updated 24 January 2017
© David Harsany

Lou Harrison

American composer born 14 May 1917 in Portland, Oregon; died 2 February 2003 in Lafayette, Indiana.

Lou Silver Harrison was born on 14 May 1917 in Portland, Oregon, where he lived until the age of nine. His father’s difficulty finding work forced the family to move frequently around the San Francisco Bay area in Northern California. As a child, Harrison’s school education was spotty, but he received a rich and varied artistic education, including piano and dance lessons. He graduated from Burlingame High School in December 1934, and moved to San Francisco the following year. For seven years, until the summer of 1942, he explored the Western musical canon in depth, while at the same time developing a strong interest in Asian music traditions. In 1935, he enrolled in San Francisco State College for three semesters, during which he studied horn, clarinet, harpsichord, and recorder, and sang in several choral ensembles. He composed Six sonatas for harpsichord (1934-1943) and Mass to St. Anthony (1939-1952) during this time. He then transferred to the University of California at San Francisco, where he took Henry Cowell‘s “Music of the Peoples of the World.” Soon after, he became Cowell’s asssistant, composition student, and friend. Through Cowell, Harrison came into contact with Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles, with whom he would maintain friendships and artistic ties. From 1937 to 1942, Harrison worked as a piano accompanist for the Department of Dance at Mills College in Oakland and taught composition for dance during its summer sessions. Harrison would return to Mills College in 1980 as a professor of composition in its Department of Music. In 1938, Harrison met John Cage. From 1939 to 1941, the two organized a series of percussion concerts on the Mills College campus and in San Francisco’s Bay Area, in which several of his compositions were performed, including Double Music (1941) for percussion quartet, which he wrote collaboratively with Cage. In August 1942, Harrison moved to Los Angeles, where he took courses with Arnold Schoenberg at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and composed Suite pour piano (1943), which was influenced by Schoenberg’s serialism.

In summber 1943, Harrison moved to New York City, where he worked for the journal New Music and as an assistant music critic to Virgil Thomson for the New York Herald Tribune. On 5 April 1946, he conducted the world premiere of Charles Ives’ Symphony n° 3. New York’s noisy, chaotic atmosphere did not suit Harrison: he suffered from severe depression and had to be hospitalized for nine months. Nevertheless, he continued to compose during this time, notably The Perilous Chapel (1949) and Solstice (1950). During the summers of 1949 and 1950, he directed the Reed College Festival of Music and Theater in Portland, Oregon, and composed scores for Marriage at the Eiffel Tower (Jean Cocteau) and The Only Jealousy of Emer (William Butler Yeats). From 1951 to 1953, he was a resident at Black Mountain College, where he taught harmony, counterpoint, and intonation theory. In 1952, he was awarded a first Guggenheim Fellowship and composed the opera Rapunzel.

Harrison returned to California in the summer of 1953, settling the following year in Aptos, a small rural community south of Santa Cruz. At first, he supported himself playing piano as an accompanist, and in various jobs, including forest fire fighter and veterinary nurse. A second Guggenheim fellowship in 1954 offered him some financial stability, along with a commission from the Louisville Orchestra in 1955, for which he wrote Strict Songs (1955) for eight baritones and orchestra. In 1959, he traveled to Buffalo for a residency, where he completed his Concerto for violin with percussion orchestra.

In April 1961, Harrison traveled to Tokyo on a Rockefeller Grant to attend the East-West Music Encounter. Immediately thereafter, he spent two months in South Korea. The following year, he returned to Seoul for nearly four months, spending an additional three weeks in Taiwan. These travels allowed him to study local instruments and music, which inspired compositions that used Eastern and Western instruments, such as Nova Odo (1961-1968), Pacifika Rondo (1963), and Concerto for pipa (1997). In 1966, Harrison spent six months in Oaxaca, Mexico. The following year, he met William Colvig, an electrical engineer and music lover, who would become Harrison’s collaborator and companion until Colvig’s death in 2000. During their thirty-three years together, they lived in Aptos in a straw-bale house. They built instruments together, including an instrumental ensemble they called the American Gamelan, nicknamed Old Granddad, which Harrison notably used in his second opera, Young Caesar (1971-2000).

