Maverick composer Lou Harrison to be celebrated at D.C. festival

A sampling of the most promising concerts, movies, art exhibitions and performing arts over the months ahead.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:05 PM

With his big white beard, twinkling blue eyes and air of affability, Lou Harrison (1917-2003) looked like a hippie Santa Claus. His music, too, has an air of clarity, as if washed and distilled in bright outdoor air. This makes him an unusually non-threatening figure among recent composers, most of whom appear to the public as thorny propagators of difficult music. Harrison is all California, laid back and mellow - but the luminosity of his music belies the intricacy of the work, and knowledge, that underlie it.

To say Harrison is underrated is perhaps exaggerated, especially in light of the fact that the composer is getting his own festival in Washington on March 4 and 5, courtesy of the Post-Classical Ensemble. His life, certainly, reads like a Who's Who of 20th-century American music. He was a friend of John Cage and Virgil Thomson, a student of Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, an early champion of and assistant to Charles Ives (who, when he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, gave Harrison half the money). And he had a profound if quiet influence on the generation that came after him. When Michael Tilson Thomas took over the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, the very first music he played was a fanfare he commissioned from Harrison for the occasion.

Yet Harrison's music is not heard enough in the concert hall these days. That, certainly, is the assessment of Angel Gil-Ordonez and Joseph Horowitz, the Post-Classical Ensemble's co-founders and co-instigators. The March festival's main concert, at Lisner Auditorium on March 5, features a range of Harrison's work, including compositions for the gamelan, the Indonesian percussion orchestra, but its highlight for the conductor, Gil-Ordonez, is Harrison's piano concerto, composed from 1983 to 1985. To him, it's one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. Yet it's not something you're likely to hear played often.

The festival actually kicks off Feb. 26 with a sneak preview of a documentary-film-in-progress by the director Eva Soltes, who focuses on under-appreciated artists and who has been working on "Lou Harrison: A World of Music" (ultimately targeted to public television) for years. The film - which is being screened for free at the National Gallery of Art - draws on a huge archive to depict a protean figure.

You could call Harrison a holistic artist. He was concerned about every side of music, not only writing it but also constructing instruments and finding different ways to tune them. He was also a published poet - his collected poems came out under the title "Joys and Perplexities," the cover inked in his own flawless calligraphy - and a social activist whose focuses included gay rights, racial equality, pacifism and the green movement. Together with his life partner, William Colvig, he built everything from a tuned percussion ensemble made of scrap metal (which they dubbed an "American gamelan") to a eco-friendly home made of straw bales by Joshua Tree National Park.

The festival's other free event focuses on the gamelan, and its influence on Harrison's music. The sounds of Eastern music offered Harrison, in the 1940s, a path to follow out of Schoenberg's 12-tone system; he was fascinated by the possibilities of timbre and intonation. A nervous breakdown in 1947, which hospitalized him for several months, represented a symbolic break with his previous explorations: He returned from the East Coast to his native California and focused more and more on music of Asia and just intonation, a means of tuning instruments based on absolute frequencies rather than the ratios used in the equal temperament that has become the standard way to tune a Western orchestra.

On March 4, the Indonesian Embassy hosts an evening, with its own gamelan orchestra, that demonstrates not only Harrison's forays into the gamelan, but the way that Western culture and music - many contemporary American composers have now embraced the gamelan wholeheartedly - has influenced Indonesia.

In a tribute written after Harrison's death, the composer David Lang summed up the influence of the man with whom he had studied at the age of 17. "He changed my idea of how a grown up composer was supposed to live," Lang wrote. "To that point I had imagined that a composer should be dark and moody and troubled and introspective. He thought a composer should live a good life. And he did."

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