Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick

Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick


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American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003) is perhaps best known for challenging the traditional musical establishment along with his contemporaries and close colleagues: composers John Cage, Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein; Living Theater founder, Judith Malina; and choreographer, Merce Cunningham. Today, musicians from Bang on a Can to Björk are indebted to the cultural hybrids Harrison pioneered half a century ago. His explorations of new tonalities at a time when the rest of the avant garde considered such interests heretical set the stage for minimalism and musical post-modernism. His propulsive rhythms and ground-breaking use of percussion have inspired choreographers from Merce Cunningham to Mark Morris, and he is considered the godfather of the so-called "world music" phenomenon that has invigorated Western music with global sounds over the past two decades.

In this biography, authors Bill Alves and Brett Campbell trace Harrison's life and career from the diverse streets of San Francisco, where he studied with music experimentalist Henry Cowell and Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, and where he discovered his love for all things non-traditional (Beat poetry, parties, and men); to the competitive performance industry in New York, where he subsequently launched his career as a composer, conducted Charles Ives's Third Symphony at Carnegie Hall (winning the elder composer a Pulitzer Prize), and experienced a devastating mental breakdown; to the experimental arts institution of Black Mountain College where he was involved in the first "happenings" with Cage, Cunningham, and others; and finally, back to California, where he would become a strong voice in human rights and environmental campaigns and compose some of the most eclectic pieces of his career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253025616
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 04/10/2017
Pages: 602
Product dimensions: 7.10(w) x 10.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Bill Alves is a southern California composer of acoustic and electronic microtonal music, music for gamelan, video, and other works. He is the author of Music of the Peoples of the World and his discs are available from MicroFest Records, Spectral Harmonies, and Kinetica Video Library. He teaches at Harvey Mudd College at the Claremont Colleges, where he directs the American gamelan.

Brett Campbell writes frequently about music and other arts for Oregon ArtsWatch, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Classical Voice, and many other publications. He teaches journalism at Portland State University and performs in Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan ensemble, based at Lewis and Clark College in Lou Harrison’s hometown of Portland, Oregon.

Read an Excerpt

Lou Harrison

American Musical Maverick

By Bill Alves Brett Campbell

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 Bill Alves and Brett Campbell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02643-9


THE SILVER COURT (1917–1934)

Whenever Lou Harrison came home, it was like stepping into another world. From as early in childhood as he could remember, wherever he looked in his family's apartment in Portland, Oregon's Silver Court Apartments, young Lou saw colorful paintings from various Asian cultures mounted on walls covered by Japanese grass wallpaper. Chinese carved teak furniture perched on Persian rugs, colorful Japanese lanterns dangled from the ceiling, cloisonné objects filled the mantel, and the rooms boasted other artifacts from Asia and the Middle East. Compared to the prosaic furnishings and fixtures of the rest of the young Harrison's post-World War I Pacific Northwest life, his home was an almost magical place.

The exotic decor sprang from the ambitions of his mother. Born in Seattle in 1890, Calline Silver grew up in the Alaskan frontier with her sister, Lounette. Despite these rough circumstances, their father saw to it that both girls had music lessons, at a time when music was an important marker of good breeding and refinement for young women. After her father died and Cal raised herself from this rustic beginning to a middle-class ideal, she became a woman of strong will and determination, qualities that her son would inherit. She married affable, fair-skinned Clarence Harrison, a first-generation American born in 1882, whose Norwegian father had, like many immigrants, changed his surname from exotic (de Nësja) to blend-in conventional: Harrison.

Like many upwardly mobile West Coasters, Cal Harrison was attracted to the allure of Asia and regarded exotic artifacts as exemplars of refined taste. Such decorations were common in Portland homes since the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial and American Pacific Exposition and Oriental Fair. Japan alone spent a million dollars on its exhibit, which featured exotic (to American eyes) arts and crafts, sparking a local infatuation with Asian art and culture. Many middle- and upper-class houses boasted "Oriental Rooms" festooned with Asian and Middle Eastern furniture and art, "Turkish corners," and other symbols of what many Americans still regarded as the mysterious East. That Pacific exoticism also manifested in music. When Lou was born on May 14, 1917, Hawaiian music was the most popular genre in America. Radio broadcasts of Hawaiian slide guitars and the clacks of his mother's mah-jongg tiles supplied the soundtrack to some of his earliest memories — and inspired his final great composition eight decades later.

