LOU HARRISON, American composer died (b. 1917); an American composer, Harrison is particularly noted for incorporating elements of the music of non-Western cultures into his work, with a number of pieces featuring traditional Indonesian gamelan instruments, and several more featuring versions of them made out of tin cans and other materials. The majority of his works are written in just intonation rather than the more widespread equal temperament. Harrison is one of the most prominent composers to have worked with microtones.
Harrison lived for many years with Bill Colvig in Aptos, California. He and Colvig purchased land in Joshua Tree, California, where they designed and built a straw bale house. One of America’s most original and articulate composers, Harrison explored a number of interests, including puppetry, Esperanto, tuning systems, the construction of musical instruments, and dance. He was also actively involved in political causes, especially pacifism and Gay rights. They collaborated on the construction of a number of instruments, including two American gamelan, one at San Jose State University, the other at Mills College. Colvig’s death in 2000 marked the end of a remarkable and productive relationship.
In 1971, Harrison wrote an opera, Young Caesar, which relies on a group of Asian instruments. The work deals with both homosexuality and the confrontations of East and West. For the gamelan and other instruments, Harrison wrote one of his most famous compositions, La Koro Sutra (1972), a work that reflects the East’s Buddhist philosophy as well as its musical sounds. He wrote three dozen original works for the gamelan, often accompanied by Western instruments.
Harrison taught at various colleges in California, including Stanford University, Cabrillo College, Mills College, and the University of Southern California. From 1968, he maintained an affiliation with San Jose State University. Harrison’s later works include three symphonies and some chamber music pieces. His Suite for Cello and Piano (1995) indicates the continuing quality of his extraordinary productivity. Also in 1995, he wrote “Parade for MTT” for the San Francisco’s Symphony celebration of the inauguration of music director Michael Tilson Thomas. For many years, Harrison was involved with Gay rights as well as work on behalf of the ecological movement and the cause of world peace.
Harrison died on February 2, 2003 in Lafayette, Indiana. He was en route to a festival of his music at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. Celebrated as one of America’s most accomplished composers, and sometimes dubbed the “Santa Claus” of new music for his white beard, considerable heft, and ready laugh, he was mourned by music lovers throughout the world.