, entitled, "Lou Harrison; A World of Music," and truly, his compositions embraced a world of sounds, often made on 'found object' instruments devised by Colvig. The film has helped to secure Harrison's place as one of the important composers of 'serious' music, while illustrating his childlike enthusiasm for experimentation.

An engagement at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco brought Harrison - and Soltes - home to the Bay Area, where numerous screenings were added to the initial, sold out, run.

Harrison's pioneering work, along with his openly gay lifestyle, in an era when his sexuality was still considered outside of the mainstream, is finally being recognized by a larger, more receptive audience.

Saturday night's performer, Big Black, is "tellin' the blues," in a combination of hand drumming, free-form improvisation and story-telling/singing.

Big (Danny) Black's long career has included playing with Hugh Masakela at Monterey Pop Festival - back in the Summer of Love, around the time Harrison and Colvig first met; He's shared stages with John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Richie Havens, Freddie Hubbard, BB King, Oscar Peterson and Muddy Waters. In Zaire, 1974, Big Black played congas in Muhammed Ali's corner, prior to "Rumble in the Jungle" with George Foreman.


Photo: Eva Soltes.

Now, his presence fills the room, as he graciously welcomes British guitarist and Joshua Tree resident, Clive Wright, to jam. A local drum-circle organizer, Sam Sloneker, joins in, watching the master at work.

"No program should open without the heartbeat. Let us pray..." His large black hands commence to pound out a gentle rhythm.

A cell phone rings as an embarrassed audience member hurries to turn it off. "It's all music," Black assures her.

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Later, the trio is joined by a long-ago collaborator, John "Juke" Logan, best known for his harmonica contribution to the Walter Hill film, "Crossroads." Juke has recently beaten esophageal cancer and is eager to blow his harp with his old comrade. "Forty years ago, we did a lot of crazy things...We saved the Santa Monica Merry-Go-Round from being demolished..."

Black recalls his early days in "the Carolinas."

"When I was 7 years old, in second grade, there was a beautiful little girl named Georgia Lee, with coal black eyes and a paper sack tan. I'd walk her home from school each day. Then, one day, out of the clear blue sky, Georgia Lee gave me a kiss. I stayed awake at night, thinking about that. 75 years later, I'm still thinking about it. Two weeks later, her family moved away. Years went by but I still thought about her. One day, I wrote a piece about her."

"Everybody's blues is a special kind of blues. It's taught me to accept it all. Tolerance is the name of the game. As human beings, we're low on tolerance. To me, the greatest threat to our existence is 'belief' - the most misused word. It alleviates you of any responsibility. Apply it to religion, it becomes 'sacred.' All the wars in the world...people being killed every day because of what they believe."

"There's a beast in the east/The beast is looking for a feast/The fattest lamb in the flock to fleece..."

The following morning is Sunday drum meditation at Harrison House.

"Speak to me," Big Black sings a capella, 'in the manner of the chapel,' before tapping on his drum.

"In the beginning was the word...Om...Creation. Praise the god of love and the universe within/We offer this love to everyone/Let us all begin."

To make the world a better place...

Photo: Eva Soltes.

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Top Image: Mark Bulwinkle at Harrison House. | Photo: Eva Soltes.

About the Author

Ted Quinn is an artist, musician and cultural activist, as profiled in the documentary, 'Nowhere Now: the Ballad of Joshua Tree;” Host of the Local Music Showcase on Z107.7 FM in Joshua Tree, California. As President and Music di...
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