Harrison is particularly noted for incorporating elements of the music of other 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. A number of his works are written in just intonation rather than the more widespread equal temperament, making Harrison one of the most prominent composers to have worked with microtones.
Harrison was born in Portland, Oregon, but moved with his family to a number of locations around the San Francisco Bay area as a child. The diverse music which he was to exposed to there, including Cantonese opera, Native American music, Mexican music and jazz as well as classical music, was to have a major influence on him. He also heard recordings of Indonesian music early in life.
Harrison took Henry Cowell's "Music of the People of the World" course, and also studied counterpoint and composition with him. He later went to the University of California at Los Angeles to work at the dance department as a dancer and accompanist. While there, he took lessons from Arnold Schoenberg which led to an interest in Schoenberg's twelve tone technique. The pieces he was writing at this time, however, were largely percussive works using unconventional materials, such as car brake drums, as musical instruments. These pieces were similar to those being written by John Cage around the same time, and the two sometimes worked together.
In 1943, Harrison moved to New York City where he worked as a music critic for the Herald Tribune . While there he met Charles Ives, became his friend, and did a good deal in bringing him to the attention of the musical world, as he had largely been ignored up to that point. He prepared and conducted the premiere of Ives' Symphony No. 3, and in return received help from Ives financially. When Ives won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for that piece, he gave half of the money to Harrison.
As well as Ives, Harrison supported and promoted the music of other unconventional American composer, including Edgar Varese and Carl Ruggles. Later during his time in New York, Harrison taught at Black Mountain College. In 1947, he suffered a nervous breakdown, and moved back to California.
Harrison's style began to change, showing the influence of gamelan music more clearly. Virgil Thomson (with whom Harrison also studied) gave him a copy of Harry Partch's book on musical tuning, Genesis of a Music, which prompted Harrison to start writing music in just intonation. He did not abandon equal temperament altogether, but often expressed a desire to do so. One of his most often quoted comments on this is "I'd long thought that I would love a time when musicians were numerate as well as literate. I'd love to be a conductor and say, 'Now, cellos, you gave me 10/9 there, please give me a 9/8 instead,' I'd love to get that!", referring to the frequency ratios used in just intonation.
Although much influenced by Asian music, Harrison did not visit the continent until 1961. When he returned, he began to set about establishing gamelan orchestras in the United States, and constructed gamelan-type instruments from unusual materials such as tin cans and aluminium tubing from furniture. He was helped in the construction of these by his partner, William Colvig. He did not abandon traditional classical instruments, however, placing them alongside his constructed instruments on a number of occasions.
Like many other 20th century composers, Harrison found it hard to support himself with his music, and took a number of other jobs to earn a living, including record salesman, florist, animal nurse and forestry firefighter.
Many of Harrison's early works are for percussion instruments, often made out of what would usually be regarded as junk. He also wrote a number of pieces using Schoenberg's twelve tone technique, including the opera Rapunzel and his Symphony No. 1 (1952). Several works feature the tack piano, a kind of prepared piano with small nails inserted into the hammers to give the instrument a more percussive sound.
Harrison's mature musical style is based on "melodicles", short motifs which are turned backwards and upsidedown to create a musical mode the piece is based on. His music is typically spartan in texture but lyrical, and harmony usually simple or sometimes lacking altogether, with the focus instead being on rhythm and melody. Ned Rorem describes, "Lou Harrison's compositions demonstrate a variety of means and techniques. In general he is a melodist. Rhythm has a significant place in his work, too. Harmony is unimportant, although tonality is. He is one of the first American composers to successfully create a workable marriage between Eastern and Western forms."
Among Harrison's better known works are the Organ Concerto with Percussion (1973), which was given at the Proms in London in 1997; the Double Concerto (1981-82) for violin, cello and Javanese gamelan; the Piano Concerto (1983-85) for piano tuned in Kirnberger #2 (a form of well temperament) and orchestra, which was written for Keith Jarrett; and a number of symphonies. He also wrote a large number of works in non-traditional forms. Harrison spoke Esperanto and several of his pieces have Esperanto titles.
- Official Lou Harrison Archive
- Obituary from the Musical Times
- Lou Harrison: Middle Period Works also in PDF.
- New Albion Artists: Lou Harrison
- Frog Peak Artist
- NewMusicBox: Biography: Lou Harrison
- Other Minds: Lou Harrison
- SJSU School of Music & Dance: Lou Harrison
- Epitonic.com: Lou Harrison including tracks from Rhymes With Silver and La Kuro Sutro