Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Centenary of Harrison’s Birth has been Honored with a Comprehensive Biography

Those who read this site regularly cannot help but know by now that composer Lou Harrison was born on May 14, 1917. It has been a great personal pleasure to write about performances that were organized in celebration of that composer’s 100th birthday, which included the three-concert festival Lou Harrison: A Centenary Celebration, presented by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, and the two concerts for this season’s Other Minds 22 festival entitled Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison. Beyond the music, however, this year saw the publication by Indiana University Press of Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, released (according to in paperback on April 3 and subsequently in hardcover on April 10.

At 602 pages this is the most comprehensive account of Harrison that takes in both life and works. Beyond familiarizing themselves with previously published biographical accounts, the authors availed themselves of the wealth of archival material collected and managed by the University of California at Santa Cruz, which includes not only his music manuscripts but also his correspondence and his personal notebooks. The footnotes for the book also account for a generous number of interviews with both Harrison himself and many that figured in both his musical activities and his personal life.

Equally prodigious is the amount of analytic material that went into the discussion of a broad swathe of Harrison’s compositions. This was no mean feat, because, over the course of the 85 years of his life, Harrison never settled into any one way of making music. Furthermore, that last phrase is the operative one of the preceding sentence. If there was any “spinal cord” that ran through the full course of Harrison’s life and works, it was that music was, first and foremost, a social experience. Making music, particularly with others, always took priority over building up a library of scores to be bequeathed to present and future performers.

Because Harrison ran off in so many different directions so prodigiously, it is likely that different parts of this book will appeal to different readers. My own preferences came to the surface when I celebrated the Fourth of July with an extended riff on the nature of just intonation, which emerges in this book as one of Harrison’s strongest influences. He can be justifiably credited as one of the pioneers in the study of “world music;” and one of the results of his pioneering was a preference for intervals based on natural overtones over the surds (irrational numbers) required for equal-tempered tuning. Perhaps the most interesting by-product of this preference was his commitment to building and tuning (frequently with his life-partner William Colvig) new instruments that would establish his own take on instruments from other countries, such as those that comprise an Indonesian gamelan.

In other words Harrison was not only a maker of music (in a sense of that phrase that is equally applicable to Johann Sebastian Bach and John Coltrane, as has been previously argued) but also a maker of artifacts, which are then applied to the making of music. This distinction may best be appreciated when we consider it in historical context. During the two decades that followed the end of the Second World War, many music-makers were drawn to the lure of new technologies that had previously been, at best, secondary. On the one hand there were those interested in how devices, which had previously been used only for “capture” (i.e. audio recording), might be “repurposed” in the service of creation. This resulted in the emergence of “studios” and “laboratories” in the service of “electronic music.” At roughly the same time there were the first stirrings of those exploring the use of the digital computer for similar pursuits.

It is when we consider this “fork in the road” that we may best appreciate the title Alves and Campbell chose for their book. The Dictionary Web site maintained by Oxford University Press defines a “maverick” as an “independent-minded person.” Yogi Berra used to say, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” When a maverick comes to that fork, (s)he rejects both options. While all those around him were repurposing new technologies in the service of composition and performance, Harrison went back to earlier basics and found new paths along which he could advance. As a result, those who listen to Harrison’s music are likely to find much that is familiar and much that is novel, often in equal measure.

One of the most compelling take-aways from this book is an appreciation for how long Harrison had to wait before his work enjoyed a “critical mass” of support from both performers and listeners. In that respect the story of Harrison’s life is an impressive lesson in having both the patience and the fortitude to persist in your own convictions. (Ironically, for all of John Cage’s Zen philosophy, Harrison turned out to be the better exemplar. I realized this as early as 1973, when I heard Cage read one of his lectures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Rather than using one of his chance-based techniques to construct his text, he simply read a transcript from a ceremony at which he had been given some prestigious, and remunerative, award. Beneath the calm monotone delivery of that text, one had to focus a bit to realize that what Cage was actually saying was, “Where were you when I needed you?!?”)

Mind you, there were dark sides to Harrison’s personality. Alves and Campbell do not try to hide any of them under the rug. To the contrary, their interviews uncover accounts of those who experienced some of Harrison’s fiercer outbursts. So much the better. The Other Minds 22 concerts took place at the Mission Dolores Basilica; and someone involved with the production of the event decided to display an “icon” of sorts coupling photographs of Harrison and Colvig, identified at “Saint Lou” and “Saint Bill.” Harrison was no saint. He was as human as the rest of us, which should make our appreciation of his achievements all the more endearing.

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