Another View on Lou: Lou Harrison—A Personal Publishing Memoir
I have known Lou Harrison both as a personal friend and as a professional colleague in music publishing at C. F. Peters for nearly three decades. Two days before Lou’s death, New York’s Focus Festival (honoring Harrison) had concluded with his rarely heard Elegiac Symphony, devotedly performed by Juilliard students under Reinbert de Leeuw‘s direction. The lovely music was still on my mind on that February 2, a strange and haunting ethereal connection to a great composer and a wonderful human being.
One cannot escape the feeling that a singular era in American music has ended with Lou’s departure. The historical period of restless and courageous experimentalism—stretching from Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles through Henry Cowell to John Cage and Lou Harrison—is now over. Perhaps it is this sudden absence of an optimistic sense of direction in American experimental music that explains much of the deep sadness of Lou’s passing from the musical scene. But his influence on a younger generation of gifted composers remains. In the music and world outlook of Peter Garland, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, Jody Diamond, John Luther Adams—the list goes on—Harrison’s influence, his concern for the environment and for different world cultures, will always be present.
In music publishing one tends to view daily life from one work to the next. Therefore, I joined C. F. Peters in 1970 at the time of Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion (1959) (soon to be revised and printed) and left the firm in 2001 not long after his Trifony for piano (1945) had finally reached the public. In late 1970, George Crumb had just written his Black Angels, John Cage was working on his Song Books, and Lou Harrison was beginning to write music for what would eventually become the American Gamelan, its then primitive instruments fashioned by his life companion William Colvig. But Lou, the quintessential Californian, seldom came to New York, if it could be avoided.
It was in 1972 (I believe) that Lou and Bill Colvig first brought some of their early homemade instruments to New York University for a concert/demonstration for the students at the Loeb Center. I attended with a colleague from Peters. During an otherwise peaceful concert of reflective music, a few students suddenly began an all too audible conversation, oblivious to Lou’s ensemble. A sudden angry explosion from Harrison on the stage surprised everyone. “This is music of an ancient culture which deserves your respect! How dare you disturb it with your idle chatter! Not a word more!” Not his exact words, of course, but very close to the their spirit. It was terrifying for the offending students. But then, the outburst suddenly over, peace, audience respect, and beautiful music resumed. I thought then that working with Harrison on any upcoming publications (the Concerto in Slendro was on the schedule) was not going to be any fun.
But it was! Peters was just then preparing for publication Lou’s Music Primer: Various Items about Music to 1970. Truth be told, there had been a dispute within the company about whether it should publish such an unconventional book ñ a facsimile edition (in Lou’s beautiful calligraphy) presenting the composer’s wide ranging thoughts on tuning and melodic invention, together with a bouquet of insightful reflections about world music. However, due to the tenacity of Evelyn Hinrichsen (the owner and president of Peters), this unique little book was accepted and published. Lou’s Music Primer gradually became a cult classic of music of the Pacific Rim, later translated into Japanese and widely studied among the youthful members of the rapidly growing American Gamelan movement.
Evelyn Hinrichsen’s late husband, Walter, the founder of Peters New York, had been a staunch supporter of Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Lou Harrison. At the time of his death in 1969, he had already published, at great expense, some of Cage’s most provocative scores (the infamous boxed set of the Concert for Piano among them), and in the 1960s he printed a number of Harrison’s works, including the First Concerto for Flute, the Suite for Piano (his “Schoenberg” suite, as Lou often called it), the Suite for Symphonic Strings and the famous Double Music for percussion, the latter written in collaboration with John Cage. Evelyn Hinrichsen’s strong belief in Lou Harrison can be traced back to the late 1930s, to her student days at Mills College, where Lou and John Cage’s Percussion ensemble had often performed and where both had taught and written music for the Bay area dancers. Lou’s many letters to the Hinrichsens from the 1960s (now in Peters’ archives) are not simply routine business communications, but reveal a close personal friendship. All are written in Lou’s beautiful script and some take the form of small hand-colored booklets bound by string.