The Silver Court's surrounding Irvington neighborhood in northeast Portland had been developed as an exclusive enclave only twenty years before Lou was born. Connected to downtown Portland's cultural riches by trolley, the "streetcar park" originally catered to the toffs (including lumber barons). During Lou's childhood, however, the changing neighborhood's new Queen Anne revival, Craftsman, and Prairie School-style homes welcomed more middle-class people like the Harrisons. They had built the handsome Silver Court Apartments (which still stands at 22nd and Hancock streets) shortly after Lou's birth, when Calline received a substantial inheritance from her family in Ohio, who owned a manufacturing business; her grandfather's widow's death in 1910 led to a partition of the estate, and the Harrisons used their share to build the three-story, thirty-unit apartment building. The money allowed them to hire a family to take care of the apartments, including their own.

They also bought the tire business where Lou's father worked, inculcating a lasting family tension: Cal never let Clarence forget that it was her money that put him in business. "It was mother's belief that the man should wear the skirts," Lou wrote in his journal many years later. After all, the apartment building they lived in and managed was called Silver Court, not Harrison House — and it later seemed to Lou that his father was always on trial.

Clarence and Calline did share a love of cars — she was reputedly the first woman to drive across Portland's Steel Bridge — and the family enjoyed then-common Sunday drives and picnics in the country. They appreciated the scenic beauty — waterfalls, the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, Mt. Hood (which dominated the eastern skyline), and nearby Mt. Tabor — and gave Harrison and his brother, Bill (born three years later), a lasting love of the outdoors.

Calline had intended to name the baby for her sister Lounette, but "when they discovered I was a male, they cut off the 'nette.' I became Lou, so I'm not Louvig, or Louis, or any of that, just plain Lou." Like their apartment building, Lou was also named for his mother's maiden name, giving his name a uniqueness that was later commemorated in the title of his ballet Rhymes with Silver. In childhood, though, Lou Silver Harrison was mostly called by his nickname, Buster. Harrison never met his grandparents and had little contact with extended family during childhood, so his parents exerted the greatest family influence on their eldest son. Their two most persistent legacies were his lifelong loves: arts and reading. Aunt Lounette played violin, often accompanied by Calline on the piano, and little Buster would dance.

He took the stage early. Calline worked in a Portland beauty shop, and one of her regular customers, Verna Felton, ran a small theater company that in 1920 was producing Jean Webster's 1912 play Daddy-Long-Legs. They needed a young boy for a silent walk-on role as a little orphan, and Calline volunteered two-year-old Buster, who, encouraged by candy, improvised his lines — for the irrepressible little Lou, it turned out not to be a silent role after all — and won the audience's heart, getting his picture in the daily Oregonian newspaper and an invitation to reprise the role on a Northwest tour and in another production in Washington. The experience gave Harrison both a taste for performance and a deep set of separation anxieties that never left him.

    Aged three
    I was on stage
    & touring with the troupe —
    the child's still me in my rounds and duties

    The stage
    was large, the scene
    was dim, the actress was,
    I knew, woman my mother
    much loved.
    by commotion
    in the hall — applause
    laughter? — loud, so many grown-ups
    So large
    the stage! the plot
    unknown, the lines unsure,
    & the scenes done as reverse glass
    So much
    for all the pain —
    costumes and glitter keep
    our solemn frivolity


Along with the Asian art in her home and the European art in the Silver Court lobby, Calline imparted artistic culture to her children. Just two and a half miles away and over the Broadway or Steel bridges across the Willamette River that separated the Irvington neighborhood from downtown's theaters and studios, the city's relatively rich classical music, dance, and theater scenes provided an outlet for Calline's ambitions for her family's artistic enlightenment.

Oregonians liked to say that when the pioneers moved west over the Lewis and Clark Trail, the settlers who wanted gold turned left and headed for California, while those who wanted to set up a culture turned right and brought their schools, pianos, and other cultural trappings to Oregon. Portland fancied itself as more cultured than other West Coast boomtowns, and its 1920s music scene reflected that cultivated sensibility, including recitals by famous musicians like Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Béla Bartók, Jascha Heifetz, and Fritz Kreisler. Lou remembered seeing movies like the 1925 epic The Lost World at the Hollywood Theater.