During the 1960s and 1970s, Harrison staged hundreds of concerts of traditional Chinese and Korean music throughout California. He continued to pursue his studies of different intonation systems, which he taught during the Berkeley World Music Festival in 1975. In 1976, he began studying music for gamelan, and the following year he began composing music for Javanese gamelans often played with Western solo instruments in works such as Double Concerto for violin, cello, and gamelan (1981-1982) and Concerto for piano with Javanese gamelan (1987). He traveled to Indonesia for the first time in 1983, taking advantage of a trip to New Zealand to make a detour to Java. Harrison died of a heart attack on 2 February 2003 on his way to Columbus, Ohio to attend a festival devoted to his music.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2017

By Max Noubel

A Time for Discoveries

Lou Harrison’s lifelong interest in a broad field of musical genres stems from his early training years in California. Between 1935 and 1943, during part of which time he was a student at San Francisco State College, he often visited Chinatown, where he attended performances of traditional Cantonese opera. In 1939, he was deeply impressed by a live Chinese shadow puppetry performance by the Red Gate Players, directed by Pauline Benton at Mills College in Oakland. He also became fond of Balinese gamelan, which he discovered through recordings. He only truly understood the instrument’s artistic potential after seeing it performed during a concert in the Netherlands Indies Building at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition.

Harrison assiduously studied the repertoire of Western art music at the San Francisco Public Library. He was particularly interested in the music of the medieval and baroque periods, which he also performed: he sang Gregorian chant and madrigals and was an instrumentalist in a baroque ensemble. His vivid interest in early music influenced many of his works, including his Six sonatas for harpsichord (1943) and Mass to St. Anthony (1939-1952). He also made repeated use of medieval estampie in String Quartet Set (1979), Grand Duo(1988), Piano Concerto (1985), as well as in his Fourth Symphony (1990). Starting in 1937, he developed a fascination for Arnold Schoenberg’s music, and he experimented with dodecaphony even before he studied with the Viennese master.

This discovery phase in Harrison’s career was also deeply marked by the decisive influence of Henry Cowell. Cowell’s New Musical Resources (1930) and his composition lessons — which were based in the study of dissonant counterpoint — gave Harrison’s compositions a stronger theoretical footing. Cowell’s edited collection American Composers on American Music (1933) spurred Harrison’s interest in the music of Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives. During Cowell’s class “Music of the Peoples of the World” in 1935, Harrison studied extra-European music and discovered the sound world of percussion — an interest he shared with John Cage, whom he met in 1938 through Cowell.

Percussion and Dance

While in California, Harrison collaborated with choreographers and dancers including Jean Erdman, Carol Beals, Marian Van Tuyl, and Lester Horton. It is no doubt Harrison was energized, as was John Cage, by the inventiveness and artistic freedom that defined the American contemporary dance scene. He trained as a dancer with Martha Graham and performed numerous times. From 1937 to 1942, he held a position as Composer for Dance at Mills College, where he enjoyed a high degree of artistic license. He experimented with the timbre of percussion instruments, which were favored by the dancers. His percussion instruments were, for the most part, homemade from gardening and construction tools, plumbing pipes, and flowerpots. Among the pieces that he composed with these humble instruments, the most accomplished is Tribute to Charon — which he likely began to compose in this period but only finished in 1982. Its instrumentation includes drums, gongs, a suspended cymbal, a clock reel, sleigh bells, and two alarm clocks. Many of these percussion compositions were experimental in the sense that Harrison composed them quickly and did not always care to keep them. Some, including Fifth Simfony for Percussion Quartet (1939) and Counterdance in the Spring for Percussion Trio (1939), were composed at Cage’s request for his percussion ensemble in Seattle. Harrison and Cage co-composed Double Music for Percussion Quartet (1941). They first discussed the rhythmic structure of the work, and then each independently wrote two of the four sections of the piece. During this same period, Harrison composed Fugue for Percussion (1942), whose complex notation is inspired by Cowell’s use of harmonic, rhythmic, and metric ratios. In 1939, Harrison used percussion to accompany a solo instrument in his First Concerto for Flute and Percussion. He returned to this type of work in 1961 with his Concerto in Slendro for solo violin, two tack pianos, celesta and two percussion, and in 1973 with his Concerto for Organ. Throughout his career, Harrison’s fondness for percussion never wavered, but he increasingly focused on the gamelan.

Serialism and Dissonant Counterpoint

In 1942, Harrison studied composition with Schoenberg at the University of California, Los Angeles. Unlike Cage, Harrison held Schoenberg in high esteem and benefited from his advice and support. He considered that he had learned from Schoenberg the importance of simplicity — an approach to composition that he sought to cultivate throughout his career. Neither Harrison nor Schoenberg considered simplicity in composition a weakness; they rather saw it as the fruit of a demanding artistic approach through which the composer rids his music of redundancy and obtains optimal intelligibility. Despite the great admiration that Harrison held for Schoenberg, he composed few serial works: Suite for Piano (1943) — a piece inspired by Schoenberg’s Suite for Piano, Op. 25Symphony on G (1947-1964), his first opera Rapunzel (1952), and his Symphony No. 4 (1990). Following an episode of depression that afflicted him during his stay in New York in the late 1940s, Harrison started using serialism as a way to represent evil in Western society. For example, in the sixth movement of his Pacifika Rondo (1963) — a reference to the nuclear bomb — Harrison used a series made of multiple semitones (the interval of lamentation) and two tritones (the diabolus in musica).

