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Contemporary Music
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Lou (Silver) Harrison

Lou Harrison was an American composer who studied with Henry Cowell in San Francisco (1934-35) and with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles. During WWII he organized recitals of percussion music on his own and with John Cage, while also working as a florist, record clerk, poet, dancer and dance critic, music copyist (his handwriting is known for its beauty), playwright and builder of instruments. In 1943 he moved to New York, where he was influenced by Virgil Thomson, who became a champion of his works.


“Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create.” - Lou Harrison

He wrote for View, Modern Music, Listen and the New York Herald Tribune, edited the New Music Edition, for a short while, and conducted frequently including the first complete performance of an Ives symphony (no. 3, 1947). In that year he received a grant from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and shortly thereafter he left to teach in Portland and then at Black Mountain college. He returned to California and settled in Aptos. In 1952 and 1954 he was awarded Guggenheim Fellowships, and in the latter year he visited Rome, where Leontyne Price sang in the premiere of an aria from his opera Rapunzel, which won a 20th Century masterpiece award conferred by Stravinsky. During this period he reconstructed a number of works by Charles Ives all of which were approved and signed by the composer. There followed in 1955 a Fromm Award and a commission from the Louisville Orchestra for the Four String Songs on some of his continuing concerns: love, plant, growth, peace and concerted enjoyment on the journey to death.

From 1957 to 1960 Harrison worked in an animal hospital, composing at night, and in the early 1960s traveled to the Far East: a Rockefeller grant enable him to study first in Korea with Dr. Lee Hye-Ku and in Taiwan with Dr. Liang Tsai-Ping, who taught him the principles of Korean court music and Chinese classical music respectively. He was appointed senior scholar at the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii (1963). His activities as an instrument builder were intensified while pursuing his lifelong interest in pitch relations and his belief in just intonation. In 1965 he was granted Phoebe Ketchum Thorne award which enabled him to spend one year in Oaxaca where he began organizing his Music Primer. In 1967 he began teaching at San Jose State University. During this time he also toured with a group of friends performing and speaking on his own and asian music. His involvement with pacifism and his concern for personal freedom are evident in the later works, notably the puppet opera Younrag Caesar on an early homosexual love affair of Julius Caesar’s. In 1970 he was music director of the Red Gate Shadow Players, a company that presented Chinese concerts with Chinese Music. During the same year he gave a series of Chinese concerts with Kenneth Rexroth reading his own translations of Chinese texts. In 1973 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1974 he developed an advanced polyethnic music theory course on systems of world music (which he taught at Stanford 1974, at San Jose State University from 1974, The Center for World Music in Berkeley 1975, University of Southern California 1977, and Mills College 1980-82). In 1975 he was the American representative to the League of Asian Composers Conference in Manila. In 1975-76 his music began to proliferate in Europe with major performances in Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Germany. In 1977 he designed and constructed, with William Colvig, two major Javanese Gamelan orchestras. Through the 1970s and -80s he composed one major work per year and toured frequently as a lecturer, keynote speaker on American composers to major Universitites across the U.S. In 1980 he was given a Milhaud Chair at Mills College and in 1981/82 the Mary Woods Bennett Chair in Music. In 1983 he was awarded a Fulbright scholarship which funded a residency in New Zealand. In 2000 he received the Edward MacDowell Medal. Harrison died suddenly in 2003 at age 85 while en route to a festival of his music at Ohio State University.

Lou Harrison’s compositions demonstrate a variety of means and techniques. In general he was a melodist; rhythm had a significant place in his work, too. Counterpoint and harmony were unimportant. He was one of the first American composers to successfully create a workable marriage between Eastern and Western forms. He is also widely recognized for his contribution to the sensitive and original use of percussion. “The richness of his legacy resides in the eclecticism and universality of its vision,” wrote Peter Garland in the program notes from Harrison’s 60th birthday concert.

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