Composing the Pacific: Interviews with Lou Harrison Maria Cizmic

Composing the Pacific: Interviews with Lou Harrison

Maria Cizmic, University of California, Los Angeles

On an August afternoon in 1995, I drove out of a temporarily fog-free San Francisco and cruised south past Silicon Valley, eventually reaching my destination on a hill in the town of Aptos. I left behind me the aggravated anxiety of San Francisco’s precariously narrow one-way streets and later stepped out of the car into what seemed to be another world; I felt compelled to take a moment, to listen to the insects humming in the air, and to gaze at the glittering Monterey Bay. I had made this trip in order to meet and interview composer Lou Harrison, renowned primarily for his inclusion of various Asian musical practices into his own musical creativity. When I recall that afternoon now, the image of Harrison’s home perched upon this hill, presiding over the shimmering Pacific, seems somehow emblematic of Harrison’s musical life and world view.

Harrison’s musical playground centers geographically upon California and extends across the Pacific Basin. Having studied the gamelan traditions of Indonesia, as well as the court music traditions of China, Korea, and Japan, Harrison often combines Asian instrumentation and sounds with Western European and American musical practices in his musical idiom.1 Harrison spent his youth in San Francisco studying composition with experimental composer and new music advocate Henry Cowell, and is thus indebted to an experimental strain of American composition that has had a strong Californian contingent. It was through Cowell that Harrison made the acquaintance of composer John Cage. The two became friends and musical collaborators, composing Double Music in 1941, a percussion quartet performed at one of the many percussion concerts they staged in San Francisco and Oakland. During this time, Harrison established a musical presence in the San Francisco Bay Area, often accompanying and working with dancers and teaching at Mills College in Oakland. In 1942, at the age of 25, Harrison moved to Los Angeles to study with composer Arnold Schoenberg, famed for his development of 12-tone composition, and supported himself by teaching music and Labanotation at UCLA’s dance department.2 Harrison’s year in Los Angeles was followed by ten in New York where he worked as a music critic for the New York Herald Tribune under the aegis of composer and critic Virgil Thomson. As he has noted in other interviews, Harrison’s time in New York was difficult; he ultimately suffered a nervous breakdown and consequently withdrew from urban living to teach at Black Mountain College in North Carolina where his colleagues included John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, and poet Charles Olson.3 In an attempt to further rejuvenate his psyche and creative life, Harrison returned to California in 1954, settling in the very house that I had come to visit that afternoon in 1995.

Harrison had left his front door ajar and it swung open as I knocked on it. I heard someone call out “Come in!” and I obeyed, finding the source of the command sitting at a table hidden by a heap of papers and books, one hand lifting a glass of water and the other gesticulating for me to enter. Here was Lou Harrison, looking even more grandfatherly and jovial than he appeared in photographs included in CD liner notes, newspapers, and magazines, inviting me into his home to sit and chat for a while. This was not actually my first encounter with the composer; while living in the Bay Area, I occasionally attended gamelan concerts and had been in the audience with Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig while his music filled the concert hall. What brought me to Harrison’s doorstep that particular day, however, was my research and interest in the music of early 20th-century American composer Charles Ives. During his early years in San Francisco, Harrison had been an important advocate of Ives’s music, editing and publishing several pieces, including the Pulitzer-Prizewinning Third Symphony, the world premiere of which Harrison conducted in 1946 in New York. I wanted to ask Harrison about his involvement with Ives’s music, about his relationship with Ives, and what lessons he had taken from him. In the course of our conversation, though, questions regarding Harrison’s own compositional processes came to the foreground, and I became intrigued by how Harrison conceptualized and communicated his relationship with non-western musics. Did his engagement with Asian musical traditions constitute a type of orientalism, or colonialism of “other” musical practices? And what, if any, was the relationship between this appropriation of non-western musical identities with Harrison’s homosexuality?

Unfortunately, almost four years passed before I had another chance to speak with Harrison and address some of these issues. What is here are highlights from our two conversations, one from that visit in August of 1995, the other a phone conversation held September 6, 1999. I hope that a sense of how Harrison locates and identifies himself in the world, both geopolitically and musically, will emerge through the selections of these conversations offered here.

