News Column

Discover the joyous melodies of Lou Harrison at Ojai Music Festival

June 7, 2013


June 07--American composer Lou Harrison made people happy.

His colleague, composer-writer John Cage, wrote the following "mesostic" poem for Harrison, titled "Many Happy Returns" (a mesostic is an acrostic where the word/phrase/name runs down the middle of the words rather than at the beginning):

first the quaLity


yoUr music


its quAntity

and vaRiety

make it Resemble

a rIver in delta

liStening to it

we becOme


With Harrison's music and legacy a key part of the Ojai Music Festival this year, audiences will enjoy many happy hours with the late composer, who died in 2003. Festival activities from today through Sunday include a discussion and documentary (Saturday) about Harrison, performances of six pieces he wrote, and one composed specifically in his honor by John Luther Adams.

The festival's music director, choreographer Mark Morris, collaborated with Harrison and championed his work after they met in the 1980s in Seattle. When coming up with the festival's program, Morris said, "It was always my intention to place a big focus on the great Lou Harrison. He was a very smart, intuitive, complicated, wonderful guy."

Many other composers whose works will be played at the festival -- Cage, Adams, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles -- either influenced or were influenced by Harrison. He studied with Cowell, for example, and brought attention to Charles Ives, conducting the premiere of Ives' Symphony No. 3, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947.

Adams' memorial work "for Lou Harrison" will be played Saturday night. Harrison was a mentor to Adams, who plans to attend the festival. Adams wrote in his "for Lou Harrison" CD liner notes that the piece "was not commissioned. I composed this work because I was compelled to do so in response to the death of one of the most important figures in my life. Amid the daunting realities of today's world, Lou Harrison and his joyful ecumenical life and music seem more vital and more pertinent than ever before."

Who was Lou?

Harrison was not merely a composer. He was a gay-rights activist, environmentalist, pacifist, poet, instrument maker, music critic (for the New York Herald Tribune), teacher, conductor, puppeteer, calligrapher and designer of computer fonts (including the "Lou Casual" typeface). He learned Esperanto, the "universal" language, and American Sign Language.

He also was a proud Californian and West Coast devotee. Harrison, born in Portland, Ore., in 1917, moved to the Bay Area when he was 10, and later lived in Los Angeles to study music and dance at UCLA.

After suffering a nervous breakdown while living in New York City for 10 years, Harrison moved to North Carolina, then returned to the West Coast in 1953 to the scenic coastal town of Aptos, near Santa Cruz, with his partner William Colvig. Harrison died of a heart attack in 2003, while traveling to Ohio State University for a festival in his honor.

The four C's

Above all, said dancer and film producer Eve Soltes, Harrison was a humanitarian. To Soltes, whose documentary about the composer, "Lou Harrison: A World of Music," will be shown Saturday at the Ojai Playhouse as part of the festival, Harrison was a friend, colleague, mentor and father figure. She spent 20 years researching and documenting his life.

"He was a humanist in every sense," Soltes said in a phone interview from her home in Joshua Tree, where she lives near Harrison's environmentally friendly straw-bale retreat house, which has been turned into the headquarters for Harrison House Music & Arts, an artist residency and performance program.

"He was so much about life and wanting to preserve it," Soltes said. "He spoke about the world being one, and that was reflected in his music and what he always used to say: 'Cherish. Conserve. Consider. Create.' "

Melody maker

Harrison, Soltes said, "wrote beautiful music when it wasn't fashionable." He loved melody and harmony during a time when atonality was standard for modern composers.

His compositions for orchestra, ballet (including works commissioned by Merce Cunningham and Morris), chamber ensemble and soloists combined Western, Eastern and custom-made instruments. He was influenced by Chinese opera, Gregorian chant, Spanish and Mexican music, and Indonesian gamelan.

In a video clip from "Lou Harrison: A World of Music," the composer talks about listening to non-Western music.

"You don't have to be born in Tokyo to play Japanese music," he says. "We're all humans; we have the same equipment here (said as he points to his ears), and if another person can do it, I can at least try."

"He suffered a lot to keep his art pure," Soltes said. "When he had a nervous breakdown, there were a lot of factors involved. He had his own way of being in the world. He was writing melodic music in the post-World War II era -- that's not what composers were supposed to do. He was punished for being gay and flamboyant, and because his music was sweet."

Soltes said Harrison was especially hurt when a New York Times critic, in a review of a concert of his music, referred to the composer's "cult of pleasantness."

"That hurt him deeply -- criticism of the seemingly simplicity of his work," she said. "He was not someone who wrote easily."

Harrison always remained, without bitterness, an independent composer.

Soltes shared a phrase from Harrison that she said sums up his independent philosophy: "Freedom is the right to do one's best work without intimidation."


(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters