Lou Harrison

Composer Lou Harrison

Known for his innovative syntheses of music from the Pacific Rim and modern classical, Harrison had an explorer’s heart, but also a lyrical gift he used freely.

Vital Statistics
May 15, 1917, Portland, Oregon
February 2, 2003, Lafayette, Indiana
20th century
Performed As:
Percussionist, gamelan musician, Chinese traditional musician, conductor
During Lifetime:
The world’s colonial empires collapse in the decades following World War II. Some “third world” nations, such as Korea and China, emerge as major economic powers. In the 1960s, more European and American musicians explore Asian musics and American gamelan orchestras begin to be founded.
Biographical Outline
  • Mobile home, 1917-1934: Harrison takes violin and piano lessons as a child. After his family moves to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1926, Harrison attends a different school each year because of the family’s frequent moves. In high school, he studies Gregorian chant and sings and plays in an ensemble devoted to Baroque music.
  •  Broadening experiences, 1935-1936: He enrolls for three semesters at San Francisco State College, studying horn, clarinet, harpsichord, and recorder. In the spring he enrolls in a world music course from pioneering composer Henry Cowell, and soon takes private composition lessons from him. He writes to Charles Ives, then in retirement, asking for copies of the elder composer’s scores. Receiving two crates full, he begins to work through them, and eventually edits many of them for publication. 
  • Mavericks’ way, 1937-1941: Harrison freelances, composing for Bay Area choreographers, and takes a job as a dance accompanist at Mills College. He befriends another of Cowell’s students, John Cage, and, at Mills from 1939 to 1941, the two of them establish the first concert series devoted to new music for percussion. 
  • Journeyman, 1942-1947: Harrison moves to Los Angeles to teach labanotation and music history for dancers at UCLA. He enters the composition seminar of 12-tone music pioneer Arnold Schoenberg. He heads to New York in 1943 where, in addition to composition, he becomes a critic at the New York Herald Tribune, mentored by the paper’s chief critic, composer Virgil Thomson. He conducts the premiere of Ives’ Third Symphony in 1946 and, when the piece wins the Pulitzer Prize, Ives splits the prize money with him. However, the stress of living in New York and the end of a romantic relationship bring on a nervous breakdown in 1947. 
  • New beginnings, 1948-1952: On Cage’s recommendation, Harrison moves to Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina, where he pursues new musical interests in Asian music and “just-intonation” tuning. He also participates in the first “happenings” staged there by Cage, artist Robert Rauschenberg, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and others. Major works flow quickly: The Perilous Chapel; two suites for strings; theater pieces, including the chamber opera Rapunzel (1951), which wins a composition award; and Seven Pastorales, the first fruit of his work with tunings. He wins a Guggenheim award in 1952. 
  • Paradise found, 1953-1961: Harrison moves back to California, settling for good in Aptos, near Santa Cruz. He largely abandons 12-tone techniques and embarks on a series of highly experimental works with just-intonation tunings, such as his Strict Songs for orchestra and chorus. Unable to make a living from writing experimental music that is, at best, impractical to perform, he subsists on odd jobs, such as veterinary assistant and forest fire watch ranger. 
  • Asian explorations, 1961-1974: Prompted by a Tokyo conference, Harrison begins a more systematic study of East Asian music, traveling to Korea and Taiwan. Pieces such as Pacifika Rondo (1963) reveal the highly original way that Harrison employed these styles. In 1967, he meets Bill Colvig, an electrician and amateur musician who becomes his new life partner. Colvig designs instruments for Harrison’s opera Young Caesar (1971). In the early 1970s, the pair study and perform traditional Chinese music in an ensemble. 
  • Gamelan days,1974-1980: After writing a Suite for Violin and Gamelan, Harrison studies with the honored Javanese master sometimes known as K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat. From then on, Harrison produces dozens of pieces for gamelan, and for gamelan and Western instruments. He and Colvig build gamelan orchestras at Mills College, San Jose State, and Cabrillo College. 
  • Fame, 1980-2003: Harrison finally wins due recognition for his visionary compositions. Commissions result in a pile of late masterpieces. Performers such as Yo-Yo Ma and Keith Jarrett and conductors such as Dennis Russell Davies and Michael Tilson Thomas embrace his music, while a new generation of choreographers, including Mark Morris, discover him. In 2003, while traveling to a festival of his music, Harrison suffers a fatal heart attack.
Fun Facts
  • Personality: “As a composer, artist, poet, calligraphist, peace activist, Lou Harrison dedicated his life to bringing beauty into the world,” wrote the composer’s friend Bill Alves. He was widely admired for his “warm generosity, his integrity of spirit, and his irrepressible joyfulness.” 
  • Sky’s the limit: A lifelong lover of science and science fiction, Harrison frequently paid a small fee to have newly discovered stars named after friends.
  •  Autodidact: A voracious reader who sometimes devoured a book per day, Harrison typically bought two copies of books he liked: one to read, one to give away. He supported libraries in his Bay Area community, including a bequest in his will. 
  • Civil libertarian: Out of the closet since discovering his homosexuality as a teenager, Harrison was active in San Francisco’s early gay rights movement and a lifelong advocate for equal rights. A long-time believer in the essential brotherhood of all people, Harrison learned Esperanto and even wrote music titles, lyrics, letters, and journal entries in that “universal” language. He later learned American Sign Language. 
  • Do not disturb: Despite living with a breathtaking view of Monterey Bay, in a house built in a former avocado field, Harrison typically composed in a trailer with windows blocked. 
  • Straw men: Harrison and Colvig constructed an environmentally friendly straw-bale house on land they purchased in the California desert community of Joshua Tree. The architectural dimensions were based on the same numerical ratios as his tuning systems. 
  • Compose by number: Harrison’s short gamelan piece Lagu Sociseknum uses pitches derived from his social security number. 
  • Society music: Harrison cowrote his Party Pieces at New York social gatherings with his close friends Cowell, Thomson, and Cage. As a game, one participant would compose a measure, then fold the paper so that only the last beat was visible and pass it to the next composer, who would continue the process. After a few rounds, they would play the frequently fascinating result. Bob Hughes later orchestrated these trifles, which were then recorded in 1983 by the Brooklyn Philharmonic.
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Explore the Music

