After studying composition
with Cowell in San Francisco and Schoenberg in Los Angeles in the I930s,
Lou Harrison worked as a music copyist, florist, record clerk, poet, dancer
and dance critic in the 1940S, moving to New York in 1943. Here he became
a music critic for The Herald Tribune, edited Cowell's New Music
Edition and conducted the first performance of Ives's Third Symphony.
Returning to California, he taught on the music faculty of Black Mountain
College from 1951-3, and has since held posts at several American universities.
such as La Koro Sutro for chorus and gamelan, embraces the huge
variety of musical cultures bordering the Pacific. Inspired by the work
of Harry Partch and his interest in non-Western tuning systems, he has,
with his companion William Colvig, constructed a range of instruments
including several gamelans , wind and string instruments. Essentially
a melodist, Lou Harrison is often regarded as the father of West Coast
I'd like to start
by asking you about living and composing on the West Coast of America
as opposed to the East. What are the differences between the two, and
why have you chosen the West?
Well, why would anyone choose the East? The division in the United
States is no longer between North and South, it's the Rockies. As I like
to point out, starlings and Lyme Disease (a very dangerous disease first
found in East Lyme, Connecticut) have both made it to California from
the East. The Rockies are the great divide. California is a very different
part of the United States - it's a very special civilization. In between
the East and California is, from my point of view, the real America, that
is to say the four states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. That
to me is America, the rest is peripheral - shore stuff.
How would you describe
'West Coast' music? What would you say is its essence?
Well, there's no one 'is' about it. I have defined it as being freer.
We're not bound up with industrial 'twelve-tone-ism' quite so much as
the East seaboard is, and also we're not afraid out here if something
sounds pretty. I don't see that increased complexity is any solution at
all. We also have a very strong connection with Asia. People in New York
commute to Europe all the time, and that feels strange to me. I habitually
go to Asia. This is Pacifica, that's Atlantica. They're different orientations.
I don't think that there is a composer in the West who is not aware of
that. We're all aware, from Seattle and Vancouver down to San Diego, that
we're part of Pacifica. For some of us it feels more natural than for
others. I came to my legal maturity (I've never really grown up) in San
Francisco, where every week I went to the Cantonese Opera. I constantly
heard Asian music. I heard my first gamelan in the middle of San Francisco
Bay, and half of my friends go back and forth to Indonesia and Japan all
the time. I mean, gee whizz, yesterday morning I finished one of my boxes
of Kellogg's Ken Mai flakes. You can't get them in this country - my Japanese
friends send them to me. So we have a regular transit across the
Going back to West
versus East, how is your relationship with European tradition changed?
Was it always so clear to you that you were looking East?
Well, I lived in Manhattan for ten years and had a breakdown at the
end of it, which revealed to me that I was not a true New Yorker. So I
moved back here, with an intermission of a couple of years at Black Mountain
College in North Carolina, which was very pleasant. After I got back,
my parents wanted to give me a little place to work in. Just a couple
of doors from here was a place they had looked at. I looked at it, and
it was just like my studio at Black Mountain College, so I said, 'That's
it.' That was I954, and that's why I'm here. Also, Harry Partch was in
San Francisco at that time, and we stayed friends till he died in San
Diego. John [Cage] was here for a long time too, but that was early on,
in the late I9305. But there's a tradition in California. For example,
Mills Coliege, the Centre for Contemporary Music has been going for a
long time- Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnik, Ramon Sender, Terry Riley.
Cal Arts has been a lively place, as has La Jolla in San Diego. There's
a centre in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle is a hotbed. But it also goes
along the whole coast and includes Mexico and Vancouver too.
What is it about
living in the country that appeals to you?
Well, as I said, I 'did' ten years in Manhattan and finally had a
breakdown. Three days in a city now and I'm quite flipped. There's too
much noise. I just can't do with it. But these days a fax can come in
from anywhere in the world, books and records can be ordered from anywhere.
