Lou Harrison


Lou Silver Harrison (May 14, 1917 – February 2, 2003) was an American composer. He was a student of Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg. He worked with noted Javanese Gamelan musician K. P. H. Notoprojo.

Lou Harrison
Lou Harrison.jpg
Background information
Birth nameLou Silver Harrison
Born(1917-05-14)May 14, 1917
Portland, Oregon, U.S.
DiedFebruary 2, 2003(2003-02-02) (aged 85)
Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.
GenresContemporary classical music

Harrison is particularly noted for incorporating elements of the music of non-Western cultures into his work, with a number of pieces written for Javanese style gamelan instruments, including ensembles constructed and tuned by Harrison and his partner William Colvig. The majority of his works are written in just intonation rather than the more widespread equal temperament. Harrison is one of the most prominent composers to have worked with microtones.


Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon, but moved with his family to a number of locations around the San Francisco Bay Area as a child. He graduated from Burlingame High School in Burlingame, California in 1934, then he moved to San Francisco.[1] The diverse music which he was to be exposed to there, including Cantonese opera, Native American music, Mexican music, and jazz as well as classical music, was to have a major influence on him. He also heard recordings of Indonesian music early in life.

Harrison took Henry Cowell's "Music of the Peoples of the World" course, and also studied counterpoint and composition with him. In 1941, he went to the University of California at Los Angeles to work at the dance department as a dancer and accompanist. While there, he took lessons from Arnold Schoenberg which led to an interest in Schoenberg's twelve-tone technique.[2] The pieces he was writing at this time, however, were largely percussive works using unconventional materials, such as car brake drums, as musical instruments. These pieces were similar to those being written by John Cage around the same time, and the two sometimes worked together.

In 1943, Harrison moved to New York City, where he worked as a music critic for the Herald Tribune.[2] While there he met Charles Ives, became his friend, and did a good deal in bringing Ives to the attention of the musical world, which had largely ignored him up to that point. With the assistance of his mentor Cowell, Harrison prepared and conducted the premiere of Ives's Symphony No. 3, and in return received help from Ives financially. When Ives won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for that piece, he gave half of the money to Harrison. Harrison also edited a large number of Ives's works, receiving compensation often in excess of what he billed.[3]

Harrison supported and promoted the music of a number of unconventional composers in addition to Ives. These included Edgard Varèse, Carl Ruggles, and Alan Hovhaness.[4]

Harrison taught music at various colleges and universities, including Mills College from 1936 to 1939 and again from 1980 to 1985, San Jose State University, Cabrillo College, Reed College, and Black Mountain College. In 1953 he moved back to California, settling in Aptos near Santa Cruz, where he lived the rest of his life.

Following in the path of Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who had done extensive research in Indonesian music in the 1930s and wrote a number of compositions incorporating Balinese and Javanese elements, Harrison's style began to change, showing the influence of gamelan music more clearly if only in timbre: "It was the sound itself that attracted me. In New York, when I changed gears out of twelve tonalism, I explored this timbre. The gamelan movements in my Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra [1951] are aural imitations of the generalized sounds of gamelan".[5] Virgil Thomson (with whom Harrison also studied) gave him a copy of Harry Partch's book on musical tuning, Genesis of a Music, which prompted Harrison to start writing music in just intonation.[6] He did not abandon equal temperament altogether, but often expressed a desire to do so. In an oft-quoted comment referring to the frequency ratios used in just intonation, he said, "I'd long thought that I would love a time when musicians were numerate as well as literate. I'd love to be a conductor and say, 'Now, cellos, you gave me 10:9 there, please give me a 9:8 instead,' I'd love to get that!"

Although much influenced by Asian music, Harrison did not visit the continent until a 1961 trip to Japan and Korea and a 1962 trip to Taiwan.[7] He and his partner William Colvig later constructed a tuned percussion ensemble, using resonated aluminum keys and tubes, as well as oxygen tanks and other found percussion instruments. They called this "an American gamelan," in order to distinguish it from those in Indonesia. [They also constructed?] gamelan-type instruments tuned to just pentatonic scales from unusual materials such as tin cans and aluminium furniture tubing. He wrote "La Koro Sutro" (in Esperanto)[8] for these instruments and chorus, as well as "Suite for Violin and American Gamelan." In addition, Harrison played and composed for the Chinese guzheng zither, and presented (with Colvig, his student Richard Dee, and the singer Lily Chin) over 300 concerts of traditional Chinese music in the 1960s.[9]

He was a composer-in-residence at San Jose State University in San Jose, California during the 1960s. The university honored him with an all-Harrison concert in Morris Daley Auditorium in 1969, featuring dancers, singers, and musicians. The highlight of the concert was the world premiere of Harrison's depiction of the story of Orpheus, which utilized soloists, the San Jose State University a cappella choir, as well as a unique group of percussionists.

