Feature Article - "A Conversation with Lou Harrison" - February, 2002

Jason Serinus



Two months before his 85th birthday, the Dean of maverick American music, composer/author Lou Harrison, will be feted at San Francisco's cutting edge Other Minds Festival of contemporary music. During the March 7-9 festival, the lovable Harrison will deliver the pre-concert lecture for the world premiere of his new work, "Scenes from Nek Chand" for National steel guitar; Harrison and his audience will also enjoy performances of six other works he wrote between 1952 and 2000.

Lou Harrison holds a unique position in contemporary music. As someone who worked intimately with such major 20th century  pioneers as Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Virgil Thomson; studied with Arnold Schoenberg; and edited/conducted Charles Ives' Third Symphony, his music reflects the seeds of their innovations. Deeply drawn to poetry, verse, and dance, he has collaborated with poet James Broughton and written scores for choreographers Carol Beals, Bonnie Bird, Bella Lewitzky, Lester Horton, Remy Charlip, and Mark Morris.

Of paramount importance, Lou's deep love for Javanese Gamelan, the music of the Far East, Native American culture, and movements for peace and freedom has produced a large body of work that is simultaneously ancient and uniquely modern.

Harrison's ability to wed unusual rhythms and moving melody with honest emotion has created a large body of cross-cultural music like none other on this earth. His freedom of spirit and willingness to embrace both the new and the old also reflects his long-term residency on the West Coast.

At the close of 2001, I conducted an extended phone conversation with Harrison, Musical America's Composer of the Year, about his life and the Other Minds Festival celebration. My questions are in bold-italic.

What music of yours in being performed at the Other Minds Festival 85th birthday tribute?

Linda Burman-Hall will play my incidental music to Cinna (1955-1957) on a tack piano tuned in a seven-limit just intonation. She's just recorded it, and it's magnificent. I wrote the piece in my little studio out in back here in Aptos, California.

Please describe the tack piano.

A tack piano has thumbtacks pushed into the hammers, which creates a twanging sound. It creates a different sound at different volumes. You get a wonderful resonance, and the fortissimo is just grand; then as you gradually get softer and softer, it gets a little bit more like a harpsichord with a delicate spider-webby quality.

I first encountered it backstage at Carnegie Hall during the 1940's, where they used it as a substitute harpsichord in Strauss' Ariadne and things like that, because they didn't use harpsichords with big orchestras in those days.

Could you also explain what you mean by “just intonation”?

Just intonation uses the simplest numeric and correct audio relationship for any different distance. For example, you'd go crazy if you didn't have 2 to 1 as an octave. The closest you can get to a fifth is a three to two: three vibrations to two vibrations in the same time. It goes on up to infinity; there is in fact no end to it. You can choose intervals out of it that you want to use, and I chose the seven just intonation for use on a twelve-tone piano.

In addition to the Incidental Music to Cinna, my Piano Trio for Violin Cello and Piano (1991), which I like very much, will be played by the Harmida Piano Trio. It was commissioned in 1989 by the Mirecourt Trio; it was the second of my works commissioned by the group, the first being the "Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan.”

The third movement of the work is a little suite of solos for the three musicians; they are again united in the finale. The work has a complex history. It was the first work that I composed after triple-bypass heart surgery, and it was interrupted by a major earthquake and the death of my good friend and mentor, Virgil Thomson. The premiere took place with the Mirecourt Trio at the Menil Museum in Houston during the Veneralia of 1990.

I reviewed the Cabrillo Music Festival performance of your twelve-tone chamber opera Rapunzel (1953) for Andante.com. I assume this is a very different piece.

It's not twelve-tone. With the exception of the one chromatic movement which is dedicated to the memory of Virgil Thomson, all of the remaining movements are modal in character and the entire work is melodic.

Is this piece at all influenced by Gamelan or the music of the Far East?