When I first moved here, to Aptos, there was very little: no real bookstores,
the university was not here, neither was Cabrillo College. It was really
rural. Then it gradually piled up, and now it's a classy metropolitan
area. I used to go to San Francisco almost monthly, not only for sex but
for books and galleries. Now there are lots of bookstores, galleries,
craftsmen and intellectuals. There's a Shakespeare festival and the Cabrillo
music festival every year. I see no reason why anybody has to live in
depraved surroundings, in deteriorated air etc. Be yourself. If you want
a calmer life then take it, for heaven's sake. The mind doesn't stop.
You studied with
Cowell first, then Schoenberg. What did they give you?
Lots. Cowell gave me an enormous amount of 'how to' knowledge, including
how to write a serial piece before I went to Schoenberg. Also an immense
stimulation about world music. He was an absolutely fascinating man, because
of his knowledge not only of world music but also of how to do different
things. His book New Musical Resources continues to be very stimulating,
as does the symposium that he put out years ago, American Composers on
American Music. From Schoenberg, oddly enough, I learned simplicity. I
got myself into a corner one day, so I took the problem to him. He extricated
me by saying, 'Only the salient. Only the important. Don't go any further.
Just do what is going ahead and in its most salient form.' In short, no
complications - strip it. I've sometimes wondered whether, when I write
a Balungan for a Javanese gamelan for only five or seven notes, it might
have something to do with Schoenberg's admonition. When I left he said
that I was not to study with anybody, that I didn't need that. He said,
'Study only Mozart'. That was his admonition - simplicity. He was a wonderful
man, incidentally, quite unlike the image a lot of people seem to have
of him as some sort of German militarist. I mean, he was Viennese! His
liquor bills were very high and he smoked too much. His fingers were iodine-coloured.
But he also had a good sense of his own virtues and faults.
Could you tell
us something about the American gamelan, and how it differs from the Indonesian
Firstly, the shapes and forms are different, because for the most
part we do not do bronze, which is a very difficult metal to deal with.
We use aluminium and/or iron. On the West Coast, Bill Colvig pioneered
the use of aluminium (he's built two very large gamelans) and on the East
Coast, Dennis Murphy and his pupil Barbara Benary used iron in a more
or less traditional way. This country is flooded with gamelans - about
one hundred and fifty or so - and a fair proportion of them are American-built.
Bill's first gamelan was pipes and slabs, and it was his discovery that
an aluminium slab resonated with cans soldered together that first stirred
the enthusiasm for building, both in Berkeley and San Jose.
So the main difference
is in the material they're made of?
Also the tunings and the range. Some gamelans in the United States
have wider ranges than the Balungan instruments; instead of six or seven
tones, they have maybe two octaves. All Bill's gamelans have two octaves.
They run from five to five in both pelog and slendro. Predictably, there
are melodies that will not work unless you have those extra tones. That's
why they're there and, sure enough, some of my best music requires them.
So it's range and tuning- some of us use just intonation of various sorts.
In fact, the slendro part of the gamelan C Betty (which is one of the
gamelans that Bill made, dedicated to Betty Freeman) is, to our great
surprise, tuned to a schema attributed to Claudius Ptolemy in the znd
century AD in Alexandria. I thought I'd invented it, but it's hard to
invent anything these days.
Was there a point
in your career or a particular piece where you felt you'd found your own
Well, some day I probably will!
Is your music performed
Yes. As a matter of fact, I'm astonished to find that there may be
a retrospective of my work in Jakarta. Well, what Western composer would
have a retrospective in Jakarta?! So yes, I'm well-known. In fact, I am
told that my Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Javanese Gamelan is
required listening in the state conservatories.
How did Partch
When the first printing of Harry's book came out, Virgil Thomson was
sent a review copy because he was writing for the New York Herald Tribune.
He gave it to me the following day and said, 'See what you can make of
this.' Of course I was utterly fascinated and within the week I'd bought
a tuning wrench for the piano, and I've been doing it ever since. The
piano in here, which used to be a favourite of Percy Grainger's and was
given to me by the Cowells, is tuned in Kirnberger Number Two, as is my
Piano Concerto, and I keep it that way. Harry and I had a very close relationship
which went on for years. Betty Freeman was his patron. She set him up
in houses, underwrote his work, and gave him money if he wanted to do
a big thing, which he often did. There was a movement to make copies of
Harry's work and put the original instruments in the Smithsonian Institute.
