- Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell
In his splendid poem "Pied Beauty," Gerard Manley Hopkins famously professed that the unexpected things in life that astonish and delight us are occasions for thanksgiving and praise:
Glory be to God for dappled things—For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings …(Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty," stanza 1)
These evocative verses, which flow like music, proceed to make a moral case: Those very things in the world which one might pass over or ignore, because they are peculiar or unconventional, have important lessons to teach us. The works of American composer Lou Harrison (1917–2003) present such an opportunity to see the world anew and rejoice.
In this new biography, Bill Alves and Brett Campbell share a thorough overview of Harrison's life in the form of a dense, chronological narrative, rich in details meticulously cited, and interwoven with insightful details about his music. If the biography by Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman (Lou Harrison: Composing a World [New York: Oxford University Press, 1998]; subsequent edition published as Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004]) contextualizes Harrison the person, and the book by Heidi Von Gunden (The Music of Lou Harrison [Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995]) focuses on his musical creations, Alves and Campbell successfully take on both.
The erudite and heterogeneous musical concepts behind Harrison's compositions can sometimes be thorny to make clear, and, overall, Alves and Campbell provide just enough information to make any work under discussion interesting and accessible to a broad audience. Although this book is not published with an accompanying recording, resources are available for readers to consult; these include the compact-disc set A Homage to Lou Harrison (Dynamic CDS 221, 263, 359, available in the Naxos Music Library) along with video performances on YouTube.
The text is certainly readable, though the small typeface and narrow margins suggest that not much was left on the cutting room floor during the editing process. Chapters and sections often [End Page 116] open with a quotation from Harrison—sometimes excerpts from his many poems—or from a friend. A collection of photographs is included with the text along with a few examples of Harrison's prodigious skill as a calligraphist. In appendix B, Alves and Campbell include a list of Harrison's compositions that cross-references and updates the list published in the biography by Miller and Lieberman.
An exceptional aspect of Harrison's work was his brave eclecticism. The list of compositional techniques, styles, and models that he drew upon is truly staggering. Harrison composed using the twelve-tone method and was praised by Arnold Schoenberg himself. In his work as a dance accompanist and composer, he mastered labanotation and theorized a new way to conceive music-dance collaborations. In his studies with Henry Cowell, Harrison learned how to process music as sound, without prejudice, which opened up for him music of other cultures, early music, alternate tunings, and modified instruments. Along with John Cage, Harrison was one of the earliest composers of music for percussion ensemble in the United States. In compositions such as his magnificent Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra, Harrison imitated the sounds of an Indonesian gamelan and incorporated a style he learned from Indian music called jhala.
Like many other composers throughout history, Harrison worked as a music critic for a time to make ends meet. While living in New York City, he wrote for Modern Music (the journal of the League of Composers), Henry Cowell's magazine New Music, and the New York Herald Tribune. Despite the inherently tricky undertaking of writing about music (what Charles Seeger dubbed the "linguocentric predicament" [Bell Yung and Helen Rees, eds., Understanding Charles Seeger, Pioneer in American Musicology...