The only music it's influenced by a little bit is the music of North Africa. You hear an echo of Algerian/Islamic chamber music in one movement.

Many of your compositions were written for the Gamelans built by your life partner, William Colvig. What has happened to those instruments?

The house is filled with them, and I'm filled with admiration. A friend of mine is helping to restore them. I feel these are Bill's voice, and they'll go on. I still teach on one of the Gamelans in the house, and will be giving a course this spring. I've already got an enrollee.

Bill and I were together for 33 years. We met in 1967 at San Francisco's Old Spaghetti Factory at Donald Pippin's performance of my music, and were together until he died on March 1, 2000.

You had an emotional breakdown earlier in your life.

It was in 1947, right after the atom bomb and WWII.

I seem to recall from the program notes for the Cabrillo Music Festival that it had to do in part with a conflict around your sexual orientation.

No, not much at all. I was in there for the safety factor, with someone seeing me every day. People tend to forget that there are things like atom bombs that affect a breakdown. I knew what it meant, I knew when it hit, I knew the future of radioactivity and so on. That's not comforting, and it still isn't. What does that mean? What kind of music are you going to write? What's your attitude toward society going to be? What's the attitude of society going to be toward you? Well, it's going to continue to pound through your head.

To this day, a gay has no real civil rights in this country. The only country in which there are real civil rights for gays are in the Netherlands. They have civil rights for all citizens. This is an uncomfortable thing to think of. But there it is daily, everywhere since birth; you get angry after awhile.

The spirit of war that has arisen since the terrorist attack of 9/11 horrifies me.

Well, it has been going on for ages, and it will continue.

In 1954 you won the Twentieth Century Masterpiece Prize for the third act aria from Rapunzel. What are your memories of that occasion?

Stravinsky handed me the prize. The aria was sung by Leontyne Price in Rome; Virgil Thomson persuaded her to sing it. We had a session together, and she was marvelous. She was very cordial, very warm, and listened carefully.

For someone who hasn't heard your music, what would you like to offer as an entryway into it?

Get Lou Harrison: A Portrait (Argo), performed by the California Symphony Orchestra with Al Jarreau as soloist, and play it. Lou Harrison's Gamelan Music (Musical Heritage Society and Music Masters) is also a great introduction. I've had a lot of fun of writing, and I still do. I'm working on a new piece now. This morning I lost my brain again. I was working and suddenly realized “I don't know what I'm doing here,” so I left it. Then, this afternoon, I went back and got my brain back and I think solved the problems. But that's the way it goes. If it's fun, it's real. If it's no fun, then it isn't art. Art is advanced play, of course.

Is that how it's been for you for quite awhile? When it's there, it's there; when it's not there, you do something else.

Oh yes. Actually, the thing I'm most wanting to do at this point is to continue with my second book of verse. It will have Javanese Gamelan works in it as well. At first I was going to call it Poems and Pieces. And then I decided my whole trajectory through art and life and people is that I'm an insider and an outsider.

I started as an outsider, when Henry Cowell invited all of us to go to junkyards and get our instruments and make music with ourselves and get conscious of it. So that's what we did. Then through the Cabrillo Music Festival and several conductors and friends, I became an insider, with commissions from big orchestras. [The Cabrillo Music Festival staged the first West Coast premiere of Harrison's opera Rapunzel in 1966, and performed it again in August 2001].

Now I'm doing outsider work again. The new work is written for an American steel guitar that has the cones in it that make slides. During the ‘20s and ‘30s when I was growing up, and my mother was going to mah-jong parties, I listened to oodles of Hawaiian music. Those sliding guitars are still in my head, so I thought I'd try some of that. David Tannenbaum will perform the work on National Steel Guitar at Other Minds.

I consider the recent recording of  Rhymes with Silver (New Albion) one of the finest discs of 2001. Violinist David Abel, one of the musicians on the disc, tells me that you supervised the recording and playing, spending long hours in the studio. It's a wonderful recording. It has the message dance, live, enjoy and play in every bar. There's so much adventure there. Do the pieces you're writing for Other Minds have the same feel to them?

