On Screen Wednesday: Oregon’s greatest composer

The Northwest Film Center presents the Portland premiere of of Eva Soltes' documentary film "Lou Harrison: A World of Music"

One day in the late 1970s, the celebrated American composer Lou Harrison phoned Eva Soltes, then a student in her late 20s. “Hello, dear,” the deep jolly voice boomed. “Glub glub glub, I’m drowning in papers. Can you save me?” Harrison’s growing fame as a pioneering figure in American music, coupled with a car accident that reminded him of his mortality, spurred him to start getting his papers (music, files, correspondence) in order, and Soltes, who was producing 100 concerts a year at Berkeley’s chamber music organization, 1750 Arch Street, seemed to him to offer a solution.

Lou Harrison at his strawbale house in California.
Photo: Eva Soltes

They’d met earlier when Soltes was studying classical Indian dance with the famed teacher and dancer Balasaraswati at Berkeley’s Center for World Music. One day after leaving the class, she walked across the street and saw two bearded men making musical instruments, and occasionally playing them. The center had given the great composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and his partner Bill Colvig the workshop space as part of Harrison’s teaching assignment there. Soltes often stood in the doorway, just to watch and listen.

They grew closer when she produced a concert celebrating the centennial of the pioneering American composer Charles Ives — whom Harrison had known. He’d edited much of Ives’s work and conducted the 1943 premiere of Ives’s Third Symphony that won Ives the Pulitzer Prize in music.

Soltes recognized the respect the brilliant, charismatic polymath Harrison commanded even then. “When you were in Lou’s presence, you’d stand straighter or sit taller or listen a little better.” Despite hating paperwork and already having a full time job, she agreed to help. Eventually she found him an assistant, but stayed in his orbit for the rest of his life, producing concerts around the country for him, bringing some order to the chaos of his burgeoning career and contributing to Harrison’s emerging recognition as the grand old maverick of American music.

In 1984, Harrison invited Soltes to an event honoring his old mentor, composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who was visiting San Francisco. She brought a video camera that she’d been given by a foundation to document the life of her dance teacher. If her life deserved preserving on film, then surely so did those of America’s homegrown creative geniuses like Harrison, whose prodigious career stretched from his early percussion ensemble concerts with John Cage in the 1930s through music inspired by Ives and his teachers Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, and included ballet scores for choreographers such as Jean Erdman and Mark Morris, tuning experiments sparked by his friend Harry Partch, symphonies, concertos, solo works, and finally the multicultural fusions with the music of Asia, particularly Javanese gamelan music, that culminated his enduring legacy. That day, she shot footage of Harrison and Colvig walking arm in arm in a church — her first video of the legendary Aptos-based composer. But far from the last.

On October 17, the Northwest Film Center’s Reel Music Festival will screen the Portland debut of Soltes’ film, almost 30 years in the making, “Lou Harrison: A World of Music.” She will be in attendance.

LOU HARRISON: A World of Music (a film by Eva Soltes) ~ Film Trailer from Eva Soltes on Vimeo.

The Pacific Composer

Around the time Soltes started filming, Harrison’s fame began to soar. When the composer died in February 2003 at age 85, he was on his way to a four-day festival of his music in Ohio, one of many such celebrations of his music in the decades before his death. The tribute concerts and honors Harrison received (including Musical America’s Composer of the Year award in 2002 and the prestigious McDowell medal for distinguished contributions to the arts the previous year) attest to the way the critical establishment had finally caught up with a composer who spent most of his career blazing musical trails that the rest of the world is only now following.

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. He became one of the first major American artists to live openly as a gay man.

In 1940s New York, Harrison was one of the hot young composers in a group that included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, and Cage. He conducted the celebrated 1946 premiere of Charles Ives’ Third Symphony, which won Ives the Pulitzer Prize, and wrote ballet music for Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, Jean Erdman, and others. He was active in the early peace and gay rights movements, was a friend of writers such as Joseph Campbell, Kenneth Rexroth, and Paul Bowles, and lover of Living Theater founder Judith Malina.

In the 1950s, Harrison received a Guggenheim fellowship to teach at the celebrated Black Mountain college along with Robert Rauschenberg, Merce Cunningham, and other writers, artists and musicians; received a prestigious award for music presented by Igor Stravinsky for his first opera,Rapunzel, in Rome; and pioneered new tunings, becoming a major influence on later composers.

He returned to Portland to compose original music to new ballets at Reed College for two summers, 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 the first composer to successfully marry Western classical music with Asian musical forms — Korean, Chinese, Indonesian and more. The Pacific Rim music he created was lyrical, innovative, accessible, and multicultural — and totally out of synch with the dark, atonal: music that dominated concert halls then. During the 1970s and ’80s, he composed for and played in a Chinese music trio, taught for many years at San Jose State University, Mills College and Cabrillo College, and with his life partner Bill Colvig, built and composed a substantial amount of celebrated music for several Javanese and American gamelan ensembles.

By century’s end, musical and cultural trends at last began to catch up with Lou Harrison, who was always ahead of his time. “World music” has become all the rage, as have the do-it-yourself ethic of rock and roll, the emerging Pacific Rim culture, openly gay artists, and serious 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, programming several of his works over the past few seasons, including a major tribute concert. Keith Jarrett recorded his music, as have the Kronos Quartet and leading symphony orchestras. 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 presented him with the keys to the city. One of his final works was a commission from renowned choreographer Mark Morris featuring the great cellist, Yo Yo Ma, as soloist; the CD, Rhymes with Silver, received national acclaim when it was released in 2001. His wisdom was quoted on the cover of a Sonic Youth album, and dozens of CDs of his music have been released since his death in 2003.

