Lou Harrison Centennial Birthday Celebration

1917 – 2017

In this series Tom Ellison explores the life and world of Lou Harrison.

For more information about the upcoming Centennial celebrations in Santa Cruz click here.

A world renowned American musical pioneer, maverick, composer, out and proud gay man, and gentle queer spirit, Lou Silver Harrison was part of our Santa Cruz LGBTQ+ community for over 40 years.

•     Saturday, May 13 at 7pm – TWO BIO FILMS ON LOU HARRISON’S LIFE “Cherish, Conserve, Consider, Create”: 27 minute film by Eric Marin and “A World of Music” a 92 minute film by Eva Soltes. Plus Bill Alves, author of a new biography, “Lou Harrison, American Musical Maverick” will be there.

•     Sunday, May 14 at both 3pm and 7pm – A TWO-CONCERT TRIBUTE to the music of Lou Harrison involves many of the Lou's favorite collaborators performing music, dance & puppetry.

All events are at the Peace United Church on High Street

Part 5 of 5

Lou through the years.  Photo source: SF Classical Voice

Lou through the years.Photo source: SF Classical Voice

When Lou was asked in a 1980's KUSP radio broadcast, 'Stonewall in the 60's, does that electrify you?' Lou made this comment. "No, it doesn't and I'll tell you why. We had done that in San Francisco ten years before (Stonewall) without the rumpus. New York likes to advertise (itself, but our approach) in the Society for Individual Rights in San Francisco, of which Bill and I were both members, was to organize. (What we did was to) invite all who stood for office to talk with us (SIR). From San Francisco Supervisors Hongisto and Feinstein to House Speaker Willy Brown, we directly asked them: 'What are you going to do?'. Brown squarely said he wouldn't stop supporting us until the laws in California were changed, and he didn't. We (in SF) approached this politically whereas in NY there was a riot and a lot of publicity. (The publicity) certainly helped (in NY) but it was quite different than the 10 years previous experience here in which we did it politically. Our fight for civil rights was done on a political level from the beginning. Even though SIR eventually collapsed, we had done our job: to get these politicians to commit themselves to gay rights."*


That's the rebel, the outspoken Lou who treated his homosexuality as a matter of fact and challenged others to do so as well. Lou's life is a testimonial to gentle persuasion and his passion of integrating ideas, which was also true to his approach to music.


Lou Harrison's move to California in 1953 was in part a product of his rebel nature and his explorer’s heart, but it also was his draw to the Pacific Rim. His studies culminated in a marriage of classical values, willful experimentalism and eastern and western modalities. A defining characteristic of his music, which also made him so distinctly different from other composers of the period, was that it was so daringly melodic and lyrical.

Lou Harrison: a master intellect and a gentle queer spirit. Photo from Evas Soltes collection

Lou Harrison: a master intellect and a gentle queer spirit. Photo from Evas Soltes collection


Finally, we have a thoughtful conclusion to this series from Phil Collins, the co-founder and Artistic Director for New Music Works in Santa Cruz for over 38 years. "The relevance of Lou Harrison's contributions to American composition in the 20th century inevitably brings to mind the vast breadth of musical territories that he explored as a composer. However, Lou's musical versatility is only one aspect of his relevance and uniqueness. His life's work and the mindful ways in which his art and life intertwined was, in and of itself, amazing and noteworthy."


"Lou was not interested in being a "career composer," rather he followed his muse with heart and mind. He cherished the mantle of "amateur" in stark contrast to the categorical rigidity that "professionalism" had come to connote. Amateurism was not a pejorative term to Lou, it was an acknowledgement that learning was a treasured, lifelong endeavor. He much admired the multi-disciplinary accomplishments of William Morris, the 19th century English textile designer, writer and social activist. Like Morris, Lou was civic-minded and politically active. One can find numerous works in which he used music to affect social change. "


"Even though Lou Harrison is now recognized as a major compositional voice of the 20th century, full appreciation of his accomplishments is still forthcoming. While the most venerated composers of the past are often identified by the musical styles they worked in and helped develop, a full appreciation of Lou's contributions involves considerable inconvenience of trekking across categories. That will likely change; with each rewriting of Twentieth Century musical history, Lou's portion enlarges."