As Buster grew older, he'd join the rest of the family in singing popular music, old tunes like "Bicycle Built for Two," "Blue Lagoon," and "By the Bend of the River" — the last a pentatonic melody that, he later recalled, "haunted" his music for years, "just as Virgil Thomson was haunted by 'Jingle Bells.'" The family owned a phonograph that Lou once modified by putting a bigger horn on it. Cal signed the boys up for music and ballroom dance lessons. "I remember learning the schottische when I could barely toddle," said Harrison. Although his brother, Bill, was not very interested in music, Lou was happy to stay home and play violin, harmonium, and the family piano on Portland's rainy winter and spring days.

Lou also inherited what he called his mother's tendency toward "hysteria" to get what she wanted. His later friend Remy Charlip said that Lou told him how, at the age of five, he would get his way: He stood in the middle of the room and screamed. "Lou remained," said Charlip, "a diva throughout his life." Even his faintly formal and slightly archaic manner of speaking and writing seemed to originate in his mother's upwardly mobile ambitions.

If Harrison associated his mercurial mother with the beautiful things in life, his father, known as Pop, symbolized "industrial grease iron" and masculine detachment. Once, when Lou rushed up to embrace his father after an absence, Pop's response was, "Men don't do that." Only years later would Harrison come to appreciate what a gentle and kind person Pop Harrison really was.

Despite his childhood close connection with his mother, Lou received one crucial legacy from his father: a love of reading. When Pop came home each night from his job at a Portland tire company, he enjoyed a cocktail and hours of reading books and magazines, even reading James Joyce's Ulysses aloud to the family. Little Buster often read from an encyclopedia set for young readers called Our Wonder World with a section titled "Queer Peoples of the World." Lou inherited his dad's bibliomania (and his taste for alcohol) and was immersed in at least one book practically every day of his life.

However, Harrison's Portland idyll — as he remembered it — of arts and books and nature ended when he was eight. In the mid-1920s, boosters in what was then Oregon's second-largest city, Astoria, were advocating for the construction of a new bridge across the Columbia River. Anticipating an impending North Coast economic boom that ultimately never arrived, the Harrisons swapped the Silver Court for a resort hotel in the declining coastal city. The failure of this investment prompted them to leave the state entirely. Clarence's rich brother Harry (known as "H. O.") was an automobile distributor in San Francisco and agreed to set up Clarence in his business.

Harrison's Oregon upbringing left lasting impressions on the budding young musician: an inclination toward the outdoors and nature's beauty, an affection for high-culture art and music, and a performer's sense of the stage and the audience. But leaving the only home he'd ever known is tough on any child, and now, as the family drove south along Highway 101, following the conquistadors' old Road of Kings, El Camino Real, the alluring, Asian-tinged world that had nurtured nine-year-old Buster Harrison was receding. The loss of that world would be compounded by the economic upheavals roiling not just his family's prospects but also the nation's. Much later, toward the end of one of the richest lives ever lived in American arts, the then-octogenarian Harrison came to realize that in pursuing, studying, and ultimately creating original music deeply informed by the traditional sounds of Asia, he was "trying to recapture the lost treasures of my youth."

"I was surrounded by a household of very fine Asian art," he said, "and as I grew up, I wanted to reproduce that. My problem and my drama has been, could I recover the lost treasures of childhood? Well, I discovered that if I couldn't make enough money to buy them, at least I could make some."

Yet mere imitation of music of other times or cultures, however elegant and graceful, would not fulfill Harrison's quest. He would soon discover a thrilling world of modern American composition blazing paths into previously unheard worlds of sounds. This creative tension between recapturing ancient beauty and finding new excitement in revolutionary sounds would fuel Harrison's lifelong musical journey.


    the great valley's heat & birds & blooms,
    my beautiful brother bicycling with me
    on the banks of rivers,
    the melons that my father loved
    & that in summer crawl laden
    out upon the roads,
    reedy rivers, blackbirds, & the perilous canals.

    — Lou Harrison

"When Dad announced that we were going to move to California," Harrison recalled, "I had this image of a sombreroed rider on a burro, and cactus. It turned out not to be true — we moved to Woodland. And there were the missions."

