Desert sentry

The Joshua Tree retreat built by Lou Harrison is of a piece with the late composer's musical works: Elements from around the globe come together in a striking and harmonious whole. Secreted within the walls are bales of straw. (Rick Loomis / LAT)

A single, elegant vase sat in the kitchen window of the high desert retreat built by late composer Lou Harrison.

As the first light of day crept in, documentary filmmaker and concert promoter Eva Soltes, who worked with Harrison on numerous projects over three decades and now owns the house, looked up at the vase and smiled.

"That's Lou," she said quietly.

The comment could have been taken as her describing the ornate object as just the kind of thing he loved. So she laughed and added, "That really is Lou."

Soltes pressed her hands together and bowed slightly toward the window. The ashes of Harrison, who died on Feb. 2, 2003, at age 85 while en route to a festival of his musical works, were inside the vase.

The house, built against a stunning backdrop of huge granite rock piles common to this landscape near Joshua Tree National Park, is very much representative of what Harrison — for whom the term iconoclast seemed coined — was all about.

Like Harrison — who incorporated Baroque, Asian and a wide range of other musical forms into complex, achingly beautiful works — it's a glorious mixture.

The retreat is dominated by a soaring, arched roof that took design cues from both mosques and medieval cathedrals. It uses traditional materials in an experimental way, so much so that it took almost three years to get through the permitting process. It was built in large part by a community of people, some of whom were longtime friends and admirers of Harrison and others who were lured by the novel way in which the house was constructed. And finally, it has strong ties to the environment.

Inside the retreat's 2-foot-thick walls, the primary building material is tightly bound bundles of straw. Straw-bale construction — a rapidly growing nationwide trend — was used because of its recycled materials, low cost, malleability and insulating quality that makes heating and air-conditioning more efficient.

But while most straw-bale houses end up looking either quite conventional or like something out of a hobbit village, the Harrison retreat is so elegant and awe-inspiring that it's not unusual for first-time visitors to drop their voices to a whisper as they step through one of its many doors into the main hall.

Soltes was visiting from her regular home in San Francisco to host a small celebration — with music, dance and the scattering of those ashes in the desert — to mark the first anniversary of his death and to look toward the future of how the retreat would be used, perhaps as the core of an artists' colony.

Harrison was a man of ample girth and flowing white beard, which led to his being referred to as the Santa Claus of new music. His work, though long respected in music circles, did not become widely known until his later years, when it was performed by the likes of the San Francisco Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma, the Kronos Quartet and Keith Jarrett.

He had a wide network of friends, a legendary thirst for knowledge and a just-as-legendary generous nature. "When Lou found a book that he liked, he would buy at least three copies," said George Zelenz, an architect who lives nearby. "One for himself, one in case the first got lost and one for a friend he thought might like it."

Many of Harrison's close friends were involved in his broad range of projects, including the building and playing of gamelan, an orchestra of bell- and marimba-like instruments native to Indonesia for which Harrison wrote numerous pieces.

But woe to anyone who confused his jovial persona with permission to vary from his precise ideas for how he wanted his music performed. And that goes for other expressions of his artistry too, including the house.

"He thought of it as being made up of modular pieces in the way that gamelan music is modular," said Chris Daubert, an artist and furniture-maker who built several instruments for Harrison.

"Traditional gamelan pieces are short and repetitive, and then embellishments are added to the simple structure. In that way, you can think of the house as starting out with nine modular pieces, almost like a tic-tac-toe board."

On the south side, the three pieces are the equally sized kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.

The three pieces of the design puzzle on the north side are not exactly rooms, but equally spaced, outdoor patios, set apart by graceful arches. Soltes said that Harrison spoke of perhaps enclosing these spaces someday, making them into additional bedrooms.