Experimental Music
Lou Harrison Geeta Dayal

An encyclopedic biography of the noted West Coast composer.

Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, Indiana University Press, 602 pages, $55

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This year marks the centennial of the birth of Lou Harrison, one of the towering composers of the twentieth century—a fact that often gets lost in the ocean waves of history. Many concerts and festivals are taking place across the country to celebrate the late artist, who had an immense body of work encompassing over three hundred known pieces, including four symphonies. Harrison was one of the first modern American composers to powerfully mesh Western forms with Asian music and tunings, most notably using his immersion in Javanese gamelan. He rebelled against the dominant arches of European modernism, sometimes mischievously referring to Europe as “Northwest Asia.” His music was lavish and richly textured, favoring sumptuous melodies at a time when it was unfashionable to do so—when the midcentury avant-garde was taking music and sound in radically different directions.

The exhaustive biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, by the composer Bill Alves and the journalist and musician Brett Campbell, was released recently, just in time for the centennial celebrations. It tracks Harrison’s life in over five hundred pages crammed with detail. The book travels slowly and chronologically from his childhood, tracing each year, every month—practically—of Harrison’s long life. (He died well into his eighties.) 

The weighty tome will surely appeal to Harrison aficionados. The book is occasionally frustrating in its push to be completely, almost dizzyingly comprehensive—overstuffed with colorful minutiae, musicological analyses, stories of Harrison’s litany of friends and collaborators, numerous asides, and more. But readers who are willing to take a deep dive will be well rewarded.

Harrison’s life story was an inspiring one, as Alves and Campbell demonstrate. Anyone who has had a difficult time financially in the service of their art, or fought against a dominant societal paradigm, will find something that resonates in this book—which documents Harrison’s often stormy path to eventual success in his later years.

Best known as a West Coast composer, Harrison spent several key years of his life in New York, and a few years in the early 1950s teaching at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. He was born in 1917 in Oregon and moved to California when he was young, where he was mentored by Henry Cowell, and studied for a time under Arnold Schoenberg, who was then living in Los Angeles. Harrison moved to New York in the 1940s, where he became close friends—and later, rivals, before resolving to friends again—with John Cage. He was close with many other composers, including Charles Ives and Virgil Thomson; Ives, who had made his fortune in insurance, helped at various points to fund Harrison’s career.

Alves and Campbell explain Harrison’s various obstacles with sensitivity. Harrison had considerable trouble with money during those years in New York, getting intermittent gigs accompanying dancers and working as a music critic for The New York Herald Tribune. For a long time, Cage and Harrison, both poor, would give the other a five-dollar bill—a “floating five,” depending on who had more cash at the time. 

The authors also contend with Harrison’s personal life. He was exuberantly gay, at a time in American history when gay life was very much under cover. He was intensely emotional and also generous, and an activist soul unafraid of sometimes injecting his music with his political beliefs (consider the dark, crashing movement “A Hatred of the Filthy Bomb,” from one of his masterworks, 1963’s Pacifika Rondo). At many points in his life, he struggled to make his music, but through it all, he maintained his integrity as a composer.

The book explores Harrison’s severe mental breakdown in 1947, in which he spent several months in a psychiatric hospital. Financial troubles, bouts of heavy drinking, and the stresses of New York City had taken a toll on him. Alves and Campbell’s fine points on the experience are essential here: we learn, for instance, that Ives helped to pay for Harrison’s medical treatment, after Cage slipped a note explaining Harrison’s predicament through Ives’s front door. Through the authors’ research, we see the complex network of connections between composers—the camaraderie, and the occasional infighting and drama.

The biography also shines in its grimly realistic depiction of Black Mountain College, which was far from the gauzy utopia depicted in books and exhibitions, but a rugged and sometimes lonely place. Harrison was often miserable at Black Mountain, even though he was teaching there in the early 1950s, a time of well-documented innovation in the arts. He toiled away on an ambitious twelve-tone opera at Black Mountain called Rapunzel, and tried to find peace in the college’s bucolic surroundings. 

Harrison moved back to California in the 1950s, where he spent the rest of his life—a life that slowly began to settle down. He cultivated interests in painting and calligraphy, decorating his handmade scores with swooping, beautiful lettering, as commissions started to pour in. He made several trips to Asia; he taught at numerous universities; he met his partner, Bill Colvig—a brilliant tinkerer and music enthusiast who helped build several gamelan and percussion instruments. Together, Colvig and Harrison filled their small California house with artifacts collected from Asia, much like the home he grew up in. 

Harrison’s passions for the varied musics of Asia heightened; he continued composing at a furiously prolific clip until his death. There were some jagged points along the way—intermittent financial troubles; observing old friends in the “avant-garde” achieving recognition while he felt a bit left behind. Harrison remained defiantly acoustic in the face of the “Musical Industrial Complex,” as he termed it, as electronic and computer music came into vogue. And he stayed extravagantly melodic and tuneful, as contemporaries like Cage were making international headlines for their challenging experiments. 

But Harrison also achieved great renown in the last few decades of his life. Festivals, much like the ones being arranged this year, were occurring on a regular basis in his honor. Harrison kept busy up until the day he passed away at the age of eighty-five; a particularly devastating passage near the end of the book details how he suffered an apparent heart attack en route to Ohio State University, where a festival of his compositions was being held. 

Harrison’s broad-minded embrace of what has come to be known as “world music” foreshadowed so much of what we hear today. His elegant works were not simply a collection of Eastern motifs grafted onto concertos and other Western structures, but a total synthesis. One can only hope that Harrison keeps being discovered and rediscovered. This book is one of the many elements that will help, brick by brick, to confirm his legacy as one of the great composers of our time.

Geeta Dayal is an arts critic and journalist, specializing in writing on twentieth-century music, culture, and technology. She has written extensively for frieze and many other publications, including The Guardian, Wired, The Wire, Bookforum, Slate, The Boston Globe, and Rolling Stone. She is the author of Another Green World, a book on Brian Eno (Bloomsbury, 2009), and is currently at work on a new book on music.

An encyclopedic biography of noted West Coast composer Lou Harrison
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