“Lou Harrison: A World of Music” engagingly pays homage to a composer who remains perhaps the most warmly accessible figure in the American musical avant-garde, even if many of the qualities that keep his work fresh remained unfashionable within that world until decades into his career. Assembly is not the strong suit of Eva Soltes’ long-aborning feature, and some prior knowledge of 20th-century experimental art is helpful, but the appeal of Harrison’s work and personality comes though clearly. Pic bows March 9 at San Francisco’s Roxie Cinema; artscaster sales should gradually follow.
Harrison was born in 1917 Portland to a cultured, well-to-do family made itinerant by the stock market crash that launched the Great Depression. A self-educated prodigy in several media (notably painting) from an early age, he was mentored by numerous compositional greats including San Franciscan Henry Cowell, who encouraged his inventiveness and investigation of global music; Arnold Schoenberg, from whom he learned the virtues of simplicity, though he resisted that 12-tone guru’s rigid methods and atonality; Virgil Thompson; and Charles Ives (whose Third Symphony Harrison arranged, leading to the elder man’s Pulitzer Prize).
Arriving in New York during WWII, Harrison, known as the “brilliant West Coast kid,” fast became ubiquitous composing for dance troupes, writing newspaper arts reviews and wearing myriad other hats. But various stresses fostered a 1947 nervous breakdown and nine-month institutionalization. During a subsequent stint teaching alongside friends Merce Cunningham and John Cage at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, he realized he was allergic to city life, soon settling for good in Aptos, Calif.
From that relative isolation his musical voice flowered, eventually attracting high-profile commissions and collaborators — most notably working with William Colvig, Harrison’s life partner and a designer/builder of unique instruments based on traditional Asian models. In later years, we see Harrison feted by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, working with choreographer Mark Morris, laboring on his eternal problem opera, “Young Caesar,” and co-founding a permanent arts residency/performance facility in Joshua Tree, Calif.
Harrison died in 2003, Colvig in 2000. They’re just two among several late greats who seem very much alive in “World of Music,” which features footage that arts documaker Soltes filmed up to 30 years earlier, none of it indentified with dates onscreen. This can be disconcerting, particularly when one seemingly present-day interviewee brandishes a mobile phone that looks a quarter-century old. (Older, archival photos and performance excerpts not shot by Soltes generally are time-stamped here.) The wide variance in video format and quality gives the pic a somewhat patchwork quality; Soltes, who co-edited, includes an avant-garde touch by frequently superimposing multiple images.
While the swathes of music heard may not fully convey to newcomers Harrison’s historical significance — particularly the fact that his innate melodicism and Far Eastern influences were much at odds with music orthodoxy at least until the late 1960s — the delight he imparted as composer and person is amply felt. The stellar fellow artists and observers interviewed here invariably seem tickled pink simply to be talking about him.