Thoughts of Lou:

"My fondest memory is playing kelp horns with Lou and Bill in the backyard of a neighbor's house on Pearl Street in Santa Cruz back in the '70s." – Beth Regardz (artist, Faculty & Digital Media Department Chair, Cabrillo College)


"The words that describe (Lou's) generosity, wit, curiosity, discipline, patience, and rigorous intellectual grasp of form and tradition are the same ones which I would use to describe his music." – Dennis Russell Davies (conductor, pianist)**


"...(Lou) seemed to be able to simply make music come out of his fingers." – Merce Cunningham (dancer, choreographer)**


Lou on Lou:

As a final note, when Lou was asked about his place in any continuum in the progress of Western music, the only definitive answer he could give was: "I can only say, 'Lou Harrison is an old man who's had a lot of fun.' "**


* Excerpt from one of many interviews Roger Emmanuels conducted with Lou Harrison on KUSP radio in the 1980's.

** Biography: Lou Harrison, Composing the World by Leta Miller & Fredric Lieberman


Other sources:

• Centennial events in Santa Cruz Concerts and events in Santa Cruz

• Centennial events around the country and world Lou Harrison Centennial website

• New Yorker piece New Yorker 4/24/17, Composer Who Left Town

• SF Classical Voice overview https://www.sfcv.org/learn/composer-gallery/harrison-lou

• KQED tribute KQED Arts,100 Years of Lou



Many thanks to Roger Emmanuels and Phil Collins for their contribution to this issue, as well as my to my husband Larry Friedman, proofreader extraordinaire. Two addional thanks to Sharon Papo for saying "yes" and Jenny Shelton, the Diversity Center's new/returning communications coordinator who was more than helpful in seeing this project through. Finally a big thank you to all those who have contributed, advised and commented on this series. It has been a pleasure.


Part 4 of 5

"What is most impressive about Lou is his indefatigable intellectual curiosity; his unwillingness to take anything for granted; his attempts to get at the roots of whatever he is interested in, (as well as) his great gifts of synthesis, his ability to pull together varied influences and express them in different fields–music, poetry, art. He's the nearest thing to a Renaissance man I have ever met." —Carter Scholz (composer, typographer, author)*.

Chris DiMaio, co-coordinator for the Diversity Center's Rainbow Veterans, and his life partner, Andy Putan sent me this recollection of their encounters with Lou and his life parner Bill Colvig in the 80'-90's. "We moved to Viewpoint Road in Aptos in the 80’s. We began noticing that every Saturday morning there would be a bag of the most delicious salad greens left on our gate. It turned out to be gifts from Lou and Bill. Thus began an interesting relationship with Lou. He called us “the kids”. Both of us would open our homes to what was called at the time 'the over and under 40’s gay men's potluck dinners'. We also would have pancake breakfasts at Lou and Bill’s. Sometimes they'd serve what they referred to as their "garbage soup", which, by the way, was very tasty." (See part 3 for Dee Vogel's wonderful description of their "family soup")

"A talk with Lou could take us 2 weeks to fully understand. Topics ranged from using vegetable oil to power his old Mercedes to using small personal helicopters to go to San Jose, electric bikes, gamelan, Indonesian puppets, and different piano tunings. Lou was one of the most intelligent and kind men we have ever met. One day when we were heading over to Lou and Bill’s for a gathering at their house down the street our new poodle Arielle started to wail so we decided to bring her.  When we arrived she fully welcomed, just as all of the guests were. As it turned out, that day was absolutely wonderful with people such as Tandy Beal dancing and Lou’s absolutely wonderful music filling the air."

Lou Harrison with his life partner Bill Colvig. Photo source unknown

Lou Harrison with his life partner Bill Colvig. Photo source unknown

Chris and Andy describe Lou and Bill's home. "They had the most unusual house. Two small bedrooms, a bath, and a kitchen. This part of the house was so small some of the appliances were outside. The rest of the house (the large Charles Ives room) was dedicated to music and Indonesian puppet shows. Lou was an avid reader so he built a loft in this room to keep his multitude of books. When Bill became ill and had to be in a care facility Lou would go there and read to him."

