Lou Harrison, 85; West Coast Classical Composer, Influential Musical Maverick

Times Staff Writer

Lou Harrison, the dean of West Coast classical composers and one of America’s most colorful and important musical mavericks, died Sunday night in Lafayette, Ind. He was 85.

The composer was traveling from his home in Aptos, Calif., to a festival of his music at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, when he suffered an apparent heart attack.

Harrison represented the last in the line of 20th century American individualist composers that included such innovators as Charles Ives, Henry Cowell and John Cage. He pioneered world music, and he was among the first composers to create all-percussion pieces and to integrate the musical traditions and instruments of Asia and the West.


Dubbed the “Santa Claus of new music” for his trademark girth, full white beard, billowy red shirts and ho-ho-ho laugh, Harrison also was an accomplished poet, illustrator, calligrapher and type designer. His champions ranged from conductors Leopold Stokowski and Michael Tilson Thomas to cellist Yo-Yo Ma and jazz pianist Keith Jarrett.

Harrison’s catalog includes four symphonies, two operas and a long list of ballets, concertos, choral pieces, solo and chamber works, as well as incidental stage music. But he is best known for the works that cannot be readily categorized, particularly those intended for an international gamut of percussion instruments.

“From the start,” he once said about his passionate musical eclecticism, “I spread my toys out on a large acreage.”

In fact, there was little that Harrison didn’t try. His works incorporate medieval dances, Baroque sonata form, Navaho ritual, early California mission music, the Indonesian gamelan orchestra and Korean court music.

But beguiling melody always stands out in Harrison’s music. The composer Ned Rorem said Monday that he became intoxicated by Harrison’s “infectiously beautiful” music from the first moment that he heard it more than 50 years ago, crediting Harrison with the rare ability to “write a tune worth hearing.”

Tilson Thomas said Harrison’s tunes constantly run through his head. “And what is so amazing about them,” the San Francisco Symphony music director said by phone from his home in the Bay Area, “is how they seem to be for very specific purposes -- a walking tune, a drifting-off-in-the-hammock tune. It’s music about, and as accompaniment to, life.”

“What isn’t fabulous about his music?” asked the New York-based choreographer Mark Morris, who started making dances to Harrison scores in 1985. Morris insisted that “it always comes down to swing and Lou’s music swings. It is irresistible.”

Outside composing, Harrison taught at San Jose State University and Mills College in Oakland. He promoted the international language of Esperanto, and he was an outspoken advocate for peace, outsider artists and the gay community.

“He was a man of people,” said Eva Soltes, a documentarian and longtime Harrison associate who is finishing a film about the composer. “As much as he loved to write for great virtuosos such as Yo-Yo Ma, he loved even more to write for mid-level artists, because he had such a strong belief in music and art as a way of life.”

Lou Silver Harrison was born in Portland, Ore., on May 14, 1917. When he was 9, his family moved to Northern California, and a year later he wrote his first piano piece. He was a boy soprano and took up French horn, clarinet, harpsichord and recorder. At San Francisco State University, with the encouragement of another musical eclectic, his mentor Henry Cowell, Harrison began experimenting with percussion music and befriended John Cage.

Between 1939 and 1941, the two composers put on percussion concerts together at Mills College and in San Francisco. Several of Harrison’s rhythmically lively and sonically sensuous scores from that period, including “Song of Quetzalcoatl,” “Labyrinth #3” and “Double Music” (written with Cage) are standard repertory for percussion ensembles.

In 1942, he moved to Los Angeles to teach music to dancers at UCLA and to study with Modernist Arnold Schoenberg. Then it was on to New York. He joined composer and critic Virgil Thomson’s circle and wrote music reviews as a stringer for the New York Herald Tribune. During this period, Harrison helped Ives edit his manuscripts for publication. In 1946, Harrison conducted the premiere of Ives’ Third Symphony, and when it won the Pulitzer Prize, Ives insisted on sharing the prize with Harrison in thanks for the work the young composer had done in preparing a performing edition.

But the noise and stress of city life overwhelmed Harrison. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1947 and was in and out of a mental hospital for the next nine months. The experience, he later said, led him to simplify his musical language, which had become increasingly dissonant. Some of his most delightful music followed his release, especially the 1951 Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra, which Stokowski recorded.

To escape the city, Harrison taught at the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina from 1951 to 1953. There he wrote his first opera, “Rapunzel.”

In 1953, Harrison returned to California, settling in a rural, ramshackle house atop a hill in Aptos, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Craving isolation from the musical establishment, he worked days at an animal hospital clipping poodles and nights at a ranger station, where he stayed awake on stimulants and composed in seclusion.

A trip to Tokyo in 1961 was the start of Harrison’s engagement with Asia. After trips to Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia, he began to happily mix instruments and techniques from different cultures, claiming that the hybridization was the way of nature.

In 1967, he met William Colvig, an amateur musician and electrician, who became his life partner. Together they built an “American” gamelan, a homespun version of a metallic Javanese percussion orchestra but with tin cans, steel tubing and baseball bats. This led to such works as his Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, with its movements based on Renaissance dance forms, Indian raga rhythms and the Baroque chaconne.

Symphonies, string quartets and other traditionally scored pieces continued to flow from his pen during this period, as well as a controversial puppet opera, “Young Caesar,” based upon a homosexual episode in the Roman emperor’s adolescence. In 1963, the Cabrillo Music Festival was founded in Aptos and became an annual showcase for Harrison’s work.

Still, Harrison became most widely known with the arrival in 1995 of Tilson Thomas as the San Francisco Symphony’s music director, often programming Harrison’s compositions.

With that exposure, Harrison developed a broad following in the Bay Area, and he and Colvig -- who died in 2000 -- became celebrities in the gay community.

The music service organization Musical America named him composer of the year for 2002 for his impressive body of work.

He leaves no immediate survivors.