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Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical…

Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer (Music in American Life)

by Leta E. Miller

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0195110226, Hardcover)

"West Coast" composer Lou Harrison (born 1917) is another in a long line of individualist Americans including (primarily) Charles Ives, but also pioneers such as Henry Cowell and Harry Partch. Born in Oregon, Harrison came East after studying with Cowell and was briefly one of Virgil Thomson's stringers on the New York Herald-Tribune, while also editing some of Ives's music. He returned to the West Coast in the early 1950s, where he settled into a life of teaching and composing.

Harrison's love affair with the various musics of Asia began at this time and coincided with his affinity for dance rhythms in his music. With his longtime companion Bill Colvig, Harrison invented many sounding instruments (influenced by those in the Indonesian gamelan), which he employed in his symphonies and other compositions. Harrison's development of a tuning method (which he calls "just tone" in contradistinction to "mean tone" or "equal temperament") has become central to his compositional practice and receives in-depth discussion.

Miller and Lieberman (a musicologist/performer and an ethnomusicologist/composer, respectively) began this book as an oral history, but it evolved into a thoroughgoing study of the music as well as of the man. After a brief biography, there are a variety of discrete chapters (e.g., on dance, tuning, homosexuality, politics) with a plethora of music examples. Harrison's lifelong interest in typefaces is also addressed, with examples given. The book includes a catalog of his works and a CD of excerpts from his compositions.

In the last 10 years or so, Harrison has enjoyed many more performances of his music, and his position as one of the leading American composers of his generation has been solidified. This affectionate volume--if more for the specialist than for the casual listener--is an appropriate tribute. --Patrick J. Smith

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:33 -0400)

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