Despite the death in of his life partner of thirty-five years in the year 2000, which was a devestating loss, Lou completed his dream home in 2002. It was a uniquely designed straw bale house, or what he referred to as "composers' cave".  It's located in the high desert near the border to Joshua Tree National Park. Some of Bill's ashes are in the walls. Lou's rationale for his choice of building materials was that "America grows enough straw in one year to satisfy all of its building needs." With a 16-foot ceiling and approximately 1,000 square feet, it is a superb and intimate environment for acoustic music.


Patrick Meyers has a wonderful description of this straw bale adventure in the last decade of Lou's life.  "Being around Lou was like being around a constantly overflowing fountain of ideas. He took such delight in things new to him and in building new skills: be it set design, poetry, font (lettering design) development and even canning pickled nasturtium seeds. One grand endeavor was building a straw bale house near Joshua tree National Monument.  This was a long-term project involving learning about building green.  Then there was the design.  He wanted to build a barrel-vaulted great room with attached bedrooms.  No one had ever built a barrel vaulted straw-bale construction in North America.  This required major engineering testing and experimentation.  Then there was the county planning commission, who had a difficult time accepting such an "alternative" structure until a friend of Lou's who was a reporter from the NY times started to investigate.  Suddenly the planning commission welcomed the plan and the approval came.  Lou was thrilled as much for the approval as he was about fighting the establishment and winning!  That was the ever-present rebel in him."

The straw bale Harrison House today. Photo, David Paine

The straw bale Harrison House today. Photo, David Paine

"Building the structure was a group process, like a barn raising.  A number of friends of the builder joined Lou's friends to stack and bind the building together. Bill was content to be in the background, sitting under a sunshade "sewing" or binding custom sized bales with baling rope and holding court.  I remember feeling like I was in a Spielberg movie atop the structure stacking bales for the ceiling as the contractor and a friend buzzed us overhead in his single engine airplane.  Everyone waived.  Lou laughed with glee.  Events like this with Lou always seemed like a hybrid circus and party with artists, musicians and many, many eccentric personalities all gathering together to work and celebrate his latest endeavor."

Now what is called the Lou Harrison House: Music, Arts, & Ecology, in Joshua Tree, is a residency and performance space for international artists and thinkers. Harrison House, as it is today, was conceived and is run by Eva Soltes. This straw bale house stands as a monument to Lou Harrison’s lifetime of experimentalism, activism, concern for the environment, and to his lifetime commitment to encouraging creativity in others.**


*Biography: Lou Harrison, Composing the World by Leta Miller & Fredric Lieberman

** http://louharrisonhouse.org/

 Many thanks to the contributors: Charles Hanson, Patrick Meyer, Chris DiMaio and Andy Pudan.

A special thanks to my dear husband and proofreader Larry Friedman.

Part 3 of 5

-Lou and his life partner Bill Colvig (c1990’s). Photo source unknown.    

-Lou and his life partner Bill Colvig (c1990’s). Photo source unknown.


In 1942, when Lou Harrison's draft board summoned him, he candidly told them that he was gay, and they classified him 4-F. "I just answered the psychiatrist correctly," he explains. "They didn't want me, and I didn't want them." It wasn't a "coming out" or rebellion against perceived accusations of sexual "deviancy", but a political statement pure and simple*.

Lou's upbringing, his environment, and his magnificent ear for tone and pitch had as much to do with the person he was, as did his sexual orientation. But, there is no question that Lou Harrison's choice of people he collaborated with did reflect his desire to connect to other gay artists. Working with other "out" artists such as filmmaker/writer James Broughton, choreographer Mark Morris, and poet Elsa Gidlow was a conscious decision Lou made to publicly define his view of the world.