The close publishing friendship between the Hinrichsen family and Lou Harrison was still very much intact when I began at Peters. In my first year, Mrs. Hinrichsen made me a gift of a beautifully framed score of Lou’s choral work A Joyous Procession and a Solemn Procession, which had been exquisitely water-colored by Peters’s artist Johanna Ribbelink. It hangs nearby as I write this.
As the 1970s progressed, Lou and I became friends, and he was very supportive of my work towards a dissertation on the Chicago composer John J. Becker, with whose music he was familiar. Lou’s infrequent visits to 373 Park Avenue South (Peters) were occasions of great mirth. One memorable day Lou and Bill Colvig simply dropped in unexpectedly from JFK, after their arrival from Indonesia, looking to all the world as if they had just descended from the Himalayas. Long-bearded Bill in his hiking outfit and gray-bearded Lou in flowing colorful Eastern-influenced garbs were suddenly at the door. “Why are you in New York?” “Why what do you think? We’ve come to see Don Gillespie and Oliver Daniel!” This was a source of great amusement to the firm’s puzzled employees. In that “Little India” part of New York, it was easy to find an Asian vegetarian restaurant nearby and catch up on the reception of Lou’s gamelan music in Java.
I recall with special delight my trips to the Cabrillo Festival (near Lou’s home in Aptos) as Peters’s representative, lecturer, and guest of the Harrison/Colvig household. The affectionate (but occasionally very serious bickering) between Lou and Bill was a background medley in the house. The parts for Lou’s Third Symphony, scattered all over the living room floor, were being corrected with the work’s premiere only days away. Perhaps to escape Lou’s scolding, Bill dragged me off for another of his “Walt Whitman hikes” through the thick woods and down to the beach. Lou later explained that Bill had recently returned from a hiking trip in the Sierras and was unfortunately still in his “Nearer to God” mood, a bit difficult to communicate with in mere earthly terms. But the storm blew over quickly and affectionate peace between the two was restored. The basic emotions in the Harrison/Colvig household were warmth and acceptance.
On that first night in Aptos, 1980, Lou and I talked music and life experiences until 2:00 a.m., when we listened to a tape of his recent Scenes from Cavafy. At one point he suddenly asked me “Don, are you gay?” It was a natural expression of simple curiosity. When I answered no, he smiled sweetly. The next morning he placed in my room, along with fresh flowers, a beautiful sculpture of a lovely Indian princess—quite erotic—who was my companion for the week. That gesture was typical of his generosity, humor and thoughtfulness about everyone. The high point of the 1980 festival was the world premiere of the Third Symphony, one of Lou’s most successful assimilations of his youthful romantic and his later Eastern oriented styles. Encapsulated in the Symphony’s second movement was his orchestration of the Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen, which has become one of his most popular works, originally for piano, but transcribed for myriad combinations. But how many times over the years did he revise that symphony’s resistant last movement, which would not submit to his will and wanted to meander on its own way? At Peters we always dreaded to hear about another revision, the new parts to be made up, the new instructions! As Lou phrased it, the finale simply “wouldn’t stop itching.” The last (and now final) revision was premiered at the Harrison Festival in Columbus, Ohio the week following his death.
Regrettably, in the late 1970s as Evelyn Hinrichsen became less involved in the firm’s daily activities, Lou Harrison receded into the background at PAS 373, no longer one of the company’s favored composers. This occurred during a period of the firm’s intense involvement with America’s post-serial school of composition, the more complicated the works were, the better. Especially disappointing was the firm’s rejection of the very personal (for Lou) At the Tomb of Charles Ives, along with several other works, which another firm eagerly and wisely accepted. It was, however, a point of pride for me to bring Harrison back into the Peters fold in the early 1980s, and to coax from him the Third Symphony, the Piano Concerto with Selected Instruments (written for Keith Jarrett), the Double Concerto and especially the Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra (Associated Music, 1951), already an American classic, and in 1982, due to copyright technicalities, free to wander to another publisher if Lou so desired. He had recently had the work recopied and mentioned casually to me one day, “Would you like to have it?” It was one of the few times I was speechless in his presence.
