Two Lou Harrisons

Two Lou Harrisons

Last Friday I saw a screening of Lou Harrison: A World of Music, a remarkable new documentary about the American composer, artist, writer, and activist by Eva Soltes. I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who has a chance to see it—it’s a thoughtful and fairly comprehensive look at one of American music’s most fascinating figures.

One of the things that struck me about Harrison’s life is how easily it could be divided in two. There’s the period up until 1947, when he was incredibly active and involved in the American new music scene. And there’s the period after his nervous breakdown, when he retreated to the countryside to work mostly in isolation. (I say mostly because for several decades he was accompanied by his life partner and collaborator Bill Colvig.)

Post-breakdown Lou Harrison is the version that fans of his music would be most familiar with—the easy joy of his personality that shines through so clearly in his compositions, the abiding interest in Javanese gamelan music, the awesome beard. But I found pre-breakdown Harrison to be eerily familiar, too. Just before his breakdown, Harrison was living in New York City, the epicenter of American new music at the time. In addition to his composing, he was a music critic under the guidance of Virgil Thomson, sometimes racing to multiple concerts in the same evening. And he was preparing the music of Charles Ives for performance, translating Ives’s chicken scratch into something legible, even interpolating ideas of his own when the scores were incomplete or unclear. This culminated in the first public performance of Ives’s Symphony No. 3, which Harrison also conducted.

In other words, pre-breakdown Lou Harrison is like almost every young composer I know, taking gigs left and right to keep his career going. In fact, he had a career that many of my colleagues would probably kill for, working with nearly every significant figure in American music at the time…Ives, Thompson, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg…

But for Harrison, this environment was poisonous. Not only to his state of mind, but perhaps also to his creativity. We don’t remember Harrison for the imposing serialist works that he was writing while in New York. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with serialism,” I quickly add.) It seems that he needed to get away from all of that to become the Lou Harrison we know now. Sure, in retrospect we detect hints of it in some of his early percussion music, like the still-popular Double Music collaboration with Cage, but it makes me wonder: What kind of a composer would Harrison have been if he had never left New York?

This is an absurd hypothetical question by any measure. But I also wonder what kind of creativity the current climate of careerism is killing. One characteristic of being very busy is that it can leave little time for introspection, musical or otherwise. Certainly there’s an economic imperative at work here, and another very familiar aspect of Harrison’s life is the anxiety about financial insecurity that comes through in his letters.

But I also think there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy going on here. If you don’t stop to think now and then, you may not be able to even see what options are available to you. Personally, some of my most rewarding musical projects and experiences happened when I let go of what I felt I was supposed to do, and did what I wanted to instead. I only hope that every composer is able to allow themselves this luxury. Preferably without a breakdown.


I should also mention that the documentary was presented at REDCAT as a part of MicroFest, and was preceded by a great performance of Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, played by Mark Menzies and percussionists from CalArts. Old Granddad, the gamelan that Harrison and Colvig built, was brought down from Santa Cruz for the occasion, and it was a treat to hear this beautiful instrument in person!

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7 thoughts on “Two Lou Harrisons

  1. Jonathan Elliott

    Pressures to be engaged in the new music community–attending concerts, promoting one’s work, using social media to broadcast one’s activity and stay abreast of what everyone is up to–can all exert powerful pressure against the kind of quiet I need to be fully creative. Particularly in NYC, where there are so many concerts and events every day, it is hard to resist the perceived imperative to be seen and heard. Unfortunately the current climate of relentless activity seems like something that will never abate but probably only grow more extreme. I have found myself becoming more and more hermetic as years go by, choosing my concerts very carefully, always aware of the delicate balance that is essential for me to have clarity as a composer. I have found that if I pick my events and activity very carefully I can benefit from the energizing experience of hearing amazing music and still preserve my own space, but I do find myself attending fewer concerts every year. This is no doubt my loss, but it has become necessary.

  2. Kyle Gann

    I think it’s a very good question. I enjoyed the thought experiment. We all need the occasional reminder that sometimes the bad things that happen to us are the best things that could have happened.

