Obituary: Composer Lou Harrison, 85

Obituary: Composer Lou Harrison, 85

One of the most significant musical figures of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, American composer Lou Harrison, died while in transit from Chicago to Columbus, OH, Sunday night. He was on his way to Ohio State University for a weeklong celebration of his music when he apparently suffered a heart attack. He was 85 years old.

Born May 14, 1917, in Portland, OR, Harrison moved with his family to the San Francisco Bay Area when he was 9 years old. During his high school years he formally studied jazz piano, Gregorian chant, composition, and conducting, although it was his exposure to the music of many different cultures during the 1930s—including Cantonese opera, Indonesian gamelan, and Native American and Mexican music—that had the most significant role in shaping his compositional output.

Known for his unique ability to seamlessly integrate culturally diverse music, Harrison enrolled in Henry Cowell‘s class “Music of the Peoples of the World” in 1934, marking a great turning point in the trajectory of Harrison’s art. It was Cowell who first introduced Harrison to a young, fellow-Californian named John Cage, and the two of them organized a series of now legendary percussion concerts that featured their own homemade instruments constructed from household items and street junk. Instrument building continued to impact Harrison’s music for the next sixty years, and one of his most famous creations consisted of two American gamelans made with his partner William Colvig. Harrison began teaching at Mills College in 1936, where to this day students study and perform on Harrison’s instruments.

In 1942, he moved to Los Angeles and began to study with Arnold Schoenberg. Elements of serialism made occasional appearances in Harrison’s composition, but always with his own slant. During this period, he was working for the UCLA dance department and became particularly involved in dance through being an accompanist, composer, and even a dancer himself.

After a year in L.A., Harrison trekked across the country to New York City, where he spent the next decade working as a music critic for The New York Herald Tribune and becoming a champion of Charles Ives‘s music. He conducted the premiere of Ives’s Symphony No. 3 after editing the score from a jumbled manuscript that had been neglected for 40 years. The Symphony won the Pulitzer Prize the following year. Harrison’s ceaseless advocacy is often credited as the reason the prize was given to Ives. While he was on the East Coast, he also taught at the celebrated Black Mountain College in North Carolina.

In the mid-fifties, Harrison moved back to Northern California, where he spent the remaining years of his life. It was here that his dedication to bridging Eastern and Western musical styles gestated. He became ever more inspired by the Pacific Ocean and what lay on the other side. He considered himself to be a “Pacific Rim” composer, a far cry from the ethnocentric designation “West Coast.” His attachment to the geography around him produced an intense environmental streak that permeated his lifestyle, and he also composed quite a number of politically-driven works dedicated to achieving peace on Earth.

Harrison was also an accomplished writer, poet, calligrapher, and painter. He authored many essays, articles, and reviews; published an anthology of poetry called Joys and Perplexities printed in one of his original type fonts; wrote a music primer that discussed his multicultural perspective on intonation and modes (published in1971 by C.F. Peters); and recently finished a work called Poems and Pieces, which pairs his poems with pieces he wrote for gamelan.

“His art, whatever it was—composing or painting or writing—it was everything,” remembers Eva Soltes, director of the Harrison Documentary Project and a close friend. “It was his whole life and he, with every part of his being, tried to share that with the world and with other artists.

“He was a real touchstone for people who have dreams and aspirations that may not get encouraged by anybody else. He was a great [gatherer] of wonderful people; he surrounded himself with artists; and he was really, really generous…I mean, he was about to begin another beginning gamelan class at his house. He continued to be enthusiastic about teaching beginners, which is so rare for somebody of his accomplishment.”

John Luther Adams, William Colvig, and Lou Harrison
Photo by Dennis Keeley

Openly gay, Harrison and his longtime partner William Colvig, an instrument builder and engineer, shared 33 years of their lives together until Colvig’s death in 2000. Colvig and Harrison collaborated on many projects, including the building of many gamelans. In a time when openly homosexual couples remained quietly marginalized, Harrison and Colvig were tender and expressive, demonstrating their dedication to one another without reservation. “His ideas about religion, his ideas about politics were never popular,” Soltes reflected. “He was somebody who would not bend who he was. He was very true to himself.

“It was really important for him to leave a gay [-themed] opera,” Soltes recounts. She was waiting for his opera Young Caesar, done in the Chinese form, to be staged in order to complete her documentary, indicating it as a cornerstone of his musical output and personality. Despite placing great importance in this project, Harrison never saw the opera actualized. The collaboration for the opera with Mark Morris fell through in 2001, and a performance was canceled by the Lincoln Center Festival in 2002.

But this one disappointment is offset by infinite successes. Soltes describes Harrison’s philosophy on music, also appropriate for his life. “He said music was a song and a dance. You get the melody right and you get the rhythm right and what more do you want?”

He is survived by his sister-in-law Dorothy Harrison, two nephews, his partner Todd Burlingame, and a loving community of artists and friends.

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