A Wonderful Whirligig: Lou Harrison Discovers San Francisco

Brett Campbell and Bill Alves on February 11, 2017
Lou Harrison | Credit: John Fago

It’s hard to compass the range of music composed by Lou Harrison, whose centenary we celebrate this year. Other Minds, the organization that has long showcased Harrison’s music, is honoring the occasion with not one but two utterly different concerts, one this week and another, focused on his gamelan music, in May. Other tributes are scheduled around the country. 

But none can fully embrace what Harrison called “the vast acreage” of musical influences he imbibed over the 85 years he lived on the planet. Harrison’s music ranged across the centuries and the globe: He helped create the first percussion ensembles, composed 12-tone music influenced directly by his teachers Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, wrote dance music for choreographers from Lester Horton to Merce Cunningham to Mark Morris, experimented in alternative tunings, and fused Western Baroque, Medieval, Classical, and Romantic forms with classical Korean, Chinese, and Javanese music.

And that’s just his music. The rest of Harrison’s life — which embraced gay rights, environmentalism, humanism, poetry, and much more in the constant pursuit of knowledge and wonder — is equally fascinating.

Our new book, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, took my coauthor Bill Alves and me a couple of decades to research and write, in order to capture even the highlights of a life so rich. A key to its richness was Harrison’s crucial eight years in San Francisco. From 1935 to 1943, the young composer (born in Portland, Oregon, in 1917) encountered an artistic and cultural milieu as diverse as any on the planet. Harrison forever treasured these exciting years in the city, in which he first “laid out his toys.”

— Brett Campbell

Although Harrison’s family had lived in the environs of San Francisco since he was 12 years old, their move into the city itself, in January 1935, revealed to Harrison a vibrant cultural world. The next seven years — the period that shaped his career — would introduce him to the elements he combined in fruitful fusion for the rest of his life: dance, percussion, European and American avant-garde music, early music, Asian music. In his old age, he called San Francisco “the city where I attained my maturity — I can’t say I grew up here, because I haven’t yet.”2

Lou Harrison in 1939

To the voluble, energetic young Harrison, San Francisco was “a lavish, very social city with friendship and pleasure above all.” In the quarter century since it had been leveled by an earthquake and fire, the city had developed into a busy metropolis of art deco skyscrapers and cable cars, jazz clubs and Victorian row houses. Traditional musicians played along the fragrant alleyways of Chinatown, and sizable communities of immigrants from Japan, the Philippines, and India contributed their flavors to the port city’s cultural stew. Until the completion of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge in 1936 and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, ferries crisscrossed the bay, with small musical ensembles often furnishing entertainment for the passengers.


After an inward-looking existence necessitated by his family’s frequent moves, Harrison found the city a welcoming milieu. “I just entered the network that already existed,” he remembered. A man he met at a theater party introduced Harrison to the city’s gay underground. Homosexuality was so accepted within Harrison’s social circles that he never hid his orientation from most friends and acquaintances. The first gay bars sprung up after Prohibition was repealed, and in the 1930s and 1940s, the city’s gay and lesbian communities frequented the same bars, including the “quasi-dangerous” Mona’s (“where we encountered many a fistfight”).

Harrison soon became friends with the artists who created San Francisco’s thriving, underground arts community in downtown lofts and high school auditoriums. Much of their work was made possible by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which in 1935 established federal projects for the arts. Unlike today’s National Endowment for the Arts, “the projects” directly employed artists as craftspeople to do what they did best — paint, compose, write, stage plays, play music. The Bay Area’s several WPA orchestras employed scores of musicians and, in keeping with the program’s philosophy, tended to play new American music, a rarity on most other symphony programs. 

“We all went to WPA concerts and ballets because there was minimal admission,” Harrison recalled. “It was a wonderful period for American arts. They had the notion that an artist was also a workman and craftsman and deserved to be paid just like any working craftsman. For a young person growing up in that atmosphere and with friends who were working with WPA and giving concerts and exhibitions and decorating public buildings, it was really quite an insight into what the arts can be, and I’ve never forgotten it. Art was part of our daily lives.”