Harrison’s open eagerness to engage in my queries and thoughts upon our first meeting quickly put me at ease and I found myself enthralled by his musings and stories. I initiated our conversation with questions and thoughts regarding Ives and his music, eventually shifting my focus to ask Harrison about his involvement with Schoenberg and Cowell.

“Having spent so much time studying and performing Ives’s music, and having studied with Schoenberg, I wondered if you could compare the influences these two men have had upon your work. Earlier in our conversation, you characterized Ives’s music as having a liberating influence for you and it occurs to me that while Ives’s compositional approach encompasses a certain type of freedom, Schoenberg’s is more about a kind of control.”

“Well . . . ” Harrison leaned back, as if his physical posture would facilitate the essaying forth of his youthful experiences. “This is still all under the aegis of Henry Cowell, because I studied with Henry first and he expanded my mind in interests like [the music of both Ives and Schoenberg]. Also the fact of San Francisco where you could go down the street and hear Chinese musicians regularly and visit Chinese opera every night of the year. During the [Golden Gate Exposition] in ’39 I heard my first gamelan. Henry had been doing remarkable things and he introduced me to Japanese musicians, everything. In fact, in San Francisco, Henry Cowell taught me what was then known as a twelve-tone piece, a serial piece, before I went to Schoenberg. The introduction to Ives was all a part of the bigger thing [the musical education] that Henry Cowell made.”

It was clear that Harrison placed Cowell at the center of his early musical development, and that among the various musical styles that interested Harrison, Ives and Schoenberg were only two of many, neither more important than hearing gamelan for the first time or meeting Japanese musicians. Although Harrison’s response to me refused to privilege Ives and Schoenberg over any other musics he found interesting, I continued my line of questioning, wanting to know what Harrison had learned from Schoenberg himself: “How did studying with Cowell compare to when you made the transition to study with Schoenberg?”

“The first thing I did was to take him [Schoenberg] a neoclassic piece, a gigue and musette for piano. That was marvelous and my admiration for him just skyrocketed because he had no interest in what style it was—it was the musicality and how it was done that interested him. And if you thought he was interested in just one kind of music, he wasn’t. He was a very richly learned man and also he was interested in basic things. The most basic things I got were from Schoenberg. The admonition towards simplicity, towards the salient, towards what you are really hearing. Not decorative, not complicated, it was the uncomplicated, [along the lines of what the French painter] Matisse might be advising, that Schoenberg gave me. As I keep on reiterating, when I’m writing for six tones on a gamelan, that’s all—there’s Schoenberg admonishing me to simplicity. I may work on it for years but there it is, it’s the simplest and most perfect. I don’t give up.”

With increasing enthusiasm and eloquence, Harrison’s hands waved about and his ruminating was punctuated by chortles and chuckles causing an array of bodily motions. Through discussing Harrison’s involvement with other musics of the Western art-music tradition, I asked Harrison to consider his own involvement with Asian musics in light of the various European and American composers who have also engaged in “other” musics: “You brought up Stravinsky going back to the past, and that reminded me of Ives incorporating American hymn tunes and folk music, Bartók going back to Eastern-European folk music, and yourself reaching towards Asian musics. Each move seems to be used to create something new.”

“The encounter with the other, no matter what it is, is productive. For me being part of Pacifica here . . .” Harrison hesitated for a moment and seemed to rearrange his thoughts. “I had a chance at Atlantica, I was in New York for ten years and heard the European repertoire and learned a lot. I did get a great deal of education in New York about Atlantica, but I came back, I am part of Pacifica and as I point out my origins are in the Pacific region. So I have that to draw from and still do. The problem actually, I think, is of graver concern in the East Coast because of the Atlantic connection. The way Schoenberg and Stravinsky solved it was to go to the past of Europe, their own place, whereas here you assume you are American and are fascinated by Japan and Java and China and all around the Pacific basin.”