Like many other 20th-century composers, Harrison found it hard to support himself with his music, and took a number of other jobs to earn a living, including record salesman, florist, animal nurse, and forestry firefighter.

Harrison was outspoken about his political views, such as his pacifism (he was an active supporter of the international language Esperanto), and the fact that he was gay. He was also politically active and informed, including knowledge of gay history. He wrote many pieces with political texts or titles, writing, for instance, Homage to Pacifica for the opening of the Berkeley Headquarters of the Pacifica Foundation, and accepting commissions from the Portland Gay Men's Chorus (1988 and 1985) and by the Seattle Men's Chorus to arrange (1987) his Strict Songs, originally for eight baritones, for "a chorus of 120 male singing enthusiasts. Some of them good; some not so good. But the number is so fabulous".[10] Lawrence Mass[11] describes:

With Lou Harrison...being gay is something affirmative. He's proud to be a gay composer and interested in talking about what that might mean. He doesn't feel threatened that this means he won't be thought of as an American composer who is also great and timeless and universal.

Janice Giteck[12] describes Harrison as:

unabashedly androgynous in his way of approaching creativity. He has a vital connection to the feminine as well as to the masculine. The female part is apparent in the sense of beingness. But at the same time, Lou is very male, too, ferociously active and assertive, rhythmic, pulsing, and aggressive.

On November 2, 1990, the Brooklyn Philharmonic premiered Harrison's fourth symphony, which he titled Last Symphony. He combined Native American music, ancient music, and Asian music, tying it all together with lush orchestral writing. A special inclusion was a series of Navajo "Coyote Stories." He made a number of revisions to the symphonies before completing a final version in 1995, which was recorded by Barry Jekowsky and the California Symphony for Argo Records at Skywalker Ranch in Nicasio, California in March 1997. The CD also included Harrison's Elegy, to the Memory of Calvin Simmons (a tribute to the former conductor of the Oakland Symphony, who drowned in a boating accident in 1982), excerpts from Solstice, Concerto in Slendro, and Double Music (his collaboration with John Cage).[13]

Harrison and Colvig built two full Javanese-style gamelan, modeled on the instrumentation of Kyai Udan Mas at U.C. Berkeley. One was named Si Betty for the art patron Betty Freeman; the other, built at Mills College, was named Si Darius/Si Madeliene. Harrison held the Darius Milhaud Chair of Musical Composition at Mills College from 1980 until his retirement in 1985. One of his students at Mills was Jin Hi Kim. He also taught at San Jose State University and Cabrillo College.

He was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal in 2000.[14]

Personal lifeEdit

Harrison lived for many years with William Colvig in Aptos, California. He and Colvig purchased land in Joshua Tree, California, where they designed and built the Harrison House Retreat, a straw bale house.

Harrison died in Lafayette, Indiana, from a heart attack while on his way to a festival of his music at Ohio State University.

Harrison's musicEdit

Many of Harrison's early works are for percussion instruments, often made out of what would usually be regarded as junk or found objects such as garbage cans and steel brake drums. He also wrote a number of pieces using Schoenberg's twelve tone technique, including the opera Rapunzel and his Symphony on G (Symphony No. 1) (1952). Several works feature the tack piano, a kind of prepared piano with small nails inserted into the hammers to give the instrument a more percussive sound.

Harrison's mature musical style is based on "melodicles", short motifs which are turned backwards and upside down to create a musical mode the piece is based on. His music is typically spartan in texture but lyrical, and harmony usually simple or sometimes lacking altogether, with the focus instead being on rhythm and melody. Ned Rorem describes, "Lou Harrison's compositions demonstrate a variety of means and techniques. In general he is a melodist. Rhythm has a significant place in his work, too. Harmony is unimportant, although tonality is. He is one of the first American composers to successfully create a workable marriage between Eastern and Western forms."[citation needed]

An often used technique is "interval control", in which only small number of melodic intervals, either ascending or descending, are used, without inversion.[15] For example, for the opening of the Fourth Symphony, the permitted intervals are minor third, minor sixth, and major second.[15]