Harrison was also passionate about the music of Carl Ruggles. Upon reading Charles Seeger’s 1932 essay on Ruggles and performing in-depth analyses of Portals and Men and Mountains, Harrison discovered the potential of dissonant counterpoint, especially when compared to the clarity of polyphonic texture. He nonetheless used Ruggle’s style of counterpoint only sparingly, in pieces as varied as Sarabande for Piano (1937), the fourth movement of the Elegiac Symphony (1975), and the Double Canon for Carl Ruggles (1951), which Harrison later reworked into the second movement of his Concerto for Organ.

The Asian Influence

Gamelan Music

It was during his stay in New York in the late 1940s that Harrison started reading about gamelan music. He came across articles authored by Colin McPhee such as “The Absolute Music of Bali” (1935) and “The Five-Tone Gamelan Music of Bali” (1949), from which Harrison transcribed the musical examples. He also tried to transcribe Balinese music into Western notation, but his knowledge of the composition fundaments of this repertoire was scarce. He thus shifted his attention to the sound dimensions of the Balinese and Javanese gamelans, and sought to imitate their metallic timbres with occidental, pitch-determined instruments. For this he used a tack piano — a piano with spike heads stuck in the hammers. The instrument first appeared in Harrison’s music in Solstice (1950). The following year, he combined the tack piano with harp and celesta in Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra (1951). In two of the six movements of this piece, Harrison imitated Indonesian gongs with a tam-tam (III. “First Gamelan”) and with cellos and double basses (V. “Second Gamelan”). In his piece for piano entitled Little Gamelon (1952) — composed for the dancer Katherine Litz — the different sizes of gongs are imitated by means of various accents in the high register as well as pianissimo chords played in the low register.

If Harrison was undoubtably fascinated by the timbres of the gamelan, he was as much interested in the instrument’s melodic potential. He often used two modes found in Indonesian music: the slendro — a pentatonic scale without semitones — and the pelog, a seven-tone scale that he used sparingly. His Concerto in Slendro (1961) deploys a vast and colorful instrumentation: the solo violin is accompanied by an orchestra comprising two metal washtubs, two garbage bins, six gongs, three farmhouse triangles, three smaller orchestra triangles, one celesta, and two tack pianos. The keyboardists play the two slendro modes in just intonation. Harrison wrote in a heterophonic style that he further developed in subsequent compositions.

His desire to reproduce the gamelan sound and his interest in just intonation led Harrison to collaborate with William Colvig on the building of his own instrumental ensemble, called Old Granddad (later renamed American Gamelan). This group constituted the orchestra for his opera Young Caesar (1971). Harrison reused this ensemble in his Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (1974), as well as in La Koro Sutro (1972) to accompany a choir singing, in Esperanto, a famous text of Mahayana Buddhism.

In the mid-1970s, Harrison followed the advice of the Javanese composer K. R. T. Wasitodiningrat (aka Pak Cokro) and started composing pieces for authentic gamelan. He then borrowed composition processes from Indonesian music, which informed his melodic, rhythmic, and polyphonic writing. Harrison composed a few pieces for the Balinese gamelan, but found he had more affinities with the Javanese gamelan, whose style is more meditative. As he had previously done in his works for percussion instruments, Harrison associated the gamelan with Western solo instruments, like the horn in Main Bersama-sama (1978), the viola in Threnody for Carlos Chávez (1978), the saxophone in A Cornish Lancaran (1986), and the violin, the cello, and the piano in two concertos: Double Concerto, for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan (1982) and Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1987). For the two later pieces, the gamelan parts in certain movements can be played as independent compositions. Harrison combined his interest in both Indonesian music and just intonation by building two of his own gamelans: Si Betty (in honor of the arts patron Betty Freeman) at San Jose State University in 1976, and Si Darius/Si Madeleine (in honor of Madeleine and Darius Milhaud) at Mills College in 1982.