Chinatown Charms

As Lou Harrison and his young friend entered the theater, they saw a turquoise silk stage curtain with embroidered dragon and phoenix on both sides—and the word “Bromoseltzer” in giant silver letters. The curtain and its advertisement was the Chinatown theater’s sole concession to Western culture. At night, a quarter bought you a table with snacks of candied coconut and sugarcane, pumpkin seeds and dried plums.

One night in 1935, Harrison enjoyed a bowl of ginger ice cream as the curtain rose and giant, pantomime paper dragons danced onstage. Flames of yellow and red silk gushed from their nostrils, lights flashed, smoke poured out. Actors tumbled acrobatically across the stage; others danced or broke into song, accompanied by supple, falsetto voices singing and narrating, in Cantonese, the highly-stylized drama. A half dozen musicians played instruments like the lute-like yueqin or the jinghu, a two-string fiddle. Clattering cymbals and gongs punctuated the actors’ movements. By the end, long after midnight, the heroes had won, peacock feathers adorning their crests.

Mandarin Theatre in San Francisco's Chinatown

Clamorous, colorful, the music seemed a world away from refined Western string quartets or piano recitals. Instead of the quiet reverence that accompanies European opera, Chinese opera competed with children lining up by the stage, friends gossiping — but no one applauded. Huddled together in the unheated building, most of the Chinese patrons knew the ritualized stories of the opera and were there to experience the atmosphere of the performance or perhaps the solo of the top-billed singer.

Harrison, whose Asian interests had ignited early at his childhood home in Portland’s Silver Court, loved it. His attitude was rare among non-Asian San Franciscans, many of whom viewed Chinese music with distaste. A 1936 essay parodied the typical white citizen’s reaction: “San Francisco has had concerts featuring the music of Schoenberg, which makes it hopeful that some day Occidental music will overtake its Oriental rival in the matter of discord.”⁠1 Other than the occasional tourist, Harrison and his friends usually found themselves the only non-Chinese patrons in the theater.

Before he ever saw a European opera, Harrison had seen dozens of productions of Chinese opera. Harrison and his friends would come to these thrilling performances at least once a week, at a time when European opera was expensive, infrequent, and, in Harrison’s opinion, “pretty stuffy.”2⁠

Early Music Encounters

San Francisco State College offered no music major, so Harrison took courses in anything that interested him — astronomy, classics, a journalism course (which he failed) — while taking lessons in horn and clarinet in the music department and singing in campus choral groups.

But the college’s “ancient music” ensemble attracted him more than anything else. Beguiled by the Baroque, Harrison was lucky to find one of America’s rare early music groups at the time that paired period instruments with a historically informed approach. Harrison learned harpsichord and recorders, in addition to singing bass parts. The group performed Renaissance music as well as Baroque masters; Harrison arranged and occasionally even composed works for the group, which he played with even after he left college. The ensemble also used meantone temperament (generated from slightly flattened perfect fifths), which showed Harrison a viable alternative to ordinary equal temperament.

Harrison scoured the San Francisco Public Library for information about early music. He made an intense study of the entire collection of English Tudor-era madrigals and church music and English viol consorts of the 17th century, including the works of John Jenkins and William Lawes, culminating in the fantasias of Henry Purcell. This uncompromisingly concentrated polyphony greatly influenced his own compositions.

The director of the early music ensemble, Eileen McCall, nurtured Harrison’s composing as well. 17th-century dances and musical forms—sarabande, fugue, concerto grosso, passacaglia — marked his compositions from the 1930s. His sketchbooks from the period include a “Pavan” for two recorders and bass viol and a later Suite for Recorder and Lute that included an “Alman,” a “Pavan,” and a “Bourée.” He played one of his Cembalo Sonatas as part of a college noon concert.

Lou Harrison

But rather than adopting the ironic, self-conscious neoclassicism so common among European composers at that time, Harrison drew upon the styles and forms of these composers as naturally and unpretentiously as he later would draw upon Asian music.

