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NEW YORK, BLACK MOUNTAIN COLLEGE, AND EARLY YEARS IN APTOS (1943–1960)

Soon after Harrison moved to New York City in 1943, he was welcomed into the artistic circle around composer and critic Virgil Thomson. Before long he began serving as one of Thomson’s "stringers" for the New York Herald Tribune, reviewing as many as three concerts in a single weekend.76 Harrison would ultimately write nearly 300 reviews for the Tribune from 1944 to 1947, rounding out an eclectic, if unsystematic, musical education by attending numerous vocal and instrumental recitals as well as concerts of modern music, early music, Chinese and other Asian musics, and even an occasional jazz performance. He was quick to praise sensitive musicality and adventurous programming, to support young artists, and to encourage informed early music performance practice. (He deplored a performance of the Goldberg Variations on the modern piano, for example, and expressed exasperation with romanticized interpretations of Bach.) Harrison was equally forthright in deriding superficial showmanship, and he condemned flashy technique that seemed to him devoid of content. His keen ear and prodigious literary skills led to published reviews and articles in other periodicals as well (notably Modern Music, Listen, and Charles Henri Ford’s avant-garde arts magazine, View), where he championed the music of Schoenberg, Varèse, Ives, and Ruggles. Henry Cowell gave Harrison work as well, appointing him editor of the New Music Quarterly (which lasted only one year), and directing to him various musical jobs, such as a commission from the League of Composers to orchestrate Ives’s World War I song He Is There! (revised and retitled They Are There!).
   In 1946 Harrison published the pamphlet About Carl Ruggles,77 a stylistic analysis that he envisioned as one section of a (never completed) book. There he highlighted aspects of the Ruggles style that clearly influenced his own—particularly Ruggles’s finely-honed contrapuntal technique, which combined strong melodic lines with "resonant," "resilient," and "open" textures reminiscent of Handel. Harrison’s own compositions from this New York period similarly link melodicism with dissonant counterpoint (a term coined by the ethnomusicologist and composer Charles Seeger, whose teachings were transmitted to Harrison by Cowell).78
   Despite this close circle of New York friends and Harrison’s continued productivity in both literary and musical genres, he never settled comfortably into life in New York. Struggling to make a living from private teaching, occasional commissions, and the meager fees paid by the Herald Tribune, he lived in Spartan quarters, including, at one point, a cold-water flat in Greenwich Village that he had to heat by carrying heavy canisters of kerosene across the street and up four flights of stairs. The noise of the city was overpowering and its crowded conditions stifling. To practice late at night without bothering his neighbors, Harrison built a clavichord—and when that instrument failed, he constructed a second one with an improved design.79 A romantic relationship stemming from his West Coast years soured soon after his arrival in New York and a second one dissolved in 1946.
   At the same time, Harrison’s New York period held notable triumphs as well. On April 5, 1946 he conducted the New York Little Symphony in the premiere of Ives’s Third Symphony, which he had edited from his old photostat score. The performance, which also included Ruggles’s Portals and Harrison’s own Motet for the Day of Ascension for chamber orchestra, was phenomenally successful by any standard. Four different reviewers praised Harrison’s conducting skills: "a director of uncommon abilities," "a real gift for the baton," "a first rate conductor," who led the orchestra "with an easy sense of authority," the group giving "a smoother performance under his direction than it had in the first half of the program under its regular leader."80 The following year Ives won the Pulitzer Prize for the Third Symphony and sent half of the award money to Harrison in gratitude for his efforts. A few days after the concert Harrison wrote to Ruggles:

Portals was not done to my own satisfaction though many thought it quite good. The piece is, however, so elevated in expressive content and so forceful in outline that it would survive almost any presentation, I think, and Friday nite it definitely stopped the show! ... After the final chord (which was badly balanced, though) the applause was so terrific and so long that after I had bowed a respectable number of times and the orchestra had risen etc.[,] I finally had to turn my back on the audience and simply wait until they quieted down so we could go on.81

   As for Harrison’s own Motet, some reviewers praised it while others were far less impressed. "[The work’s] expressive purport was not always apparent, but it gave a sense of craftsmanship and able use of its basic thematic idea," wrote Francis Perkins in the Herald Tribune. Noel Straus (New York Times) was less forgiving: "[The piece] failed to place him in as flattering a light as did his batonism." Harrison’s own judgment, then and now, is even harsher. That summer Harmony Ives wrote to him with an offer from her husband to fund publication of the work, but Harrison replied:
I am very touched by Mr. Ives’ kindness: ... But the truth is, that while in the past I have twice been represented in New Music[,] I am now unsure that anything I have written is yet ready for the unblushing declaration of print. After the performance of my ‘Motet for the Day of Ascension’ I ripped it apart & have not yet assembled it.82

