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2/4/03 - Composer Lou Harrison dies at 85 - by DC

Back in the sixties Lou and his partner Bill Colvig used to come to Tassajara, usually with a group of friends and fellow musicians from San Jose State where Lou taught. They gave several concerts of classical Chinese music there attended by students, guests, and Suzuki Roshi and even my mother who was tickled to meet Lou as she had composed and played classical music. When Richard Baker went to Japan in the fall of 1968, there was a going away party for him and Virginia at the old East West Printers place in SF. Lou and Bill brought their Chinese ensemble and performed before the rock band went on. They also gave a performance years later in the zendo at Green Gulch Farm for the Lindesfarne Association meeting of fellows and for students.

A few times I visited Lou and Bill at their Aptos home which had a special building just for their large collection of musical instruments - there were Western, Eastern, Indonesian, and experimental ones of all kinds. I remember it had a very high ceiling which was necessary for some of the far out instruments. Although he is famous for his classical compositions, it always seemed to me that Gamelan was his favorite and what he put the most time into - but that may have just been some particular period. I went to the Kabuki theater to see one of their Gamelan concerts. There were a dozen or so of them. I'd never heard anything like it - till I first went to Bali in 1992 for a couple of months.

Just yesterday I was with Tom and Kamala Buckner (see interview with Kamala) Tom's a world-renowned modern classical baritone and, while visiting Bamboo Sorcery and surrounded by various charming varieties of bamboo, we got to talking about Lou who, it turned out, Tom had known well. Tom had gone to school in San Jose where Lou taught. We talked about how enthusiastic he was about everything - music, people, life, love, beauty; calligraphy. We also talked about how amazing it was that his partner, Bill, had died and that Lou was still alive (we didn't know he'd died about fifteen hours before. Bill was a robust mountain climber and Lou was large and pink and very sensitive and emotional and seemed fragile. We'd both thought he'd never last this long. But he lasted and was going strong right up to the end.

One memory that still bothers me when I think of Lou and Bill is that once in the sixties I invited them to come to Tassajara to be there while my classical musician mother was visiting and Bill came to visit us but said that Lou was too upset to play anything or visit that evening. I didn't realize till years later that I had, in my youthful stupidity, not paid for their room. Bill had said that sometimes Lou gets into states like this but I can't help but feel it was my blindness to what the situation called for and am still when I recall it ashamed and embarrassed that I'd been so thoughtless. He never held it against me though and was always extremely friendly and generous in our dealings.

I saw Lou and Bill when they kindly came to a book signing of mine in Santa Cruz and he gave me a signed copy of a biography of Lou, Lou Harrison: Composing a World. I'd talked to the author who'd gotten hold of me because I'd mentioned Lou in both Thank You and OK! and Crooked Cucumber. A few years ago when the SF symphony performed a composition of his, spent time in their booth in the balcony. 

My favorite memory of Lou (which was told in Thank You and OK!) is what he said when I first met him at Tassajara. I'd apologized that there was no music there. He's already been around for a day or two and he said with characteristic animated drama that quite to the contrary the place was filled with music - the bells and han (wooden board) and chanting - sometimes there are just long spaces between the notes. Then there's the creek and the birds. So I always remembered that and never regretted what I'd thought of as a lack of music there again.

Farewell Lou and Bill.

San Francisco Chronicle Obit on Lou Harrison

Yahoo News Obit on Lou Harrison

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