By identifying “Atlantica” and “Pacifica,” Harrison defines spheres of influence in terms of which he has repeatedly defined and redefined himself. Harrison’s conscious decision to return to California and live in “Pacifica” was in a sense also a decision to turn away from the dominance of the Western European art-music tradition, preferring to keep them at hand only insofar as they seem useful. Harrison’s sense of “otherness,” his consideration of how he and others deal with musics that they perceive as “other,” is in fact a strategy in defining the self.

While considering Harrison’s choice to identify himself in terms of Pacifica, my eyes began to take in the room we were sitting in, and I realized that I was surrounded by an amazingly international and eclectic array of belongings. My last request was a tour of his home, which Harrison was more than happy to grant, promptly leading me to the “Ives room.”

“There’s a woodcut of Mr. Ives over there, he presides, and this room was built when there were much things of Mr. Ives. I’m an heir you know, and I still get checks from the estate.” This dark green room held such an amazing clutter of instruments that it was impossible to walk with ease–one had to step over numerous instruments with origins of varying place and time. We paused among a particular grouping of instruments. “This is a Javanese gamelan. It’s an iron one with brass weights. It’s pretty good, I must say. Bill [Colvig] made some of the instruments . . . he’s a very good instrument builder.” We navigated several more instruments and paused again in the middle of the room. I simply stood and observed while Harrison waved his arms about, almost as if he were conducting a rather unique and eclectic orchestra of invisible players, cueing particular instruments and explicating their significance. “This is what used to be the favorite piano of Percy Grainger [Australian pianist and composer] when he was on this coast. It’s the one he practiced on, it’s an 1871 Steinway. Over there are two reed organs, both Bill’s. An Italian virginal is over there, and my harpsichord is out on loan.” Pointing to the plethora of drums and such that hung from the walls, he explained, “These are all instruments for show and tell for my Music in World Cultures class that I used to teach.”

The tour continued through the house with Harrison explaining himself to me through the objects of his life: each painting, rose bush, and sculpture held a story that served as a window into a particular moment in his life. Many of the instruments scattered about the Ives room were indicative of his long-standing relationship with Asian musics, a relationship that grew when Harrison received a Rockefeller grant in the early 1960s to travel and study Chinese and Korean music. The instruments also testify to Harrison’s relationship with William Colvig, Harrison’s long-time partner, himself a gifted musician and instrument builder. The two built the American Gamelan in the 1970s for which Harrison wrote one of his major pieces, La Koro Sutro (1972):

Other instruments told of Harrison’s friendship with composer and inventor Harry Partch; a painting, of his interest in puppet theatre and his own puppet opera Young Caesar; a doll, of his involvement with Korean music; sculptures, of stories about various friends and colleague including critic and composer Virgil Thomson and artist Mark Bullwinkle; and the pile of papers and books I had seen upon entering, of his recent compositions for the San Francisco Symphony and his resultant friendship with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

I lived under the spell of that afternoon’s stories, images, and sounds for quite some time afterwards. The array of people, music, and things from around the world that Harrison had gathered into his existence was truly astounding; and yet, the scholar inside persistently asked, what does this all mean? Four years later, in a phone conversation that was to be much shorter than our previous visit, I had the opportunity to ask a few of the questions that had pestered me in the intervening years.

As our phone conversation began, I was amused to hear that I had called just as Harrison was composing both his shopping list and a new harpsichord piece. I was curious as to whether, in composing for harpsichord, he felt bound to recreating some version of a Renaissance or Baroque style. “Not necessarily,” he responded, “for example, the first movement of this new piece has many references to Carlos Chavez, and also Manuel de Falla.”

A harpsichord piece reminiscent at times of de Falla. It is this confluence of seemingly disparate musics that prompted my line of inquiry: I wanted to know how Harrison saw himself in relation to the various musics that he learned from, composed with, and brought together. What follows is the highlights of our phone conversation, and I offer it here without my intruding narrative voice.


MC: I was wondering if I could start by asking you how you taught your world music class when you were teaching at San Jose State University and at other Bay Area colleges.