I never restrict myself. If you look back at Rhymes with Silver, you'll discover there are quite a number of different feelings in each of the pieces that comprise it. In the Trio you'll find different kinds of music, and in the new work for steel guitar you'll find three different kinds, and so on.

Classical music is being pushed off the radio. There are fewer sales of CDs. What would you like to say about its importance?

In the first place, it increases your sensitivity and intelligence. What is happening is that our whole civilization is becoming prepackaged in silver nylon, whereas we used to box things with beautiful papers and different colored ribbons and bows. Nowadays everything comes in aluminum boxes, and that's it.

I am not part of the generation that understands the current affairs. The violence is very distressing to me. I can't attend a Hollywood movie anymore. I have to go read Wordsworth or Longfellow in order to counteract the effect. I'm just not of that generation. I wasn't raised that way, and I have no interest in it.

I'm very glad that I wasn't born one minute later. If you think about what's happened between 1917 and the present, it's enough to give you the shakes! (laughing)... which I have. I can hardly write my signature anymore. It's pretty rough. If so-called civilization behaves this way increasingly, there's not going to be any planet to live on. Are we going to blow this planet to hell, or reduce it to Venus? One of the things I'm coming to terms with poetically is that I'm one of the greater apes. There are three hominids that are the greater apes: homosapiens is one, bonobos is the second, and chimpanzees are the third. I now belong to an association that is determined to grant selfhood to these groupings, because they're not things, they're people. It's interesting to me to come to terms with myself as ape, and that quality in other men.

Have you written any conscious political pieces?

Oh yes. There's the book Lou Harrison's Political Primer. It was intended to be a large oratorio, but the text survives in the book Anthology (Frog Peak). 

I've written a fair number of peace pieces, including Peace Piece: Invocation for the Health of All Beings (to a text from a Buddhist mettasutra), Peace Piece 2: Passages 25 (to a text by Robert Duncan), and Peace Piece 3: Little Song on the Atom Bomb (to text by Lou Harrison); a fair number are recorded. Then of course there's my Homage to Pacifica [listener- supported Pacifica Radio] that quotes Mark Twain and sets Chief Seattle's beautiful text; it's available on disc.

What else would you like to say about music?

I still enjoy it fairly much, but I don't listen as much as I used to. There are things, for example, I haven't heard. We're going to get a copy of Mendelssohn's Elijah. I've never heard it complete, and it represents 19th century Protestant work ethic optimism. There were hundreds of Mendelssohn Societies in the United States. If they weren't glee clubs or men's clubs, they were orchestras, and they presented Elijah all the time. It's interesting to me.

The current copy of American Music is an important document; I read it cover to cover when it arrived. This issue is devoted to two aspects of music coming out of Boston. The first, the Dvorak aspect, used black spirituals and Indian melodies to create a new American music. The second was a little later, representing the ethic that if you work, you will receive; that is represented by Mendelssohn. That introduced a new kind of thing to the United States. And of course since WWII we've had the whole planet at our fingertips if we want to use it. I must say that I expected the new kinds of recordings to make it possible to hear things you couldn't hear on LPs. But the opposite is true.

Have you listened to DVD-A or SACD? They are both superior to conventional CDs. Many feel they rival the sound of the best vinyl.

There comes a time when you can buy or not buy what comes down the line. At my age you just decide you will or won't. You're no longer push/pull.

Do you have any idea how many works you've written?

We have catalogued over three hundred compositions; some of them, including early manuscripts from San Francisco and unfinished works, are not authorized for performance. Probably one hundred works are published. Consult the book from Oxford University Press, Lou Harrison: Composing a World  (1998) by Frederic Lieberman and Leta E. Miller - (with co- authors Jonathon Grasse and Charles Hanson). It includes a complete catalogue of works and a recording.

