May 14, 1917 – Lou Garrison:
”We get more dangerous as we accumulate knowledge, and that’s both a sadness and something to control, try to learn to live with, make terms with.”
Portland’s own Lou Harrison was a composer known for his unusual lyrical musical style and the use of instruments from Asia, especially Javanese. The composer’s motto was “Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create.” He was a published poet, a painter and a calligrapher. A Radical Faerie, he was openly gay back in the 1930s.
Harrison had many passions, including puppetry, the Esperanto language, different musical tuning systems, the construction of musical instruments, and dance. He was also a progressive political activist, a pacifist, an environmentalist and a strong advocate for LGBTQ Rights at a time when it was especially brave to do so.
Born in Portland, his family moved to San Francisco when he was a kid, and he lived most of his life on the West Coast of the USA. At San Francisco State University, he studied with gay composer Henry Cowell, who gave him an 1871 nine-foot Steinway grand for a graduation gift.
Harrison moved to NYC in 1943, because that is where you wanted to be if you were a serious composer. During WW II, Harrison was the music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. Although Harrison was welcomed into the NYC musical circle of gay composer Virgil Thomson, who promoted his works, he decided that he was a not cut out for the big city. The city bewildered him, but he found success when, in 1946, he conducted the world premiere of the Third Symphony by gay composer Charles Ives at Carnegie Hall. It was a work that had languished for 40 years.
Although that performance earned a Pulitzer Prize for Ives, NYC triggered a nervous breakdown for Harrison. Ives gave half of his prize money to Harrison.
He moved to North Carolina, where he taught at Black Mountain College, the experimental arts college where John Cage and his partner in love and art, choreographer Merce Cunningham, also worked.
Harrison then moved back to California. Harrison found it hard to support himself with his music, and he had to take odd jobs, working as a record salesman, florist, veterinary nurse, and forest firefighter.
He managed to produce his First Symphony, and his Mass To St Anthony, a modal work of serene beauty which evokes the early Californian missions and stood in stark contrast to his gritty symphony. This fertile period also included his first opera, Rapunzel. His musical experiments continued, with many pieces using “tack” piano, in the manner of Cage, where the piano hammers would be filled with nails or drawing pins to produce a keener, thinner tone.
In California, Harrison could focus on his fusion of East and West philosophies and sounds. Among Harrison’s compositions from that era is a large body of percussion music that showcases Western, Asian, African, and Latin American rhythmic traditions. Later pieces celebrated musical folk cultures of Mexico, American Indians and the Oceania.
Harrison composed the opera, Young Caesar (1971), which tackles homosexuality and the clashes between East and West. He did commissions for the Portland and Seattle Gay Men’s Choruses. In 1995, Harrison wrote Parade For MTT for the San Francisco Symphony’s celebration of openly gay music director Michael Tilson Thomas. Thomas was a champion of Harrison’s symphonies, works for chamber orchestra, concertos and dozens of compositions for gamelan.
“Enjoy hybrid music, because that’s all there is.”
Harrison also enjoyed a long productive relationship with openly gay choreographer Mark Morris, who used several of his works for dances and commissioned Rhymes With Silver (1996), piece for chamber ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma as cellist.
When he was 50-years-old, he met his life partner, William Colvig, a rugged outdoorsman whom he met at a performance of his own music in San Francisco. Although not a composer, Colvig, an electrician by trade, was also a musician. They lived in a cabin in the woods near Santa Cruz, where together they developed and built musical instruments, including three new gamelans. A gamelan is a set of instruments that includes xylophones, metallophones, drums, gongs, bamboo flutes and strings that are both bowed and plucked, all of them incompatible with Western music tuning systems.
In 1986, Harrison wrote:
“Simply said, gamelan music is the most beautiful music in the world, and I, for one, see no reason to do any other kind of music ever again.”
He didn’t keep to this and continued to do all sorts of other music for the rest of his life.
Harrison and Colvig, both with beards and long hair, remained a couple until Colvig’s passing in 2000. They bought property in the desert and built the now famous Lou Harrison House in Joshua Tree. It is a straw-bale house of architectural distinction. Today it is used for in-residence programs for composers and other artists.
Harrison taught at Stanford, Cabrillo College, Mills College, USC and San Jose State, where he was composer-in-residence.
Harrison left this world in 2003, taken by a heart attack at a festival of his own music at Ohio State University. He was 85-years-old. His 300+ compositions are all available on recordings, many by The San Francisco Symphony.