On December 25, 1974, as a Christmas special, the Fruit Punch Collective (KPFA Radio) presented a recording of the 1971 world premiere performance of Lou Harrison’s gay-oriented opera, “Young Caesar, a puppet opera". The story of the opera explores the meeting and purported subsequent love affair between the young Julius Caesar and King Nicomedes. In addition to desiring to write an opera with a homosexual theme, Harrison was also attracted to the story about Caesar and Nicomedes because it represented the meeting between East and West. Building upon that theme, the musical score calls for a variety of Eastern instruments including gamelan. Rather than using real actors, puppets and shadow figures were utilized instead, much as they are in Indonesia. The homoerotic nature of the story was made quite evident in such scenes as the ballet of puppet phalli, a point that needed to be advertised in advance so as to prevent some from thinking this was a puppet show meant for children. **

-Caricature of Lou Harrison by Antonio Sotomayor, 1934

-Caricature of Lou Harrison by Antonio Sotomayor, 1934

An Aptos neighbor of Lou's, Robert Hughes, upon viewing the cabin, filled with art, manuscripts, masks, puppets and trinkets, likened it to Angkor Wat. Lou instantly loved the cabin because, "Reminded me of my studio at Black Mountain (College).*" During their cabin years Dee Vogel had an encounter with Lou and Bill that suggests the ambience of their 'tiny house*'. Dee recollects, "In the early 1970’s I curated a gallery exhibit of Lou’s puppets. He suggested I come at lunchtime to review the collection and “share our family soup”. It was Lou and Bill's pot of continuously changing soup. Every day they added in their leftover vegetables and water, that's what they ate for lunch for many years! Occasionally they cleaned the pot, and when they traveled, it went into the freezer. I had lunch with them two more times over the course of the art exhibit, and each time the soup was completely different, but always delicious!"

Charles Hanson, Executor for the Harrison Estate, has a great description of their home, constructed in the late 1970's, up the street a few houses from the old cabin. Charles describes the space, "In the Ives room most of the walls were floor to ceiling books with few art pieces. There were one or two contemporary Asian masks and more importantly several Indonesian Hand and Rod Puppets positioned as if to bless the room. In the living room there were two hand-carved masks from Oaxaca gifted to Lou and Bill from Peter Garland. The art on the other walls was forever rotating according to Lou's mood."

From time to time Lou and Bill staged musical events in the Charles Ives room in which they would invite friends from the community to attend. My husband Larry and I had the great fortune to attend one of these occasions. For this production Lou had collaborated with UCSC professor of theater, Kathy Folley, to stage an Indonesian shadow puppet performance (an ancient form for storytelling) accompanied by one of Bill and Lou's American gamelan orchestras. Behind a transparent fabric stretched flat (as a movie screen), a large candle flickered reflecting light against the back wall and as well as onto this screen. The shadows of elabotately carved puppets and representations would be cast onto the screen. The artistic skill in which these images danced and moved on the screen and Lou's hypnotic melodies and rhythms created a wonder that filled the air. It was brilliantly produced and quite an enchanting experience.

Many thanks to the contributors, sources, and editors: Charles Hanson, Dee Vogel, Larry Friedman


*Biography: Lou Harrison, Composing the World by Leta Miller and Fredric Lieberman

** Radiom Archives- Young Caesar: A Puppet Opera by Lou Harrison

Part 2 of 5


Gamelan Si Betty and Lou in plaid in rehearsal for a Cabrillo Festival concert, 1978. Photo by Jody Diamond, Director of the American Gamelan Institute. 

Gamelan Si Betty and Lou in plaid in rehearsal for a Cabrillo Festival concert, 1978. Photo by Jody Diamond, Director of the American Gamelan Institute. 

In addition to being an out gay man, Lou Harrison was outspoken about his pacifism. As an active supporter of the international language Esperanto, he ultimately wrote a large work for chorus and American gamelan, La Koro Surto, in Esperanto. In 1985 Lou Harrison was voted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

 Like many 20th century artists, as an adult Lou found it wasn't possible to support himself with his music. He took a number of other jobs including record salesman, florist, animal nurse, and forestry firefighter. Though Lou approached everything he did with enthusiasm, these jobs were a means to continue with his one true passion: music.

