Remembering Lou Harrison’s gentle queer spirit

Composer Lou Harrison, who died in February at age 85, was sometimes called the Santa Claus of contemporary music. He certainly looked the part, with a big belly and a white mustache and beard.  The nickname was apt for other reasons as well: He was a joyous and generous man, and all his life he carried a big bag of toys.

That’s what he called his many interests and pursuits. “From the start,” he often said, “I spread my toys out on a large acreage.” Indeed, in addition to musical composition, he also excelled at painting, poetry and calligraphy, as well as instrument construction and typographical design.

Harrison’s “toys” also included the remarkable breadth of styles in which he composed. Following in the footsteps of his mentor and friend Henry Cowell, he integrated the sounds of Asia and the Middle East into his compositions.

A former student of the great rationalist Arnold Schoenberg, Harrison borrowed from the 12-tone system at will. With the late John Cage, a lifelong friend, he established percussion music as a genre unto itself. His music foreshadowed minimalism in its use of repetitive rhythmic and melodic patterns. Above all, Harrison’s music is characterized by beauty, which was often a radical notion during the 20th century.

Harrison’s death continues to be mourned throughout the music world, especially by the many people who considered him a close friend, myself included. And his music is becoming ever more a part of the repertoire, as witnessed by a new disc just released on Mode.

The new recording, “Lou Harrison Works 1939-2000,” was largely completed under the composer’s supervision before his death and features a delightful sampling of instrumental and vocal works from throughout his career.

Most welcome on the disc are three excerpts from Harrison’s second opera, “Young Caesar.” The piece dates from 1971, but its history is complicated by the composer’s penchant for revising and re-envisioning his pieces. The recorded arias and a duet were part of an expansion of the work completed in 2000 for a production by the Lincoln Center Festival that was never realized. The opera focuses on a young homosexual love affair between Caesar and Nicomedes.  “I want to leave behind an explicitly gay opera,” Lou once told me.

Lou himself was openly gay throughout his long life and maintained a 33-year relationship with William Colvig, who died in March 2000. The pair lived in Aptos, Calif., a few hours south of San Francisco, in a house that overlooked the ocean, which they built in the 1950s when the region was sparsely populated. By the time I visited them, in the mid-1990s, it looked more like suburbia.

The center of the household was the large music studio, known as the Ives Room, named after the great iconoclast composer Charles Ives, whose music Lou did so much to champion and who, in turn, helped support Lou in his early years.

The spacious but crowded Ives Room had a full gamelan (an elaborate set of Asian percussion instruments) plus a harpsichord, an aging stereo system and a large library on many subjects. There was also the grand piano, where Lou composed.

One night, after the old gentlemen had gone to bed, I slipped into the Ives Room, pulled out a score, and sat at Lou’s piano. I quietly picked my way through the easiest Harrison piano piece I could find, “New York Waltzes.”

Lou had lived in New York City for 10 years as a young man, working as a stringer for Virgil Thomson at the Herald Tribune. It had been a difficult time because the noise and frenetic pace disagreed with him. But in his piece named for the big city there were genial tunes and playful rhythms. Lou just wasn’t the type to hold grudges.

Originally published in the Times Union, April 20, 2003.

Also available in Artists & Activists: Making Culture in New York’s Capital Region.

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