Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Lou Harrison, The Gay Hippie Father of Us All

A biography of the composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was published last year on the centennial of his birth, and though I knew he was an interesting character, I wasn't quite prepared for how interesting. The biography, written by a pair of percussionists from Portland and Claremont respectively, is dense with intelligent musical analysis (which you can skip if incomprehensible) and fascinating stories about Harrison's interactions with everyone from his teachers Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg (now that's a hat trick) to his friends John Cage and Virgil Thomson.

The most poignant section for me was the depiction of his youth in Burlingame in a middle class family struggling in the 1930s Depression, followed by his teenage and early-20s adventures living in San Francisco. Harrison composed and improvised rehearsal music for modern dance troupes throughout the city and at Mills College in Oakland while living in both the Upper Haight and North Beach. Having lived in both places during San Francisco's 1970s gay bohemia, I can attest that everything we did Harrison and his sweet circle of artistic friends had already done first, almost as a template.

He was openly gay with one boyfriend after another (Sherman Slayback above was an early, older live-in); multicultural before the term existed (attending Chinese opera performances in San Francisco's Chinatown long before he ever saw a Western opera); an outspoken, pacifist leftist (he became fluent in Esperanto, for god's sake); and a polymath artist (poet, calligrapher, dancer, writer, painter, and above all an inspired composer). He spent the 1940s in New York City which made him literally insane, landing him in a mental institution for a number of months, before he eased his way back to sanity teaching at rural Black Mountain College. Finally, he returned around 1950 to the California coast, living in an isolated cottage on a hillside in Aptos, creating music for himself which mixed Asian and Western classical musical traditions in a manner that was completely his own, filtered through a love for beauty and melody which was deeply unfashionable in contemporary Western serious music of the time. His work is aging brilliantly, by the way, accessible and simple on the surface but deeply complex at the same time.

In the early 1960s he and gay composer Ned Rorem were at a musical event at the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach, which hosted concerts, and the two of them both flirted with what looked to be a lumberjack, Bill Colvig (above right). Harrison won out and the pair became a passionate, quarreling couple to the end of their lives. Colvig was an engineer and a musician, and together they built gamelans out of brake drums and other found objects, and retuned every instrument they could find to "just intonation" which Harrison came to prefer over the Western standard of equal temperament tuning.

Those instruments still exist, and most of them were bequeathed to the Bay Area percussionist William Winant who brought some of them to a Lou Harrison concert at The Strand theater presented by San Francisco Performances and hosted by pianist Sarah Cahill last Wednesday. Unfortunately, the theater's photo policy is insanely strict, and the ushers seemed to be ready to tackle any mobile phone user trying to take a photo of the stage before the concert began, so I didn't even pull out my camera.

That means you won't be able to see Sarah with her flaming red hair matched by a flaming red dress or the amazing mixture of instruments that Winant had brought that included the gamelan Harrison and Colvig had bought on their first trip to Indonesia, and porcelain bowls "from Lou's kitchen." You also don't get to see the beautiful young percussion troupe that Winant brought along or the Alexander String Quartet who premiered Harrison's exquisite 1978 String Quartet Set, or violinist Kate Stenberg joining Winant and Cahill in the 1986 Varied Trio. The chance to hear these original instruments with original performers with such original music was extraordinary, and won't last much longer because time marches on. The concert was sort of a ramshackle affair, but that felt oddly appropriate for San Francisco's prototype gay hippie genius.


Stephen Smoliar said...

Just a minor nit to pick about the author's of the Harrison book: Brett Campbell is the one from Portland. He is on the faculty at Portland State University (where he teaches journalism, rather than music). Bill Alves is the musician of the pair, and he is on the faculty at Harvey Mudd College (HMC), one of the Claremont Colleges (in Claremont, California). He is both a composer and the Director of the HMC Gamelan. Back when Examiner.com still existed, I wrote articles about two albums of his music released by MicroFest Records.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Stephen: Thanks for the clarification. I'd go back and correct it in the post, but think I will let your comment do the work for me.

Lisa Hirsch said...

You ask SFP's press dept. whether there are photos from the concert that you could use.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Lisa: Take my word, nobody was taking photos, including the SFP "press dept."