Lou Harrison receives Macdowell medal


Lou Harrison
Lou Harrison
Photo by Dennis Keeley

Composer Lou Harrison was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal in Peterborough, New Hampshire, on Sunday, August 20. Virgil Thomson, himself a recipient of the Medal in 1977, once said, “It was Mozart‘s boast that he could master any musical style within a week and by the end of that time compose in it adeptly enough to deceive experts. Lou Harrison has something of that virtuosity himself… and he mixes things with infallible imagination…” An innovator of composition and performance transcending cultural boundaries, Harrison is the twelfth composer to receive the award.

Composer Chester Biscardi was chairman of this year’s selection committee, which also included music historian Vivian Perlis and composers Meredith Monk, Alvin Singleton, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. “In choosing Lou Harrison,” Mr. Biscardi notes, “the search committee recognizes his gentle and generous spirit, as well as the very personal and multi-faceted way in which he is and will continue to be a major presence in American and world music.”

Participating in the ceremony was chairman of the board Robert MacNeil, president of the board Carter Wiseman, and executive director Cheryl Young. Conductor Dennis Russell Davies delivered the presentation speech. Following the ceremony, artists in residence opened their studios to the public and allowed visitors to tour the Colony grounds, meet the artists, and view their work. This traditional open house is held only once a year.

In a musical career that has spanned more than fifty years, Lou Harrison has consistently been in the vanguard of American composers. He played a large role in the introduction of the Indonesian gamelan to United States audiences and, with William Colvig, constructed two large gamelans now in use at San Jose State University and Mills College. Harrison has explored dance, Asian music, alternate tuning systems, and universal languages as means of facilitating musical expression.

Recent performances of Harrison’s work included a June 1995 presentation of his Buddhist liturgical work “La Koro Sutro” in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. That same year, his joyful “Parade for MTT” opened the San Francisco Symphony season, celebrating the inauguration of director Michael Tilson Thomas. On June 15, 2000, Harrison was saluted by the San Francisco Symphony at the American Mavericks festival.

As an artist, Lou Harrison exemplifies the innovation and interdisciplinary work that has become part of the MacDowell Colony’s legacy. Unable to find the sound he imagined within Western orchestra, he looked elsewhere for inspiration–other cultures (China, Korea, Indonesia, Mexico), other sound sources (flower pots, brake drums, oxygen tanks), and other disciplines (dance, drama, literature). And if he still couldn’t find it, he made it. His insatiable curiosity has defined his career: each artistic challenge provides the opportunity for in-depth study, and he delights in combining disparate styles into untried syntheses.

The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire was founded in 1907 to provide a place where creative artists could find freedom to concentrate on their work. This remains its guiding purpose today. Writers, composers, visual artists, photographers, printmakers, filmmakers, and architects come to the Colony each year from all parts of the United States and abroad. They take advantage of uninterrupted time and seclusion in which to work and they enjoy the experience of living in a community of gifted artists.