Lou Harrison's life has been a series of archeological digs. Whenever and wherever he encountered a site of interest on the artistic landscape, he paused for an exploration. The result is more than the simple acquisition of knowledge, however, for Harrison has always found ways of combining his disparate investigations into new untried syntheses.
"There is nothing labored about all this," noted Virgil Thomson in 1987. "Lou Harrison is not making plastic roses for funeral parlors. He is simply speaking in many personae and many languages. The message itself is pure Harrison. And that message is of joy, dazzling and serene, and even at its most intensely serious, not without laughter." Harrison's mentor, Henry Cowell, cautioned us to respect hybrids. Harrison would go further, urging us to celebrate them because there really is nothing else.
Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon in 1917, but spent most of his formative years in northern California, where his family moved when he was nine. (The Harrisons moved nearly every year- and sometimes even more frequently-from one town to another: Woodland, Sacramento, Stockton, Berkeley, San Francisco, Los Gatos, Redwood City, Belmont, and Burlingame.) Indeed Harrison has been cited as the quintessential West-coast composer, reflecting in his work the region's em-brace of diverse opinions, its fascination with Asia and Latin America, and its devotion to open space.
Harrison's musical style was shaped by the San Francisco of the 1930s. There he studied composition with Henry Cowell; accompanied such dancer/choreographers as Carol Beals, Bonnie Bird, Tina Flade, and Lester Horton; and staged high profile percussion concerts with John Cage. At the Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939 he first heard a live Indonesian gamelan orchestra (an ensemble composed primarily of percussion, including metallophones with various types of resonators, and gongs of various sizes, shapes, and orientations). In the city itself he frequented the Chinese opera, which welcomed audiences for 25 cents a show. He and Cage delighted in rummaging through the city's automobile junkyards and import stores for anything that would ping, bong, or twang, and spent hours testing the pitch and resonance of flower pots in the local nurseries.
Through Cowell, Harrison developed a fascination with Native American and early California culture, which is reflected in a number of works throughout his career. Among them is the Mass to St. Anthony, whose vocal lines suggest Native American melody types that had been incorporated into eighteenth century California Mission services. Harrison began the Mass in 1939 on the day Hitler invaded Poland; its opening motive-a cry of anguish over the war-is one of his earliest political statements. In the early 1950s he altered the work's orchestration from the original percussion ensemble (which he thought inappropriate for a church performance) to the present trumpet, harp, and strings.
The Native American influence emerges later in his career as well. For the Four Strict Songs of 1955, for example, he wrote his own poetic text in Navajo style. The finale of the Symphony No. 4 features a typical Harrison synthesis: a baritone soloist chanting Navajo "coyote stories" over a murmuring percussion accompaniment evoking the Javanese gamelan.
Still another passion during his San Francisco period was Baroque and pre-Baroque music. Well before the present "period-instrument" craze, Harrison played the recorder in Renaissance and Baroque ensembles, and even composed works for early instruments. His Six Sonatas For Cembalo or Pianoforte, written between 1934 and 1943, adopt the two-reprise form typical of Domenico Scarlatti and invite Baroque-style ornamentation by the performer, which Harrison welcomes. The Peer edition of these sonatas includes suggested ornamentation by early music specialist Susan Summerfield.
One of Harrison's favorite pre-Baroque forms is the medieval estampie (which he likes to translate as "stamping dance"). This lively rhythmic genre features paired phrases (AABBCC, etc.) with alternately open and closed endings. The form brings together four of his passions: ancient music, vibrant rhythm, exuberant melody, and dance; and for this reason he has used it repeatedly, for instance in the second movement of the Symphony No. 4 and in his String Quartet Set of 1979. The quartet contains another medieval reference as well: the opening movement is a set of variations over a melody by the 13th century minnesinger, Walther von der Vogelweide. Throughout his career, Lou has remained devoted to the power of expansive melody-what he calls "the audience's take-home pay." The quartet's lush variation movement is one of the most beautiful examples.
In 1942 Harrison moved to Los Angeles, where he studied with Arnold Schoenberg and taught in the dance department at UCLA. Peter Yates writes that by the time Lou moved to southern California, he had composed some 450 works, nearly all of which had been performed at least once. A year later Lou moved again, this time to New York where he remained for ten years. He found the city crowded and noisy, and it was difficult to make ends meet. Though he developed close friendships with musicians, dancers, painters, and actors, life was filled with tension.
