Lou Harrison at 100: a global musical legacy, born in Oregon

Portland classical music groups have shamefully ignored the music of Oregon's greatest composer in his centennial year — but that's about to change

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 make it Resemble
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 we becOme


John Cage: “Many Happy Returns” for Lou Harrison

One hundred years ago Sunday, one of America’s greatest and most influential composers was born in Portland. This spring, concerts around the world are honoring the colorful musical legacy of Lou Harrison, who spent the first decade of his life here, and returned often after creating some of the 20th century’s most seductive and trailblazing sounds.

Lou Harrison (l) and his life partner and fellow Oregonian Bill Colvig.

During this birthday week alone, over a dozen tribute shows will be performed in California, where Harrison lived most of his long and fruitful life until his death at 85 in 2003. Other concerts have happened or will occur in New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and many other places — including Lapland! Yet so far as we’re aware, not a single Portland classical orchestra or ensemble has bothered to program any of the music of the greatest composer to emerge from Portland during his centennial year. After all, Harrison’s significance is widely recognized elsewhere (as for example in a recent article by The New Yorker magazine classical music critic Alex Ross (the magazine ran a long feature profile of Harrison before he died), and a segment on National Public Radio) as a major figure in American music.

More important, Lou Harrison’s music matters now. We shouldn’t listen today merely because he was born in Portland, but because so much is simply beautiful: melodic, danceable, global in its influences and impact, played and danced to all around the country. He was an emotional guy, and his music bristles with emotion — sometimes angry, sometimes melancholy, often joyful, and all colors in between. That’s why it’ll always connect with listeners who come to music for an emotional, not just an intellectual experience.

Fortunately, an important Harrison event is happening here in June. We’ll get to that in a moment, along with information on how ArtsWatch can help Oregon musicians who want to delight listeners with the pioneering, tuneful, forward-looking music of Oregon’s greatest composer during the remainder of this centennial year — and beyond.

Musical Maverick

Why does the rest of the world think so highly of this Portland native son?

Harrison (standing at gong) and Cage started a percussion ensemble to play their music in the late 1930s.

Harrison’s percussion concerts with John Cage in 1930s San Francisco shook up the American classical music establishment, heralding the arrival of the West Coast avant-garde and introducing percussion music to the classical repertoire, even presaging the advent of DIY rock music; unlike classical ensembles then, they formed their own bands, made their own instruments, played their own music.

In 1940s New York, Harrison was one of the hot young composers in a group that included Cage, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein. He rediscovered and conducted the celebrated 1946 premiere of Charles Ives’s Third Symphony, which won Ives the Pulitzer Prize, and wrote ballet music for Merce Cunningham, Jean Erdman, and others.

One of the first major American artists to live loud and proud as a gay man, Harrison was active in the early peace and gay rights movements, a friend or collaborator with writers such as Joseph Campbell, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan and Paul Bowles, and lover of Living Theater founder Judith Malina.

In the 1950s, Harrison taught North Carolina’s celebrated Black Mountain College along with Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and other vanguard writers, artists and musicians. He received a prestigious award for music presented by Igor Stravinsky for his first opera, Rapunzel, in Rome. He pioneered new tunings, becoming a major influence on later composers.

Harrison returned to Portland for two summers to compose original music to new ballets at Reed College, then moved back to California, where he began pioneering studies in alternative tunings, some in conjunction with his friend Harry Partch.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Harrison traveled to Asia to study and became one of the first composers to successfully marry Western classical music with Asian musical forms — Korean, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian. The Pacific Rim music he created was lyrical, innovative, accessible, and multicultural — and totally out of synch with the dark, atonal music that dominated new compositions then. Harrison composed for and played in a Chinese classical music trio, and taught for many years at San Jose State University, Mills College and Cabrillo College.

He wrote politically charged music protesting militarism and environmental destruction throughout his career, and lived his ideals by building an eco friendly straw bale house in Joshua Tree, in the process changing laws to make such dwellings easier to create. He also painted, published poetry, applied the calligraphy he’d learned at Reed College to his many writings.

