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Making Music That Connects the World: Lou Harrison

The Harrison House | Eva Soltes - Lou Harrison
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Long before Worldbeat and World Music became celebrated genres, classical music pioneer Lou Harrison was busy mining the treasures of international sound, fusing eastern and western rhythms with unexpected and often thrilling results.

Gaining fame in the 1980s as part of the global music scene, Harrison was not only instrumental in the movement, but paved the way for its embrace nearly half a century earlier.

“If the idea of a ‘World Music’ has become increasingly realistic, the Lou Harrison is an original world musician,” wrote Dennis Russell Davies, Music Director of the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz (in Austria).

As Harrison’s centennial approaches on May 14, celebrations are planned in San Francisco; the Santa Cruz area; and Joshua Tree, where Harrison House will trumpet his commitment to music, social justice and the environment with a 24-hour celebration of art and ecology that will stream online.

Lou Harrison | Eva Soltes

Lou Harrison was born to a wealthy family in Portland, Oregon May 14, 1917. In his childhood home, Persian carpets and teak furniture abound. His family even had the means to hire household help, which could be summoned by a press of a buzzer under the table.

As a child, Harrison had already displayed an attraction to music. In her diary, Harrison’s mother wrote, “Baby Lou … sang with Daddy from three months old on. When Daddy would quit, baby would start crying. Then Daddy would start again and baby would stop crying instantly and start singing.”

A young Lou Harrison | Courtesy of Harrison House
A young Lou Harrison | Courtesy of Harrison House

When the Depression hit and the Harrison wealth disappeared, the young composer was living in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family, where he was shuffled from one school to another. He attended eighteen different schools even before graduating high school. As a result, the composer would build himself a rich imaginary world scored by the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. Harrison called the two weekly radio broadcasts “staples” in his musical diet.

While in high school, he won a scholarship to Mills College in Oakland, learning composition, piano playing, modern music and ancient music. But it was exposure to Henry Cowell’s music, after he moved out on his own to San Francisco, that influenced his trajectory.

It was in Cowell’s class titled “Music of the Peoples of the World” that opened Harrison to the kind of music that could be heard around the world. In the documentary “Lou Harrison: A World of Music” directed by Eva Soltes, the composer said it was Cowell who taught him that “every major culture had a music and they were all interesting and all very valid.”

Eventually, he would achieve worldwide acclaim with compositions featuring gamelan, the Chinese guzheng zither or instruments customized for his work. Harrison was notably championed by Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony, who commissioned a Harrison piece for his first performance as musical director. Other performers who premiered Harrison works include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Keith Jarrett, and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

During his lifetime, Harrison mastered Chinese, Korean, and Indonesian musical styles. “He felt it was extremely important for any serious musician to know a second music, and well,” says Soltes, long-time Harrison collaborator and director of Harrison House Music, Arts and Ecology in Joshua Tree.

While often centering on Indonesia, Harrison’s musical inspirations spanned the globe and included Native American music, Cantonese opera, Mexican ballads, jazz and beyond.

Harrison’s ebullient style emphasized percussive melody and tone over harmony. He also applied various techniques to create short musical motifs that were often reversed or flipped upside down.

“He is one of the first American composers to successfully create a workable marriage between Eastern and Western forms,” admired composer and author Ned Rorem.

It was Cowell who also played a role in connecting Harrison to a fellow-Californian interested in experimental forms of music, John Cage. Harrison and Cage would go on to organize the now-legendary percussion concerts with instruments made from household items and junk.

In 1942, Harrison moved to Los Angeles to work for the University of California Los Angeles’ dance department as an accompanist and composer. Here, he also explored the 12-tone form with Arnold Schoenberg.

Music wasn’t the only work Harrison engaged in. To make a living, Harrison worked variously as a record salesman, forest firefighter, animal nurse and florist.

After a year, he moved once again, this time to New York City, where he formed ties to people that would redefine what music and dance were in the modern age. “The artists were all in a kind of cabal of inspiring each other,” said Judith Malina, co-founder of avant garde theatre group, the Living Theatre. “Night after night, the same group went to hear John Cage, or watch Merce [Cunningham] dance or listen to Lou’s music.”