Korean and Chinese Influences

Although Harrison often wrote reviews of Asian music concerts while he lived in New York, it was only after his trip to Asia in 1961 — where he attended the Tokyo East-West Music Encounter Conference — that he started to include Korean and Chinese elements in his own music. In Tokyo, he met two leading specialists who inspired him in this practice: the Lee Hye-Ku — a musicologist with whom Harrison started doing research for a book on Korean music (which remained unfinished) — and Liang Tsai-Ping, who was a Taiwanese master of the guzheng, a Chinese sixteen-string zither. After these encounters, Harrison traveled to Korea and Taiwan, where he continued to learn about, and eventually compose for, various Asian instruments, including the guzheng and the piri (a Korean double reed instrument, of which Harrison built replicas). Harrison’s compositions from that period often mix Asian and Western instruments. Most striking among these is perhaps Pacifika Rondo (1963), which combines a Western string orchestra, conventional and non-conventional percussions, and various Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian instruments. The Asian influence on Harrison’s compositions can also be heard in the recitative of his opera Young Caesar, where the interjections of woodblocks and claves evoke traditional Chinese opera.

Musical Scales and Intonation Systems

Given his experience performing various percussion instruments, as well as the different types of tuning in Asian music that he heard as Cowell’s student, Harrison was sensitive to sounds with a rich harmonic spectrum. The book Genesis of a Music — in which Harry Partch presents both his theory of music built on a natural scale and the instruments he built accordingly — also influenced Harrison to use a great variety of intervals. Except in his serial works, Harrison mostly gave up just intonation, which he considered too limiting and colorless. He instead explored a wider palette of intonation systems and scales that he tested through several monochords he built with David Colvig. For example, Harrison used quarter tones in The Geography of Heaven for Strings and Harmonium (1935), the Pythagorean temperament (in which all fifths are pure, except one) in La Koro Sutro (1972), and one of the temperaments of Philippe Kirnberger (a student of J. S. Bach) in Piano Concerto (1985). He also explored just intonation applied to the pentatonic scale. In Strict Songs (1955), each movement has its own pentatonic scale and tuning.

The most radical concept Harrison invented was the free style, wherein each pitch in a melody is determined by its proportional relation with the preceding and the following note, independently of a tonal center. While the strict style uses a scale with fixed pitches, the pitches of the free style change according to neighboring tones, which makes traditional notation — then still used by Harrison — too imprecise to transcribe how the piece sounds in performance. Harrison started experimenting with free style in Simfony in Free Style (1955), for which he built flutes with special tuning and viols with changeable fret positions.

Harrison was also interested in exploring the higher overtones of the overtone series. In his first gamelan, Si Betty, the instruments that play in the slendro scale are tuned to overtones 16, 19, 21, 24, and 28, while the instruments that play in the pelog scale are tuned to overtones 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, and 21. In his second gamelan, Si Darius, Harrison tuned the slendro instruments to the Ptolemaic mode, which contains a large major second (ratio of 8:7) and a narrow minor third (ratio of 7:6). Harrison was fascinated by these two intervals because of their seventh overtone, and he used them in Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1987), in the third movement of Strict Songs (1955), and in Incidental Music for Corneille’s Cinna (1957).

While Harrison valued precision when it came to scales and tuning, he also embraced a more flexible approach that allowed indeterminacy and pitch approximation. This was the case when he used secondhand material to build his percussion: melodic contour and rhythm become more important than pitch. Harrison also used this flexible approach outside the realm of percussion instruments. For the ocarina part in Canticle #3 (1942), for example, he composed music based on five relative notes of varying pitch. He nonetheless expressed his preference for a combination of three whole tones and one minor third.

Political Activism

Harrison’s musical career was inseparable from his sociopolitical commitments and his humanistic convictions. His political activism was primarily concerned with the struggle of the working class, as evidenced by Waterfront (1935), which makes reference to the strikes that took place on the West Coast of the United States in 1934. He endorsed the republican forces during the Spanish Civil War in France 1917 – Spain 1937 (About the Spanish War) (1937), and the Mexican resistance against Spanish colonization in Conquest (1938). In the 1950s, he opposed the anti-communist crusade led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. As a fervent pacifist, Harrison started composing his Mass to St. Anthony on 1 September 1939, the day of the Polish invasion by the Wehrmacht. Shocked by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, he decided to date moments of his life relative to these tragic events, adding the initials BB for “Before the Bomb.” He led a relentless fight against nuclear testing. In Nova Odo (1961-1968) for male choir, spoken choir, and orchestra, the equal temperament of the first movement is meant to express the horrors of the atomic bomb, and in Pacifika Rondo (1963), celebrations for nature and Asian cultures are interrupted by an anti-nuclear speech. In the 1960s and 1970s, he openly opposed the Vietnam War and, later, the Gulf War, which affected him so vividly that, in 1991, he found himself unable to compose. Harrison’s dream of a worldwide fraternity and community explains his use of Esperanto in his vocal works, as well as the fusion of different cultures in his music in general.