During the 1970s and ’80s, with his life partner Bill Colvig, Harrison built several Javanese and American gamelan ensembles, for which he composed a substantial amount of celebrated music. As with his other Asian-influenced music, Harrison didn’t merely add superficial “exotic” touches like a tabla here or a sitar there. He plunged deeply into study of Asian cultures’ musical forms and instruments (many of which he learned to play himself). His music for Asian instruments and for Western classical instruments often embraces influences from each tradition.

In the 1980s, musical and cultural trends at last began to catch up with Lou Harrison, who was always ahead of his time. “World music” became all the rage, as did the do-it-yourself ethic of rock and roll, the emerging Pacific Rim culture, openly gay artists, and ambitious music that’s also accessible to a broad range of audiences.

And musicians and listeners began to pay attention, resulting in dozens of recordings, more commissions than he could handle, some of the most prestigious awards in American arts, and an elder statesman status among American composers. The San Francisco Symphony adopted Harrison as its patron saint. Yo Yo Ma and Keith Jarrett, Kronos Quartet and leading symphony orchestras recorded and/or performed his music.

In 1997, San Francisco and New York City hosted 80th birthday tributes to Harrison — concerts, presentations, panel discussions, and dance performances — and the mayor of San Francisco declared his birthday Lou Harrison Day in the city. His wisdom was quoted on the cover of a Sonic Youth album, and dozens of CDs of his music have appeared, including a new one from Washington DC’s Post-Classical Ensemble and another from Portland’s own Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan ensemble.

Since Harrison’s death, his music is played somewhere every day, often in dance works, several choreographed by his great friend and colleague Mark Morris. It’s a colorful story, told in Eva Soltes’s film Lou Harrison: A World of Music, and in the new biography I co-authored with Bill Alves, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick— and it all began here.

Harrison’s legacy extends into this century: his work with Asian musical forms and instruments and his exploration of new tuning systems opened a whole new world of possibilities to modern music, allowing composers to take resources from various cultures and use them to make new music. We’ll be hearing some of that newly created music in Portland next month. Read on for details.

Oregon Trails

Why should Oregon celebrate Harrison? Even though he spent most of his career in California, Lou Harrison forged a lifelong relationship with his native Oregon. Born in Portland in 1917, he lived here until the family moved to California when he was 10. His mother worked in a beauty shop, and one of her customers was an actress who got the young Lou involved in her company’s productions. Once during a production of Daddy Long Legs, Lou, then two and half, was cast as the youngest orphan. A review in the Oregonian February 18, 1920, praised young “Buster’s” performance.

Harrison always spoke fondly of his Portland childhood. His family built and operated the Silver Court Apartments, which still stand in Northeast Portland’s Irvington district. The family moved briefly to Astoria, then permanently to California, and soon lost their fortune in the Great Depression, which led to a series of moves that left the young Harrison isolated and the family struggling.

Most important, it was in Portland that Harrison developed his love for music and art, particularly that of Asia, which would go on to influence him throughout his life. When Harrison began performing Chinese classical music in the 1960s, his mother asked him why he became a Chinese musician. That was one of the risks you took, he told her, when you raised me in a household full of Asian art.

After beginning his music career in San Francisco, Los Angeles (briefly) and New York, Harrison returned to Portland during the summer of 1949 and 1950 to compose for and accompany dance performances of his music at Reed College. There, he met Remy Charlip, a young dancer (in the company of their mutual friend Merce Cunningham, among others) and theater designer who became his lover.

Harrison moved back to the West Coast shortly after his Reed summers, settling in Aptos on Monterey Bay in 1953. He and Colvig (also a native Oregonian, from a Medford pioneer family) returned to Oregon often in the 1980s and ‘90s, working with the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, Venerable Showers of Beauty Gamelan (which has often performed his music), and Oregon Repertory Singers and was composer in residence at the Oregon Bach Festival’s Composers Symposium.

