Discipline: Music Composition

Lou Harrison

Discipline: Music Composition
Region: San Francisco, CA

Edward MacDowell Medalist: 2000

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was an American composer noted for incorporating elements of the music of non-Western cultures into his work. The diverse music that he was to be exposed to while moving around the San Francisco Bay Area with his family as a child – including Cantonese opera, Native American music, Mexican music, and jazz as well as classical music – had a major influence on him.

Harrison took Henry Cowell's "Music of the Peoples of the World" course, and also studied counterpoint and composition with him. He later went to the University of California at Los Angeles to work at the dance department as a dancer and accompanist. While there, he took lessons from Arnold Schoenberg, which led to an interest in Schoenberg's 12-tone technique.

In 1943, Harrison moved to New York where he worked as a music critic for the Herald Tribune. While there he met Charles Ives, became his friend, and did a good deal in bringing Ives to the attention of the musical world, which had largely ignored him up to that point. Harrison supported and promoted the music of a number of unconventional composers in addition to Ives. These included Edgard Varèse, Carl Ruggles, and Alan Hovhaness.

Harrison was outspoken about his political views, such as his pacifism (he was an active supporter of the international language Esperanto), and the fact that he was gay. He was also politically active and informed, including a deep knowledge of gay history. He wrote many pieces with political texts or titles, writing, for instance, Homage to Pacifica for the opening of the Berkeley Headquarters of the Pacifica Foundation, and accepting commissions from the Portland Gay Men's Chorus (1988 and 1985) and the Seattle Men's Chorus to arrange (1987) his Strict Songs.