Another component of Harrison's aesthetic is what Harry Partch would call corporeality, an emphasis on the physical and the sensual including live, human, performance and improvisation, timbre, rhythm, and the sense of space in his melodic lines, whether solo or in counterpoint, and most notably in his frequent dance collaborations. The American dancer and choreographer Mark Morris used Harrison's Serenade for Guitar [with optional percussion] (1978) as the "basis of a new kind of dance. Or, at least, one I've [Morris] never seen or done before."[16]

Among Harrison's better known works are the Concerto in Slendro, Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra, Organ Concerto with Percussion (1973), which was given at the Proms in London in 1997; the Double Concerto (1981–82) for violin, cello, and Javanese gamelan; the Piano Concerto (1983–85) for piano tuned in Kirnberger #2 (a form of well temperament) and orchestra, which was written for Keith Jarrett;[17] and a Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan; as well as four numbered orchestral symphonies. He also wrote a large number of works in non-traditional forms. Harrison was fluent in several languages including American Sign Language, Mandarin and Esperanto, and several of his pieces have Esperanto titles and texts, most notably La Koro Sutro (1973).[8]

Like Charles Ives, Harrison completed four symphonies. He typically combined a variety of the musical forms and languages that he preferred. This is quite apparent in the fourth symphony, recorded by the California Symphony for Argo Records, as well as his third symphony, which was performed and broadcast by Dennis Russell Davies and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Russell Davies also recorded the third symphony with the Cabrillo Music Festival orchestra.


  • 1986 – Lou Harrison : "cherish, conserve, consider, create." Directed by Eric Marin.
  • 1995 – Musical Outsiders: An American Legacy – Harry Partch, Lou Harrison, and Terry Riley. Directed by Michael Blackwood.
  • 2012 - Lou Harrison: A World of Music. Directed by Eva Soltes.


Chamber worksEdit

  • Ariadne (1987), flute & percussion
  • At the Tomb of Charles Ives (1963), chamber orchestra
  • Concerto for Flute & Percussion (1939)
  • Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra (1951), percussion ensemble, organ and ensemble
  • Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan (1986–87)
  • Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra (1997), Asian instrument and ensemble
  • Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra (1959)
  • Concerto in Slendro (1961)
  • Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan (1981–82)
  • New First Suite for Strings (1995), string orchestra
  • Pacifika Rondo (1963), chamber orchestra
  • Praise for the Beauty of Hummingbirds (1951), mixed quintet
  • Rhymes with Silver (1996), violoncello and ensemble, mixed quintet
  • Scenes from Nek Chand (2002), guitar solo
  • Serenade for Guitar with optional Percussion (1978), mixed duo, guitar solo
  • Serenado Por Gitaro (1952), guitar solo
  • Seven Pastorales (1949 Aug.- 1951 Oct.), chamber orchestra
  • Solstice (1949), octet (flute, oboe, trumpet, 2 cellos, string bass, celesta, tack piano)
  • Songs in the Forest (1951), mixed quartet
  • String Quartet Set (1978)
  • Suite for Cello and Harp (1949)
  • Suite for Percussion (for five percussionists, 1942)
  • Suite for Violin with American Gamelan (1973)
  • Suite for Violin with String Orchestra (1997)
  • Suite for Violoncello and Piano (1995)
  • Suites for Cello and String Orchestra (1984, 1990)
  • The Perilous Chapel (1948), mixed quartet
  • Varied Trio (1986), Rice Bowls, Violin, Vibraphone, Piano (written for the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio)

Orchestral worksEdit

  • Symphony On G (No. 1) (1947)
  • Symphony No. 2 'Elegiac' (1942)
  • Suite from Marriage at the Eiffel Tower (1961) for the Santa Cruz Symphony
  • Music for Violin with Various Instruments, European, Asian, and African (1967), string solo and orchestra
  • Symphony No. 3 (1982) For the Cabrillo Music Festival
  • Piano Concerto (1983–85), for piano tuned in Kirnberger #2 (a form of well temperament) and orchestra
  • Last Symphony (No. 4) (1990, rev. 1995)
  • A Parade for MTT (1995)

Vocal worksEdit

  • Air from Rapunzel (1952-3), high voice and ensemble
  • Alma Redemptoris Mater (1949–51), low voice and ensemble
  • La Koro Sutro (1970), mixed chorus and gamelan, mixed chorus and ensemble
  • Mass to Saint Anthony (1939), mixed chorus and ensemble
  • Orpheus (1969), soloists, mixed chorus and ensemble
  • Strict Songs (1955), baritone solo, chorus and chamber orchestra
  • Three Songs (1985), men's chorus and ensemble
  • Vestiunt Silve (1951), for soprano and four instruments