“He loved Portland and he was particularly excited that the Gay Men’s Chorus performed his opera [Young Caesar],” his friend and documentary biographer Soltes recalled. “For him, Powell’s was one of the greatest places in the world because he was a book fanatic.”

Harrison Homecoming

And yet, Portland doesn’t seem to love Harrison — or at least some of its classical music institutions don’t. They’re perfectly willing to endlessly recycle performances of the same old long dead European composers played elsewhere, while ignoring the broadly accessible, forward looking music of Oregon’s, and the Pacific Rim’s, greatest composer. Of the groups that actually worked with Harrison (Oregon Repertory Singers, which recorded his Mass to St. Anthony, Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, which commissioned songs from him and performed excerpts from his second opera, Young Caesar, Third Angle New Music, Reed College, which hired Harrison to compose some wonderful ballet music), only Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan ensemble, which he worked with from its birth in 1980, has so far announced plans to perform his music in this centennial year. Eugene’s Delgani Quartet performed and recorded his haunting String Quartet Set earlier this year, and next weekend, the Southern Oregon University percussion ensemble will play a centennial tribute concert May 18 in Ashland.

VSB (of which I’m a member) and Portland Percussion Group lead the list of performers at Oregon’s biggest Harrison festival. On June 16-17, Portland State University hosts CeLOUbration, which brings together Harrison scholars, PSU faculty and student performers (including FearNoMusic co-founder Joel Bluestone, Bryan Johanson, Susan Chan, Tomas Kotik and more), and other Portland musicians (singer Hannah Penn, cellist Diane Chaplin, percussionist Florian Conzetti, pianist Adrienne Varner, and more) in two concerts, an academic salon and symposium (including a series of presentations about Harrison’s life and music), a screening of Soltes’s film, and more.

Appropriately for such a forward-looking artist who always championed the work of other composers, the festival (which I’ve been involved in planning) also contains new music in Harrison’s tradition created by Cascadia Composers Bonnie Miksch, Susan Alexjander (a longtime colleague of Harrison’s in California), Greg Steinke, Lisa Ann Marsh, ArtsWatch contributor Matt Andrews, Mark Vigil and more.

Covering a half century-span of Harrison’s compositions, the concerts focus on the legendary percussion music from the beginning of his career and Javanese gamelan music from its final phase.

But there’s so much more! Four symphonies and numerous other orchestral works for large and chamber orchestra, music for Chinese and Korean instruments, some beautiful music for harp or guitar, numerous dance works, chamber music…. Portland has heard little of this music live, and Harrison’s centenary offers a perfect opportunity to rectify that omission, especially now that our increasingly globally conscious community caught up with his forward-looking global artistic vision.

So why haven’t Portland musicians stepped up to bring Harrison’s music to our community? Are our classical music institutions so culturally clueless that they’re not aware of Harrison’s significance and broad appeal? Or are they so indifferent to their own community’s artistic heritage that even if they are aware, they just don’t care? Rather, I hope the problem lies in unfamiliarity with Harrison’s compositions for conventional classical instruments. It’s a large and somewhat unruly body of work, and until our book appeared, difficult to sort out, although plenty of other institutions around the country have somehow managed to do so.

That’s where Oregon ArtsWatch can help! If you’re an Oregon musician who wants to bring Lou Harrison’s music to Oregon listeners, I can help connect performers to scores that suit their instrumentation and audiences, including music that’s never been performed here. Please use the contact form below if you’d like to chat.

Because really, Harrison’s music shouldn’t be limited to performances in this centennial year anyway. 100 is just a number. Classical music (and increasingly, pop — witness the 50 year Sgt. Pepper and 20 year Joshua Tree anniversary doings) is too obsessed with round number anniversaries, maybe because they provide one of the only ‘hooks’ possible for yet another performance of the same old repertoire. It’s not like those dead composers are writing new pieces to premiere, despite the occasional rediscovery.

