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Reviewed by:
  • Lou Harrison
  • Peter Dickinson
Lou Harrison. By Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman. pp. x +152; CD. American Composers. (University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2006, £26. ISBN 0-252-03120-2.)

Lou Harrison had a remarkable range of interests, all projected into his music at various stages. If popular music was a quintessential ingredient for Ives, the equivalent for Harrison was the music of non-Western cultures. He often placed Western and Eastern instruments alongside each other rather than attempting the synthesis of Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (1956–7), Colin McPhee’s Tabuh-tabuhan (1936), or Cowell’s less familiar Ongaku (1957). Britten came to Eastern influences with a fully-fledged style of his own; McPhee was steeped in Javanese gamelan, and his orchestral Tabuh-tabuhan has attracted attention latterly as an anticipation of the minimalism of John Adams; Cowell was a committed multiculturalist but felt the need to make Ongaku conform to norms of stylistic consistency. Harrison’s background is narrower, although his ancestors include Cowell, who is now venerated as a pioneer, much of whose music leans more towards the Pacific Rim than to Europe. Harrison had lessons with Cowell when the latter was in San Quentin prison—through bars. Reviewing Tabuh-tabuhan in 1948, Cowell said: ‘It seems to me certain that future progress in creative music for composers of the western world must inevitably go towards the exploration and integration of elements drawn from more than one of the world’s cultures’ (quoted in Carol J. Oja, Colin McPhee: Composer in Two Worlds (Washington, DC, 1990), 119). That was practically Harrison’s credo.

Twentieth-century composers who could not accept equal temperament have usually paid a heavy price. Harry Partch has been severely limited by his employment of a microtonal tuning system requiring instruments of his own invention. The microtonal works of Alois Hába and Ivan Vyshnegradsky, like those of Partch, are known almost entirely through a handful of recordings. Sometimes the most individual element in their music is the tuning system applied to what would otherwise be rather conventional ideas. But Harrison mostly looked back to older and purer tuning systems such as just intonation. Like Cage, Harrison used home-made percussion instruments, often played by amateurs, and there is a fascinating extract on the CD with this book of Cage’s own percussion group recorded at Seattle in 1939. Harrison studied with Schoenberg a few years after Cage and found his own way to a modified twelve-note technique. These are Harrison’s most extreme works, comparable to Cowell’s tone-cluster pieces. Harrison, too, could insert patches of clusters into some movements of otherwise predominantly monodic works such as the late Rhymes with Silver written for Mark Morris and his dance company. Like Cage, [End Page 282] Harrison was productively involved with dancers and in his youth danced himself.

Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, following on from their major study Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer (Urbana, Ill., 2004), make out an excellent case for Harrison, who read the new book in draft before his sudden death in 2003. They consider that his legacy will centre on his amalgamation of Asian and Western musics; his development of percussion and invented instruments; and his exploration of tuning systems. All these aspects are considered in separate chapters and a particularly useful feature in a book aimed at the general reader is the CD with twenty-one tracks, which supports the discussion of the music.

Those who remember Harrison’s larger-than-life presence may be surprised to read of his breakdown in 1947. This was after he had been writing for the New York Herald Tribune, under the aegis of Virgil Thomson, and had conducted the highly successful premiere of Ives’s Third Symphony. After what seemed like a collapse of both life and work Harrison got into his stride, wrote his opera Rapunzel, which received an award, and gained residences and grants that would keep him going and enable him to travel. In 1954 he moved to California.

His interest in Eastern traditions such as gamelan was at first based purely on a liking...