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Lou Harrison

By Ned Rorem

In 1944, age twenty, I earned my living as Virgil Thomson’s copyist. I labored at his dining room table, while he ran the world of music over the telephone in the nearby study.

One morning out of the blue there sat another person at my worktable. Tall and big boned but somehow fragile, like Orson Welles on a tulip stem, effusive but shyish, obsessed with how music looked on the page, this was Lou Harrison. A California composer six years my senior, he had worked with Schoenberg and with Henry Covell with whom he had founded New Music Edition for publishing what was then deemed experimental work. Now he was uprooted for the first time, about to begin a stint as a stringer at the Herald Tribune and meanwhile helping Virgil with extra copy work. More skilled than I (Lou’s hand-drawn musical and prose artifacts are world-famous), with a practical sense of performance broader than mine (he had formed his own percussion concerts with John Cage), and with a grasp of intercultural workings that surely exceeded my grasp, Lou became Virgil’s valuable colleague. Indeed, Virgil may have let me slide out of sight were it not for his devotion to my cause; nor was Lou interested in replacing me.

As it was, we got along famously: Lou as a person was a total original, as a composer a total eclectic. His social style was Californian, easygoing, even oriental, but with more than a twinge of daftness which led later to a turn in the loony bin, and a predilection for Negro males. His music style was anything that was asked for; Lou felt that one ought to be capable of all, and had earned a living from choreographers (twenty-five dollars a minute was his fee) of every persuasion, composing fandangos for José Limón, folkish diatonicisms for Jean Erdman, Webernian mood pieces for Charles Weidman. Lou taught me the whole bag of tricks of the so-called twelve-tone system in about an hour, and I applied them for about a week. Finally, however, his eclecticism was original. Lou Harrison sixty years ago was concocting raga-type ostinatos identical to those today of Glass or Reich, with the notable difference that while all three men prepare canvases that are nonpareil, only Harrison super-imposes a drawing—a melody—upon the canvas which gives it a reason for being.

Weekends we would gather at Lou’s on Bleecker Street, where he lived with his black clergyman, and while swilling quart after quart of Schaefer beer, talk of his idols, Ives, Ruggles and Varese, artists he pitted against Copland, whom he disdained. Lou adopted me, was helpful in many ways, for he had his foot in every door. It was he (I think it was he) who gave me entrée to certain organizations that performed me, like the International Society for Contemporary Music.

Lou Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon in 1917. In San Francisco during the war, along with the percussion concerts with John Cage, he worked as a florist, records clerk, poet, dancer and dance critic, playwright, and nurse in an animal hospital. He invented the “tack piano,” an upright piano with thumb tacks in the hammers to create a metallic sound. Moving east in 1943 he wrote for View, Modern Music, and the Herald Tribune. He conducted too, giving in 1947 the first complete performance of Ives’ Third Symphony. That same year he received a grant from our Academy, then left to teach at Black Mountain. In 1952 and ’54 he received Guggenheim fellowships, and in the latter year visited Rome where Leontyne Price premiered his opera Rapunzel which won a 20th-century masterpiece award. There followed in ’55 a commission from Louisville for Four Strict Songs to his own Esperanto texts on some of his continuing concerns: love, plant growth, peace and concerted enjoyment on the journey to death. His involvement with pacifism and his concern for freedom are evident in later works, notably the puppet opera Young Caesar on an early homosexual love affair of Julius Caesar, probably the only “gay” opera ever composed, with the possible exception of Britten’s Death in Venice.

During the 1960s Lou Harrison, on a Rockefeller grant, went to live in Korea. His lifelong obsession with pitch relations, in particular with just-intonation, and his interest in music of other cultures, led him to include non-Western or folk instruments in dozens of his works, and in eventually inventing his own, including jade flutes, and wash tubs, and muted iron pipes. But since his intrinsic language is melodic, diatonic, and very simple, I, for one, prefer the works that demand less on what seem like frantic sound effects and more on sheer tune. For instance the haunting 1950 Suite for Cello and Harp. He had just completed a work called Nek Chand for a Hawaiian slack guitar, and corrected final proofs of a book of poems plus some gamelan scores and drawings, when he dropped dead last February at a Denny’s restaurant in Lafayette, Indiana.  He was 85.

There is no right time to die. All death is unexpected. The older our friends become, the more we feel they’ll always be there. A child’s death is really no more tragic than an old person’s. As for our own death, Freud claimed it is unimaginable, “and when we try to imagine it we perceive that we really survive as spectators…In the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.”

But for artists, immortality is a given. Thus Lou Harrison will continue living, not just in the minds of we brief mortals who knew him, but forever in our recording and concert halls.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 13, 2003.

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