LH: In the first place, I thought that if it was a world music class [that] I had to—except for where it was pertinent to the classic music—teach only the classic music. There were four or five major categories, and they were all Asian nations, even Europe which is only a peninsula of Asia. I didn’t do much of [the European tradition], but I did do the Chinese tradition, including the Japanese and Korean [traditions], and I did do Southeast Asia, predominantly gamelan, and then the Hindu tradition, and the Islamic tradition in several of its aspects. And then, if I had time in class, if I managed to get all that done, then I would do American Indian music, and that brought it around the circle.

MC: I was wondering, if you had to offer some sort of definition of world music, how would you define it, or what sort of parameters would you put about it?

LH: Of world music? Well, music is music, no matter where you find it.

MC: I know that you spent quite a bit of time studying Western European art music, particularly Renaissance music, and I’m wondering if you find that your relationship with historical European traditions is different or somehow similar to studying, say, Korean music or gamelan.

LH: Well, there are all kinds of music, and by that I mean that each is a typical kind of music. I think I’m following common practice now in regarding Renaissance and earlier Northwest Asian music as a special thing. For example, when I was growing up, there was this local orchestra and its program was a concerto grosso by Vivaldi, or Bach, or somebody. They don’t do that now because, the reason is of course, that the conductors have got to acknowledge that the tuning is wrong and the tuning level is wrong and the instruments are wrong. And so they stick to the Romantic tradition, and even that can’t be cured. But at any rate, that’s the same as starting over with Korean music, or with Japanese or Chinese music. It’s just another kind of music.

MC: I’m wondering along these lines, being an American composer and having some predisposition to a western outlook, if you find that coloring how you approach gamelan music, or Korean music, or non-western music?

LH: Well, no, as I say, they’re all music. Each is a special kind. As an example, when I had the opportunity to study gamelan music, I plunged full speed into it. Why I liked gamelan was [how] it sounded the way it did traditionally. So I learned the tradition of Javanese gamelan and also a little Sudanese gamelan. I haven’t done Bali and I’m not going to—I’m just too old to do anything more. But I’m interested in some of it nonetheless and I can teach Javanese gamelan, the entire orchestra, and produce, you know, a Javanese sounding performance. And Chinese music, when I took that up, I studied several instruments and played them in concerts all over the place.

MC: In some instances you combine both western instrumentation with gamelan, do you find that you’re combining different ideas about what it means to be a musician, or what it means to be a part of a musical community?

LH: Oh no, the problem is very, very simple—I’m asked this over, over, and over again, and I point out that I never combine a Western instrument unless it can play different pitches, and if it can play pitches that can correspond with gamelan tuning, then fine, otherwise I let it be. I wouldn’t dream about combining a gamelan with a Western orchestra because a Western orchestra can’t play [the same pitches as a gamelan orchestra].

Excerpt from Suite for Violin and Gamelan (Estampie):

MC: What is truly remarkable about your approach to music is that you wish it to be all encompassing, with no privileging of one tradition above another.

LH: Yes, that is what I agree with. Also, when I taught the [world music] class, for example, now I did approach each of the major sections with at least a good introduction to the ethnic [culture] of that section. That is to say that they studied Confucius and Buddhism when we were in the Chinese/Japanese/Korean thing. When we were in Indian or Indo they studied a little bit about things like that; Islam, I made an introduction to Islamic thought, and so on. Because it [culture] is also reflected in the music, and so that’s what I did.

MC: Right, because it provides a context for what is happening musically. Along these lines, in my own work as a musicologist, I occasionally cross historical boundaries to study various aspects of European and . . .

LH: Well, what you’re doing is studying the music of Northwest Asia, and the same thing can be done with Javanese music, or Chinese music.

MC: Right—well, that’s pretty much my question: do you find that crossing a historical boundary in dealing with musics of the past is somehow basically the same as crossing geographical boundaries to study the musics of varying regions, or are there fundamental differences?

LH: Oh, I think they’re basically the same. Fundamentally we’re all humans, what another can do I can try to do. I think it’s about the same idea.


We chatted a bit more, Harrison shared his plans for the upcoming new year’s celebration, and I eventually let Harrison return to his shopping and harpsichord compositions. All through our conversation though, I could not help imagining Harrison sitting in his home in Aptos, surrounded by the accumulation of his life’s work, with Bill perhaps puttering in the kitchen, and the ocean sparkling outside.

