Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick

Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick

Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick

Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick


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.


Mark Morris

This book is a marvel. From knowing Mr. Harrison, from reading and through conversation with many others who knew him better than I did, I thought I’d heard it all. I’m happy to say that I was way off. His story and the story of his music are very satisfyingly presented here. So many fascinating details are revealed that I felt renewed respect, awe, and love for the subject: the Divine Lou Harrison. Harrison’s music—or musics, considering the many diverse styles and modes and methods he employed in his compositions—promoted pleasure and peace. His devotion to beauty and consonance resulted in a deep trust relationship with his audience: hearing an engaging tune makes you feel better, and everyone wants to feel better. He was unafraid of the emotional resonance of a ravishing melody and, like his beloved Henry Cowell, was long denied respect by the Music Police. the deep, theoretical, personal immersion in music of the Rest of the World paid off by allowing him to produce an astounding variety of sonorities and compositional practices and structures, resulting in the amazing, huge embrace that his aesthetic presents to a willing listener.

You either love Lou’s music or you haven’t heard it yet. It sings and it dances. I first heard his call in the early 1980s from an out-of-print lp of Four Strict Songs. That recording led me to hunt for more and then more. I can’t imagine how I’d been ignorant of the music for so long. Since my early teenhood I’d been drawn to the work of Satie, Cowell, Thomson, Nancarrow, Hovhaness, Cage, Ives, and particularly Harry Partch. My first good dance was set to Partch’s Barstow. I’d been to Indonesia and was smitten with all things gamelan. I’d been to Korea and Japan and Thailand. I already loved the music of Asia and Polynesia. I adored Peking Opera. I’d sung madrigals and Croatian music and Appalachian and shape-note hymns and the Carter Family. I sang (enthusiastically if not beautifully) baroque music and rounds and catches and lute songs with similarly interested friends. I loved American Sign Language and hula and Esperanto and popular songs of the 20s and 30s. I was a flamenco dancer, a folk dancer, a modern dancer, a ballet dancer. I was already an active, confident choreographer at fifteen. I’d even read most of Partch’s Genesis of a Music, at least the parts I could comprehend.

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