Lou Harrison


Composer Lou Harrison, who pioneered world music, died Sunday. He was 85.

Harrison, who was among a line of iconoclastic 20th century American composers that included innovators such as Charles Ives and John Cage, suffered a heart attack in Lafayette, Ind. while traveling from his home in Aptos, Calif., to a weeklong celebration of his music sponsored by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Ohio State University.

Harrison was among the first to create all-percussion pieces and to integrate the musical traditions and instruments of Asia and the West.

His work includes four symphonies, two operas, ballets, concertos, choral pieces, solo and chamber works. But he’s best known for the works that cannot be readily categorized, particularly those intended for an international gamut of percussion instruments.

His works incorporate medieval dances, Baroque sonata form, Navaho ritual, early California mission music, the Indonesian gamelan orchestra and Korean court music.

The Portland-born Harrison moved with his family to Northern California when he was 9. A year later, he wrote his first piano piece. As a boy, he also played French horn, clarinet, harpsichord and recorder.

He studied music briefly at San Francisco State University before taking private lessons with Henry Cowell. Cowell introduced him to Cage, who would become a lifelong friend and artistic collaborator.

Harrison moved to New York in 1943, then taught for two years at Black Mountain College in North Carolina before settling in Aptos in 1953.

In 1967, he met William Colvig, an amateur musician and electrician, who became his life partner. Together they built an “American” gamelan, a homespun version of a metallic Javanese percussion orchestra, but with tin cans, steel tubing and baseball bats.

Harrison taught at San Jose State University and Mills College in Oakland. He also was an outspoken advocate for gay rights.

He is survived by a sister-in-law and two nephews.

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