This home, this town in California, this view of the Pacific ocean, all seem central to Harrison’s musical identity. His return to California in 1954 was not simply a geographic return home; it entailed an aesthetic reorientation as well, a realization that he is, as he says, of “Pacifica,” and that with this geographical basis of identity comes a particular perspective upon the world. As Harrison pointed out in our initial conversation, and as he has mentioned in other interviews as well, while living in San Francisco he could walk down the street and hear Chinese opera almost any night of the week.4 To return to California, then, was to return to a location that provides ready access to Asian cultures, where the “non-western” could be a daily experience.5

And yet, Harrison is an American, a westerner, and we have come to eye examples of acculturation with a concern for “orientalism,” for the uneven power balance that occurs when “east meets west.” In his influential work on this topic, Edward Said defines orientalism as the distribution of a geopolitical awareness of Orient and Occident. Central to Said’s account of this phenomenon is the expression of a will and intention to understand, control, manipulate, and incorporate what is different, alternative, or novel.6 With such concerns in mind, I sympathize with Dwight W. Thomas, who asked in an article for Asian Music: “In our enthusiasm for Lou Harrison and his music, do we owe the Javanese anything? Might not this kind of borrowing be perceived as musical colonialism?”7 The relevance of this question increases when we consider that Said associates a particular strain of orientalism with post-WWII America—8in other words, roughly the historical moment when Harrison decided to turn a large part of his attention to studying various Asian musical traditions.

Indeed, in the early 1960s, about twenty years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Harrison traveled to Japan, Korea, and Taiwan with the intent of learning native musical practices; with the intention, we may presume, to understand and incorporate what is different and alternative. Harrison’s insistence that the various European, American, and Asian musics that he integrates are all “simply music,” can be considered a naïve and utopian vision of music as a force that can transcend the circumstances of its creation.9 When it comes from a position of power, this type of attitude can have the dangerous effect of erasing boundaries that indicate uneven power relationships. There are aspects of Harrison’s rhetoric and music, to be sure, that show his awareness of such power relationships and that point to an intended subversion of them. Harrison’s insistence upon referring to Europe as Northwest Asia deliberately challenges conventional western concepts of geopolitical centrality and power.10 By conceiving of Europe as an extension of Asia, Harrison in fact seems to be self-consciously fighting a Eurocentric view of music and the world. His 1963 composition Pacifika Rondo decries the atomic bomb (the sixth movement is entitled A Hatred of the Filthy Bomb) and mixes western and eastern instruments in its musical representation of the Pacific Basin’s varying cultures.

The relationships Harrison has built with various non-western musics are established through his physical involvement, his travel, and study of the performance practice of these musics and of instrument building. In their biography of Lou Harrison, Leta Miller and Fredric Lieberman note that he approaches these various musical traditions as a performer, not simply as a composer (147). As Harrison himself says, he has learned to create a Javanese-sounding performance and can teach others to do the same. With the participation of his partner Bill Colvig, Harrison has come to build and own a stunning array of Asian and Northwest Asian instruments—the “Ives room” is a testament to Harrison’s involvement with a multitude of musical languages and practices. It seems that through his study of performance practices and instrument building, Harrison has sought out music that allows him the possibility to embody musical and cultural positions outside of the western European canon and outside of western political and social constructs.

As a gay man, Harrison’s interest in non-western musical and social embodiments can be understood as corollary to the position his sexuality affords him in society. In “Eros and Orientalism in Britten’s Operas,” Philip Brett discusses English composer Benjamin Britten’s use of gamelan music, noting that Britten, a gay man, incorporated gamelan-inspired music into his operas The Turn of the Screw and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to express conventionally unacceptable sexual desires.11 As Westerners, both Britten and Harrison approach the various traditions of gamelan music from positions of geopolitical power. Yet, both Harrison’s and Britten’s sexuality places them at the margins of their own society; consequently their involvement with gamelan and “other” Asian musics can be understood as an expression and negotiation of their own “otherness.” While there is much that distinguishes Harrison’s and Britten’s involvement with non-western musics, they are not the only two gay, male, western composers to turn to a gamelan-inspired idiom; this practice is prevalent enough that gamelan has come to work as a gay marker in music.