In Aptos in 1982, Lou described his ancient “trunks” which were packed with old musical materials that urgently needed organization. He described the parties at Virgil Thomson‘s apartment in the Chelsea Hotel when, in the mid 1940s, Virgil, Lou, John Cage, and Henry Cowell often played the musical game of “Exquisite Corpses.” One composer would write a bar of music, and the next, without seeing that measure, would continue with another measure, and so on until the piece ended. From the surviving sketches that Lou saved, Robert Hughes had arranged twenty of these pieces for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and piano. Lou described them as “Party Pieces” and gave them to me to take back to New York and publish, should Peters find them of any worth. For a cover, the designer Pamela Tucker had the idea of asking the three still living composers (Virgil, John, and Lou) to use the same game procedure for the publication’s cover drawing and for its end-piece. I began with Thomson at the Chelsea, who spent all of one minute to make jagged, abrasive sketches which, though he was in a friendly mood, seemed to suggest “Can’t we get this over with? There is a deadline. Breakfast is almost ready.” Lou, in California, given only a connecting point to Thomson’s outbursts, continued with flowing sensuous patterns, based upon human figures. John, on his way to 373 PAS to finish the drawings, paused in Madison Square and randomly picked up an oak leaf, parts of which he then traced onto the (hidden) design at Peters’ office. I treasure my copy of Party Pieces in which Lou inscribed: “A joyous Saturnalia to Don from Lou, 1982, & with thanks for making this fine edition a reality!” (Lukas Foss later recorded these quirky pieces for the now defunct Grenadilla label.)
I must confess that I was again disappointed when, in the late 1980s and 1990s, Harrison’s music once more seemed to become under-appreciated at the firm, with even its commercial value seriously undervalued. This situation appears to have again changed for the better in the new century, when Lou gave Peters his Piano Trio and his Mass for St. Cecilia’s Day. In my last professional publishing contact with him, he promised he would again look into his unpublished music, now properly sorted from the old “trunks” and available to a new generation of scholars and that he would keep C. F. Peters very much in mind for works from those days that might still be published. What will now ensue from these projects is, from my present perspective, uncertain. But I remain hopeful that Peters will continue to be one of his principal publishers and will remain faithful to the historical bond between the Hinrichsen family and Lou Harrison.
In recent years, Lou seemed very proud that I had acquired a remote piece of land—an island actually—on the sandy-bottomed Ohoopee River in South Georgia, ten miles down a dirt road away from everything and offering only the tranquility of birds and animals and river trees and large sand bars bordered by willow trees. He soon sent me a book on how to construct a straw bale house, similar to the one he and Bill had just had built in the Mojave Desert and in which he confessed there was only one communication to the outside world—an emergency line to the doctor! Any conversation in recent years (after asking about Evelyn Hinrichsen’s well-being) would continue with “How is the island?” And any news of a visiting gopher tortoise or of river flowers in bloom would be of much interest to him.
But it wasn’t only planet Earth that interested him. He often said that we had better learn soon to get away from this world, which we are ruining, and get on out to the stars. Perhaps that was why in 1985 he gave many friends memberships in the International Star Registry. Thus, I have in Lou’s hand the registration for a star in Constellation HERCULES at “ra17h lm36sd 17°15′”, perpetually registered in my name in a retained vault in Geneva and at the Library of Congress! What an awesome responsibility to care for such a place when I can hardly keep Sabine‘s and my Sixth Avenue apartment tidy. I do not believe it will be there that Lou and I will next meet to discuss the lovely times we shared in this life. It is more likely to be on the Ohoopee River, with the recorded strains of his Double Concerto or Varied Trio attracting the deer, the armadillos, the turtles—maybe even the alligators.