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Lou Harrison

April 3, 2017

Lou Harrison was one of the most influential American composers of the twentieth century and a creator of complex, yet elegant and beautiful music. He was also a visionary experimentalist who worked in a wide range of musical styles.

A student of composer-pianist Henry Cowell, and a collaborator with both John Cage and Charles Ives, he pioneered the syntheses of modernist idioms with classical musics from around the world and through history (including Asian and historical European styles). Harrison was also one of the earliest composers of percussion music, and he and his partner William Colvig built many of their own instruments. One of the things that most concerned him, however, for much of his compositional life, was the investigation of tuning.

Harrison (along with Harry Partch and many others) helped return the music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to a pitch-world not constrained by the twelve pitches of mainstream equal temperament. Harrison looked backward—into the Just, Meantone and Well-tempered traditions of historical European tunings—as well as outward—to gamelan (primarily the slendro and pelog modes of central Java) and the tuning systems of Korean and Japanese court traditions. And he looked forward, with the old, yet still revolutionary idea that the principles of tuning are malleable in real time and need not require a fixed notion of “scale” (in what he called Free Style).


For Harrison, the building of new instruments and the modification of existing ones was a crucial and enduring endeavor. Though he’s widely known for the several impressive gamelan and gamelan-inspired instruments he built with Colvig in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Harrison had been tinkering with instruments in other ways for many years. In 1943, having moved to New York City from California, and finding himself in need of practicing late at night without bothering close-quartered neighbors, Harrison decided to build a clavichord, a centuries-old keyboard instrument that utilizes small metal strikers (called tangents) to hit the strings, resulting in a quiet and intimate sound. In this early project, the composer demonstrated an uncanny aptitude to instrument design as well as iteration: When the simple, box-shaped first model warped due to excessive string tension, Harrison came up with an alternative plan, shaped like a piano, and with the strings running underneath the soundboard, which proved a more durable solution that could also be folded down for ease of transport.

In 1947, Harrison suffered a devastating mental breakdown and embarked on a long recovery process, which eventually led to the formation of a new compositional voice. The exploration of various tuning systems from different cultures, places, and times provided a creative springboard for him; learning how to tune (and retune) keyboards was a practical path into this new world. Two pieces from early in this period showcase Harrison’s varied approach to tuning, even when dealing with the constraints of a twelve-note keyboard. In the incidental music for Cinna, Harrison specified a single-strung piano with thumbtacks inserted in the hammers (commonly known as a tack piano, and frequently used as a makeshift harpsichord at the time). This yielded a lighter, silvery timbre well suited for precise tuning requirements, and evocative of Southeast Asian gamelan to Harrison’s ears. The tuning for Cinna’s five movements affords a wide variety of interval sizes, all tuned in just ratios and ranging in quality from serene to strident.

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