Sunday, May 14, 2017

A World of Music

Lou Harrison and Eva Soltes
Sunday marks the 100th birthday of the subject of this blog and our new book, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick. Naturally, the occasion is being celebrated by events around the world, some chronicled here.

The biggest birthday party, a 24-hour celebration at the straw bale house in Joshua Tree California that Harrison designed, is being staged by the indefatigable keeper of Harrison’s legacy, Eva Soltes. Meanwhile, this Saturday, May 13, a couple hundred miles north and west, New Music Works in Santa Cruz, California will screen Soltes’ 2012 film, almost 30 years in the making, Lou Harrison: A World of Music along with an earlier documentary, Cherish, Consider, Conserve, Create, by Los Angeles filmmaker Eric Marin. The creation of Soltes’s film is a story almost as epic as the career of its subject.

One day in the late 1970s, Lou Harrison phoned Eva Soltes, then a student in her late 20s. “Hello, dear,” the deep jolly voice boomed. “Glub glub glub, I’m drowning in papers. Can you save me?” Harrison’s growing fame as a pioneering figure in American music, coupled with a car accident that reminded him of his mortality, spurred him to start getting his papers (music, files, correspondence) in order, and Soltes, who was producing 100 concerts a year at Berkeley’s chamber music organization, 1750 Arch Street, seemed to him to offer a solution.

They’d met earlier when Soltes was studying classical Indian dance with the famed teacher and dancer Balasaraswati at Berkeley’s Center for World Music. One day after leaving the class, she walked across the street and saw two bearded men making musical instruments, and occasionally playing them. The center had given the great composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and his partner Bill Colvig the workshop space as part of Harrison’s teaching assignment there. Soltes often stood in the doorway, just to watch and listen.

They grew closer when she produced a concert celebrating the centennial of the pioneering American composer Charles Ives. Harrison edited much of Ives’s work and conducted the 1943 premiere of Ives’s Third Symphony that won Ives the Pulitzer Prize in music.

Soltes recognized the respect the brilliant, charismatic polymath Harrison commanded. “When you were in Lou’s presence, you’d stand straighter or sit taller or listen a little better,” she remembers. Despite hating paperwork and already having a full time job, she agreed to help. Eventually she found Harrison an assistant, but Soltes stayed in his orbit for the rest of his life, producing concerts around the country for him, bringing some order to the chaos of his burgeoning career and contributing significantly to Harrison’s emerging recognition as the grand old maverick of American music.

In 1984, Harrison invited Soltes to an event honoring his old mentor, composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who was visiting San Francisco. She brought a video camera that she’d been given by a foundation to document the life of her dance teacher -- who had died a week before they were to begin. And Harrison was a year older than Balasarawati. If her life deserved preserving on film, Soltes reasoned, then surely so did those of America’s homegrown creative geniuses like Harrison

That day, she shot footage of Harrison and Colvig walking arm in arm in a church — her first video of the legendary Aptos-based composer. But far from the last.

Soltes brought her camera to hundreds of events Harrison participated in, from concerts to lectures to residencies to hikes in the woods to the building of the beautiful straw bale house he designed for himself in Joshua Tree, completed not long before his death, and which now hosts an artist residency program that Soltes administers and which the film premiere event benefits.

But she didn’t initially regard her frequent documentation as part of a film biography. Then Harrison spent a year in New Zealand on a Fulbright grant. “I realized how much I missed him and his music,” she recalls, and she realized that his amazing generation of maverick West Coast artists would be disappearing soon.

“I understood the impact his music had on people, like it had on me. He was a really great composer who touched people in a deep way. Little by little I came to the idea that we were the first generation that had the ability to preserve the music and words of our treasured artists.We’re in the same clan, and he's my elder. If I didn't do it, no one else was going to do it.”

With no background in filmmaking, Soltes assumed that she would eventually hire professionals to make the real documentary, but a film editor who saw her work urged her to make it herself. “Your work has the life in it,” he told her. “Filmmaking is like dance,” she says. “It’s music and movement and content.”

She wound up teaching herself much of what she needed to learn, at first by producing radio documentaries for the BBC (about West Coast composers) and National Public Radio. She made a short film about another composer she worked with, Conlon Nancarrow, that he could take with him on tour, and a longer one about Indian dance. She also enlisted experienced film editor Robbie Robb, who co-edited the film with her.

Harrison allowed Soltes to use his voluminous address book to contact his friends for support. She also obtained grants from the Hewlett Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with investing her own time and money into the long-gestating project.

The bigger obstacle turned out to be the sheer wealth of material she gathered. Harrison lived a long, rich, full, active life — and Soltes was there to film much of it. “It was like trying to eat a whale all by myself,” she says.

How to cut it down to manageable length? She solved that problem by deciding to make not one but 10 films from the material, including one about his relationship with Colvig, another about the long, troubled creation of his opera *Young Caesar*, and more. This one focuses on the development of his music.

Sometimes working up to 20 hours per day, Soltes completed the last marathon round of major editing after moving her editing equipment to Harrison’s straw bale house in 2010, which provided the isolation, focus and inspiration (portraits of Harrison and Colvig gazed down at her from the walls) she needed.
LOU HARRISON: A World of Music (a film by Eva Soltes) ~ Film Trailer from Eva Soltes on Vimeo.

Soltes’s favorite moments include moving shots documenting his 33-year partnership with Colvig, who died in 2000. “I was happy that I was close enough to them to be a fly on the wall,” she says. Harrison always refused to allow her to film him actually composing “those things are private,” he told her — but finally relented, yielding a precious sequence.

Harrison earned a lot of fans during his decades in the Bay Area, but even those who don’t know his fascinating life or his alluring music will find much to enjoy, Soltes says. “He was not only a great composer but also a personality who’s fun to watch. He was always a performer, onstage from the time he was two years old,” she says.

“He was a visionary, a hugely important musical figure, and his life is very inspiring — how he persevered in finding his own path. Like MTT [SF Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas] said, he not only always marched to his own drum —he even made his own drum.”

©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. If you enjoyed reading about Harrison’s music, there’s a lot more where that came from. Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere. 

Portions of this post originally appeared at San Francisco Classical Voice.
Learn more about Soltes’s film at Harrison documentary project.

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