Works performed by Earplay:

Songs in the Forest
String Trio
Threnody for Carlos Chávez

Composer, florist, critic, calligrapher, poet, pacifist, gay activist, and long-time resident of Northern California, Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was born in Portland, Oregon. He studied music and dance, tinkered with musical instrument building, and began composing at an early age. He attended SF State and lived in a commune. He studied with Henry Cowell who reinforced Harrison’s interest in world music. He searched junkyards for "found" instruments and composed pieces for percussion ensembles. He maintained an interest in medieval music, Baroque dance music, American Indian music, and the compositions of Arnold Schoenberg with whom he studied and Charles Ives whose works he edited and conducted. In the 1930s he became friends with John Cage; they provided music for dance classes at Mills College. Harrison worked closely with many choreographers during his career. He taught at many institutions including UCLA, Mills, Black Mountain College, San Jose State University, UC Berkeley, and Stanford.

During the mid-1940s and into the 1950s Harrison lived in New York. He wrote musical criticism for the Herald Tribune and other publications. The pressures of his musical career, deadline writing, the fast-paced and noisy culture of New York City, World War II, nuclear weapons, and the intense homophobia of the times led to a nervous breakdown. Nonetheless, during his recovery he composed some of his most enduring music and turned away from dissonance toward a more lyrical style. He picked up an interest in "just intonation", a system of tuning instruments to more genuinely reflect the mathematically pure intervals of natural harmonics.

In 1953 Harrison moved back to California and settled in Aptos where he lived the rest of his life. He helped found the Cabrillo Music Festival. He traveled widely, especially in Asia. In 1967 he met his life partner, William Colvig. Together with others they built and played sundry instruments, perhaps most importantly Indonesian percussion instruments, and performed far and wide. He composed an opera on a homosexual love affair of Julius Caesar and wrote a small music theory book. He took up Esperanto, using it to provide texts for some of his compositions. Meanwhile he continued to merge the techniques and instruments of Asian and Western music in his compositions.

Harrison composed more than a hundred chamber pieces, many vocal works, four full symphonies and three dozen other orchestral works, a couple of operas, and dozens of pieces for gamelan.

A lover of many things and a man of many talents, Harrison was guided by an appreciation of the lyricism possible in music and in life.

— R.W.M.

[from program for May 18, 2015 concert]