Interview: Carl Stone with Lou Harrison.
Lou Harrison presently teaches at Mills College. His music is known for his original and sensitive use of percussion and employment of just intonation. It is also widely appreciated for its lyricism and assimilation of techniques from East and West.
Carl Stone: Lou, in 1926, when you came down from Portland, Oregon, you were nine years old. Were you at the time ware of your musical interest and talent or was that something that developed in you a little later on?
Lou Harrison: I played the piano, and I wrote my first piece when I was ten, I suppose as a probable result of the dislocation from Portland. But also there was a death among my immediate acquaintances. I think that happens to a lot of composers, something serious happens and then you do something. At the same time I started to remodel the family phonograph and build instruments. That's been a concurrent activity of mine ever since I've been interested in music. I can't see how you can be interested in music and not be interested in instruments.
CS: Was there someone who served as a model for you in those early kind of formative years?
LH: I don't remember but I suppose it would have been the music that my piano teachers gave me because I had no idea about composers really. We moved to various places in California. First it was Woodland and Stockton then Sacramento then Stockton, then Berkeley. I was in eighteen schools before I graduated from high school, so you can imagine...Incidentally, something i recommend, as survival techniques you learn, you learn to survive in this way. I've not regretted it at all.
CS: Perpetually the new kid on the block. Did that dislocation positively affect your music do you think? LH: I'm wondering now, of course, this is a brand new thought, whether my interest in music did not come from the weariness of having to relocate all the time. Moving about, you find something that you can take with you, is what it amounts to. And, at any rate, by the time I was an adolescent, I was composing a little bit more seriously. But I had always been interested in painting and writing, too.
CS: So you were doing that too?
LH: Oh yes, constantly.
CS: And there were people who you were able to at this time share ideas with, exchange musical notions or artistic thoughts or was it a case of, because of this constant moving around, that you were really working in a kind of isolation? LH: It was isolation until mid high school I think. Then, yes, there were friends. We would get the first Stravinsky recording of something and enjoy those and think about them and that sort of thing. Compare them with Strauss and all. And the classic things that were coming over the radio and with records. Those were, as you remember, the quaint old days when records revolved at 78, and could easily be broken, too. But Columbia Records was constantly putting out new discs, and it was also by this time, the depth of the Great Depression and prices were way down. I think it was a dollar a disc for a long time on Columbia Records. Columbia proved at that time to be the adventurous company. You know all things American come in two forms, there's Steinway and there's Baldwin and there's Columbia and Victor and so on. Competition was involved. There were occasional things. Victor did some Roy Harris.
CS: And wasn't it Victor who put out the record of Uday Shankar?
LH: That's true and that was one of the first things of course that I encountered. The first things were Stravinsky and then some Roy Harris. Lots of Roy Harris because he was the big name then, you know.
CS: And he was living in California at that point.
LH: I believe so. In San Francisco, I had encountered long since the New Music Edition , read Henry Cowell's book The New Musical Resources, and the beautiful symposium which he edited called Composers on American Music.
CS: Had you met Cowell at that point?
LH: No, but I did shortly. And his , how shall I put it, well Olive Cowell was the wife of Henry's father, and so that makes her his stepmother, doesn't it? She was very influential. When I first wrote to Henry Cowell I was asked to come out to the house that was built by Olive Cowell who was a faculty member at San Francisco State for years and years.
At that house I encountered most of the young artists of that time. I remember my first meeting with Varese, for example, scared the wits out of me. Piercing blue eyes with great eyebrows that just glared out at you. He happened to like me and he was always very kind to me from there on all the way up to his death. A very nice man in that regard. He was polite enough to admire some of my early compositions, that was helpful.
I remember hearing Gerald Strang's bringing up the first proofs of Schoenberg's recording of Pierrot Lunaire. I met Schoenberg for the first time when he conducted the Oakland WPA Orchestra and such things. There were a number of composers there at the time. The WPA musicians group was committed to playing American music. For a young person it was quite exciting. We heard the WPA orchestra play Roger Sessions, among other things. I'll never forget my first hearing of the Black Maskers, and my own first performances were by the WPA Orchestra. So Douglas Thompson was the pianist, with remarkable gifts. He was playing everything at that time. He gave an all Schoenberg concert, this kind of thing or all the four hand piano works of Reger.
CS: Was there ever a feeling that the musical and artistic activity in California created a kind of nation unto itself here on the West Coast? Was there a feeling of isolation or independence from the rest of the country on the part of people like yourself here?
LH: Well, independent simply because there was very little communication. New York was very, very far away, and very powerful. All we heard about any activities was occasionally a record came out or we read something in an article. But it was totally separate. We were having a grand time here is what it amounted to and it didn't really occur to us that we were being separatist because we weren't, we were just going about our pleasures and having fun.
Henry Cowell was of course a great stimulus. But oddly enough he never spoke when he came back from New York, one never had the sensation that he was bringing anything from there. But he had no sense of locale at all. He was just at home in India or Budapest or wherever, there was no sense of locale, and that was one of his great virtues.
CS: Did he act as kind of a bee, depositing pollen from this point to that?
LH: Oh, yes, he would cross-fertilize everybody. He was marvelous, and I've always said he was the Central Information Booth for two or three generations. If you wanted to know something, you first thought of asking Henry. And if Henry didn't know the answer, he always knew who did know the answer, and he had their address and telephone number. That was the thing, he could put you in touch right away.
