Commission Music

Commission Music
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Wednesday, 17 September 2003

Grumpy paper

Celeste Hutchins


17 September 2003


Harrison writes in his Music Primer,

To Avoid the Monstrosities that might be done to your vocal works in translations, make one version yourself directly in the international language endorsed by UNESCO - Esperanto. This language is particularly musical anyway, more so, I think, than the majority of ethnic tongues, which, like Topsy, "just growed." (p 22)

Harrison is clearly very serious about Esperanto, even going as far as to teach it through a gay organization in San Francisco and to write several E-o (E-o is the "official" Esperanto abbreviation for "Esperanto") manifestos. Amy Cook, Lou‚'s sign language instructor, describes him as "passionate" about E-o. So much so that in his primer, he goes so far as to list Dr. Zamenhof, inventor of Esperanto in his list of the most influential figures of the nineteenth century.

Morris, Blake, Zamenhof, Whitman & maybe Dolmetsch - Darwin too & Thoreau; those are the great geniuses of the west in the 19th century, the ones still disturbing, awakening, arousing, fertilizing & revealing us. (p 41)

The E-o "movado" was equally taken by Harrison, sending a delegation out to meet him in Tokyo, when he arrived for the 1961 East-West Music Encounter in Tokyo. (Miller p. 57) Similarly, the E-o community at San Francisco State provided him with a premiere of his work, La Koro Sutro. Charles Amirkhanian, former music director of KPFA (and current director of Other Minds), recalled the concert in an email,

I do remember attending that concert and it was packed. I think it was in Knuth Hall in the Music Dept. and they used Lou's first gamelan, the American gamelan built w/ Bill Colvig. We did find a tape in the archives of Lou speaking about that time about that gamelan, made with metal pipes used normally to route electrical lines. The conduit was ground down by Bill using an oscilloscope to get exact tunings. Lou was wild with enthusiasm about the sound and tuning and that Bill could pull off this miracle.

About the lectures, Amirkhanian said, "We do have a recording, I think, of the 1972 performance of La Koro Sutro. We don't have the lectures. I guess there wasn't much hope of broadcasting an entire lecture in Esperanto." Despite KPFA's fears of an insufficient audience, Miller reports that "329 participants from twenty-eight countries" attended the lectures. (p 64) ELNA, the Esperanto League for North America sells a CD of La Koro Sutro, via their E-o book catalog. They describe it saying, "[T]his collection by the world famous Lou Harrison is . . . a masterpiece in any language. An innovator of musical composition and performance who transcends cultural boundaries, Harrison's highly acclaimed work juxtaposes and synthesizes musical dialects from virtually every corner of the world." ( He was awarded a lifetime honorary membership to ELNA and is well known throughout "Esperantio." Someone on an E-o email list concerning music asked, "Cxu ekster Lou Harrison neniam ekzistis emo, 'serioze' verki pri iaj esperantaj poemoj?" Do there exist, outside of Lou Harrison, serious works with Esperanto poems? (

         Despite how seriously Lou took E-o and how seriously the movado takes him, Miller clearly does not take this seriously. For instance, she describes the premiere of La Koro Sutro as taking place, "during a week-long seminar at San Francisco state University." (p 64) It is extremely likely that the "seminar" was actually NASK, La Nord-Amerkio Sumera Kursaro, an annual E-o language summer school, which, "[p]rior to 2002, . . . was hosted for 31 years at San Francisco State University." ( On the same page, she says that "this postconfrence" followed "the 1972 World Esperanto Convention in Portland." There does indeed exist an annual international convention of E-o speakers. The correct name for this is the Universala Kongreso.

         She similarly fails to accurately report names of E-o organizations when talking about the 1961 Conference in Tokyo, saying, "Harrison wrote to the fine arts representative of the International Esperanto Association in Tokyo." (p 57) I would very much like to read a copy of this letter, but I can find no mention of such an organization via Google searches in English or E-o. There does exist a Universal Esperanto Association. There also exists a "passport service," which provides the kind of lodging and translation services that Lou received from the representative of this mysterious organization. There also exists a Japana Esperanto-Instituto, which has existed continuously (except for 1944) since 1906. Many organizations in Japan that want to reach an international audience use E-o, including some scholarly journals. I have an impression of Japan as an extremely wired country, so it seems like the "International Esperanto Association in Tokyo" would be mentioned somewhere on-line.

         Lou took sign language as seriously as he took E-o, yet it merits hardly a mention. Amy Cook (who was my housemate for a few years) taught Lou sign language twice a week, in 1.5 hour sessions from 1991 until 1996 or 1997. I talked to her by phone after finishing Miller's book. Amy was unhappy to learn that she was not mentioned in the book, since she was very close to Harrison. During the time she was my housemate, Lou called her and said that he and Bill Colvig wanted to adopt her and told her she should find and fill out the appropriate paperwork. She considered this offer, since her own parents are gone, but in the end, decided against it. I remember this happening, star struck as I was, that Lou Harrison was calling her up on the phone!

         During all the time that she taught Harrison sign language, Cook reports that he never once mentioned his deaf former roommate, who is mentioned twice in the biography. Cook explained that Lou's neighbor George, which whom Lou was very close, had gone mostly deaf. Her classes initially included Bill, but her dropped out very quickly. After that it was Lou, George and Marian, George's girlfriend. Harrison was the organizer of the class. He was enthusiastic and "unafraid"of trying new signs. He "would go to any deaf event he could go to." Cook recalled a flying with Harrison to Seattle to see a sign language play and was struck by his generosity in paying her way. He combined some of his interests in constructed languages by reading about gestuno, an international sign language, similar in motivation to E-o.

            Cook painted a less saintly image of Harrison than Miller. She said, "He had a lot of things going on . . . internally‚" and said that, "he seemed complicated" and to be ‚"going through complicated stuff." She went so far as to call him "high maintenance." She attributed some of this to health problems, such as pain in a nerve in his face, and some to his "brutal" schedule. He was booked a year in advance and always seemed to be writing something. He worked hard and continuously, writing, traveling and teaching gamelan at Cabrillo Community College. He was continuously doing something, if not working, then partying and was generally very passionate about everything. Cook hypothesized that he welcomed the relief of the sign language classes and so created unintensive lesson plans. He would stop everything else that he was doing during the lesson time and objected strenuously if he was disturbed during that time.

            His sign language lessons started in 1991, which would have been during the creative crisis that Miller reports him suffering around the first Gulf War. When I asked Amy about this, she thought and said that eventually, he was always writing, but said that she recalled him working on something even when they first met. I asked her if this might have been Homage to Pacifica and she explained that although she was a music major at the time and a percussionist, he gave "social cues that [music was] not an avenue of conversation." She could and did ask him questions about music and he would answer them, but he looked bored when he did. She recalls him having a bust of Ives in his house. When he found out that she didn't know who Ives was, he became exasperated.

            Lou was ‚"thunderous." He was "used to having his way" and would "storm around" until he got it. However, his thunder was all sound and fury signifying nothing. He yelled at Bill, but Bill's hearing was poor and Bill didn't take it personally. Amy never saw tension between them. They were clearly in love, she reported.

            Miller's biography of Harrison is similar to Cowell's biography of Ives in that they both were written during their subject's lifetime and were both written by people who were fans of their subject. Unsurprisingly, they both have a tendency to fawn. Miller however, unlike Cowell, is sloppy with her subject matter and should strongly consider collaborating with an Esperantist before another edition of this book is released.

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