He soon developed an ulcer. At the same time, however, there were notable successes as well. He received a hearty welcome into the artistic circle around Virgil Thomson, through whom he became a reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune. (He would ultimately write nearly 300 reviews between 1944 and 1947.) His prodigious literary skills led to regular publication in other journals as well, notably Modern Music, Listen, and Charles Henri Ford's avant-garde arts magazine, View. On April 5, 1946, Lou conducted the New York Little Symphony in the premiere of Ives's Third Symphony, which he edited from a jumbled manuscript neglected for 40 years. The following year Ives received the Pulitzer Prize for this work, which he insisted on sharing with Lou.
In spite of these successes, however, Harrison never really adjusted to big city life. In 1947 the stress and poverty finally culminated in a nervous breakdown for which he required brief hospitalization. Some of his friends wondered whether he would again write significant music. But they underestimated Harrison's resolve and determination. He not only entered a "second life," as he puts it, but he also used the experience as a catalyst for change in his compositional style. The immediate post-hospitalization period was in fact one of his most productive. In collaboration with the dancer/choreographer Jean Erdman, he composed The Perilous Chapel (a quartet for flute, harp, cello, and drums) and the octet Solstice, two works that have been widely performed both with dance and as independent instrumental suites. The Perilous Chapel, a psychological drama portraying the soul's struggle against evil, was Erdman's first group dance. In the middle section of this 15-minute work, a mysterious force, symbolized by a frightening mobile, descends upon the ensemble of six women and strikes one of them, seemingly at random. Chaos ensues, depicted by fearsome scale passages at molto allegro. But ultimately goodness triumphs over discord. The evil force retreats and the musical chaos abates to reveal a glorious alleluia featuring sweeping melodic lines in the flute and harp against a gentle ostinato in the cello. Harrison has described the movement as a "dance on the floor of heaven."
Solstice is a more extended work, a 30-minute drama depicting the struggle between the new year and the old, represented by the Sun Lion (the warmth of summer) and the Moon Bull (the dark days of winter ushered in by the December solstice). For this work Harrison created a gamelan orchestra sound by combining celesta and tack-piano, joined at times by a double bass played percussively by hitting the strings below the bridge with dowels or the bow stick.
From this period as well date the First Suite for Strings (1948), premiered at the National Institute of Arts and Letters at an awards ceremony in which Harrison was given a "Creative Grant," and the Suite For Cello And Harp (1949), inspired by the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Both works are in five movements. Harrison has recently revised the string suite so extensively that it has been renamed New First Suite For Strings; this version, now available from Peer, was premiered at a monastery on Majorca by Dennis Russell Davies and the Stuttgart Chamber Ensemble. The popular cello and harp duo is cyclic in form, beginning and ending with a beautiful meditative chorale depicting an old man "plowing in the ancient manner behind the immemorial ox." The second movement depicts the Dordogne Valley where the caves are located.
In the summer of 1951 Lou was offered a viable alternative to New York: a faculty position at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an idealistic educational community that emphasized the visual and performing arts and treasured interdisciplinary collaborations among its faculty. Although he initially came to Black Mountain only for the summer, Lou stayed for two years, at the same time maintaining his New York apartment to which he often returned. In Spring 1952 he received the first of two Guggenheim awards, which allowed him to reside at the College while devoting his energies almost exclusively to composition.
It was a tremendously productive period. He completed, among other works, his Seven Pastorales for chamber orchestra, Songs In The Forest (flute/piano/ violin/percussion), the Serenade for guitar and optional percussion, Praise For The Beauty Of Hummingbirds (mixed quintet), and most important, his six-scene, 50-minute opera, Rapunzel. Harrison had always been known for his fluent compositional capabilities, but now he had the luxury of free time as well, in addition to physical space, quiet, and inspiring natural surroundings. His exuberance and the sheer joy he felt in creating music are captured in a letter he wrote to his friend Frank Wigglesworth on February 12, 1952:
How wonderful that you are playing guitar!!. . . I'm coocoo for it! . . . Oh, I'm delighted you've taken it up!! I'll write some pieces for it soon & send [them] to you. . . Soon? Why not now? Here goes! There follows in the letter a complete guitar serenade.
Rapunzel was quite another matter. Its six scenes were the product of an intensive effort over several months. Based on a psychological reinterpretation of the old fairy tale by the 19th century English poet William Morris, the work is set for chamber orchestra and three solo singers who declaim in angular yet lyrical serial language. Harrison describes the opera as "in part self-analysis," holding "implicit in it some of the problems, tortures, and false rapture that I was myself experiencing in analysis and psychotherapy." In 1954 the Air From Rapunzel (her prayer from scene 3) won a Twentieth Century Masterpiece Award for the best composition for voice and chamber orchestra at the International Conference of Contemporary Music in Rome. During the competition all works were performed anonymously before a live audience. Michael Steinberg reviewed the entire event for the New York Times. After Leontyne Price's rendition of the Air, he wrote ecstatically:
Suddenly there was a work that achieved what only one of its competitors . . . had come close to achieving. For here was a piece of music that not only sounded well in itself, but also in which every turn of vocal melody, every rhythm or color in accompaniment was motivated by something in the text. In other words, here was a real song.