Harrison’s mantra “it’s all music,” begins to emerge in a different light; it is, in fact, an obstinately egalitarian vision in the face of acknowledged strife. A position completely outside of what can be understood as the west’s culture and music is not completely possible for a westerner, nor does Harrison even desire it. His Pacifika Rondo is a rondo—a long standing Western European musical form—and it combines European and Asian instruments. Harrison eagerly finds all and any music he encounters as food for his creativity—a leveling of the musical playing field that privileges Schoenberg no more than gamelan, or Korean court music. It may very well be that the confluence of cultures that Harrison and other Californians experience, contains, in the words of George Lipsitz, “residual contradictions of centuries of colonialism, class domination, and racism”–not to mention homophobia.12 Indeed, California history has been the history of Asian, Latin American, Native American, and European intermingling and strife as well as the site of much struggle towards equal rights for gay men and women. At the same time, though, these very cross-cultural tides are what make Harrison’s musical palette possible, enabling him to construct his own sense of identity and to re-envision a more ideal community.

  1. Gamelan is a traditional orchestra from Java and Bali, that includes a variety of gongs, drums, metallophones, as well as a flute and a bowed instrument. In Lou Harrison: Composing a World, Leta Miller and Jonathan Grasse note that “Indonesians recognize gamelan as a high-prestige symbol of cultural achievement, leading to a focus on defining, representing, and preserving it as a national art form” (158).
  2. Labanotation is a system, developed by Rudolf Laban and his followers in the 1930s and later, for notating movement and the components of effort and flow.
  3. For one account of Harrison’s stressful New York years and subsequent breakdown, see “Winston Leyland interviews Lou Harrison,” in Peter Garland, ed., A Lou Harrison Reader (Santa Fe: Soundings Press, 1987) 74.
  4. See Richard Kostlanetz’s “A Conversation, in Eleven-Minus-One Parts, with Lou Harrison about Music/Theater.” Music Quarterly. v. 76 n. 3 (Fall 1992) 383-409. See in particular page 406 for his reference to Chinese opera in San Francisco. Also, see Leta Miller and Fredric Lieberman, Lou Harrison: Composing the World (New York: Oxford UP, 1998) 142, where Miller and Lieberman explain that the opera Harrison saw as a youth in San Francisco was Cantonese, “the vernacular southern Chinese theater most popular among the immigrants who populated America’s Chinese communities until the 1960s.”
  5. While Harrison often cites the significance of his early exposure to this vernacular Chinese tradition, his adult interest in non-western musics centers upon, as he himself puts it, “classical” musics: the high art traditions of Asia and Europe, with some attention to South America. In our conversations Harrison fervently espoused an extraordinarily inclusive world-view; musically, his sense of “the world” seems to exist within clearly defined musical and geographical boundaries.
  6. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978) 12.
  7. Dwight W. Thomas, “Lou Harrison’s Double Concerto for Gamelan, Violin and Cello: Juxtaposition of Individual and Cultural Expectations,” in Asian Music. USA v. 15 n.1, 1984, 100.
  8. Said, Orientalism 4.
  9. See Ernst Bloch, trans. Peter Palmer, Essays on the Philosophy of Music (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985) and Caryl Flinn’s Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia, and Hollywood Film Music (New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1992) for accounts of music as an expression of a boundary-less utopia.
  10. Harrison is not alone in this particular view of the world. While Harrison has his own distinct reasons and needs to reorder the globe in such a way, Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years (London: Vintage, 1998) traces the global spread of “civilization” along global axis, noting in particular the east-west flow of knowledge and techngology, and often conflates Europe and Asia into Eurasia.
  11. Philip Brett, “Eros and Orientalism in Britten’s Operas,” In Brett, Wood, and Thomas, eds., Queering the Pitch (New York: Routledge, 1994) 238.
  12. George Lipsitz, Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Place (London: Verso, 1994) 5.
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