Shortly after Lou Harrison’s death, fellow composer and friend John Luther Adams wrote this remembrance in his honor.
The great redwood has fallen.
Light streams into the forest.
The sound will reverberate
for generations to come.
The passing of Lou Harrison marks the end of an era in American music that began with Charles Ives and continued on through Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Cage.
From left: John Luther Adams, Bill Colvig, Lou Harrison. Photo by Dennis Keeley.
The expressive range, diversity of media, prolific quantity, and consistent quality of Lou’s music are perhaps unequalled among recent composers. From heroically dissonant orchestral counterpoint to explosive percussive rhythms to ravishing, timeless music for gamelan, his body of work embraces most of the important currents in the music of our time.
Lou always fearlessly pursued his own way. While still a young man, he left the competitive careerism of New York City to make his home on the California coast. There, surrounded by the beauties of nature and the richness of Pacific cultures, he created his own uniquely personal world, grounded in his credo: “Cherish. Conserve. Consider. Create.”
As a teacher Lou introduced many young Western musicians to the music of other cultures, or as he called it, “the whole, wide, wonderful world of music.” His diminutive Music Primer remains a wellspring of creative wisdom about the life and the craft of a composer.
Through his wide-ranging friendships, Lou was a central figure, connecting five generations of musical independents. His spirit lives on in his music and through the gifts he gave to so many younger musicians. I feel blessed to have been among them.
Thirty years ago, as an aspiring young composer, I won second place in a composition contest. I was especially thrilled since one of the judges was Lou Harrison, whose music I very much admired. Emboldened, I made the pilgrimage to San Jose State University, where Lou was teaching at the time. I was delighted to find the man himself to be every bit as scintillating and engaging as his music.
From that day on, Lou was a generous mentor, an attentive friend, and an inspiring model to me, as he has been for many other younger composers. Lou always treated me with respect as a younger colleague. His matter-of-fact embrace of my aspirations removed any shred of doubt in my mind that I would make a life as a composer.