But there’s plenty of Lou Harrison’s irresistibly melodious music awaiting discovery by Oregonians, and we should be able to hear his Pacific Rim music live every year, not just his hundredth. Rather than being a culmination of his legacy, let’s hope Harrison’s centennial will be the catalyst for future performances by the greatest composer born in Oregon.

Portland State University presents CeLOUbration! June 16-17 at Lincoln Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland. 

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    I agree that it’s surprising to see precisely nada by Lou scheduled on the OSO 17-18 season. I mean, seriously, given the band somehow mustered a token 5-minute piece honoring David Schiff’s 70th, why pass over PDX’s greatest native son composer in utter silence?

    But, eine kleine grumbling aside, bravo to YOU for this wonderful article, the recent publication of your full-length Lou bio (with Bill Alves) & for being catalyst numero uno of the exciting CeLOUbration coming up @ PSU next month!

  2. Thank you BC for all the research you and collaborator Bill Alves must’ve put in to the new long overdue bio on Pacific Rim Musical and Poetry pioneer Lou Harrison! An oeuvre and regional artist way overdue for CeLOUbration indeed!

    While we’ve never actually met, only discussed other Oregon ArtsWatch pieces online, I must say you’ve kept your collaboration with Bill Alves, which I’m guessing took years of pre-publication prep like a poker pro pressing his cards close to his vest!

    As I am not well-connected with the High Cultcha of classical music, although I’ve always listened with open untrained ears and much curiosity, I would perhaps naively expect the classical music aesthete to carry within their core identity a longer historical marker of noteworthiness and be slow to appreciate anything that veers from Euro musical notation and modality. Even though Europe appears on all maps as only the western-most extension of the Asian continent, which Lou Harrison and the Pacific Rimmers had short-cut access to where the NW meets the Far East, often through the Golden Gate or Seattle’s Alaskan Way viaduct and up across Sarah Palin’s front porch…

    Beyond Po’Town’s or the Emerald City’s classical ensembles however, or even the Vancouver, BC through White Horse Pacific Canadian classical circuit there has been much underground and bohemian CeLOUbration long before Lou Harrison’s woulda been 100th B-Day. Check the online archives of Pacifica Pioneering Community Radio network’s Berkeley-Bay Area station KPFA where a Fresno college student named Charles Amirkhanian as your forthcoming book (Indiana U. Press) with Bill Alves will no doubt describe took to the then mostly underground FM airwaves with Harrison and partner gamelan as well as percussion and tack piano building pioneer Bill Colvig (of Medford as you note above). Even before Harrison settled into teaching in the Oakland Hills at the vanguard Mills College.

    Meanwhile Pacifica Radio’s slightly younger NW community broadcasting counterparts KRAB up in the Emerald City and Po’Town’s own KBOO featured Lou Harrison on such cutting edge weekly programs as A DIFFERENT NATURE and Daniel Flessas’ floating free-form audio collage fest THE OUTSIDE WORLD.

    Sublime frequencies were heard just last night as local former TimbukTunes record store curator-proprietor Andy Hosch hosted a preview of the upcoming PSU CeLOUbration and noted the forthcoming publication of your book bio with Bill Alves on KBOO’s A DIFFERENT NATURE (audio archive up for a couple of weeks, so listen and taste the Pacific breezes and trances at your convenience and comfort):

    Hope those who were enthused by the timbres long before Steve Reich or Philip Glass reduced these sublime melodic frequencies into Neo-Minimalism to spoon-feed to contemporary classical concert repertoires will carry the CeLOUbration to millennials seeking to subvert or merely find respite from the overwhelming western institutional meltdown all around U.S.

    Underground radio broadcasting pioneer Charles Amirkhanian continues to gather and collect the sounds of our lived lives and shifting paradigms of “REVELATIONARY MUSIC” online and via regional festivals through THE OTHER MINDS where you’ll find some of the company Lou Harrison, Bill Colvig and Oakland Poet-Magus Robert Duncan kept with Beats drifting through whether hipster or Tibetan Buddhists following the Pacific Light through Bardoville:

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