Following Rapunzel's 1959 New York premiere, Francis Perkins wrote in the Herald Tribune of the work's "varied array of instrumental sonorities" and "masterly use" of the twelve-tone serial technique. "There was no austerity," Perkins noted, "no setting off in brief segments, but a continuity which was lyric and, when desired, pungent, along with a pervasive and convincing sensitiveness." The opera's 1993 Bonn revival prompted a comparison to Mozart's Magic Flute, with the opera's focus "on growing up, on attaining inner maturity and liberation from bondage."
In 1953 Harrison moved back to California, settling in the (then) rural village of Aptos, where he has remained ever since. His return to the West coast marked a re-establishment of his ties to Asia. In 1961 he visited that continent for the first time (funded by a Rockefeller grant) as a delegate to the East-West Music Encounter Conference in Tokyo. From Japan Lou went to Korea and, in the following year, to Taiwan, where he studied local instrumental techniques as well as the classical literature.
Soon he was at work on a new synthesis, this time combining Asian and Western instruments. Pacifika Rondo, written in 1963 when he was composer-in-residence at the University of Hawaii's "Festival of Music and Art of this Century," calls for sheng (a Chinese mouth organ), psalteries, p'iri (a Korean double-reed instrument), chango (a Korean hourglass shaped doubled-headed drum), and a pak (a Korean wooden clapper) along with Western stringed instruments, celesta, trombones, organ, percussion, and tin whistles. Six of its seven movements celebrate the beauty of the Pacific Basin and its diverse cultures: (1) Korea; (2) dolphins at play; (3) a Buddhist temple; (4) the towering sequoias of California; (5) Mexico; and (7) China. The sixth movement momentarily breaks the spell with a protest of the atomic bomb. Harrison specifies equal-tempered tuning here (as opposed to the just intonation of the other movements) and shapes the melodic lines according to strict 12-tone serial principles. The Asian instruments remain silent in protest. Harrison's devotion to pacifism and world fellowship is even reflected in the work's title, which uses the international language Esperanto (another of his passions).
In 1967 Harrison met his life-partner William Colvig. With Colvig's training as an electrician and amateur musician and his interest in acoustics, the pair soon set off on a decades-long career of instrument building and tuning experiments. In 1971 they constructed an American gamelan, integrating Indonesian sounds, junk materials, Lou's old percussion ensemble experiences, and his devotion to pure intonation systems. Together they built a set of various sized metallophones from materials at hand or easy to procure. Aluminum and steel conduit tubing served for the smaller instruments. Aluminum slabs cut to length and carefully filed to pitch formed the keys of the large metallophone; #10 tin cans stacked in varying numbers served as its resonators. All of this hardware Lou and Bill meticulously tuned in pure (non-beating) intervals in D major. To this pitched percussion they added galvanized garbage cans and empty oxygen tanks cut to various lengths and struck with sawed-off baseball bats. These substitute for the bronze drums of Asia.
Lou composed three works for this novel ensemble: La Koro Sutro for chorus and gamelan, the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, and his second opera, Young Caesar. All three compositions have also been transcribed for Western instruments. Peer offers Young Caesar in its newer version for Western ensemble, and La Koro Sutro and Suite for Violin and American Gamelan in both their original and Western instrumentations (the Suite under the title Suite for Violin and String Orchestra). For those wishing to perform the works with the American gamelan accompaniment, Lou and Bill cheerfully crate and ship the original instruments (which they now call "Old Granddad"), sometimes at barely a moment's notice. To allow for more performances of these works with the original instrumentation, a replica of Old Granddad is being built by Richard Cooke of Moab, Utah.
Young Caesar was originally constructed as a puppet opera requiring 5 puppeteers, 5 singers, and 5 instrumentalists playing a wide variety of Asian and Western instruments. In 1988, however, it was rewritten for Western instruments, chorus, and soloists for performance by the Portland Gay Men's Chorus. (This version is available from Peer.) Harrison heavily revised the score, adding choral movements to the original narrative. The text again celebrates East-West bonds of friendship: the meeting of Caesar and the King of Bithynia. The Portland chorus also commissioned Harrison's Three Songs in 1985, which they have repeatedly performed to great acclaim. The texts, from 2 Samuel and Walt Whitman, are set for male chorus, piano, organ, and strings.