As a fearless explorer and experimenter, Harrison’s music has the kind of encyclopedic variety listeners might expect. But his music differs from the modernism of the mid-20th century because it is so insistently melodic. In his later works can be heard tinges of Romanticism.

  • Percussion music: Harrison and John Cage created the first Western percussion ensemble in the late 1930s, contriving instruments from tuned flower pots, brake drums, coffee cans, and Chinese gongs found in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Their compositions for the ensemble, including Harrison’s Suite for Percussion, Simfony #13, and their still-popular collaboration Double Music form much of the early core repertoire for percussion ensemble. Harrison sometimes added a melody instrument (as in his First Concerto for Flute and Percussion), and eventually wrote pieces for violin and percussion, works for organ and percussion, a Mass for percussion and chorus, and Labyrinth #3 (1941) and Orpheus (1969) for large percussion orchestras. 
  • Modal dance music: During his later New York years, Harrison composed a series of remarkable dance scores for choreographers Jean Erdman and Bonnie Bird. Influenced by Alain Danielou’s Introduction to the Study of Musical Scales and the music of Alan Hovhaness, which he was among the first in New York to hear, Harrison used modal techniques derived from early music in his dance scores The Perilous Chapel (1949) and Solstice (1950), while his jaunty scores to The Marriage at the Eiffel Tower (1949) and The Only Jealousy of Emer (1949) imbibed the spirit of 1920s Paris. 
  • Adventures in tuning: Influenced by the writings of Harry Partch as well as his personal relationship with that tuning pioneer and composer, Harrison spent much of the 1950s experimenting with tunings far removed from the standard, “industrial,” 12-tone equal temperament he believed had contaminated Western music with harsh, unnatural sounds. Some of the fruits of this period include Music for Corneille’s Cinna, Four Strict Songs, and Simfony in Free Style. 
  • East meets West: Harrison’s Western/Asian fusion music of the 1960s was the forerunner of the world music movement. In 1963, his Pacifika Rondo used piris (a Korean double-reed), pak (a Korean wooden clapper), chango (Korean drum), daiko (Japanese drum), gongs, psalteries, and zheng (Chinese zither), along with Western instruments, each movement representing the music of a major Pacific Rim region. He wrote Asian-influenced pieces for other instruments that allowed him to easily use tunings he favored. These works influenced the next generation of globally aware composers. 
  • Gamelan music: Beginning in 1976, Harrison devoted much of his compositional energy to the ensemble he called the most beautiful on the planet: the Central Javanese bronze gamelan. His music for gamelan and Western instruments, such as Philemon and Baukis (for violin), Main Bersama-sama (horn), Threnody for Carlos Chavez (viola), Double Concerto (cello and violin), Piano Concerto, and Bubaran Robert (trumpet) remain among his most popular, often performed by the many gamelan ensembles in the U.S. and abroad. 
  • Young at heart: From the 1980s until Harrison’s death, commissions produced a late-career bloom. His Third Symphony (1982), like many of his large-scale works, reached back across the decades to incorporate tunes and even entire earlier compositions. Last Symphony (1990) used Javanese gamelan techniques with Western instrumentation. Recordings of Harrison’s Piano Concerto (1985), which was premiered by Keith Jarrett, and his Pipa Concerto (1997) won acclaim. New dance scores included New Moon (1986), Ariadne (1987), Tandy’s Tango (1992), and Rhymes With Silver (1996). And that’s not to mention the dozens of pieces for gamelan, solo works, and music for various ensembles that poured forth in these years.
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