Lou Harrison - an American Maverick


LOU HARRISON (1917 - 2003) – Before commencing this survey I held Lou Harrison in disdain. Why? Because I once read a flip response from him in an article regarding the infamous trial of Henry Cowell in which he, as I recall, was one of the witnesses for the prosecution. Combine this with recordings in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s coupling his percussion pieces with those of John Cage, resulted in my total dismissal of him as being unworthy of my attention. I was even personally introduced to him, by my friend the artist John Paul Thomas, during intermission at the San Francisco Opera in the late ‘60s. I recall I was rather brusque and cold. Oh, how I now regret my behavior!

Harrison utilized his experience with pentatonic music to inventive effect in his more Western orientated works. In the physics of sound there is the phenomenon of the Circle of Fifths with which all musical systems have had to come to terms, including that of the West. Sound is a series of vibrations that flow through the air in set patterns. If we reduce a regular sound to its pure pitch the repetition of that pitch is measured at X number of times, or cycles, per second. For sake of example, let’s take the tone A-440, that is 440 cycles per second, the tone used to tune orchestras and all Western instruments. A-440 is the first A above middle-C on the piano, an interval of a major 6th. If we half or double the number of vibrations per second – i.e., 220 or 880 – the tone is still called “A” but is displaced by an octave down or up (A-220 a minor 3rd below middle-C, A-880 an octave + major 6th above middle-C). For sake of illustration, I’d like to start with A-110 which is an octave + minor 3rd below middle-C. If we double the vibrations of A-110 we get the tone A-220 just below middle-C, and double again we get A-440 above middle-C. In the natural world A-110 has a series of other vibrations within its structure, and these tones are called its Overtone Series, that is: quieter tones that fall at predictable points, giving the base tone its unique coloration. In this series, the two loudest overtones are the first and second, being sum of 110 + 110 = 220 (A-220 an octave higher) and 110 + 110 + 110 = 330 (E-330 an octave and a 5th higher, falling roughly halfway between A-220 and A-440). Now, add half the value to E-330 (165) and you get B-495, one step above A-440. On you go and you are building what’s called the Circle of Fifths. The interval of a fifth is a particularly strong, beautiful sound. You add more fifths and the sound gets more and more beautiful. Theoretically, you can build twelve such intervals and you return to an octave displacement of the tone where you began: A-110.

Except you don’t. Mathematically, it’s seriously off, causing unpleasant clashes of tones. Each musical culture has dealt with this problem in physics in its own unique way. The Chinese, for instance, having experimented with several ways of resolving the problem, threw up their hands in defeat and limited their division of the octave into the first five fifths in the Circle of Fifths. [With A as the base tone, the other tones are E, B, F# and C# with the last two tones sounding increasingly higher (sharper) than their well-tempered versions.] All the tones sound beautiful with each other, and clash is at a minimum. The pentatonic (penta- = five) scale was invented. European culture divided the octave into eight unequal parts (octave = 8) and then into twelve more or less equal parts, creating the “Well Tempered” system of tuning. It’s served us well for several centuries, but it has its limitations.

So, what does this have to do with Lou Harrison? I repeat: Harrison utilized his experience with pentatonic music to inventive effect in his more Western-orientated works. In pentatonic music you can have many melodies in counterpart with each other, and there are no serious clashes, sounds unpleasant to the ear. Harrison discovered one could use a similar technique in Western eight-tone scales if one exercised a little care in handling the tones that cause clash, or discord. The side benefit was that one no longer had to be concerned with the temporal conjunction (i.e., harmony, or chords) of the various melodic lines since the result would always be pleasing to the ear. He used this system in composing his third and fourth symphonies.

