Born on May 14, 1917, in Portland, OR; died on February 2, 2003, in Lafayette, IN; lived with longtime partner, William Colvig, from late 1960s until Colvig's death in 2000. Education: Attended San Francisco State College, 1935-36.
When Lou Harrison died in 2003 at the age of 85, he left behind a legacy of adventurous music that was often politically tinged, culturally transgressive, and tonally unorthodox. While less celebrated than his more famous contemporary, the composer John Cage, Harrison enjoyed a groundswell of attention in his later years, fueled in part by San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas's devoted attention to Harrison's compositions. Harrison was en route to a retrospective of his own work at Ohio State University at the time of his death.
Harrison was born on May 14, 1917, in Portland, Oregon. When he was nine, his family relocated to northern California. The Harrison family moved around frequently and the composer has estimated that he attended 18 different schools before graduating from Burlingame High School in December of 1934. He began his musical explorations while still a young student, studying piano and violin, singing as a treble soloist, and composing keyboard and chamber works. Foreshadowing the experiments with intonation that would mark his career, many of these early compositions were written in quarter tones.
Harrison entered San Francisco State College in 1935. In his three semesters there, he studied horn, clarinet, harpsichord, and recorder, sang in several vocal ensembles, and composed pieces for early instruments. In the spring of 1935 he enrolled in Henry Cowell's course, Music of the Peoples of the World, at the University of California at San Francisco, and began a lifelong friendship and professional association with the composer. Through Cowell, Harrison met the influential composer Charles Ives, who became both a profound musical influence and a financial supporter. In 1936 Ives sent Harrison a crate full of his scores, which Harrison spent the next ten years studying, editing, and publishing.
Harrison used the city of San Francisco as a laboratory for his musical development, studying scores at the San Francisco Public Library and regularly attending twenty-five-cent operas in the city's Chinatown. Harrison also began collaborating with several choreographers during his time in San Francisco. In 1937 he began work as a dance accompanist at Mills College in Oakland, where he also taught courses in composition for dance during summer sessions. He and Cage met in 1938 and the pair staged a series of highly regarded percussion concerts on the Mills campus and in San Francisco between 1939 and 1941. Their 1941 performance resulted in the recording Double Music, with two percussion pieces, each written independently by the composers. Harrison continued the series on his own after Cage moved to Chicago in 1942.
Harrison relocated to Los Angeles in 1942, where he worked as an accompanist for Lester Horton's dance company and taught dance composition courses at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). While at UCLA he sat in on Arnold Schoenberg's composition seminar and later became a mentor for the course and a devotee of the renowned, if sometimes misunderstood, composer. "Schoenberg and I got along very well," Harrison told The Wire in 2002. "It's a mystery to me why other composers didn't see and hear everything that was going on in Schoenberg's music. He of all people gave me the final advice towards simplicity. It's served me well, but perhaps his other pupils were too steeped in history to see the full picture." Harrison began to use 12-note serialism, a chromatic system developed by Schoenberg, in his own music.
Harrison moved to New York in 1943 and began writing music reviews and essays for the New York Herald Tribune and other publications the following year. On April 5, 1946, he conducted Ives's Third Symphony, a premiere performance for which he also edited the final manuscript. Ives was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this work in 1947 and insisted on sharing it with Harrison.
That same year, overwhelmed by the stress and noise of New York, Harrison suffered a nervous breakdown. He was hospitalized for nine months, his stay partially funded by Ives. Harrison often spoke about this experience as a particularly liberating one, and the period immediately following his hospital stay was one of his most artistically productive. Compositions written during this time included The Perilous Chapel and Solstice, both written for the choreographer and dancer Jean Edman. He also composed two suites for string orchestra, the Suite for Cello and Harp and Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra. Harrison went on to complete two works for the stage, Marriage at the Eiffel Tower and The Only Jealousy of Emer, while he was a summer resident at Reed College in 1949 and 1950. Influenced by the 1949 publication of composer Harry Partch's Genesis of a Music, Harrison also began to experiment with just intonation, a tonal system based on pure mathematical ratios rather than the slightly altered scale common to most western music.
Harrison left New York in 1951 to accept a position at Black Mountain College, an experimental arts-centered school in North Carolina. He remained prolific during his two-year tenure there, composing the opera Rapunzel while on a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1953 Harrison relocated to the rural town of Aptos, California, where he would remain for the rest of his life. There he took on odd jobs such as dog grooming and working as a night ranger, although he also continued to compose, teach, and further develop his ongoing interest in Asian and other indigenous musical forms, with a particular focus on the gamelan. Strict Songs, completed in 1955, featured the composer's own texts, inspired by Navajo ritual songs. Simfony in Free Style was written the same year. Harrison had curtailed his use of 12-note serialism by this time, turning to the dissonant style only in works that contained anti-war or anti-homophobic themes.