My works have been heard everywhere. I wrote a Concerto for Piano and Gamelan, and a friend and I performed it at the Cabrillo Festival. We made a recording and I thought, well, that's that. Turns out its been played in Britain and Singapore, the last thing I would expect. And there's an ensemble in Venice, the Tamitam Ensemble, that seems determined to record my complete works (laughing). There's now a third volume out on Dynamic.

You're turning 85 on May 14. Did you ever expect to live this long?

LH: (Laughing) Why of course. I expect to live at least 30 more years.

Seriously, when you were younger, did you imagine living to 85? And how does it feel to be almost 85?

Well, I always wanted to be older, from childhood on. And it's fine, except that it hurts (laughing). I'm doing what I want to do, and achieving my goals.

The largest of my goals is the completion of my getaway house in Joshua Tree. It's the first permitted straw bale vault on the planet. It's 18 feet high, quite grand, with grills across it that make wonderful patterns on the vault. There's a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Four buttresses on one side will make spare outdoor rooms. Actually, by draping down canvas or bamboo slats or something, I can make little bedrooms out of them.

What do you mean by straw bale vault?

If you cut a barrel in half, and imagine that running along, with walls down straight on both sides, you have a barrel vault. That's what this is. It's an arch, but it's continuous. It's perfectly hemispherical, with three little windows on each side up where the plate tops the straw bale walls.

I've hung Spanish and Dutch chandeliers in it, which are more fitting than crystal ones. It's quite beautiful, and it's going to be comfortable and fun.

The house took 6 to 7 years to complete because there was no technical means for granting permission for a straw bale vault. The first permit was for a structure only a multi-millionaire could build, so I stopped short and offered a wooden ceiling instead. The architect didn't want to do that, so he got a young engineer who had already won two prizes from the California Institute of Architects, and he redesigned very sensibly using the bales as though they were bricks. By filling in the triangular spaces – the “vous-soirs" – with plaster and perlite, and plastering on both sides, the whole thing holds together.

It has turned out to be quite an expensive house. I just barely escaped debtor's prison (laughing).

So you need to compose some more to pay for it?

I've lived in Aptos on the Monterey Bay Coast since 1954. I can't add or subtract, but you can figure out how long that is. It's fog and mildew and bronchitis. All friends agree that I need a getaway from it, and the High Desert is it. I won't spend all my time there – it's just a getaway place – but if I have work I want to concentrate on, I'll take it down there and concentrate.

I was in the hospital three or four weeks ago, and I had pneumonia before that. So I'm happy to have a place to go in the High Desert.

I'm a couple of New York blocks from the actual border of the National Park, which is one of the largest and most beautiful in the country. It's also 35 miles from Palm Springs, which is way down in the Lower Sonoran or Colorado Desert, 150 feet above sea level; it's hot and mucky. You drive 35 miles around a ridge, and you get to Joshua Tree at 3000 feet, which is the Upper Mojave Desert. The dividing line runs right through the park on a wiggly basis.



The following works by Lou Harrison will receive performances at the Other Minds Festival. For ticket information, call City Box Office at (415) 392-4400; or fax ticket requests to (415) 986-0411; online ticket purchase is available at www.tickets.com.

Thursday March 7

Lou Harrison: Works for Solo Guitar                                                    

Serenade for Frank Wigglesworth (1952); Music for Bill and Me (1966-7; 1978); Sonata in Ishartum; A Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen (1978); "Scenes from Nek Chand" for National Steel Guitar (2001), world premiere

Friday March 8

The first half of Friday's concert salutes Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison: Sonata for Harpsichord (1999-2000); Incidental Music to Corneille's Cinna for tack piano (1955-6)

Linda Burman-Hall, soloist 

Trio for Violin, Cello and Piano (1991)

The Harmida Piano Trio


- Jason Serinus -


© Copyright 2002 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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