Symphony No. 3 (1982), composed for the Cabrillo Music Festival Orchestra which gave the premiere, is an excellent example of this system applied. The work is divided into six movements; actually four since movements 2 (Reel), 3 (Waltz) and 4 (Estampie) fit together like the fast-slow-fast structure of a Scherzo movement. The first movement, Allegro Moderato, begins with the unison statement of the opening theme for full orchestra. Within a few measures, melodic lines begin to overlap, building to a climax barely thirty seconds into the work. In less than a minute the tutti introduction has subsided and solo instruments take over with the second theme group. The string choir picks up the theme for a brief moment, but the music settles back into solo instrument. Follows next is a violin solo of exquisite beauty [Yes! Twentieth century composers, and an American one at that, were capable of writing exquisitely beautiful violin solos.] joined eventually by other solo strings, giving a distinct chamber-music feeling to the music. The passage blessedly lasts several minutes, subsiding at the end into the lower reaches and silence. The unison statement of the opening theme reappears, and a full recapitulation of both theme groups unfolds. At the end, where it originally soared into the violin solo, it now fades away into the upper reaches. What a superb and simple structure this movement is!

The following three dance movements are exactly what their titles tell us:

Reel: strong percussion rhythm, solo fiddle expanding to the section; typical dance structure; less than two minutes long

Waltz: a slow, melancholic melody over a three-quarter-time beat; expressive wind and string solos; also less than two minutes long

Estampie: a more complex rhythm with references to Renaissance dance; equal in length to the first two dances combined

The slow third movement is really the heart of this symphony. Slow brass calls set a sense of suspended time and space. A four-beat chord progression is established as accompaniment to a long, drawn-out melody, mirroring the major/minor ambiguity. That’s basically the entire movement. Even though the four-beat accompaniment is repeated throughout, the orchestration of it varies only slightly and subtly. The real felicity for the listener is how the melody is changed and embellished as it evolves, and how it eventually slows and stops in final cadence.

The Allegro finale begins with horns and trumpets sounding a fanfare-like theme that eventually is passed to the strings, expanding it into a sunny Appalachian folksong. The theme is passed in overlapping statements through five of six layers of the orchestra, brightened by harp, mallet percussion and orchestra bells. Like the first movement, solo instruments dominate the central section of the movement. Each solo has its own distinct statement of the theme, overlapping each other without need of harmonic progression. An amazing passage for metallophones and harp emerges and subsides. The Estampie rhythm accompanies solo violin adding complexity to the overall rhythmic flow. The full orchestra reenters, punctuated by dazzling metallic percussion bursts, building to an infectiously joyous ending, leaving one wishing it would go on forever.


To hear a recording of the Harrison Third Symphony go to

YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27I8YOlRZSM – Cabrillo Music Festival Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies conductor


While the Darmstadters profess their scatology of doom and gloom, this Californian, this American, speaks of the light and spirit of the universe.

The Symphony No. 4, subtitled Last Symphony, (1990, revised 1995) is almost totally in pentatonic scales and carries forward Harrison’s concept of melodic counterpoint free of harmonic progression. Where the material utilizes diatonic scales, the fourth and seventh tones are used with economy and always to felicitous effect. The first movement, especially, is a gem: evocative, hauntingly gorgeous, utterly seductive like the first movement of Roy Harris’s Gettysburg Symphony. I rank it up with the very best of American symphonic accomplishments. Its construction is simplicity, itself. Starting softly, it builds to a great lyrical climax, and then slowly fades back to silence. There are but two musical elements: a long, limpidly expressive melody, seeming to have no ending; and a disembodied gamelan – performed by piano, harp and mallet percussion – floating in the background with a life all its own. Both musical elements have their own tonal center, far enough apart to sound independent yet close enough to be utterly unctuous. The real mastery of the movement is in how the two musical machines start, end and create such heart-wrenching sonorities in the middle. The whole effect is unique in all of music. Of course, the melodic line has a definite contour and builds its internal cohesiveness through classic means: repetition, expansion, variation. Harrison also uses fragments of the line in counterpoint with itself in two, three and four voices, building a richly woven brocade.

The second scherzo-like movement, titled Stampede – poco presto, is in sharp contrast. It is, as its title states: a mad dash, characterized by brisk, dance-like rhythms and melodies made up of mostly sixteenth notes. Here, Harrison utilizes the pentatonic scale’s contrapuntal possibilities to build kaleidoscopic colorations as instrument-combinations scurry by. There is a short central section where the tempo slows and is briefly contemplative, but the mood is not permitted to last long. The movement rushes helter-skelter on to a flourishing ending and pau! it’s over.

