Last Friday I saw a screening of Lou Harrison: A World of Music, a remarkable new documentary about the American composer, artist, writer, and activist by Eva Soltes. I highly recommend this documentary to anyone who has a chance to see it—it’s a thoughtful and fairly comprehensive look at one of American music’s most fascinating figures.
One of the things that struck me about Harrison’s life is how easily it could be divided in two. There’s the period up until 1947, when he was incredibly active and involved in the American new music scene. And there’s the period after his nervous breakdown, when he retreated to the countryside to work mostly in isolation. (I say mostly because for several decades he was accompanied by his life partner and collaborator Bill Colvig.)
Post-breakdown Lou Harrison is the version that fans of his music would be most familiar with—the easy joy of his personality that shines through so clearly in his compositions, the abiding interest in Javanese gamelan music, the awesome beard. But I found pre-breakdown Harrison to be eerily familiar, too. Just before his breakdown, Harrison was living in New York City, the epicenter of American new music at the time. In addition to his composing, he was a music critic under the guidance of Virgil Thomson, sometimes racing to multiple concerts in the same evening. And he was preparing the music of Charles Ives for performance, translating Ives’s chicken scratch into something legible, even interpolating ideas of his own when the scores were incomplete or unclear. This culminated in the first public performance of Ives’s Symphony No. 3, which Harrison also conducted.
In other words, pre-breakdown Lou Harrison is like almost every young composer I know, taking gigs left and right to keep his career going. In fact, he had a career that many of my colleagues would probably kill for, working with nearly every significant figure in American music at the time…Ives, Thompson, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg…
But for Harrison, this environment was poisonous. Not only to his state of mind, but perhaps also to his creativity. We don’t remember Harrison for the imposing serialist works that he was writing while in New York. (“Not that there’s anything wrong with serialism,” I quickly add.) It seems that he needed to get away from all of that to become the Lou Harrison we know now. Sure, in retrospect we detect hints of it in some of his early percussion music, like the still-popular Double Music collaboration with Cage, but it makes me wonder: What kind of a composer would Harrison have been if he had never left New York?
This is an absurd hypothetical question by any measure. But I also wonder what kind of creativity the current climate of careerism is killing. One characteristic of being very busy is that it can leave little time for introspection, musical or otherwise. Certainly there’s an economic imperative at work here, and another very familiar aspect of Harrison’s life is the anxiety about financial insecurity that comes through in his letters.
But I also think there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy going on here. If you don’t stop to think now and then, you may not be able to even see what options are available to you. Personally, some of my most rewarding musical projects and experiences happened when I let go of what I felt I was supposed to do, and did what I wanted to instead. I only hope that every composer is able to allow themselves this luxury. Preferably without a breakdown.
I should also mention that the documentary was presented at REDCAT as a part of MicroFest, and was preceded by a great performance of Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, played by Mark Menzies and percussionists from CalArts. Old Granddad, the gamelan that Harrison and Colvig built, was brought down from Santa Cruz for the occasion, and it was a treat to hear this beautiful instrument in person!