"giddy indifference to musical polemics"

A magnificent man is gone. Lou Harrison died sunday evening at the age of 85, but no, of course he's not really gone. His music and his work as a gentle artistic, social, political, earth and gay activist, will reverberate forever. Maybe his splash will be modest, and this might be appropriate for the peaceful man himself, but in death he may become bigger than life. Saints have a stubborn tendancy to do that.

His own music ranged with a giddy indifference to musical polemics, from Serialism to folkish tonality in the manner of Aaron Copland to Ivesian collage to percussion, along with the many pieces for non-Western instruments. He prized just intonation, meaning pure intervals uncompromised by the Western tempered scale. He sought universal peace and brotherhood, writing or titling several of his works in Esperanto. Above all, he reveled in melodic sensuality and timbral extravagance, born from the pitch-purity of his tunings and the enormous variety of instruments and combinations that he employed.
Barry and I were honored to meet him and his lover of over thirty years, Bill Colvig, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a few years ago at a concert which included Harrison's work. They looked and dressed like a pair of old lumberjacks, in flannel shirts and denim, they were very kind and very modest, and they had time and attention for everyone.
Personally, Mr. Harrison was warm and embracing, beloved by his many friends. Of a generation of homosexuals who often sought to mask their preferences, Mr. Harrison was an outspoken gay, marching annually and happily in the San Francisco gay pride parade.

One of his last projects was the expansion, commissioned by the Lincoln Center Festival, of his 1971 puppet opera with chamber ensemble of Asian instruments called "Young Caeser" (his spelling) into a full-scale opera. He called "Young Caeser" "the only opera with an overtly presented gay subject from history," in the composer Ned Rorem's words in the Grove Dictionary of Opera.

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Published on February 4, 2003 2:27 PM.

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