The real heart of this symphony is its third movement: a slow (largo), meditative unfolding of rich feeling, both soaring and dark. The material is mainly diatonic with chromatic touches, in unsettling contrast to the general pentatonic dominance. This movement is also the development-section of the overall symphony, in that it moves restlessly through tonal centers, modulating on until it comes to rest at the end on a long pedal-tone. There are wonderfully effective color contrasts between arching string choir passages and plucked/struck strings and metallophones. It is as if Harrison were taking the two separate worlds of the first movement and marveling at them as being unified in his own life. These passages recur several times throughout the movement and are revelatory of Harrison’s aesthetic, I feel.

The last movement is with speaker: a story-teller, a Kabuki-like narrator, or an Indian elder. The subject is three Coyote stories, “Coyote” being an archetypal personage taken from numerous Western American Indian myths and folklore. Yet these stories also coincidentally occur in Asian cultures, too. The musical material finds its roots in Kabuki, and other types of Japanese folk-theatre, and Balinesian shadow-puppet entertainments. It’s a very convenient, felicitous combination. The narrator’s vocal production ranges from sung, to rhythmic speaking, to normal speaking. The unifying element of the stories is the question: Who or what is God? Story I: Coyote creating in his oven black, white and golden people; Story II: Coyote wrestling Tahoma [actions affecting the environment]; and Story III: Coyote eating the forbidden sumac berries [how Coyote’s behind came to fall off]. For live performances I can imagine, given a gifted actor/narrator, this movement being a real audience pleaser – unorthodox, entertaining, funny – and an acceptable way to end the symphony. However, for a recording, it is problematical. The musical material is thin and, once one ‘gets’ the stories, the performance-dynamic is lost. Furthermore, the ending of the symphony becomes down, anticlimactic. I found myself programming my CD player as follows:

            1. Mvt. I: Largo – double tempo

            2. Mvt. III: Largo

            3. Mvt. IV: Three Coyote stories

            4. Mvt. II: Stampede

With this arrangement the symphony takes on the classic structure of fast – slow – dance/scherzo [joke] – fast. Actually, the end of the first movement goes rather magically into the beginning of the third movement and brings the dichotomy of the two worlds into strong focus. The Coyote stories pick up the question raised in the third movement and suggest a resolution for which the Stampede then becomes its embodiment. It works for me. And, yet … after repeated listenings, I have just abandoned the Coyote movement altogether and find great satisfaction in the three movements 1st – 3rd – 2nd. This is not to say I disagree with Harrison’s arrangement of the movements for live performances, purely on the strength of the potential x-factor between the narrator/actor and the audience. It’s a daring ploy to include such a movement in a symphony, but one not without precedent. Mahler’s No. 4 presents a similar aesthetic conundrum. The ‘unnatural’ element, here, is the very act of listening to a recording, an action disembodied, cut off from contact with the living performers. Once that step-removed has been taken, one has to find a new equilibrium, I guess. I found it in rearranging the movements and in finally rejecting the unsatisfying movement altogether. I do not lower my opinion of the symphony because of the Coyote movement. It clearly has its place in what Harrison wished to communicate in the work; and I believe I understand and appreciate the composer’s gesture. For me, this symphony holds a significant place among American symphonies, deserves be performed widely by American orchestras and beloved of serious listeners, regardless of what country they are from.


The Symphony No. 4 “Last Symphony” recording, performed by the California Symphony, Barry Jekowsky conductor, is not currently available on YouTube.


One of the more unfortunate aspects of growing old is having to live with one’s regrets. Regrets at such a stage in life are always without resolution. One cannot send out one’s repentance and apology to the other person because that person is dead. There is no way to clear the air of one’s past offense. One should have seen the error of one’s ways earlier, not to have committed the offense in the first place, but certainly in time to set right the wrongdoing and make suitable amends. I should have realized when I met Harrison we had sufficient interests in common to strike up a friendship or, at least, an atmosphere of amicability. It should have been enough that he and I shared an interest in Balinese music, especially in the late 1960s when such things were anathema to building serious careers in music composition. Certainly, by the time he had completed his fourth symphony, and shown his aesthetic integrity beyond reproach, a contrite letter of congratulation would not have been inappropriate. But I hadn’t heard the symphony nor appreciated the extent to which Harrison had grown artistically. Upon such stuff are regrets founded.