|Lou Harrison in the 1940s|
In 1943 at the age of 26, Lou Harrison headed to New York City to make his career. After study with Henry Cowell in San Francisco and Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles, after years of composing dance and theater scores to order, after a ground-breaking series of percussion concerts with John Cage, Harrison was ready to take on the city that was, at the time, the undisputed capital of American Arts. However, the city, unimpressed with his ambition and enthusiasm, rewarded him mostly with poverty, noise, stress, and lost opportunities. Harrison spent days and weeks in his apartment, meticuloously working out his expressionistic, often atonal scores, but they were rarely performed.
Still, some of the warmest times in this unforgiving city were those he spent with his circle of friends, who included the composers Cage, Cowell, Virgil Thomson, Ben Weber, Frank Wigglesworth, and Merton Brown. Sometimes they would gather in Harrison's Greenwich Village apartment with six packs of Schaefer beer, shooting the breeze or playing games. One game they played was a variation on the French Surrealists' "exquisite corpse," in which a drawing is created in round-robin fashion, but each contributor can see only the edge of the previous drawing. When applied to music, each composer would contribute a measure but could see only the last notes of the previous measure. Once finished, they would gather around the piano to hear the frequently astonishing result. Harrison saved these scores, which were later published as "Party Pieces."
It was a heady time and place for the future of the arts in the United States. Some observers detected a superficial schism between two supposed “camps" of composers. Copland and Thomson led the so-called Americanists, who produced tonal works of home-spun, classical simplicity related to the reigionalist painters (such as Thomas Hart Benton) and writers (such as John Steinbeck). Cowell and Cage championed the experimentalists who produced complex, atonal works related to the nascent New York School of abstract expressionist painters. This gap is frequently exaggerated (given, for example, Thomson's mentorship of Harrison and Cage), but even so, the eclectic Harrison freely traversed both circles.
Cahill will present fascinating but rarely heard works by Harrison (including works unheard for over 70 years), Cowell, Harrison's San Francisco friend James Cleghorn, the startlingly original Johanna Beyer, Cowell, and Wigglesworth. Admission is free!
Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere.