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Lou Harrison
by Bob Roehr

This article shared 1925 times since Wed Feb 12, 2003
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Lou Harrison, an extraordinary composer, creative spirit, and gay man died Feb. 3 at age 85. He suffered a heart attack while traveling through Indiana to a weeklong festival of his work at Ohio State University.

Harrison described himself as 'an old man who has had a lot of fun,' when I interviewed him in 1998 at his home in Aptos, Calif. He looked like a California version of Santa Clause, all decked out in a flowered Hawaiian shirt.

He was born in Portland, Ore., and began writing music virtually from puberty. As a teenager in the 1930s he studied with noted composer Henry Cowell in San Francisco. When Cowell went to jail for four years on a morals charge of homosexuality, the young Harrison visited regularly, ferrying scores back and forth from San Quentin. He mused, 'I only recently realized that I was having lessons through the bars, and the prodigious amount of work he [Cowell] did there.'

Harrison had long realized that he was gay and by 20 was now living with his first boyfriend. They seemed to come and last for 'more or less a regulation three years in succession,' until he met Bill Colvig in 1967. They were together until Colvig's death in 2000. He said the secret of their enduring relationship was mutual interests, chief of which were music, instruments, and love of the outdoors.

Harrison recalled his time in New York City, beginning in 1943, as one of 'constant noise, inescapable noise.'

He worked a mélange of jobs, from elevator operator to music critic for composer and critic Virgil Thomson at the Herald Tribune. He met the music and gay elites, often overlapping circles. Among them was his second mentor, the eminent Charles Ives. He copied and edited the master's scores, even conducted the premier of Ives' Third Symphony, to rave reviews. He built his own instruments in his little apartment and he continued to write music, including one of his most frequently performed works, Solstice.

A major part of life for a twenty-something gay man living in Greenwich Village, then as now, was cruising the streets, parks, and subways. 'During the war it was wide open,' said Harrison. 'It was, you make eye contact and that was it, your place or mine?' That spirit of sexuality stayed with him his entire life.

The stress of city living and an unstable personal life built to a nervous breakdown in the late 1940s and a nine-month stay in a psychiatric clinic, arranged by friend and fellow composer John Cage. Harrison says, 'I discovered that I was not a New Yorker.'

The early 1950s brought a return to his geographic roots. He settled south of San Francisco in Aptos, then a small fishing town, now engulfed by the suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley. Numerous fellowship programs and guest teaching assignments have taken him around the Pacific Rim.

For Harrison, composing music was 'emotional math. Once you've got the rhythm right the only other thing you can do is choose the tones and that means the relation between them.' That sounds cold, mechanical. While the intellectual process may have been that for Harrison, the product was anything but cold. Each musical creation carries the personality of its very exuberant maker.

His compositions spanned the gamut from traditional symphonies to solo pieces for esoteric instruments. He was fond of medieval rhythms, adored percussion, and was an advocate of the music of Asia. He had the uncanny ability to absorb eastern traditions and meld them with those of the west to make a sound that was both new, yet familiar to the ear.

The gamelan 'is simply the most beautiful musical ensemble of the face of the planet,' he said swooning with rapture. Harrison was one of America's most fervent advocates for the Javanese ensemble music. A gamelan consists of gongs, metal bars, and cylinders precisely tuned in ratio to each other. No two sound quite exactly the same.

'Everyone [in the ensemble] is expected to be able to play any part in it,' he explained. 'Now imagine asking your first flutist to be able to play the contrabass. It's a difference in attitude.' He was especially attracted to the fact that 'you learn how to cooperate, quite elaborately sometimes, with everybody.' He built two of the earliest gamelans in this country and proselytized by writing and recording music played on them.

Harrison's life embodied an older, broader, genteel bohemian tradition of the arts, plus a radical faerie sense of whimsy. His interests were not confined to music. He was a published poet, an accomplished painter, the creator of several fonts of type, and an enthusiastic teacher.

He embraced his homosexuality from the start and lived openly, not in a defiant manner but in a celebratory one. Many of his works are dedicated to boyfriends. In 1942, in the middle of World War II, he told the draft board he was gay and they classified him 4-F. 'They didn't want me, and I didn't want them,' he said of his strong pacifism.

During the McCarthyism of the 1950s he spoke publicly 'about being gay.' In the 1960s he was a member of San Francisco's Society for Individual Rights (SIR), one of the earliest gay organizations, where he taught classes and ran program activities. His life inspired his work and collaboration.

But to call him a gay composer would be a misnomer. He was simply one of the most creative and innovative American composers of the 20th century. And, more than anything else, he led a principled life, living it to the fullest. Lou Harrison indeed had a lot of fun. We are blessed with his music and the example of his life.

This article shared 1925 times since Wed Feb 12, 2003
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