He also became the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune with Virgil Thomson, where he championed the work of fellow modernist composer Charles Ives. He would even help edit Ives’ languishing score for Symphony No. 3 and conduct its premiere. Ives would win the Pulitzer Prize for Music the following year. Harrison's advocacy for Ives' work is largely credited for Ives' win. Harrison also supported the work of other avant-garde composers such as Edgard Varése, who later influenced the genre-bending musician Frank Zappa.

While living in New York, he also suffered a nervous breakdown following a romantic collapse.

Harrison then relocated to North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, where he joined “happenings” staged by Cage, modern dance choreographer Merce Cunningham and painter Robert Rauschenberg. There, he refined his musical tastes and began producing major works that eventually garnered him a Guggenheim Award.

At Black Mountain College, Harrison realized his love for more natural settings versus cities, so he moved back to the West Coast, to Aptos, California, where he spent the remainder of his life. “I just abandoned the professional problems of the time,” Harrison said, “They no longer interested me.”

With no telephone line to connect him to the broader world, Harrison found the peace and quiet he craved in his mountain cottage. But the composer had a natural gift for bringing people together with music.

Harrison soon became a familiar figure at the local café, the Sticky Wicket, along Highway 1. With the friends he made at the Sticky Wicket, Harrison would organize the Sticky Wicket Concert Series, so the town could enjoy Stravinsky opera or a chamber music concert, at a field next to the café. The concert series would become the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, a contemporary music festival recognized internationally.

While Harrison often borrowed from Asian music, he did not visit Japan or Korea until 1961 before traveling to Taiwan a year later, prompting a deeper, more systematic exploration of eastern Asian music.

Harrison then studied with the Javanese master K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat, afterwards composing dozens of works for gamelan – or western instruments accented by gamelan.

In 1967, Harrison met William Colvig, his life partner of 33 years until Colvig’s death in 2000. After discovering a shared interest in music and politics, Colvig moved to Aptos, where he built several custom instruments so that the composer could realize sounds heard only in his head.

“It was a relationship like very few are,” said Harrison of Colvig. “We were constantly building instruments, then we’d go out and play concerts together.”

At a time when homesexuality was frowned upon and marginalized, Harrison was unbowed. Music critic John Rockwell wrote, “Personally, Mr. Harrison was warm and embracing, beloved by his many friends. Of a generation of homosexuals who often sought to mask their preferences, Mr. Harrison was an outspoken gay, marching annually and happily in the San Francisco gay pride parade.”

His identity was one he didn’t hide, which is perhaps why one of his last projects – the expansion of a 1971 puppet opera, “Young Caesar” into a full-scale opera – was so important. The opera, which made use of puppets rather than people on-stage, depicts a teenage Caesar who travels to Bithynia in Asia Minor and falls in love with Nicomedes, King of Bithynea. Its premiere created a scandal at Caltech in 1971. Later, Harrison re-worked “Young Caesar” into a full-scale opera for the Lincoln Center Festival, but didn’t live to see it performed, after administration changes at the Lincoln Center stalled its progress. The opera finally premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, four years after the composer's death. On June 13, in its first ever production by a professional company, Harrison’s opera Young Caesar will be performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic 45 years after its scandalous Caltech premiere.

Harrison composed more than 300 pieces for symphony orchestras, soloists, chamber ensembles, and ballets. He was named composer of the year by Musical America in 2002, a year before his death at age 85.

Besides being a prolific composer, Harrison was also an outspoken and highly respected political activist, championing civil rights, pacifism, environmental causes and – most notably as an out gay man – gay and lesbian rights before the Stonewall riots in New York City. 

In 1997, Harrison received the Humanist Arts Award from the American Humanist Association, then a year later was honored with the Michael Callen Medal of Achievement at the Gay & Lesbian American Music Awards.

Harrison was an avid reader, with a particular interest in science fiction, often devouring a book a day. 

He also wrote and spoke Esperanto, an artificial language developed in 1887 to bridge countries and cultures. Another favorite pastime was American Sign Language, and Harrison hosted a weekly ASL meeting for several years.

Harrison considered life itself a work of art, and felt music and social causes were equally important to human survival. 

“Lou believed deeply that the world is one place,” said Soltes. “The biggest honor we could give Lou is to invite the whole world to give something to the earth, and practice art, even if it’s outside their comfort zone, even if it’s hitting pots and pans in the kitchen.” 


Lou Harrison: A World of Music (2011), directed by Eva Soltes.

Top Image: The Harrison House | Eva Soltes

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