   Harrison’s self-esteem, which had been declining for several years, had reached an all-time low. In May 1947 the accumulated stress culminated in a severe nervous breakdown, requiring his hospitalization for nearly nine months. In retrospect, signs of the crisis had been apparent for some time, though neither Harrison nor his friends foresaw its severity. As early as 1945 he had developed an ulcer, which plagued him periodically throughout his New York years, and in March of the same year he had written to Ruggles, "Sometimes I wish I didn’t write music; life would be so much simpler. And besides I am always so tortured and distressed during a performance of my own music that I don’t really hear a note of it anyway."83 Cramped and filled with erasures, Harrison’s scores from this period are witness to his uncertainty and his search for a personal language (see plate 2). His slow and painful recovery (he claims it was ten years before he fully recuperated) is testimony to his determination and self-will; in fact, he used the experience as a catalyst for re-evaluating his own style, turning away from serialism and dissonant counterpoint toward diatonicism.
   The years immediately following Harrison’s breakdown were, surprisingly, among his most productive. In 1949 Virgil Thomson introduced him to the world of just intonation by presenting him a copy of Harry Partch’s new book, Genesis of a Music, thus initiating a study that would preoccupy Harrison for years, and which continues to be one of his most ardent passions. Meanwhile he continued his collaboration with dancers, forming an especially productive partnership with Jean Erdman that led to three substantial compositions between 1949 and 1951: The Perilous Chapel and Solstice, which have become popular as instrumental suites, and Io and Prometheus. He also renewed ties with Bonnie Bird, who hired him as music director for her summer festivals at Reed College, Oregon, in 1949 and 1950. During these festivals Harrison wrote additional music for dance, including Marriage at the Eiffel Tower (subsequently transformed into an orchestral suite)—the first incidental music for Jean Cocteau’s text by a single composer.
   Harrison’s motivation in composing for dance was both idealistic and pragmatic. On the one hand, this work harked back to the dance and theater experiences of his childhood and offered him the challenge of another compositional control—writing music to fit choreographic requirements. But it also had a decidedly practical result: generating much needed income. Harrison counseled composer Ned Rorem, six years his junior, to always charge a standard per-minute fee "no matter who it was, whether it was [for José] Limón or Erdman or whomever."84 Yet Harrison often failed to follow his own advice. Cellist Seymour Barab, for one, recalls many so-called "Platonic" commissions with Harrison and other New York composers: "They would write it and I would play it,"85 he says.
   Harrison’s approach to musical composition has always been decidedly non-academic, contrasting sharply with the general retreat into the academy common among professional composers in this period. By the time the twelve-tone bandwagon was charging ahead in the early 1950s (with Copland and Stravinsky as well as a host of younger composers climbing aboard), Harrison had moved toward an idiom in which he felt more at home—a melodic style, inspired in part by Chinese and Indonesian musics, that foreshadowed the work of younger contemporaries such as Terry Riley. He kept abreast of major developments in the performing and visual arts through books, lectures, concerts, performances, and exhibits, but never lost sight of his responsibility to the non-academic audience. Indeed, he felt the greatest affinity to composers outside of academe—or outside the mainstream in general—like Alan Hovhaness, whose first New York concert in 1945 prompted Harrison to pen one of his rare rave reviews.86
   By the summer of 1951 Harrison (on the recommendation of John Cage) had found a tempting alternative to life in New York: a faculty position at Black Mountain College, an idealistic educational community in rural North Carolina with an emphasis on the visual and performing arts and a student-faculty ratio at times as low as 2:1.87 The college not only offered the opportunity for student-faculty collaboration, but also fostered interdisciplinary projects among its tiny faculty, many of whom worked on the cutting edge of their fields.88 Although Harrison planned to stay at Black Mountain only for one summer, he remained for two years, at the same time maintaining a New York apartment to which he occasionally returned.
   Though Harrison had always been known for his productivity, at Black Mountain his output was further increased by a congenial physical environment: wide-open spaces, quiet surroundings, and an inspiring landscape. A Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952 provided the luxury of time as well. During his two years in North Carolina, Harrison was able to complete several unfinished works and compose many new ones: the Mass to St. Anthony (begun in San Francisco); the Seven Pastorales for chamber orchestra (the earliest work to benefit from his studies in tuning, which he could now pursue at leisure); Songs in the Forest for flute, piano, violin, percussion; Festival Dance for two pianos; a series of short pieces for keyboard, guitar, or chamber groups; and, most importantly, his six-scene, fifty-minute chamber opera Rapunzel.89 The sheer joy he felt in creating music is apparent in these works, as well as in the numerous letters he wrote to friends and colleagues in this period. During one of his visits to New York in early 1953, for instance, Harrison wrote to Frank Wigglesworth in Italy:
I completed my opera (Rapunzel ...) and came to N.Y. to get paper to make [a] full score, on which I labour. While I am not entirely happy with it I think it will sound quite amazingly and am writing other musics which do make me happy. ... As to here, ... Jean [Erdman] is repeating Solstice on Jan. 11th, when I will conduct. I unfortunately love teaching and as soon as I have more recovered from the brunt of psychiatry, so to speak, I think that I will be a very good teacher. .. . You are right about being a composer, that one composes when one is. But then one always is, and I for one, in the name of nothing whatever, refuse to abrogate a single of the prerogatives of being a musician. ... It is Saturday night, and I sit in a fairly clean apartment with a freshly tuned (Pythagorean) piano; nearby on a stand rest my current reading, [John] Collier’s Indians of the Americas [1947], Arts and the Man by Irwin Edman [1939], ... an outline-history of the middle ages ... and the ravishing and joyous Plain and Easy Introduction to Practical Music by [the] literate, perceptive, witty, and adroit, our seventeenth-century friend and colleague, Thomas Morley. I half expect a visit.90

