Lou Harrison, Mill Valley, California (1988)
Photograph by Jonathan Williams

LOU HARRISON (1917–2003)
from A Palpable Elysium (2002):

I first saw Lou Harrison at Town Hall in Manhattan one night in February, 1949. It was for the first performance of Charles Ives’s First Piano Sonata, performed by Billy Masselos. Lou had edited and re-created the score from an old manuscript and some rough sketches. It was one of the greatest instances of piano playing I have ever heard. I can still feel it after 53 years. I remember Wallingford Riegger in the audience that night, obviously very moved. And so was Edgard Varèse. I imagine that Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, and Leonard Bernstein were there, but I didn’t see them.

I next saw Lou at Black Mountain College the summer of 1951 and got to be a good friend. For some reason I remember when I was driving into Asheville to the A B C store, he would ask me to get him a bottle of Rock and Rye. This is a cordial made of rye whiskey flavored with rock candy syrup and fruits—revoltingly sweet. Lou’s the only person I have ever met who liked the stuff. He may have been the last buyer? It’s not in the ABC store now.

Our paths have crossed often over the years. From the old days in California when he and John Cage studied with Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, Lou’s reputation as a master composer, an “original” in the tradition of Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles, has become known worldwide. By his 80th birthday, his musical catalog was over 300 pieces. He is also known for his painting and superb calligraphy; or his poems (Jargon published a book of them, Joys & Perplexities); his building of gamelan orchestras and medieval instruments; his knowledge of Asian music; his interest in just intonation and tuning; his critical writing. He is composing a world in this, his 85th year. The book to read is Lou Harrison by Leta E. Miller and Frederic Lieberman (Oxford University Press, 1998).

When asked “Do you see any continuum in the progress of Western music and, if so, where would you place your own work?” he retorted (with characteristic good humor), “As for the first sentence, I haven’t the faintest idea, and in answer to the second, I can only say, ‘Lou Harrison is an old man who’s had a lot of fun:”


from the back flap of Joys & Perplexities:

Ezra Pound (‘The Idaho Dude’) charged artists “to debunk by lucidity!” Lou Harrison is not only lucid and clear; he is also luminous, he emits self-generated light.

Back in 1960, as a Christmas offering to friends of the Jargon Society, we published Lou Harrison’s “Three Choruses From Opera Libretti,” and it is good to see them restored to print in this generous selection of his poems. Harrison, the composer, has been a favorite of mine since our Black Mountain College days (over 40 years ago). His sonorities hold their own with Herr C. F. Handel and Mr. Carl Ruggles; his cadences are as solid as Nolan Ryan’s fast ball — they pop the mitt, babe. And Lou’s 30 years older than Nolan. Never before; never again!

Harrison, the poet, belongs in our series. We have always published luminists. We published Robert Duncan’s wonderful book, Letters, back in the 50s. In the 60s we published that long, pagan, Ivesian romp of a poem, Flowers and Leaves, by Guy Davenport. In the 70s I wrote often about the photographer, Wynn Bullock, another California luminist, with a windy, cloudy, lovely nature. In the 80s we published St. Eom in the Land of Pasaquan, about the bodacious, sexy Georgia visionary, Eddie Owens Martin, and his monumental environment in the remote piney woods. These are fit comrades for Lou Harrison. As Robert Duncan wrote in “A Poem Beginning With a Line byPindar

The light foot hears you and the brightness begins...

Today in the New York Times Lou writes a column about gamelan instruments. it is mostly about the Javanese Gamelan Orchestra of Wesleyan University in Connecticut. The name of this gamelan is “Kyai Muncar,” which in English is “Lord Brightness.” Let it be known from this moment in time for ever more, that Lou Harrison’s s name is changed to “Lord Brightness”!

Today is also the reported death day of Olivier Messiaen and of Francis Bacon — two of the century’s greatest, most alluring visionaries. This, friends, is quite a day! R.I.P.

Jonathan Williams, Publisher,
Skywinding Farm,
Highlands, North Carolina,
April 29, 1992