Harrison Recognized as MA Composer of the Year

Harrison Recognized as MA Composer of the Year

Photo by David Harsany

Lou Harrison has been named Composer of the Year by Musical America. He was honored, along with the year’s other category winners, at a Carnegie Hall reception in December. The prestigious Musician of the Year went to British conductor Simon Rattle; Midori, Instrumentalist of the Year; René Pape, Vocalist of the Year; and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, Ensemble of the Year. Musical America Directory editor Sedgwick Clark was on hand to present the awards.

Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed profiles Harrison’s life and career in an essay appearing in the 2002 Musical America International Directory of the Performing Arts (currently priced at $115). In addition to profiles of each award winner, the Directory contains national and international listings of opera companies, orchestras, artist managers, performance venues, festivals, etc., as well as summary articles covering the year in music nationally and internationally.

Harrison, who turns 85 in 2002, is also the subject of a forthcoming PBS documentary (a clip of which was shown at the reception). Unfortunately, plans to present a revised version of his opera Young Caesar and a concert of his chamber works at the 2002 Lincoln Center Festival this summer have been cancelled. Though industry rumors speculated that the cancellation might have been due to the opera’s subject matter (it deals with homosexuality), Festival Director Nigel Redden says the cancellation was strictly due to economic realities. “The program is always in flux until it’s finally announced, and in the fall of this year it became apparent that there were going to be financial restraints and we cancelled what where then the two most expensive projects. Unfortunately Young Caesar was one of them.” Redden declined to comment on what other production was also withdrawn.

Though illness kept him at home the night the Musical America awards were presented, Harrison was in excellent spirits a few weeks later when he spoke by phone with Molly Sheridan. Here’s a transcript of their conversation, unfortunately minus Harrison’s laughter, which energized the discussion from start to finish…

MOLLY SHERIDAN: I know you were recently in the hospital. How are you feeling?

LOU HARRISON: I’m feeling much better, thank you. In fact I’ve been down to my home in Joshua Tree since then and done a lot of work. And I was afraid I would miss [your call] because I was composing at the piano.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: What does this Composer of the Year award from Musical America mean to you?

LOU HARRISON: Well, I’m sorry I missed the party firstly due to my health. After all I’ve been in the hospital and I’m recovering but I’ve also taken the trip to the higher altitudes and boy that makes a difference. It suddenly occurs to me when I come down to the coast here that there are 3,000 more feet of extra air pushing on every inch of me.

But I’m very sorry I wasn’t able to go to New York, which is an old place for me, though I know it’s vastly changed as it is from minute to minute, and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be at the party and my old stamping grounds Carnegie where I used to sit and review and also where I conducted and so on. I’m hoping it was a lot of fun for everybody. Musical America has all these categories of musicianship dutifully and well covered, so it’s an important thing for me to have been thought of for this year’s composer.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: How does it compare with other awards you have won? Where does it fit in?

LOU HARRISON: Well I don’t rightly know. They all have their virtues. The membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters is was a major one, also the MacDowell Medal last year was a major one, and this one, which is another field of recognition really is a wonderful one. So, good heavens. I don’t know where you count them…multiple PhDs…’So you don’t have a PhD? Well here, I’ve got an extra one.’

MOLLY SHERIDAN: How important is it to you to teach and pass on what you have learned to musicians coming up in the field?

LOU HARRISON: I love to teach. I’m always teaching and people get me started on something and away I go. Sometimes I realize that I’m starting to lecture and so I ask, ‘Do you want the full lecture?’ But I’m still teaching as a matter of fact and I’m proud to say that I can sit on the floor and play Gamelan, and so I’m teaching Gamelan for my main campus, which is Cabrillo Community College down the hill. I teach it here in my own home because I have an Ives Room which is quite large enough to include a Javanese Gamelan and it’s that that I teach on. I very much enjoy it. I’m being a little heretical this year though. Normally, I teach it so that my pupils have some concept and are able to play at least a few Javanese classics, but this time since people sort of asked me to do it, I’ve decided to teach my own pieces for Gamelan which are numerous. And so I’m selecting my best ones of course and we’ll do one or two of them as best as we can. I suppose an old man can do that.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: Could you ever have foreseen that your musical life would turn out the way it has?

LOU HARRISON: Oh, well, nobody can. That’s all up for grabs and also for Darwinian evolution. Everything changes all the time and of course as mechanisms or apparatuses or whatever you call them, we wear out. We have different characteristics and that changes everything. For example, I just got out of the hospital for something like pneumonia recently. It’s one thing after the other but, none the less, I’m fairly cheerful and I’m working hard.