Keyboard worksEdit

  • Six Sonatas for Cembalo (1943), piano solo, harpsichord solo
  • Reel (Homage to Henry Cowell), piano solo
  • A Summerfield Set (1988), piano solo, harpsichord solo
  • Waltz for Evelyn Hinrichsen, piano solo


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Leta E. Miller, liner notes for Argo CD 455 590–2
  2. ^ a b Miller, Leta. "Lou Harrison - In Retrospect". Liner notes. New World Records.
  3. ^ Miller & Lieberman (1998)[page needed]
  4. ^ http://www.public Archived 2013-07-11 at the Wayback Machine radio.org/tools/media/player/composersdatebook/0207/020407_datebook.ram
  5. ^ Miller & Lieberman (1998), p. 160
  6. ^ Aaron, Peter (29 September 2011). "Lou Harrison: Outsider Inside". Chronogram. Archived from the original on 15 February 2013. Retrieved 4 January 2013.
  7. ^ Miller & Lieberman (1998), p. 141
  8. ^ a b Lou Harrison Centennial Birthday Celebration, 1917-2017, part 2 of 5.
  9. ^ MetroActive Music | Bill Colvig
  10. ^ Miller & Lieberman (1998), p. 98
  11. ^ Miller & Lieberman (1998), p. 190
  12. ^ Miller & Lieberman (1998), p. 194
  13. ^ Argo Records liner notes
  14. ^ "MacDowell Medal winners 1960-2011". The Telegraph. 13 April 2011.
  15. ^ a b Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman (Summer, 1999). "Lou Harrison and the American Gamelan", American Music, Vol. 17, No. 2, p.168.
  16. ^ Morris, Mark (23 March 2003). "DANCE; Mark Morris: The Making Of My Dance". www.nytimes.com.
  17. ^ American Made – Books – Baltimore City Paper Archived 2011-03-08 at the Wayback Machine

Further readingEdit

  • Alves, Bill; Campbell, Brett (2017). Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253025613.
  • Harrison, Lou. Miller, Leta (ed.). Selected Keyboard and Chamber Music, 1937–1994. Music of the United States of America. Vol. 8. A-R Editions. ISBN 0895794144.
  • Kennedy, Michael; Bourne Kennedy, Joyce (2013). The Oxford Dictionary of Music. Oxford University Press. "Harrison, Lou". ISBN 9780199578542.
  • Miller, Leta E.; Lieberman, Frederic (1998). Lou Harrison: Composing a World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195110226.

External linksEdit


  • Lou Harrison Archive at the University of California, Santa Cruz
  • San Jose State University School of Music & Dance
  • Lou Harrison music manuscripts, sketches, poetry, and drawings, 1945-1991 at Isham Memorial Library, Harvard University

Obituaries and remembrancesEdit

  • Obituary from the Musical Times
  • Remembrance by Don Gillespie, from NewMusicBox
  • I remember Lou, from Other Minds
  • Obituary from Esperanto magazine (written in Esperanto)


  • Duffie, Bruce. "Composer Lou Harrison: A Conversation With Bruce Duffie." April 1987.
  • Golden, Barbara. "Conversation with Lou Harrison." eContact! 12.2 — Interviews (2) (April 2010). Montréal: CEC.
  • Clark, Philip. "Chimes of Freedom" The Wire, August 2002, pp 28–32

Other linksEdit

  • Lou Harrison: Middle Period Works
  • New Albion Artists: Lou Harrison
  • Peermusic Classical: Lou Harrison Composer's Publisher and Bio
  • Lou Harrison artist page from Frog Peak Music site
  • Other Minds: Lou Harrison
  • Lou Harrison Documentary Project
  • Lou Harrison: an interview by Dr Geoff Smith
  • Rapunzel by William Morris, inspiration for Lou Harrison's opera
  • Lou Harrison at Music of the United States of America (MUSA)


  • Art of the States: Lou Harrison seven works by the composer
  • Lou Harrison tribute from Other Minds Festival 9, 2003
  • Epitonic.com: Lou Harrison including tracks from Rhymes With Silver and La Koro Sutro
  • Del Sol Quartet:Tear with Harrison's Song of Palestine from String Quartet Set by Del Sol Quartet