   Rapunzel, based on a psychological reinterpretation of the old fairy tale by William Morris (1834–1896), was the product of an intensive effort from August 21 to October 7, 1952, though its orchestration occupied Harrison’s time well into the following year.91 The opera is his last major serial work (although he occasionally used the technique after 1952 for specific purposes such as in anti-war protest pieces). In this case, the compositional process offered special challenges because of unintended symmetries among several of Rapunzel’s row forms, prompting Harrison to seek solutions to what he considered the confinements of twelve-tone serialism.92 Despite his admiration for Schoenberg, he had never felt entirely comfortable with serialism, preferring instead the Ruggles approach in which tone repetition is infrequent but not subject to rigid rules. At the same time, Harrison found the challenge of Rapunzel’s row irresistible. The opera, a fine example of his ability to combine lyricism with atonality, received positive critical acclaim. The prayer scene from its third act won a Twentieth Century Masterpiece Award for the best composition for voice and chamber orchestra at the 1954 International Conference of Contemporary Music in Rome, and the premiere of the entire opera five years later solicited excellent reviews.
   In 1953 Black Mountain College hired Stephen Wolpe, and Harrison decided to return to California. He lived briefly with his parents in Redwood City and then in San Francisco, but found himself yearning instead for the tranquillity and isolation he had discovered in North Carolina. The following year he discovered the ideal solution: a tiny cabin on a wooded property in Aptos, just south of Santa Cruz. Harrison has lived on this same block ever since, moving only once in the late 1970s to a larger house on the adjoining lot.
   In Aptos Harrison was able to pursue his tuning studies at leisure and to build on the reputation he had begun to establish in the East. Major commissions from the Louisville Orchestra and Broadcast Music International (BMI) in the next few years led to two substantial orchestral works. For the first, Strict Songs (eight baritones and orchestra, 1955), he set his own poetry modeled on Navajo texts. The second, Suite for Symphonic Strings (1960), developed from a re-examination of a series of older works. He selected, reworked, and orchestrated six short compositions written between 1936 and 1952, adding three newly composed movements to form a nine-movement suite. Strict Songs was one of the many American works commissioned and recorded by the Louisville Orchestra in this period. The Suite, commissioned for BMI’s twentieth anniversary, was premiered by the same group five years later.93
   The rural environments of Black Mountain College and Aptos, along with Harrison’s excitement over his tuning studies and his intensive efforts on Rapunzel, helped liberate him from the aftereffects of his breakdown. William Morris’s retelling of the Rapunzel story—with its probing of the lonely plight of the heroine (who "weeps within the tower") and the Prince (whose courtiers exhort, "’Tis fit that thou should’st wed")—"held implicit in it some of the problems, tortures and false rapture that I was myself experiencing in analysis and psychotherapy" at the time, Harrison recalled years later.94 While the immediate cause of his breakdown had been the poverty, stress, and noise of New York, the cure forced him to confront both his personal history and his homosexuality. Though he had seemingly come to terms with his sexual orientation years earlier95 and had steadfastly resisted forces urging a retreat to the closet (in 1942 he candidly told his draft board he was gay), his post-hospitalization period was characterized by notable equivocation. (He was engaged, for example, to one of his female students for a short time in 1951.) Among Harrison’s compositions both before and after his illness are several that suggest a (perhaps subconscious) attempt to display a strong "masculinity," among them not only Rapunzel but also the Symphony on G, much of which he wrote in the hospital.
   Harrison ultimately emerged strengthened in his self-image and, after his return to California, became active in gay rights organizations such as the Society for Individual Rights in San Francisco.96 His decision to move beyond acknowledging his sexuality to speaking out for the homosexual community at large was prompted on the local level by an invitation from a Unitarian minister "to explain about being gay"97 and on a broader level by "the nightmare" of McCarthyism,98 which, rather than driving Harrison underground, coaxed him into the open. While it is difficult to pinpoint specific musical markers linked to sexual preference, Harrison’s candid acknowledgment of his homosexuality has had concrete and substantial effects on his music, encouraging various artistic associations (with poets such as Elsa Gidlow and Robert Duncan, for instance), giving rise to personal relationships that have marked the direction of his musical practice (particularly that with instrument-builder William Colvig), and stimulating him to write an opera on a gay subject (Young Caesar, discussed below). At the time of this writing, Harrison continues to champion gay rights in his writings and lectures and considers the revision of Young Caesar the most urgent task to complete before he retires from composition.