Harrison also pursued other wide-ranging intellectual interests, such as “the little blue books” — radical or progressive monographs by writers such as Sinclair Lewis that introduced Harrison to the liberal and socialist ideals that informed some of his work from then on. His friend, John Dobson, wore a button for Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair, and they boycotted a restaurant because it refused to serve black people. Harrison was always carrying books and scores home from the library. Harrison remained a bibliophile and a library supporter ever after.

Along with his intellectual and artistic pursuits, Harrison enjoyed a thriving social life, much of it in private house parties where people from the theater, dance, and art scenes congregated over wine and cheese, music and poetry, and lots of heavy smoking. “Everybody was having a good time all the time,” he remembered. “Sometimes parties were where you met your next lover!” He elaborated, “I met dancers, set designers, artists, other musicians, writers. This was fairly common. You’d get one idea after another — constant ideas and learning, learning all the time. For example, that’s where I found out about Hart Crane. Someone at a party said he was gay, and I looked him up for that reason.” Although many of his friends were gay, “all of us were part of the straight world,” he explained. “Our oddity was acceptable coin. We were musicians, poets, artists, and so on, and there was no problem about our boyfriends or girlfriends.”

Though these artists were creating a vibrant modernism, neither Harrison nor his friends adopted the self-consciously avant-garde identity common among inhabitants of other bohemias. “It was no big deal. We were just having fun,” Harrison said. “We were occupied doing what we were doing. And we had friends who liked doing it, too, and that constituted a party. Absolutely, it was a big community thing … If you don’t feel you can play some things with your friends, what’s the point?”

By the end of his second year in San Francisco, immersed in an astonishingly dynamic new world of fascinating art and ideas and people, Harrison had rekindled his passion for Asian arts, acquired his first real lover and identity as a gay man, joined a vibrant and varied circle of young artists and other intellectually and artistically voracious Bohemians, and developed a deep affection for nature. From the lonely, friendless adolescent who had sequestered himself with music and mementos had emerged a breathlessly energetic, charming young artist now surrounded by convivial and sympathetic friends.

“I was giddy at that time — being interested in almost everything,” he remembered. “I spent many a night and day just burrowed in books and thinking and writing. But I was also out and about all the time. It was a grand time then, no doubt of that. And I realized it then. It was a wonderful whirligig.”

Lou Harrison and John Cage

Before he moved to Los Angeles and then New York, in 1943, Harrison met his great teacher Henry Cowell, encountered the music of Charles Ives, and partnered with young John Cage, with whom he created a series of groundbreaking percussion concerts. Using instruments culled from Chinatown shops and junkyards to play their original music, Harrison and Cage formed their own new music ensemble, blazing a trail followed by Steve Reich and Philip Glass and many others in the following generations.

For much of this period, Harrison made a living as a dance accompanist at Mills College and elsewhere and was a resident composer for dance companies. He soaked up the Native American and Spanish Baroque music that informed what he called his “Mission Period” sound. He made his first recording and his music was played and broadcast by the San Francisco Symphony. He also discovered the Javanese gamelan music that so permeated the latter part of his career.

In the 1950s, after an eventful, sometimes tumultuous, decade in New York City and at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, he returned to California. He lived for the rest of his life outside the village of Aptos, overlooking Monterey Bay. He wrote more dance music, symphonies, concertos, Chinese and Korean music, and become a pioneer in alternative tunings, with his friend Harry Partch. By the time he died, in February 2003, Lou Harrison had reached an artistic pinnacle. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown declared June 14, 1996, Lou Harrison Day — an appropriate tribute for a composer whose music owed so much to the wonderful whirligig of the city where he never grew up.

Many of the celebratory concerts and events honoring Lou Harrison are listed on the Other Minds website.

1 Charles Caldwell Dobie, San Francisco’s Chinatown, (D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc., New York, NY, 1936), 269.

2 American Society of University Composers, “A Conversation between Ben Johnston and Lou Harrison.