Lou Harrison, The 'Maverick' Composer With Asia In His Ears : Deceptive Cadence Routinely labeled an "American maverick," Harrison lovingly brought Eastern traditions and the rugged American West together in his music, blazing new paths and constructing his own instruments.
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Lou Harrison, The 'Maverick' Composer With Asia In His Ears

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Lou Harrison, The 'Maverick' Composer With Asia In His Ears

Lou Harrison, The 'Maverick' Composer With Asia In His Ears

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

YouTube and streaming services help world music reach more of the world than ever, like B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music. But NPR's Tom Huizenga thinks we also need to salute the composer Lou Harrison, who was born a hundred years ago.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Lou Harrison was born in Portland, Ore., and the Asian decor his mother chose for their home was his first window into the East. Later, when the family moved to San Francisco, Harrison the teenager spent his nights at the opera - not Puccini or Verdi, the Chinese opera. Eventually, you could hear Asia bubbling up in his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOU HARRISON'S "THIRD SYMPHONY")

BRETT CAMPBELL: Lou Harrison is considered the godfather of world music.

HUIZENGA: That's Brett Campbell. He's the co-author of a new biography called "Lou Harrison: American Maverick" (ph). The composer died in 2003, but Campbell says his influence is keenly felt today.

CAMPBELL: I think we should care about Lou Harrison and his music because we're living in Lou Harrison's world now. Because for us, globalism and you turn on the radio or your stream on Spotify or Apple Music, and you're going to be hearing influences and music from all over the world.

HUIZENGA: The part of the world that Harrison especially loved was Java, home to the large percussion orchestras called gamelans. Harrison almost single-handedly brought gamelan music to America. He built his own and later mixed Western instruments with the Indonesian originals.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOU HARRISON'S "THRENODY FOR CARLOS CHAVEZ")

HUIZENGA: Although he never earned a college degree, Harrison was thoroughly grounded in the Western classics. He came to regard Bach and Beethoven as just more world music, as he explained to NPR in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LOU HARRISON: We're all human beings. We have the same ears, and we have the same feelings. There's no they there anymore (laughter), we're all we.

HUIZENGA: We may be alike, but Lou Harrison was one in a million to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: He so courageously always was himself.

HUIZENGA: The composer's motto was cherish, conserve, consider, create. He was a published poet, a painter, a calligrapher and openly gay back in the 1930s. In 1995, Tilson Thomas opened his first concert as music director of the San Francisco Symphony with a piece by Lou Harrison.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF LOU HARRISON'S "A PARADE FOR MTT")

HUIZENGA: It's called "A Parade For MTT," and inside it, the conductor says, is a little bit of everything.

THOMAS: It's somewhere between a kind of Irish Sousa march as played by a gamelan ensemble perhaps.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF LOU HARRISON'S "A PARADE FOR MTT")

HUIZENGA: Harrison, however, didn't always write such joyful music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HUIZENGA: As atonality emerged as the progressive force in music in the 1940s, Harrison fell under its spell and studied with Arnold Schoenberg. He moved to New York. The big city bewildered him, but he found success when, in 1946 at Carnegie Hall, he conducted the world premiere of the "Third Symphony" (ph) by Charles Ives, a work that had languished for 40 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOU HARRISON PERFORMANCE OF CHARLES IVES' "SYMPHONY NO. 3")

HUIZENGA: Although this performance earned a Pulitzer for Ives, New York triggered a nervous breakdown for Lou Harrison. He hightailed it back to California, where he could focus on his fusion of East and West.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HARRISON: My fourth symphony contains some actual Javanese procedures with Western orchestra. The compositional procedures used by Javanese musicians actually work if you write them for a Western orchestra. They sound beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOU HARRISON'S "PRELUDE FOR GRANDPIANO")

CAMPBELL: Lou always said enjoy hybrid music because that's all there is.

HUIZENGA: Biographer Brett Campbell.

CAMPBELL: He knew that all music comes from other musics and combinations. There's no such thing as a pure music.

HUIZENGA: But if there was one pure throughline in Harrison's music, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas says it's melody.

THOMAS: There's one tune that's in the end of his "Suite For Violin And American Gamelan" which has really stuck with me. And when I'm on a hike and there's still one big ridge that I have to get up, I just think of this tune and hum it, and somehow I find the energy to make it up that last hill. (Vocalizing).

(SOUNDBITE OF LOU HARRISON'S "SUITE FOR VIOLIN AND AMERICAN GAMELAN")

HUIZENGA: There are Lou Harrison centennial celebrations across the country this month. The composer may be gone, but the spirit of his wide open ears remains stronger than ever. Tom Huizenga, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOU HARRISON'S "SUITE FOR VIOLIN AND AMERICAN GAMELAN")

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