I’m delighted by the fact that I’m working on an instrument I’ve never composed for before which is the American steel guitar. Remember that I was raised in the ’20s and ’30s of the last century, and all I listened to while my mother went to Mahjong parties—either on the radio or on phonographs—was a lot of Hawaiian music and that kind of guitar sound has been with me ever since. Those slides you know. And so I decided to use that and I’m working with a very distinguished guitar performer David Tanenbaum. I have quite a lot of it done. I have enough so that we can try passages out which is what I need. I’m a composer who actually needs instruments around me—sort of hands on things, and this is an example of it and since I’m not very adequate at a guitar at all. He’s going to substitute for that and I’ll ask questions and we’ll figure out what can and can’t be done. And that’s the way I work. I work with musicians. In fact I learn more from musicians than I learn in any other way.

For example, when MTT did my Third Symphony with the San Francisco Symphony, there was a passage that came up and I asked him for more volume from the horn. I got it but he didn’t tell me until later that what he had done was add three more horns. And so that was a revelation to me. And then having heard what that did I went on with the passage and made a much longer line in the horns which stands out and now I’ll have to hear it again. So I’ll ask Dennis Russell Davies if he could perhaps schedule it somewhere so I can go and hear that.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: I know that you have been involved with projects not directly having to do with composing—as a critic, as a conductor, as the founder of a music festival…

LOU HARRISON: Well, that’s not outside dear, that’s part of it. For example I’m working with very fine printer—I’ve always wanted to make a really beautiful book, you know, where you can feel the imprint of the letter press on the paper and things like that. It used to be called poems and pieces because I was going to intersperse Gamelan pieces which are done in numbers and in my type font that I’m using—the one I designed—they look beautiful. Then I’ve been interested in MTT’s use of the word ‘maverick’ for a number of us composers which really means ‘outsider’ and so I decided to call the book Insider/Outsider because I have this career which started as an outsider under the egress of Henry Cowell. ‘Go to a junk yard. Get your instruments there. Or whatever’s around the house and make concerts of it.’ And we did. John Cage and I did, William Russell, other people did it. And so that was outsider art. And then somehow, I guess it was due to the Cabrillo Music Festival and an acquaintance with Dennis Russell Davies, I became an insider—four symphonies, two operas, though the second opera was actually an outsider work to begin with and then it got to the full stage.

Now, alas, Lincoln Center had to cancel two of the works for this coming festival and, well, mine was one of them. That’s too bad, but we’ll find a place for it. And in the meantime it gave me a pause because I have been exasperated by a lot of critics who don’t know their history and don’t know what’s up. They think I’m defiling the clean face of Julius Caesar and I think they just don’t know their history. So I’m going to make a prologue, simply to say that what you’re going to experience was first written down by Suetonius and that sort of thing. I thought that might put the squimash on unintelligent, or not unintelligent, but unlettered people—critics in that area anyway. So that’s one fruitful item from the cancellation. And it will happen anyway. Besides I’m busy with other work. I continue to write verse and accumulate material for my book with the music that’s going to be included.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: Will your book old and new material?

LOU HARRISON: Yes, that’s always true. My last book was in 1992 and it was a collection, oh, from 1935 on. Different selected things and this will be similar. And my produce is large. I’m constantly working and while not all of it is first class, nonetheless there’s enough substantial stuff to use.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: So, you’ve seen a number of styles of writing music come and go in the course of your career. Could you hazard a prediction about what the next big thing or trend in music composition is going to be?

LOU HARRISON: Oh yes, it’s no guess. It’ll be whatever the generation that’s doing it does. That’s what will happen. Every generation makes it all up you know. Mine did, the ones before did. Virgil Thompson used to say that music was in thirty-year periods. Well, that’s sort of true. An idea sort of spreads out in about thirty years, but it’s not entirely true because that’s only true in the Euro system. Remember that that’s a minor part of the whole globe and I’m interested in the world music situation. It’s no problem to me in Gamelan to play a piece that was assembled during the time of Charlemagne. They do things differently. You can still have a tea time argument about why one of the players chose that particular melodic way of getting to the goal tone rather than the previous one and so on, so there’s a great deal of variety and interest in all of this. And it’s true of all the musical traditions, the four or five major ones on the planet.

MOLLY SHERIDAN: But how do you think the next generation will decide what music they’ll create? What will likely influence them?

LOU HARRISON: Well, I’m afraid it’s the corporations. Unless you’re an outsider, it’s the corporations that keep things going and determine what’s going to happen. They prepackage it and sell it as in almost everything. And that’s bound to happen unless some outsider comes in and jars the works again. But you can increasingly see that the big corporations, new techniques are sold as though they were the biggest thing that’s ever happened, whereas you look out into the universe and it’s really very tiny.


At the end of our conversation, Harrison mentions that he is going to see the new film Lord of the Rings.

“I have a little story about that,” he says, pausing until I indicate I’m interested. “When the book first came out it was reviewed in Analogue Science Fiction Magazine and given a big push.” But when Harrison asked that it be purchased by the local library for the children’s collection, he was told that unfortunately there wasn’t enough potential readership for the book to justify it’s purchase price.

“Of course by the next two months it was a national sensation. I didn’t go back and say, ‘Now look,’ but it was entertaining.”

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