Book Review
Composing a World

(book with enclosed CD)

Leta E. Miller
Fredric Lieberman

Oxford University Press
New York

In Notes, September 1999:

Lou Harrison: Composing a World. By Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. [xiv, 385 p. + 1 compact disc. ISBN 0-19-5110226. $35.]

"To those of us who glory in Lou Harrison's willful and wonderful shunning of musical convention, the appearance of Composing a World is potentially disturbing. Harrison has, after all, consistently de-emphasized "the role of the individual [in] his personal conduct [,] ... has expended little effort in self-promotion and has opted for the isolation of Aptos [Calif.] over the stress, but high visibility, of city life" (p. 186). Harrison has therefore become a hero of the counterculture; and, as a consequence, much previous commentary on this archetypally West Coast figure-Heide von Gunden's rather staid Music of Lou Harrison (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1995) notwithstanding-has tended to be as colorful as its subject. The most obvious example of such literature is Peter Garland's delightful Lou Harrison Reader (Santa Fe: Soundings Press, 1987), a deliberately antischolarly nonfestschrift. But now we are presented with a large hardback book, beautifully produced by a major academic publisher and written by two university professors: is Harrison being appropriated by the establishment or, worse still, neatly packaged and marketed for mass consumption? The answer, which comes as a blessed relief, is a resounding no. Indeed, far from academicizing or otherwise constraining Harrison by placing him between its solid covers, Composing a World seemingly manages the impossible in striking a perfect balance between convention and alterity, seriousness and humor, scholarship and celebration, erudition and readability, macrocosm and microcosm."

"How, then, has this minor musicological miracle been achieved? The key perhaps lies in the authors' immensely sensible and selfless decision to take their lead from Harrison himself: rather than being inhibited by his multifaceted world, Leta Miller and Frederic Lieberman have turned it to their advantage. This tactical stroke of genius manifests itself in two important ways. First, just as Harrison has been unusually committed throughout his creative life to artistic collaboration-with dancers, choreographers, instrument makers, performers, and even other composers-so have Miller and Lieberman produced an almost seamless coauthored text. Indeed, this authorial collaboration and cooperation goes even further: a major source of primary material is a series of interviews conducted with Harrison and his associates; chapter 8, "The Gamelan Ideal: Imagined, Imported, Invented," has a third coauthor, Jonathon Grasse; the very substantial "Catalog of the Works of Lou Harrison" (pp. 267-315) was compiled by Miller and Charles Hanson, Harrison's archivist; after the book was drafted, Harrison himself "read and discussed its contents with us, correcting errors or misconceptions but never attempting to censor what we had written" (p. xiv); and, perhaps most remarkably, in recognition that "we have doubtless erred ourselves at times either by omission or commission," Miller and Lieberman "welcome responses from readers" (p. xiii). This approach works splendidly to misappropriate a remark concerning Henry Cowell's view of world musics, "synthesis frequently yields new expressions of beauty" (p. 60)."

"Second, Harrison's fecundity in a dazzling array of disciplines (Carter Scholz describes him as "the nearest thing to a Renaissance man I have ever met" [p. x]) is matched by the variety of topics covered here. Significantly, the three chapters that make up part 1, "Biography," occupy less than one-fifth of the book's pages, whereas nearly one-half is taken up by the nine chapters of part 2, "The Artist's World." Here we encounter highly readable, yet extremely detailed, discussions of "Turning and Temperament" (chap. 5), the terminology and techniques of gamelan (8), and "Assembling the Pieces: The Compositional Process" (11). These are complemented by further chapters addressing "Music and the Dance" (4), instrument building and adaptation (6), "Lou Harrison and East Asian Music" (7), the composer's views on and involvement in politics (9) and gay issues (10), and "Not Just Music: Criticism, Poetry, Art, and Typography" (12). Potential duplications among these topics have been carefully avoided, as have overlaps with the biographical chapters. These latter, in turn, contain much fascinating and important material not simply on Harrison but also on his milieu. We learn a great deal about Cowell and John Cage (to name but two) and about the profound differences between East Coast and West Coast life in the thirties, forties, and fifties. Moreover, the breadth of topics is matched by a richness of supplementary material: in addition to its voluminous prose, Composing a World contains many figures and music examples, a generous selection of endnotes and appendixes, and a seventy-four-minute compact disc, whose diverse contents are purposefully integrated with the authors' arguments."

"Inevitably, though, it is Harrison's remarkable music that commands most attention. To the average musician or music lover, Harrison-like his mentor, Cowell-must appear rather bewildering in his salmagundic approach to style. Typical examples include the Piano Concerto with Selected Orchestra (1985) and the Concerto for P'i-p'a with String Orchestra (1997). The former touches on Brahmsian counterpoint and Javanese garapan, while the latter's quadripartite second movement, "Bits and Pieces," includes sections titled "Troika" and "Neapolitan." Both works contain a wild "Estampie" or Stampede." If this seems eclectic to the point of eccentricity, we need to listen with different ears, for as Miller and Lieberman rightly note, "the music's diversity is its most defining characteristic: the musical-cultural mosaic is precisely its essence" (p. 254). Harrison's own response would no doubt be that "We have been trained ... to value standardization over diversity (p. 103), a comment as applicable to matters of style as to tuning and temperament. Hence, too, Harrison's "love of acoustically pure, nonbeating intervals" (ibid.), to which he has been devoted since 1949, when Virgil Thomson passed on the first edition of Harry Partch's groundbreaking Genesis of a Music (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1949). Some of the astonishing results of Harrison's experiments, such as the Two Improvisations in Greek Tunings (early seventies) and David Doty's electronic realization of the Simfony in Free Style (1955), can be heard on the compact disc."

"Of course, one has a few minor quibbles. For instance, in what is possibly this coauthored book's only visible prose seam, the text has a tendency to lurch unpredictably from the formality of "Harrison" to the chumminess of "Lou." And one wonders whether "aleatoric composition" on page 53 is quite the right phrase to characterize the style Harrison rejected when he returned to the West Coast in the fifties. But overall, this book is a wonderful and most welcome celebration of a remarkable artistic polymath. Although Harrison "[i]n the fullness of eighties ... may no longer dance with the grape of the sylph he was in his twenties.... he still dances through life with his hands" (p. 250). Thanks to the extraordinary thoroughness and sensitivity of Miller and Lieberman, Composing a World grants us the enormous pleasure of dancing with him."

David Nicholls
Keele University


Table of Contents

A World Composed CD

Order a copy of Composing a World

Table of Contents

A World Composed CD

Order Composing A World

Composing a World: Home