That's been going on for ever. When I last saw Danlee Mitchell, a few
years ago, he and some friends had reconstructed some of the dilapidated
instruments but with new and more durable materials. They sounded better,
as a matter of fact. Harry wasn't a luthière, you know. He was,
as he said, a musician seduced into carpentry. So some of them could profitably
be rebuilt in more resonant and more durable materials. He accepted a
large psaltery I had built - it's part of that instrumental collection
and he gave me a set of instruments too, bamboo things. So yes, we exchanged
instruments, ideas, and pleasantries- and he made wonderful mint juleps
some of your texts recently in Esperanto.
Yes, a few. It's a language I like. And I'm having the astonishing
discovery that when I practise sign language now, occasionally in my head
I slip into the Esperanto version. This morning I had an insight from
reading this month's Scientific American, which is devoted to the brain
and the linguistic centres. I suddenly realized that my recent interest
in sign language is not only because Bill and George (a close friend)
are getting deaf, but also because I had heart surgery three or four years
ago and the first thing I noticed afterwards was that my linguistic centres
were screwed up. I'd been doing spoonerisms like 'I don't want to work
and work and die in my salad' instead of 'saddle'. Clearly, my interest
in sign language is partly in getting into my linguistic centres again
to try to remedy that.
Do you use European
models for the structures of your pieces?
I'm mad for one European form, the medieval estampie. I've written
too many of them, in fact; my latest symphony is the last one, and I'm
not going to go any further. I like ABAs and rondos too. I'm particularly
fond of the French rondo with no variation - not the Viennese rondo with
its transposition of the subject, as in Mozart and Haydn. I also like
some of the contrapuntal forms - passacaglias and things like that - though
I use them less. I have quite a good historical background in European
Did your studies
of Indonesian forms throw up whole new ways of working?
Indonesian forms are different from European forms. It knocks you
numb when you first realize what the formal range is in Indonesian music.
ABA would be simple-minded in Indonesia. There are forms whose first line
lasts, say, eight counts and there are forms whose first line lasts, say,
385 counts. Then they go through a process known as irama, which is tempo
layers. If you take a form of ten lines of 385 counts, for example, take
one ten times that, and then shift it to the fifth irama - which means
that it would expand by five geometric times - you get some idea where
you're going. There's also the practice of using certain instruments to
mark off where you are. It's a little bit like the chords: you know that
you're not at the tonic when you're on V or IV- those are subsidiary cadences.
Similarly, you know when you come to the great song, which is the equivalent
of the tonic. So the shape, tonally, is very controlled, and it's instrumentally
indicated. Its size, its interconnections and what you can do are breath-taking,
that's all I can say. I will never, for the rest of my life, be bored
as long as there are gamelans and players around. And writing too. If
I write now, just out of my head, there are only two things I really like
to do. One of them is harps and other tuned instruments playing modes,
usually from the antique world but sometimes made up. And the other is
gamelan compositions. I instinctively write Balungans now, which is the
skeleton line for a gamelan piece. Up on Mount Hamilton, we just premiered
my Gending in honour of Max Beckmann. It eliminates the pitch two in pelog,
which makes a fascinating mode. The next one is in honour of Munakata
Shiko - the other great artist of the century, I think.
Do you have any
specific way of working, like so many hours per day or certain times?
They don't let me. The phone or the fax or visitors or whatever are
happening all the time, and I do well if I get a half an hour in during
the day. I have a load of work that I can never really accomplish. I've
also been designing my own type fonts - I made four last year and my book
of poems uses two of them. I now have a subsidiary career as a poet! I'm
also sending slides of my paintings and drawings to the Los Angeles County
Museum of Contemporary Art, which is originating an exhibition that's
perhaps going around the world.
sc005 - Lou Harrison Piano Concerto
performed by Joanna MacGregor.