View From the West: Lou Harrison—Renaissance Man, a Model for the Next Generation



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

Over these past months that I have been writing this column, I have urged composers to go beyond the assembling and ordering of pitches and consider a larger, broader musical palette and look outside of the discipline of music for inspiration and even activity. Among other things, I have suggested that composers at least consider the possibility of engaging in the arts by way of collaborations with other artists, the creation and/or use of unorthodox or even newly invented instruments, involvement in improvisation, works in intermedia genres such as sound poetry, investigating music beyond of the Western classical tradition and the now standard non-Western cultures (African, Asian, as well as indigenous cultures or vernacular styles), the writing of sacred music, and the like.

If there was ever a single individual who was captivated and motivated by such a broad vision of music and the arts, it was the recently departed Lou Harrison. Here was a composer who did it all and did it all very well. From chance operations to serial music, from non-Western exoticism (and with Harrison it was never merely exotic), including, of course, many works for gamelan, to advanced Western techniques, from equal temperament to just intonation, collaborations of all sorts, and involvement as a creative artist in many disciplines; all these and much, much more captured Harrison’s imagination.

In his Musical Primer, Harrison says, “To make an instrument is in some strong sense of summon the future.” Working with his partner Bill Colvig, Harrison built his so-called American gamelan (later known affectionately as “Old Granddad”) made of aluminum bars and resonators formed from stacked #10 tin cans, later augmented by small metallophones using conduit tubing, and larger gongs made from suspended oxygen tanks and galvanized garbage cans.

Prior to his creation of the American gamelan, Harrison, along with John Cage, Henry Cowell, William Russell, and Gerald Strang constituted the so-called West Coast School of Percussion, following the lead of Edgard Varèse in his ground-breaking work for percussion ensemble, Ionisation (1931), the first such work of any real consequence in the West. (Yes, Cuba’s Amadeo Roldán wrote Ritmicas [1930] in which two movements are for percussion, pre-dating Varèse’s masterpiece by one year.) Not only did Varèse write for percussion alone (yes, Ionisation includes a piano, certainly an instrument which is percussive at its core, even if we do not classify it as a percussion instrument Varèse’s use of the piano in Ionisation is undeniably percussive in nature), he used unorthodox instruments, including sirens and the lion’s roar or string drum. Likewise, the composers of the West Coast Percussion School wrote works for percussion ensembles of varying constitution and used all manner of unorthodox instruments, many of them virtual objets trouvés, including bull roarers, rice bowls, tin cans, oxygen tanks (cut, tuned, and struck with baseball bats), and, of course, brake drums. Brake drums, never intended as musical instruments, have become virtually ubiquitous among percussion ensembles. What college music department worth its salt does not have a brake drum or two serving double duty as percussion instrument and heavy duty door stop? Harrison took great delight in discovering new sounds that might serve his musical needs and wants.

I recall seeing David van Tieghem in a film in which he wanders down the streets of lower Manhattan with sticks and mallets, using everything in sight as a percussion instrument, from windows, walls, and sidewalks to telephone booths, garbage cans, lampposts, and newspaper kiosks. It’s difficult to imagine such a performance without Harrison and Cage as forerunners discovering new percussive timbres in junkyards, hardware and thrift stores.

Harrison’s search for unorthodox timbres did not end with percussion. He wrote works for ancient instruments, adapted and newly invented, Western and non-Western, including harpsichord, psaltery, ocarina (he maintained a small arsenal of these simple flutes for those who might choose to play his pieces that require them but do not have them at their immediate disposal), double bass laid flat and played by beating or tapping the strings with sticks, prepared piano, and tack piano, among a host of others. For those who do not know, the tack piano is a conventional piano in which flat head thumbtacks are pressed into the hammers such that the metal head strike the strings rather than the felt. Baby boomers will know the sound from “People Are Strange” by The Doors.