A brown, rural landscape replaced the regal security of the Silver Court, little resembling Astoria's chilly coastal seascape or Portland's verdant neighborhoods. Flat, small (three thousand people), and broiling in summer, Woodland was a farm town outside Sacramento in California's fertile agricultural breadbasket, where Lou and Bill would play among orchards and irrigation canals. Lou's uncle H. O. hired his brother Clarence to set up regional car dealerships around the area. As a result, the family became itinerant, changing cities every year or two as Clarence received new assignments: in Sacramento itself after Woodland, next in marshy Stockton.

Young Buster was just beginning a peripatetic stretch in which he would live at twenty-eight different addresses by the time he graduated from high school. Although thanks to the advanced Oregon schools, Lou did fine in his studies, even jumping ahead a grade when he got to California, "I learned early on that you shouldn't form really close relationships, because you were going to move," Harrison remembered. He was already starting to feel different from the other boys, and every time he entered a new and unfamiliar school, he kept to himself and out of sight of bullies. A series of childhood illnesses also served to isolate both brothers. Lou retreated to his books, art, and music, and he later wondered whether his interest in music "did not come from the weariness of having to relocate all the time." Family life was often dominated by a tempestuous mother who lashed out at his father, whom she blamed for the family's misfortune.


Excerpted from Lou Harrison by Bill Alves Brett Campbell. Copyright © 2017 Bill Alves and Brett Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword: Hail, Lou! / Mark Morris
Preface: Lou’s World

Part I: Oregon Trails
1. The Silver Court (1917-1934)

Part II: The Vast Acreage
2. A Wonderful Whirligig (1935-1936)
3. The Ultramodernist (1935-1936)
4. The Grand Manner (1936-1937)
5. Changing World (1937-1938)
6. Double Music (1938-1939)
7. Drums Along the Pacific (1939-1941)
8. Into the Labyrinth (1941-1942)
9. Western Dance (1942-1943)

Part III: A Hell of a Town
10. The Lonesome Isle (1943-1945)
11. New York Waltzes (1945-1946)
12. Praises for the Archangel (1946)
13. Day of Ascension (1946-1947)
14. Tears of the Angel (1947-1948)
15. The Perilous Chapel (1948-1949)
16. Pastorales (1949-1950)
17. The White Goddess (1951)
18. A Great Playground (1951-1952)
19. Lake Eden (1952-1953)

Part IV: Full Circle
20. A Paradise Garden of Delights (1953-1955)
21. Free Style (1955-1957)
22. Wild Rights (1957-1961)

Part V: Pacifica
23. The Human Music (1961)
24. Pacific Rounds (1962-1963)
25. The Family of the Court (1963-1966)
26. Stars Upon his Face (1967-1969)
27. Young Caesar and Old Granddad (1969-1974)
28. Elegies (1973-1975)

Part VI: The Great Melody
29. Golden Rain (1975-1977)
30. Playing Together (1977-1979)
31. Showers of Beauty (1978-1982)
32. Paradisal Music (1982-1984)
33. Stampede (1983-1987)
34. New Moon (1986-1990)
35. Book Music (1991-1995)
36. An Eden of Music and Mountains (1995-1997)
37. Asian Artistry (1997-2002)
38. White Ashes (2003)
Appendix A: Glossary of Musical Terms
Appendix B: List of Harrison’s Compositions

What People are Saying About This

author of Charles Ives's Concord: Essays After a Sonata - Kyle Gann

Lou Harrison’s avuncular personality and tuneful music coaxed affectionate regard from all who knew him, and that affection is evident on every page of Alves and Campbell’s new biography. Eminently readable, it puts Harrison at the center of American music: he knew everyone important and was in touch with everybody, from mentors like Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg and Charles Ives and Harry Partch and Virgil Thomson to peers like John Cage to students like Janice Giteck and Paul Dresher. He was larger than life in person, and now he is larger than life in history as well.

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer - David Lang

I studied with Lou Harrison, and he provided my first up-close exposure to world music, to different tuning systems, and to a real live member of the pantheon of American experimental music. I highly recommend this exhaustively researched book, which clearly captures his personality and life: his states of mind, his sexuality, his self-awareness and self-questioning, his journey from young, under-employed composer to lauded master.

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