It Had to Be Lou: At 84, Lou Harrison Remains One of the Great American Composers. (Music)

Article excerpt

"I've had a lot of fun writing," says Lou Harrison, the current dean of American symphonic composers. "I still do. If it's fun, it's real. If it's no fun, then it isn't art. Art is advanced play."

On March 7-8, two months before his 85th birthday, the marvelous maverick will be feted at San Francisco's Other Minds Festival. Harrison will deliver the preconcert talk for the world premiere of his new "Scenes From Nek Chand" for steel guitar and enjoy performances of seven other works he wrote between 1952 and 2000.

In the book Lou Harrison: Composing a World, Harrison states that music is essentially "a song and a dance"--a combination of winning melody and lively rhythm. The roots of his unique style reach back to the San Francisco of the 1930s, when he studied with Henry Cowell and gave joint percussion concerts with John Cage. After a year in Los Angeles studying with Arnold Schoenberg, Harrison migrated to New York City in 1943. There he worked with choreographer Lester Horton, developed a close friendship with Virgil Thomson, and conducted the premiere of Charles Ives's Third Symphony, which he also edited. When Ives received the Pulitzer Prize for the symphony in 1947, he shared it with Harrison.

Harrison's music evolved after he settled in Aptos, a California coastal community east of Santa Cruz, in 1953. Trips to the Far East in the 1960s and subsequent study of traditional Javanese gamelan contributed to a cross-cultural style that unites Harrison's passion for life with a deep concern for humanity's future.

One of the works on the Other Minds program, "Music for Bill and Me," celebrates Harrison's 33-year life partnership with William Colvig. Harrison's house is filled with American gamelan instruments that Colvig designed. …