Harrison combined chance operations and collaboration in the series of Party Pieces, then referred to as “exquisite corpses,” in which he, along with Cage, Cowell, Virgil Thomson, and Frank Wigglesworth, would compose a measure of music plus two notes, fold the paper such that only the last two notes showed and pass it on to the next composer who would use the two notes as a point of departure for another bar plus two notes. This process was continued until a complete composition resulted. Harrison recalled: “In New York in the 1940s, when we were all enjoying one another’s bright company, we used to play musical games sometimes when we got together. We would begin simultaneously and pass the papers along in rotation in a sort of surrealistic assembly line and eagerly await the often incredible outcome.” (Lou Harrison, liner notes from The Brooklyn Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, Gramavision, GR 7006, 1983.)

In a similar vein is Double Music for which Cage and Harrison each wrote two parts for the four performers. After agreeing upon fundamental compositional procedures and the durations of the various sections, the two composers worked independently. The piece came together quite successfully as the parts were layered together, interlocking to the satisfaction of both composers.

A significant amount of Harrison’s time and creative effort was given over to collaborations with a plethora of dancers and choreographers, among them Bella Lewitzky, Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris, Carol Beals, Tina Flade, Jean Erdman, Marian Van Tuyl, Lester Horton, Bonnie Bird, Katherine Litz, Lorle Kranzler, and Eva Soltes, among others, starting in the 1930s and extending throughout his career. Indeed, Harrison did a bit of dancing himself and even contributed choreography to Changing the World: Illusions of a Better Life (1937) in collaboration with Beals and seven other choreographers. Harrison even team-taught a course in dance composition with Flade at Mills College. Ultimately, numerous scores were produced and the worlds of dance and music were well served by Harrison’s understanding, commitment, and creative efforts on behalf of both disciplines.

Harrison’s forays into improvisation were often tied to his dance collaborations. As an accompanist for routine dance exercises, he overcame boredom by improvising at the piano or on percussion instruments. He states: “Improvisation . . . is a cultivated skill which is built up of years of effort and/or trial and error. It is good practice for young composers, too, for one may learn how to sustain Form-building Musical Functions.” (Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, Lou Harrison: Composing a World (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, 79.) The quote by Harrison found in Lou Harrison: Composing a World is found in: Lou Harrison, “Society, Musician, Dancer, MachineĆ³a Set of Opinions Entirely Attributable to Lou Harrison, in 1966,” Impulse: Annual of Contemporary Dance (1966), 41.

If you are at all familiar with Harrison’s non-musical artistic activities, you will certainly recognize his elegant, even idiosyncratic calligraphic styles. Like Cage and Satie, Harrison’s personal touch and calligraphic style is immediately identifiable. However, unlike Cage and Satie whose penmanship was personal, Harrison actually created signature calligraphic styles. Typical of Harrison’s drive and passion, when an automobile accident kept him from extensive calligraphic work, the composer found a solution. Working with computer whiz Carter Scholz, Harrison designed calligraphic typefaces that were translated into computer fonts.

Though Harrison was not a sound poet, he was a poet. Like Cage who grappled with the horns of a dilemma, Harrison as a young man, thought he had to decide upon a career path. Whereas Cage wrestled with the decision of choosing a career as a composer or an artist, Harrison’s internal struggle was between music and poetry. Both chose music, but ultimately found numerous opportunities to engage in creative endeavors outside of music. Ultimately, Harrison has written numerous poems and many of them set using his calligraphic fonts by way of the Macintosh computer.

Harrison’s gift for the written word extended beyond poetry. Like Virgil Thomson and a number of nineteenth century composers, among them Berlioz and Schumann, Harrison was a gifted, insightful, and highly regarded music critic, as well as a music historian. In addition to critical reviews, he wrote essays about his peers and colleagues and their works, among them Varèse, Schoenberg, Ives, Ruggles, and Villa-Lobos.

Additionally, Harrison was active as a painter and even indicated late in his life that he intended to devote more time to painting at the expense of his compositional efforts. Harrison’s far-reaching and varied interests and obsessions even extended to esoteric, arcane realms including Esperanto and American Sign Language.

In addition to all of his open spirit and across-the-board musical and artistic adventure and experimentation, Harrison wrote beautiful music that is loved by many. While we will miss this dear, charming, and delightful man, I predict that Harrison’s legacy and position in the pantheon of musical greats will only grow and he will serve as a profoundly important muse and aesthetic mentor for generations of composers to come.