Harrison never really abandoned his percussion orchestra of the 1930s, which he delights in using as the back-up band for concerti. Examples date as far back as the First Concerto for Flute and Percussion of 1939 and continue through the Concerto for Violin and Percussion (1959) and the Concerto for Organ and Percussion of 1973. This last work again features a five-movement cyclic form, opening with a rhythmic processional followed by a Siciliana for organ solo, a contrapuntal study on the famous BACH theme (B-flat A C B-natural), an organ canon over a gamelan-like accompaniment, and a finale that returns in spirit to the beginning. In the Music for Violin with Various Instruments, on the other hand, the soloist is accompanied by a hybrid ensemble including, among other novelties, four African mbiras ("thumb pianos") and lively foot-stomping in its finale.
At the same time Harrison has increasingly turned to compositions for the Western symphony orchestra. To date he has written four symphonies, three of which are published by Peer. He began his Symphony on G during his hospital stay in New York in 1947, but did not complete it until 1966. It is a serial work yet tonally centered. The traditional minuet or scherzo movement is replaced by a mini-suite, one of Harrison's favorite devices. In this case it consists of a waltz, polka, song, and rondeau. The finale, originally a chaconne, variations, and fugue at its Cabrillo Music Festival premiere in 1964, was replaced two years later by a sonata-rondo.
In 1975 Harrison completed the Elegiac Symphony on a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation. Though written as a memorial to Natalie and Serge Koussevitzky, this "mournful but inherently upbeat" work4 also reflects Harrison's sorrow following the deaths of several friends and relatives: particularly his mother on March 21, 1974 and composer Harry Partch in September of the same year. Lou also seized the opportunity to bring some of his past up to date. The first sketches for the Elegiac Symphony actually date from 11 October 1942; material for other parts of the five-movement work come from a 1946 organ piece (Praises for Michael the Archangel) and from one of the overtures of his Political Primer of 1958. In the third movement he paid special tribute to Koussevitzky, a contrabassist, by featuring two solo basses in an extended duet accompanied by a French horn, celesta, two harps, and muted strings.
Because of the hectic pace of Lou's life (as well as his penchant for constant tinkering) the symphony's score was barely completed in time for the first rehearsal. A press release dated November 20, 1975 states that he was "still in the process of composing the last movement" for the December 7 concert. Nor did the composing process end with the start of the rehearsals. Up to the very day of the concert, he was frantically revising, repairing, manipulating, and inserting. Paul Hertelendy wrote in the Oakland Tribune on the day of the concert:
"When the Youth Orchestra musicians stroll in for their dress rehearsal today, a surprise lies in store: 15 additional measures will be stapled to their scores, representing Harrison's revised editing for the fourth movement. The ink will be barely dry. Harrison is like that. As if they were his children, his scores are rarely sent off into the world in final form. He reworks, rethinks and philosophizes at every encounter."
The Symphony No. 4, which combines Lou's interests in ancient music, Native American music, and Asian music in the context of the Western orchestra, was commissioned by the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brooklyn Academy of Music and premiered on Nov. 2, 1990 under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies. The symphony was recordced on the Argo CD "Lou Harrison, A Portrait" in 1997 by the California Symphony, conducted by Barry Jekowsky. A shorter symphonic work was commissioned in 1995 by the San Francisco Symphony and performed at the opening concert of the season under its new music director, Michael Tilson Thomas. In recognition of Thomas's artistry and his frequent performances of Harrison's works, Lou titled the new piece A Parade For M.T.T.
As we celebrate Harrison's eightieth birthday in 1997, he shows few signs of slowing down, despite his repeated vows to retire. He originally titled his Symphony No. 4 the "Last Symphony." As its premiere approached, I questioned his intentions should he choose to compose still another symphonic work. "I'll have to name it the 'Very Last Symphony,'" he quipped with the characteristic twinkle in his eye. The comment typifies his approach to his own art, which he views with joy and humor - his compositional tools forming a vast playground filled with fascinating toys and secret passages. Indeed, he has often noted that early on he "laid out his toys on a wide acreage" and now freely chooses among them, selecting what strikes his fancy at the moment and linking them in new and whimsical combinations. Following a recent concert at the University of California's Lick Observatory, I asked him to evaluate his place in the continuum of Western musical composition. "I haven't the faintest idea," he replied. "I can only say, 'Lou Harrison is an old man who has had a lot of fun.'"
Lou Harrison died on February 2 2003 at the age of 85.
(Lou Harrison by Leta E. Miller- University of California, Santa Cruz)
© Copyright 1997 by Peermusic Ltd.