Born in Portland Oregon, Lou Harrison grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area where he was exposed to Cantonese opera, Gregorian chant, and the music of both Spanish and Mexican cultures. These influences could explain the focus of Lou's compositions- a focus was on rhythm with a devotion to beautiful melodic line. Ultimately it was Lou's finely tuned ear which seemed to allow him to naturally integrate the sounds and rhythms of East and West.

His interest in the East led to a fascination with alternate tuning systems. This fascination with alternate tuning ultimately led him to the gamelan. Over the years Lou and his life partner Bill Colvig, hand constructed, with the precision of a watch maker, three "American" style gamelan. Modeled on the court gamelan of central Java, Lou and Bill built perhaps the largest American-built gamelan, in terms of numbers of instruments. It accommodates over 30 instrumental players, as well as vocalists. It was named Gamelan Si Betty for its benefactor, Betty Freeman.

Once Lou and Bill had gone from their original cabin to building a much larger home, the center of this home became their large music studio, known as the Ives Room, named after the great iconoclast composer Charles Ives. The spacious but crowded Ives Room is where their expansive and first hand built American style gamelan, Si Betti, sat (currently housed at Harvard).  In one corner was a harpsichord, in another an aging stereo system and a large library on many subjects. There was also the grand piano, where Lou composed. The walls held their massive collection of Asian shadow puppets and masks.

Here is a marvelous story about Lou Harrison, this gamelan and the 1979 Gay Pride:

In 1979 Lou and company played Gamelan Si Betty for the Gay Pride talent show, which that year was held at the Branciforte Elementary school auditorium, as part of a week of events leading up to the Pride Parade.  "On the day of the event we were all excited," says Patrick Meyer, who co-chaired the Gay Pride celebration in Santa Cruz in 1979. But the real buzz was all in reference to the fact that this famous composer -our own famous composer- was going to play a composition that he had written for this gamelan.  As he entered the room, it felt like the sea had parted and this happy roly-poly unassuming guy in an Indonesian print shirt walked in, with Bill his partner quietly stirring behind him. Lou came out with the rest of the musicians, sat down among the group, and played as if he were the least important member of the ensemble.

Lou Harrison with composer John Cage, c1960's

Lou Harrison with composer John Cage, c1960's

Patrick Meyer continues, "...at the time very few members of the packed house really knew who he was, but by the end of the show we were all drawn into the magic of Lou's talent and spirit.That was Lou: To those outside of his circle, a famous yet unpretentious, gifted composer with a great smile, a story in every pocket and a flair for dropping unconventional and endearing musical moments out of nowhere and into his compositions.

To those on the inside, he was a genius and a Renaissance man always overflowing with ideas and inventions, stories of delightful social encounters, artistic projects and the requisite moodiness befitting of such a character!"

More about Lou's life, music and his upcoming centennial celebration will be in the next Santa Cruz Diversity Center bi-monthly e-NEWSLETTER.

 Many thanks to the contributors, sources, fact checkers and editors: Patrick Meyer, Charles Hanson, Leta Miller, Dee Vogel, Larry Friedman.


Photo: Gamelan Si Betty and Lou in plaid in rehearsal for a Cabrillo Festival concert, 1978

Photo circa 1937

Photo circa 1937

Part 1 of 5

Born May 14, 1917 in Portland Oregon, Lou Harrison moved to a cabin in Aptos in 1953 after a time in NYC and LA.

For over 40 years Lou, and his life partner Bill Colvig, were part of our Santa Cruz LGBTQ+ community. Lou performed, using Bill's hand built Indonesian style gamelan, at the first Gay Pride in Santa Cruz in 1975 and the two of them were part of Santa Cruz' first Gay Men's 40+ group. They were also members of San Francisco's Society for Individual Rights (S.I.R.), established in 1964 to promote gay rights.

Lou Harrison was also one of the pivotal figures of American music who, for nearly sixty years, made important contributions to American culture not only as a composer, but also as a conductor, pianist, teacher, writer, and philosopher*.
*Forward to The Music of Lou Harrison by Heidi von Gunden, 1995 Scarecrow Press