Harrison also fervently defended civil rights for minorities. He openly accepted his homosexuality and supported the gay cause virulently, no doubt in part because of the sense of injustice he felt after Cowell’s imprisonment for illicit behavior in 1936. The most ambitious musical representation of this social struggle is his second opera, Young Caesar (1971), in which political relations are facilitated by the homosexual relationship between two leaders. Harrison fought all his life for freedom of expression, which he used to tackle issues related to the environment, peace, cultural interconnections, sign language, population distribution, cannabis, and religion, to name a few, sometimes even making music a secondary matter.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2017


  • Bill ALVES, « Kembangan in the Music of Lou Harrison », Perspectives of New Music, volume 39/2, 2001, p. 29-57.
  • William DUCKWORTH, Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers, New York, Schirmer, 1995, p. 94-117.
  • Peter GARLAND (éd.), A Lou Harrison Reader, Santa Fe, N. M., Soundings Press, 1987.
  • Leta E. MILLER et Fredric LIEBERMAN, Lou Harrison, Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2006.
  • Leta E. MILLER et Fredric LIEBERMAN, Lou Harrison: Composing a World (livre avec CD), New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Leta E. MILLER et Fredric LIEBERMAN, « Lou Harrison and the American Gamelan », American Music, volume 17/2, 1999, p. 146-178.
  • Heidi VON GUNDEN, The Music of Lou Harrison, Metuchen, N.J., Scarecrow Press, 1995.
  • Brenda RAVENSCROFT, « Working Out the ‘Is-Tos and As-Tos’: Lou Harrison’s Fugue for Percussion », Perspectives of New Music, volume 38/1, 2000, p. 25-43.


  • Lou HARRISON, A Portrait. Fourth Symphony; Elegy to the Memory of Calvin Simmons; Concerto in Slendro ; Double Music; Solstice (extraits), California Symphony, sous la direction de Barry Jekowsky, 1 cd Argo, 1997, 455-590-2.
  • Lou HARRISON, Music by Lou Harrison. Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra; Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, Eudice Shapiro (violon), David Craighead (orgue), Los Angeles Percussion Ensemble, sous la direction de William Kraft, 1 cd Crystal, 1993, CD 850.
  • Lou HARRISON, Carl Ruggles. Symphony on G, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, sous la direction de Gerhard Samuel, 1 cd CRI, 2007, 715.
  • Lou HARRISON, A Homage to Lou Harrison, Támmittam Percussion Ensemble, sous la direction de Guido Facchin, 3 cd Dynanic, 2001, 221, 263, 359.
  • Lou HARRISON, For Strings. Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra; Suite for Symphonic Strings; Suite n° 2 for Strings, Wu Man (pipa), The Professionals Orchestra, London, sous la direction de Rebecca Miller, 1 cd Mode, 2004, 140.
  • Lou HARRISON, Gamelan Music. Philemon and Baukis; Cornish LancaranGending Alexander; Homage to Pacifica; Bubaran Robert, 1 cd MusicMaster, 1993, 01612-67091-2.
  • Lou HARRISON, Third Symphony and Grand Duo, Romuald Tecco (violon), Cabrillo Music Festival Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies (piano et direction), 1 cd MusicMaster, 2008, 7073-2.
  • Lou HARRISON, La Koro Sutro, inclus également Varied Trio et Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, 1 cd New Albion, 2009, NA 015.
  • Lou HARRISON, Rapunzel, inclus également Songs in the Forest et Air in G Minor, sous la direction de Nicole Paiement, 1 cd New Albion, 2009, NA 093.
  • Lou HARRISON, Rhymes with Silver, David Abel (violon), Benjamin Simon (alto), Joan Jeanrenaud (violoncelle), Julie Steinberg (piano), William Winant (vibraphone et percussion), 1 cd New Albion, 2000, NA 110.
  • Lou HARRISON, Drums Along the Pacific. Threnody for Carlos Chávez; Simfony n° 3Music for Violon with Various InstrumentsFugue for Percussion ; *Song of Quetzalcóatl *;*Canticle n° 3 *;Solo to Anthony Cirone, 1 cd New Albion, 2009, NA 122.
  • Lou HARRISON, Works by Lou Harrison. *Piano Concerto ;Suite for Violin, Piano, and Small Orchestra, Lucy Stoltzman (violon), Keith Jarreth (piano), New Japan Philharmonic, sous la direction de Naoto Otomo, 1 cd New World Records, 1996, NW 366-2.

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