    76 For a list of Harrison’s reviews and a discussion of them, see Miller and Lieberman, Lou Harrison.
   77 See footnote 7.
   78 See Charles Seeger, "On Dissonant Counterpoint," Modern Music 7:4 (June–July 1930): 25–31, or Charles Seeger, "Manual of Dissonant Counterpoint," in Studies in Musicology II, 1929–1979 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 163–229.
   79 Diagram in Miller and Lieberman, Lou Harrison, fig. 6.
   80 Francis Perkins, "Modern Music is Played by Barone Group," New York Herald Tribune, April 6, 1946; Robert A. Simon, "Musical Events: Late-Season Harvest," New Yorker 22:9, April 13, 1946, 93; Noel Straus, "Symphony by Ives in World Premiere," New York Times, April 6, 1946, 10; "New York Little Symphony offers New Native Works" Musical America 66:6, April 25, 1946, 10. The "regular leader" was Joseph Barone.
   81 Undated letter among Harrison’s personal papers.
   82 Undated letter, after June 28, before Aug. 9 (copy among Harrison’s personal papers).
   83 Harrison to Ruggles, Mar. 1, 1945, (copy among Harrison’s personal papers).
   84 Ned Rorem, interview, Nov. 8, 1995.
   85 Seymour Barab, interview, June 27, 1995.
   86 "Alan Hovhaness Offers Original Compositions," New York Herald Tribune, June 18, 1945.
   87 For further information on the college, see Martin Duberman, Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1972 and 1993); and Mary Emma Harris, The Arts at Black Mountain College (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987).
   88 Among the resident faculty in the late 1940s and early 1950s either during the year or in the active summer sessions were Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning, Richard Lippold, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. The college produced more than its share of illustrious alumni as well: for instance, Robert Rauschenberg, Jonathan Williams, and Joel Oppenheimer.
   89 The first recording of the opera was issued by New Albion Records in 1997 (New Albion NA 093 CD).
   90 Undated letter, Harrison to Wigglesworth, late 1952 or early 1953 (in response to a 1952 Christmas card); copy graciously made available to the author by the late Frank Wigglesworth. Reprinted by permission of Lou Harrison.
   91 Harrison was still orchestrating Rapunzel the following April, as he noted in a letter to his parents dated April 14, 1953.
   92 Rapunzel’s row is limited in two respects: it is nearly semi-combinatorial (combining halves of two different versions yields eleven of the twelve pitches), and the first ten notes of the original are identical to the first ten notes of I1 in retrograde. The prime form of Rapunzel’s row is C# C F E G# G B Bb Eb D A F#. Harrison’s row usage is non-traditional in several respects. For example, he often extracts individual pitches as drones or ostinati, thus permitting him to effectively work with a shorter series. He also allowed himself the freedom to begin a series anywhere within any row form, as long as he cycled back to its beginning. For a discussion of Harrison’s use of twelve-tone serialism and of Rapunzel in particular, see Miller and Lieberman, Lou Harrison, chapter 11.
   93 Strict Songs was choreographed by Mark Morris in 1987; Harrison made an alternative version for SATB chorus and baritone in 1992. On the Morris choreography, see Joan Acocella, Mark Morris (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993; 1995 edition by The Noonday Press).
   94 Harrison, undated letter to Peter Oskarson in Bonn, 1993.
   95 In high school in the back of a station wagon with a young woman, "I suddenly realized that I had another programming," he says (personal communication, March 1997).
   96 Harrison’s activities in this arena, as well as the effects, if any, on his music are discussed at length in Miller and Lieberman, Lou Harrison, chapter 10.
   97 Stuart Norman, "Profiles/Interviews: Lou Harrison and William Colvig," RFD: A Journal for Gay Men Everywhere (Winter 1987–88): 67.
   98 Lou Harrison, "Political Primer," in Frog Peak Anthology (Hanover, N.H.: Frog Peak Music, 1992), 78.

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