The Gamelan Vibrations of Lou Harrison

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Lou Harrison: A World of Music is an intimate portrait of an eclectic composer who traded a fast-paced New York career for a remote cabin in the woods. Harrison, a polymath, iconoclast, writer and activist, embraced artistic playfulness over the business of composing. Experimenting freely with western, eastern and custom made instruments, Harrison forged a new course for 20th century music. 

Lou Harrison

Lou Harrison composerThe World of a Rumbling Visionary

Lou Harrison: A World of Music is a feature length documentary about the great American composer Lou Harrison (1917 – 2003). Bucking the dissonant sound of the times, he embraced “delight over duty,” freely combining Western, Eastern and custom-made instruments built by his partner, William Colvig.

Harrison’s artistic curiosity and courage produced one of the great trans-cultural visions and musical legacies of the 20th century. Directed and produced by filmmaker and music producer, Eva Soltes, it draws from two decades of performances, rehearsals, and interviews made with Lou Harrison and his cadre of contemporaries. Lou Harrison’s hauntingly beautiful music is interwoven throughout the documentary, illustrating his life with the stylistic changes in his work. Over sixty years of archival imagery helps to paint a comprehensive, yet lyrical portrait of the man, his times and his legacy.


The documentary trailer, “Lou Harrison: A World of Music” A film by Eva Soltes.

Alex Ross in “The New Yorker”: There was much merriment in Harrison’s work, much hummable song and rollicking dance; but there were also dark, questing rivers of chant, machinelike ostinatos, erupting dissonances, enveloping silences. He had a rumbling, visionary side—this must have been the basis of his connection with the crusty [Charles] Ives. It must also have caught the attention of Arnold Schoenberg, who taught Harrison in Los Angeles, and bestowed on him rare praise. “Use only the essentials,” Schoenberg always said.


Lou Harrison, Main Bersama-Sama (Playing Together) 1978, Gamelan Sekar Kembar, with French horn soloist, Scott L. Hartman. The visual art includes some Balinese works, with Ubud painters.

In addition, The Lou Harrison Documentary Project is now affiliated with “Harrison House Music & Arts,” located in the innovative straw bale house that Harrison completed on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert of Southern California one year before his death. Of his chosen construction method Lou Harrison noted, “America grows enough straw in one year to satisfy all of its building needs.” The design is inspired by the great Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy.

Harrison’s Music

Harrison’s early works advanced the percussion ensemble as a viable performance medium, instruments often fashioned from junk or found objects such as garbage cans and steel brake drums. He also wrote a number of pieces using Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve tone technique, including the opera Rapunzel and his Symphony on G (Symphony No. 1) (1952). Several works feature the tack piano, a kind of prepared piano with small nails inserted into the hammers to give the instrument a more percussive sound.


Lou Harrison, Concerto in Slendro.

Harrison’s mature musical style is based on “melodicles,” short motifs turned backwards and upside-down to create a musical mode the piece is based on. One of the first American composers to successfully integrate Asian and Western musical forms, all at once modern and innovative, while richly harmonized and orchestrated, much in the tradition of the late Romantic composers.

Another component of Harrison’s aesthetic is what Harry Partch would call corporeality, an emphasis on the physical and the sensual including live, human, performance and improvisation, timbre, rhythm, and the sense of space in his melodic lines, whether solo or in counterpoint, and most notably in his frequent dance collaborations. The majority of his works are written in just intonation rather than the more widespread equal temperament. Harrison is one of the most prominent composers to have worked with microtones.


Lou Harrison: Song of Quetzalcoatl (1941)

Among Harrison’s better known works are the Concerto in Slendro, Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra, Organ Concerto with Percussion (1973), which was given at the Proms in London in 1997; the Double Concerto (1981–82) for violin, cello, and Javanese gamelan; the Piano Concerto (1983–85) for piano tuned in Kirnberger #2 (a form of well temperament) and orchestra, which was written for Keith Jarrett; and a Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan; as well as four numbered orchestral symphonies.

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