Harrison’s legacy extends into the next 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. Every day, his music is played somewhere in performance, often in dance works, several choreographed by his great friend and colleague Mark Morris. It’s a great story, told well in Soltes’s film — and it all began here.

Oregon Trails

Harrison was born in Portland in 1917 and 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,” (later made famous by Shirley Temple) 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, Soltes says. His family built and operated the Silver Court Apartments, which still stand in Northeast Portland’s Irvington district. The family moved to California when he was ten, and a year later lost their fortune in the Great Depression, which led to a series of moves that left the young Harrison isolated and the family struggling.

“In the film Lou says he was always trying to recover his childhood riches. And when he couldn’t, he made them himself,” she said in a chat at Portland’s Lan Su Classical Chinese Garden this week. “In his childhood, he was in the lap of luxury here in Portland, remembering the details of the Chinese carved furniture in their home. He remembered the grass paper on the walls and prints. It was a very very happy time of his life. They had servants — his mother had a button under the table and she’d press the button to summon them. He didn’t call them servants — he called them an ‘associated family.’”

Harrison discovered his gay identity in Portland, Soltes says. “He had a crush on a boy from the ‘associated family’ and early on had crushes on the boys from Silver Court.”
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. “In the film, he says that his mother believed that her sons should have musical and dance training,” Soltes says. “That’s what he grew up in.” 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 Chinese 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 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 for the remainder of his time in New York. They renewed the friendship after Charlip, who became a renowned children’s book author and artist, moved to San Francisco in the 1980s.

Harrison himself had moved back to the West Coast shortly after his Reed summers, settling in Aptos on Monterey Bay in 1953. Harrison returned to Oregon often in the 1980s and ‘90s.

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

Bill Colvig, Eva Soltes & Lou Harrison at Taliesin
Photo: Ling Po.

A World of Music

Soltes was with him on that occasion and many others in the last 20 years of Harrison’s life. She brought her camera to hundreds of events Harrison participated in, from concerts to the building of the beautiful straw bale house he designed for himself in Joshua Tree, completed not long before his death, and which now hosts an artist residency program that Soltes administers and which the film premiere event benefits. But she didn’t initially regard her frequent documentation as part of a film biography. Then Harrison spent a year in New Zealand on a Fulbright grant.

“I realized how much I missed him and his music,” she recalls, and she realized that his amazing generation of maverick West Coast artists would be disappearing soon. “I understood the impact his music had on people, like it had on me. He was a really great composer who touched people in a deep way. Little by little I came to the idea that we were the first generation that had the ability to preserve the music and words of our treasured artists. We’re in the same clan, and he’s my elder. If I didn’t do it, no one else was going to do it.”

With no background in filmmaking, Soltes assumed that she would hire professionals to make the real documentary, but a film editor who saw her work urged her to make it herself. “Your work has the life in it,” he told her. “Filmmaking is like dance,” she says. “It’s music and movement and content.” She wound up teaching herself much of what she needed to learn, at first by producing radio documentaries for the BBC (about West Coast composers) and National Public Radio. She made a short film about another composer she worked with, Conlon Nancarrow, that he could take with him on tour, and a longer one about Indian dance. She also enlisted experienced film editor Robbie Robb, who co-edited the film with her. Harrison allowed Soltes to use his voluminous address book to contact his friends for support, and she also obtained grants from the Hewlett Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with investing her own time and money into the long-gestating project.

The bigger obstacle turned out to be the sheer wealth of material she gathered. Harrison lived a long, rich, full, active life — and Soltes was there to film much of it. “It was like trying to eat a whale all by myself,” she says. How to cut it down to manageable length? She solved that problem by deciding to make not one but 10 films from the material, including one about his relationship with Colvig (an outdoorsman, electrician and instrument builder who was himself a native Oregonian, born in Medford to a family with deep Southern Oregon roots), another about the long, troubled creation of his opera Young Caesar, and more.

This one focuses on the development of his music. Sometimes working up to 20 hours per day, Soltes completed the last marathon round of major editing after moving her editing equipment to Harrison’s straw bale house in 2010, which provided the isolation, focus and inspiration (portraits of Harrison and Colvig gazed down at her from the walls) she needed.
Soltes’s favorite moments include moving shots documenting his 33-year partnership with Colvig, who died in 2000. “I was happy that I was close enough to them to be a fly on the wall,” she says. Harrison always refused to allow her to film him actually composing “those things are private,” he told her — but finally relented, yielding a precious sequence.

Even those who don’t know his fascinating life or his alluring music will find much to enjoy, Soltes says. “What’s making me happiest about is that people who knew nothing about him come away from the film feeling like they knew him. He was not only a great composer but also a personality who’s fun to watch. He was always a performer, onstage from the time he was two years old,” she says. “He was a visionary, a hugely important musical figure, and his life is very inspiring — how he persevered in finding his own path. Like MTT [SF Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas] said, he not only always marched to his own drum —he even made his own drum.”

The Portland premiere screening of Lou Harrison: A World of Music at Whitsell Auditorium, Portland Art Museum, 7 pm Wednesday. Proceeds benefit Harrison House Music & Arts, the artist residency program that carries forward the world of artists and their creations that always revolved around Lou Harrison. www.harrisondocumentary.com.

Some of this material first appeared in San Francisco Classical Voice, where I also wrote a summary profile of Harrison’s life and music. And here’s the story I wrote about Harrison for the Wall Street Journal when he died in 2003. I’m working on a biography of Harrison with Bill Alves.

Here’s a performance from last spring of Harrison’s great 1973 work for chorus and orchestra, “The Heart Sutra,” at the Berkeley Art Museum.

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