One of the better puttings-in-touch that he did with me was that he said "I know somebody that I think you would have common interests with," and after awhile knock-knock on my door in San Francisco came John Cage who said, "Henry Cowell sent me." And sure enough, within a few hours we were friends. He interconnected lots and lots of people. A process that I later on took on as a natural thing to do.
CS: Tell me more about your first encounters with Cage.
LH: He came in the door and showed me that piece that he wrote for two flutes that didn't duplicate the rows in the octaves, didn't duplicate the notes. And he had just been working with Schoenberg, by the way. He needed a job also and at that time I was working at Mills already. I had already done lots with the dancers in San Francisco and with people coming through. I was already known as a dance composer and accompanist. So Bonnie Bird was coming through and I introduced them and she was going to the Cornish Institute and it took so he went up to the Cornish Institute.
I remember it seems to me in that connection, it's vague and I'm getting old, my memory isn't all that good, but Henry Cowell it seems to me introduced us to the brake drum as a bell. Things have changed so much, Carl, that now I am about to write a sort of pamphlet telling what those things sounded like. People are using ostensibly the same instruments, they're not at all the same.
What we did in percussion, largely under the stimulus of Henry Cowell as a matter of fact, was to invent a bypass of the whole establishment. John and I weren't about to go through a conservatory, get a degree, present our large symphonies to the local conductor and get them refused. This was nonsense and we knew it. But you know, the irrepressible good spirits of youth and having fun, we would invent our music, so we did, and we got very good musician friends who were interested in having the fun of giving concerts and we literally, with Henry Cowell's stimulus, invented the percussion orchestra, which is now a worldwide thing in the Western world.
But you will note in all of our works, there's not a snare drum roll, because none of us could play one. There's not timpani because that was symphonic. I remember the day John and I went and bought our tam tams in Chinatown in San Francisco each for forty five dollars. These huge tam tams which are now worth a fortune.
CS: So the proximity to the Orient of the West Coast had a substantial impact on the music of the day.
LH: Oh yes, part and parcel of our very lives, from the first awareness we had.
CS: What other composers were you running into at concerts or exchanging ideas with? Did you have any contact with people like Dane Rudhyar, for example?
LH: I didn't have any contact with Dane Rudhyar, though I knew of him of course, through the New Music Edition. I had no real personal contact with him until new York much later. Of course now he's back up near Palo Alto. I'm very glad there's a Rudhyar revival. He's one of the dissonant counterpoint or how shall I say it, the complex relationship people who can still write a tune. They're gentle, they're chantlike, the whole rather glamorous sound of it is still based on a fine melody.
CS: Did you study with Cowell?
LH: Oh, we were so close friends it was a daily thing. I didn't formally take lessons from him there but I did out here. I went through counterpoint and melodic construction and all sorts of things, although I had already studied counterpoint and fugue with the first male graduate of Mills, Charles Cooper, and he was a pupil of Dominica Brashaw, who was one of the Italian contrapuntalists that Mills had had there for a while.
CS: So you've really been able to observe who's come through Mills and how things have changed there from your vantage point.
LH: [Yes, and] now I'm back home. And having a very good time too, as a matter of fact.
CS: What other things did you, a little later on, when did you first come into contact with people such as Pauline?
LH: Oh, this was much later. This was post-Second World War. I had no acquaintance with her...in the first place I was in New York during most of the war. And then when I moved back here I began to hear of the Tape Center in San Francisco. You must take into account that when I left New York I didn't want to hear anything about music. I didn't want anything to do with it when I left. So let us say I was out of it, for quite some time. That isn't to say that I didn't compose: I did. Composition in New York was not good for me; I didn't do well then. It was one of those fallow periods. Lots of stimulus, perhaps too much stimulus.
[Here] it was totally different. Among other things, electronics was spreading very fast...well the word avant garde had been invented. I don't know, most young people are not the slightest bit aware that the word avant garde is a post-World War II term used in the United States. Before then you spoke, as the new music staff on the New Music Quarterly had it, of ultra-modern music. It was modern and ultra-modern. In short, pretty good was modern, and Schoenberg was ultra-modern and it was only after the Second World War that advanced music became a political cause with a French title. So this was very startling to me, of course. It implied also with the foreign name a position that I was not quite willing to associate myself with. I've always in fact carefully refrained from becoming avant garde, foreign stuff, you know.
CS:So how did this strike you, the introduction of electronics? That was something you've never embraced.
LH: That's true. I used to hear things on, God bless it, KPFA, from whence all blessings come in many ways. Some of that I enjoyed very much and then I very highly disenjoyed it when everybody turned up the volume knob and I stayed away in hordes from electronic concerts. This has changed now. It no longer attacks you directly and you have the feeling that the composers aren't out to kill you.
The thing that's interested me ever since '48, when Virgil Thompson gave me Harry Partch's book, is intonation. And the only thing that would really interest me electrically would be the tone computer because it can hold its pitch and do those things. But at the same time, I'm old enough that to take six months out to learn a language to talk to a computer with is too much.
CS: But how long do you take to build an instrument?
LH: Well, as a matter of fact, you're right, it takes a couple of years to build a big gamelan, or a year of intensive work. But, that will play a repertoire of thousands of pieces and gets composed for almost daily, now. But I'm told now by Richard Moore that in San Diego is a computer I can actually talk to, and in my own language. I'd like to try some free style lines and maybe some associated lines. I hope to do that, that would be fun to do. And of course, the millennium has arrived. pp.42-47