  3. Daniel Wolf

    I enjoyed the thought experiment but Lou Harrison’s musical biography doesn’t actually match that divide so neatly. He had always had a broad pallet of style and technique and ideas that he had seized very early on continued to percolate throughout his music, on both coasts and well on either side of his breakdown. The prescient (= anticipating those of Carter) interval controls found in the Saraband of ’37 or the First Concerto for Flute and Percussion of ’39 come back again and again in his music, for example in the Concertos for Violin and Organ, each accompanied by percussion orchestra, of ’59 and ’73 respectively. Many of the elements of his mature modal melodic style were already present in his Six Sonatas for Cembalo of 1943 (parts of which were begun in the early ’30s.) Atonal techniques — interval controls, 12-tone techniques, or a free dissonant chromaticism close to that of Ruggles, continued to have a presence in his music, if less urgency giving his every diversifying enthusiasms, particularly for East Asian and Indonesian musics. Mr Harrison’s East coast years lasted roughly a decade, from ’43 to ’53, with his hospitalization in ’47, so the whole was only an episode in an otherwise all-west coast career (Schoenberg said to Harrison, when told that his student was going to New York: “‘I know why you are going… You are going for fame and fortune. Good luck! And, do not study anymore — only Mozart!” (Harrison, of course, ignored the “do not study” advice.)) Perhaps the more interesting thought experiment is not to imagine how Mr Harrison’s music would have developed had he stayed in the East, but rather how New York’s musical life might have differed had Harrison continued to be a presence there.

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      Perhaps the more interesting thought experiment is not to imagine how Mr Harrison’s music would have developed had he stayed in the East, but rather how New York’s musical life might have differed had Harrison continued to be a presence there.

      Daniel, I agree that this is a fascinating question. Another interesting one would be its contrapositive: How would New York’s musical life have differed had Harrison never had a presence here?

      Lou Harrison has come to be acknowledged as an iconic West Coast figure. Rightfully so, but he also had a transformative impact on the East Coast (where as Isaac mentioned he wrote extensively about music, co-created Double Music with John Cage, and also prepared the edition of Charles Ives’s Symphony No. 3 which led to its first performance making it eligible to receive the Pulitzer albeit decades after Ives had composed it). Ultimately the complete picture of Lou Harrison reveals that he changed the course of music everywhere he went!

  4. Bill Alves

    Lou abandoned NYC for many reasons, including his feeling of dislocation from the avant gardes of Cage and Carter, but probably more importantly his conviction that the pressure and noise were incompatible with his fragile mental state. Knowing Lou, I find it nearly impossible to imagine him remaining there.

    However, it seems to me that Isaac’s post is more about the choices that composers face. From our perspective it looks very courageous to leave a promising career and turn one’s back on the accepted avant garde to live like a hermit composing works totally outside anyone else’s experience. And yet, as for many composers today, this “success” in NY meant only occasional gigs writing for dance, the occasional piece placed on a League of Composers concert, performances far less frequent than he had had in San Francisco.

    He spent years running around reviewing concerts (once 5 in a single weekend) on a stringer’s salary, helping out with New Music Publications (unpaid), watching potential gigs fall through, while finding that performing groups and institutions had little interest in his music. I’m sure composers today can sympathize. Through the influence of Virgil Thomson, he got a Guggenheim, but when that was over he was reduced to asking his parents for a loan just to get back across the country.

    Although I’m not going to live like a hermit in a rural cabin while working at an animal hospital like Lou did, his example inspires me every day in his devotion to doing what he loved.

  5. Brett

    In researching our forthcoming Harrison biography, Bill Alves and I talked to Lou about his decision to move west. By the time he left in 1953, New York and the East Coast were moving away from the qualities Lou valued in music. He didn’t like his old friend John Cage’s turn to aleatoric music, nor most of the other musical trends that dominated postwar New York. It’s easy to imagine him being extremely frustrated had he stayed.
    Furthermore, if he had maintained his New York lifestyle (with high rents etc.), it’s unlikely that Lou would have been able or inclined to take a few years away from writing music for performance (dance and concerts) so that he could focus on his experiments in tuning systems, exploring Harry Partch’s theories, and so on. Those studies informed much of what Lou composed afterwards. Being away from other trends allowed him to explore his own, decidedly un-trendy interests.
    Lou’s pioneering Asian-Western fusions also seem tied to his presence in California. Perhaps he might have found in New York a similar group of Chinese musicians like those he performed with in 1960s-70s California, but Lou’s initial involvement in gamelan music in the 1970s was closely connected to events in Berkeley at the time. He wouldn’t have met Bill Colvig had he stayed East, and their partnership in instrument building and tuning depended on Bill’s skills as much as Lou’s. And he needed lots of room to store the instruments he and Bill built. Given New York rental rates, where would he have put them?!
    Most of all, after his breakdown (and even before he came to New York), Lou needed easy access to natural beauty. (He found it also at Black Mountain College and summer trips to his hometown of Portland, Oregon, before moving back to California for good.) That was much easier to find in rural Aptos than in Greenwich Village. Without Bill, without constant access to nature, without the creative isolation he could choose (he could always go into San Francisco when he needed an urban fix), Lou would simply have been miserable, and it’s impossible to imagine him being as productive (particularly in the areas that made him most influential and successful) or as happy in New York as he wound up being in California.


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