My Memories of Lou Harrison Part I

by Jain Fletcher

The Ojai Music Festival is fortunate to have amazing patrons who share their own personal experiences with music, from their past and present. Long-time patron, Jain Fletcher, kindly gave us a personal account of her friendship with composer Lou Harrison. 

Facing pages from my copy of Lou Harrison’s Music Primer.
Facing pages from my copy of Lou Harrison’s Music Primer.

I entered San José State University (SJSU) in 1967 as a music major (flute). I was very fortunate to enter an environment consisting of a relatively young faculty of musicians who were energetic and capable of instituting and carrying out some really exciting musical initiatives. Although I took it all for granted at the time, in looking back, I have realized that the epitome of my music training and experiences took place in college.  For everything that was good about the Music Department during my years at SJSU (1967 to 1979, from B.A. to M.A.), the greatest part was the benefit of having a sublime eminence on the faculty: Lou Harrison was on the staff as Composer-in-Residence.  

When I first got to college, I never could have foreseen that I was going to have any personal interaction with Lou.  What I did know, from the enthusiastic buzz about him, was that I wanted to experience as much as I could of what he had to offer. So, in those early days, I kept my ears and eyes open for news of concerts with his music, and then attended every one. I also took his survey course, “Music and World Cultures,” in my freshman year. Given that this course was open to all students there was no way it could have been as awesome as it would have been if it had been addressed to music majors or graduates. But think about it: a class on world music(!) from Lou Harrison!!  Needless to say, it was a complete eye-opener. Sure, he knew his subject, but better yet, he was an excellent teacher. I had never heard anyone discourse so articulately and beautifully in- or outside a classroom. Because he was so passionate about this topic, it was also a difficult course to do well in. In the end, what he introduced in that class opened up a whole new world of music for me at a very impressionable time of my life.

From my observations over time, the San José State Music Department flourished because of Lou Harrison’s presence there. The faculty and administrators were happy to feature his music whenever possible, so they gave him every chance to put on performances. Although there was an excellent concert hall in the Music Department, there were also other venues for staging these performances. One of these was the school’s oldest building, Morris Dailey Auditorium, where Lou presented concerts that attracted audiences extending far beyond those consisting only of music majors. Perhaps those brightly-colored unusual instruments and his non-traditional music were the attractions that initially brought audiences to these concerts, but it was the inventiveness and exuberance of his music that proved to be right up the alley of a hip (read: “hippie”) and forward-thinking student body.

Another avenue for hearing Lou’s music was through Tony Cirone’s SJSU percussion ensemble concerts.  Tony, who was also a percussionist with the San Francisco Symphony, regularly programmed Lou Harrison’s music on these concerts. The concerts with Lou’s music almost always featured Lou’s instrument creations, too, so Tony often needed to consult with him on his intentions about how he wanted these instruments to sound. Over that time, Tony and Lou became great partners, it seemed to me. I went to every single one of those concerts. In fact, nothing could have kept me away from them! In some ways, I cannot say which enthralled me more, Lou’s music or the new-found joy in discovering that whole concerts could be played on percussion instruments.

By my junior year, my performing ability had progressed to the point that I had become the “go-to” flutist (also oboe, English horn, and the other-sized flutes) for playing on student and faculty recitals and concerts. I even had a few chances to play flute with the percussion ensemble. I don’t remember if I was lucky enough to play in one of their chosen pieces of Lou Harrison’s music, but I do believe that being on those concerts brought me somewhat closer into Lou’s sphere.

Around 1968, Lou decided he wanted to publish what he called a “primer” laying out some aspects of his knowledge, experience and thoughts related to his music. He wrote it out and wanted it rendered into calligraphy—but he was just too busy at the time to do it himself. He put out a call for calligraphers, interviewed and reviewed their work, then chose a man named Ron Pendergraft to “calligraph” his book.  For some reason, Ron performed most of his artistry at a table in the Student Union in the summer and fall of 1969 and was happy to entertain “onlookers” to talk with him as he worked. As a music copyist (one of the many ways I paid my way through college), I found this entire production absolutely fascinating. I sat with Ron often, asking him lots of questions along the way. The resulting book he penned for Lou was called, Lou Harrison’s Music Primer, and was published by C.F. Peters (Edition Peters no. 66431) in 1971. I can provide this information easily, you see, because I bought a copy the moment it came out. And I have it still; it is a part of my well-tended “Lou Harrison folder”. (Fortunately, yet another positive aspect of having Lou on the faculty was that his books were often available in our student book store, so I have a few other “treasures” as well in my folder.)

By my senior year, between the concerts and calligraphy, and perhaps because Richard Dee (Lou’s long-time protégé) and I had independently become friends, I started becoming more known to Lou. He was kind enough to ask me questions about what I was doing with my music. When I was nearing graduation from SJSU, I told Lou I thought I ought to go to New York to see what I could make of myself. He thought that sounded like a good idea. In fact, he even went further, telling me that he was friends with “Julie” Baker and offered to write me a reference.  At first–until Lou made it clear to me–I hardly recognized this name to be that of Julius Baker, who had recently retired from the New York Philharmonic, where he had been principal flutist. Lou followed through and did write a really nice reference for me. I was thrilled enough that Lou had done this for me and would have been ecstatic even if it had ended there. To my surprise, however, it bore fruit! While I am sure it was more to accommodate Lou as a friend than any interest in my playing, “Julie” agreed that he would be willing to audition me as a student–if I got to New York.

Read Part II of Jain’s blog! >>