Harrison began working for the Mills Dance Department in 1936, two years after his graduation from Burlingame High School. (The Music Department didn't hire him until 1980, forty-one years later.)
tam tam, dinner bell, cymbals, pianos tuned in quarter tone relationship, rattles, tincans, elephant bell, triangles, gong, buffalo bells, iron bar, bottle, cowbells, quijadas, lion's roar, teponaxtle, conch shell, cricket caller, brake drums, records of constant frequency, marimba: A partial list of the instruments used by Cage and Harrison on their July 26, 1941 concert at Mills College
Like Cage, he studied with Cowell and Schoenberg, wrote a large amount of percussion ensemble music (including Labyrinth, a 1941 piece for 91 different instruments), investigated indeterminacy, and became a devotee of Oriental culture. He "prepared" an upright piano by imbedding tacks in its hammers, worked at odd jobs in an animal hospital, flower shop and a record store, painted, wrote poetry and served as a critic for View, Modern Music and Listen. He, too, moved to New York in 1943.
Pacifika Rondo (1963) simulated an eighth-century Tang Dynasty idiom.
The subjects he set to music underlined his attachment to the past. The fifth movement of Pacifika Rondo is called--in Esperanto, a language in which he is fluent--Netzahualcoyotl fabrikas Piramidon (Netzahualcoyotl Builds a Pyramid). The puppet opera Young Caesar (1971) narrates a homosexual episode in the life of the Roman emperor. Other pieces depicted Quetzalcoatl, the archangel Michael, and Rapunzel, who became the central figure of an opera sung by Leontyne Price in 1954. It won a twentieth-century masterpiece award which was conferred by Stravinsky.
It took him twenty-three years to finish his only major indeterminate work, a "theater kit" called Jeptha's Daughter in which he included a biblical recitation, a decor and a collection of flute melodies and percussion parts, all of which could be freely combined by the dancers and musicians.
Jeptha's Daughter also included a pair of drones and two chords complete with tuning ratios. The score invited players to transpose,"pile up," or combine the chords in any way "at pleasure." Other examples of indeterminacy included the Party Pieces written in Harrison's New York apartment in the mid-forties by Cage, Harrison, Cowell, and Thomson and then arranged for woodwinds and piano by Robert Hughes in 1982. Modeled after the communal drawings done at parties (to begin with, Harrison thought, by dadaist painter Francis Picabia), the pieces were created by each composer writing a measure, folding the paper over, and, after supplying two "cue" notes, handing it on.
He studied in Korea with Lee Hye-Ku and in Taiwan with Liang Tsai-Ping, wrote pieces for traditional Oriental instruments--Moogunkwha, se tang ak was performed by a Korean court orchestra in 1961--and directed the Red Gate Shadow Players, which offered concerts of Chinese music.
Other compositions were based on models from Europe--a region he called Northwest Asia--and included four symphonies, a variety of suites and concerti, and a Mass to St. Anthony. His orchestrations commingled traditional Western instruments, ethnic ones from Asia or Africa, and so-called "found objects"--flower pots and washtubs in Koncherto (1959) and galvanized iron pails and cans in Concerto in Slendro.
He exhibited an extensive interest in pre-modern and non-European tunings: Concerto in Slendro uses an Indonesian pentatonic mode with large seconds (or small thirds) which was employed in the eighth century. After reading Partch's Genesis of a Music he began using just intonation... Then, having reconstructed a variety of Javanese scales, he built instruments to play them. In 1972, he and William Colvig constructed a gamelan ...-which he called Si Darius (after Milhaud). Thereafter he made a second one called Si Madeleine (after Madame Milhaud)...
His music--particularly during the forties--demonstrated, according to Grove, "a wild and willful variety"20 of idioms influenced not only by Cowell and Schoenberg but Ives and Copland. The dictionary cites a series of dance commissions requesting specific musical styles as the cause. Another reason was offered by Harrison himself in the notes to the Desto recording of Music for Violin with Various Instruments--European, Asian & African (1967): "The whole world of musics and instruments lives around us," he said. "I am interested in a 'transethnic,' a planetary music."
In search of it, he wrote Sinfony in Free Style for 17 flutes played by three or four performers, trombone, bells, drums, five harps, celeste, vibraphone, "tack" piano and eight viols. Avalokiteshvara (1965) is for harp and jaltarang. The last movement of Music for Violin uses a quartet of mbiras--African thumb pianos. The beginning and end of each movement in Pacifika Rondo uses a Chinese/ Korean percussion instrument called pak--slabs of heavy hardwood which are slammed together. Quintal taryung (1961) employs two flutes and chango, a two-headed Korean hour-glass drum. As of 1984, there were 31 pieces for gamelan by itself or in combination with other instruments.
He settled at Aptos near Santa Cruz, California in the early fifties, received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1952 and 1954 and a Fromm Award in 1955. In 1961 he traveled to the Far East on a Rockefeller Grant. In 1965 he won a Phoebe Ketchum Thorne award which allowed him to quit his job at the animal hospital and spend a year in Oaxaca. He began teaching at San Jose State University in 1967 and, in 1968, served as a panel member of the World Music Council and UNESCO Conference in New York. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1973 and named Senior Fulbright Scholar to four universities in New Zealand in 1983.
In 1980 a string quartet was performed at the Cabrillo Festival. The next day, Laurie Anderson offered the work as a proof of music's unique emotional impact: you see very few people crying in art museums, she said. "Lou Harrison's piece, you feel it, you really feel it, and it's a physical sensation and intellectual all at once," she told Ear West.
In 1984, The Village Voice, reviewing his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan (1982) called him "one of the best and most neglected composers alive,"21 saying that he wrote pieces "with a joyful heart" in which ideas from separate cultures have become indistinguishable.
The use of transethnic materials--linking him to Cowell and Cage--separated him from American composers like Elliot Carter, Wallingford Riegger and Walter Piston: Musical America, reviewing a 1985 performance of his music by Continuum, a distinguished New York contemporary music ensemble co-directed by Mills graduate Cheryl (Stern) Seltzer, said he represented a California School which was "a far cry" from "East Coast academic rigidity."
The categorization seemed obsolete. A parochial California style (or Bay Area one) had ceased to exist at least a generation before: extended by Cage's post-percussion methods and minimalism and put to use by Stockhausen, Berio, the Englishman Cornelius Cardew, the Japanese Toshiro Mayuzumi, and the Beatles, the "school" created by the interaction of the Mills Dance Department and Cowell, Cage and Harrison in the years between 1936 and 1941 had become--by the late sixties certainly--the leading new music style in the world.
Harrison himself had once described a type of music written by him as being in a Californian or Mission style. But, by doing so, he was pointing out his use of actual Spanish or American Indian influences. One such piece--Sonata No 2 from Six Sonatas for cembalo--is included in the Music from Mills recordings released in 1986.
A collection of poems and drawings entitled Joys and Perplexities, dedicated to Robert Hughes and introduced by Charles Shere, was published by the Jargon Society at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1992. A book called Lou Harrison's Musical Primer was issued (in both English and Japanese) in 1971. The calligraphy used by it (and by his letters and manuscripts) provided the design for a series of computer fonts made available in the early nineties.
A bust of Lou Harrison on display in the Mills Concert Hall. Other works of art commemorating members of the music faculty on exhibit in the Hall's foyer include a bust and painting of Darius Milhaud. The painting (by Daniel Milhaud, the composer's son) was commissioned by pianist Agnes Albert, a long-time College trustee.