In 1961 and 1962 Harrison traveled to Korea and Taiwan, where he studied many instruments native to the areas. Nova Odo (1961-8), Pacifika Rondo (1963), and Music for Violin and Various Instruments (1967) all grew out of his explorations there. In 1966 he spent six months in Mexico, where he wrote Music Primer.
In 1967 Harrison met William Colvig, an electrician and amateur musician, who became his collaborator as well as his life partner. The pair constructed an "American gamelan" in 1971, which became the source of at least three major Harrison compositions, including Young Caesar, a puppet opera written in 1971 and rewritten with Western instrumentation in 1988, La Koro Sutro (1972), and Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. Young Caesar addresses homosexuality and international relations. La Koro Sutro is a retelling of the Buddhist Heart Sutra written in Esperanto, an international language that Harrison was interested in for its culturally unifying possibilities, and in which he was fluent. Harrison studied with gamelan master K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat in 1975.
Harrison brought Western instrumentation back into his repertoire in the 1980s and 1990s and on into the new millennium, composing symphonies, concertos and chamber pieces. He often employed cross-cultural instrumentation and musical approaches, such as applying traditional gamelan styles to Western instruments. During the 1990s Harrison's work began to enjoy greater renown when Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas of the San Francisco Symphony began featuring the composer's work in several showcases of American composers. For his San Francisco Symphony debut, Thomas conducted Parade for MTT, a Harrison work composed specifically for him. Harrison also worked extensively with choreographer Mark Morris in his later years, composing Rhymes with Silver for Morris's company in 1996. The piece was subsequently performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Harrison was en route to a retrospective of his work at Ohio State University on February 2, 2003, when he suffered an apparent heart attack and died. His final composition, Nek Chand, was written for a just-intoned Hawaiian slack guitar.
John Rockwell wrote in Harrison's obituary in the New York Times, "Mr. Harrison's primary contribution to Western music, aside from the sheer beauty of his works, was his wide-ranging, deeply felt connection to the musics of non-Western cultures, Asian especially." In the Los Angeles Times's obituary, Thomas commented to Mark Swed on the nature of Harrison's compositions: "What is so amazing about them is how they seem to be for very specific purposes---a walking tune, a drifting-off-in-the-hammock tune. It's music about, and as accompaniment to, life."
by Kristin Palm
Lou Harrison's Career
Accompanist for Mills College Dance Department, 1937-42; instructor, University of California at Los Angeles, 1942; writer, New York Herald Tribune and other publications, 1944-47; instructor, Black Mountain College, 1951-53; also taught at San Jose State University, Stanford University, Cabrillo College, University of Southern California, and Mills College, 1980-85.
Lou Harrison's Awards
Guggenheim Fellowships, 1952 and 1954; elected to National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1973; Edward McDowell Medal, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Three Pieces for Gamelan: String Quartet Set Composers, 1982.
- La Koro Sutro New Albion, 1988.
- Piano Concerto/Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra New World, 1988.
- Music for Guitar and Percussion Etcetera, 1990.
- (With John Cage) Double Music (1941), New World, 1990.
- Gamelan Music Music Masters, 1992.
- Seven Pastorales Music Masters, 1992.
- Music of Lou Harrison Crystal, 1992.
- Lou Harrison: Drums Along the Pacific New Albion, 1993.
- Lou Harrison: Rapunzel and Other Works New Albion, 1996.
- Lou Harrison: A Collection of Piano Pieces Koch International Classics, 1999.
- Rhymes with Silver New Albion, 2000.
- Labrynth hatHUT, 2000.
- Lou Harrison: Works 1939-2000 Mode, 2001.
- Keyboard Works New Albion, 2002.
- Mysterious Mountain Music Masters, 2003.
- Serenado New Albion, 2003.
- Suite for Symphonic Strings/Strict Songs First Edition, 2003.
- Selected writings
- A Lou Harrison Reader Soundings Press, 1987.
- Joys and Perplexities: Selected Poems of Lou Harrison Jargon Society, 1992.
- Duckworth, William, Talking Music, Schirmer, 1995.
- Los Angeles Times, February 4, 2003.
- Musical Quarterly, Fall 1992.
- New York Times, February 4, 2003.
- Wire, August 2002.
- "Lou Harrison," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 14, 2004).
- "Lou Harrison," Grove Dictionary of Music, http://www.grovemusic.com (June 14, 2004).