Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Lou Harrison

American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was known for his melodic and lyrical musical style and the use of instruments from the East, especially the Javanese gamelan. He explored diverse interests, including puppetry, the Esperanto language, tuning systems, the construction of musical instruments and dance. He was also an activist for political causes, especially pacifism, the ecological movement and gay rights.

Born in Portland, Oregon, his family moved to the San Francisco area when he was a child, and he lived most of his life on the west coast. Harrison attended San Francisco State University, where he studied with gay composer Henry Cowell, who gave him an 1871 nine-foot Steinway grand which had been the favorite piano of Percy Grainger. Among Harrison’s compositions from that time is a large body of percussion music that showcases Western, Asian, African, and Latin American rhythmic traditions. Later works embraced ethnic musical folk cultures of Mexico, American Indians and the Far East.

He also developed friendships and professional relations with important gay composers and musicologists. Harrison studied the works of American composer Charles Ives, some of whose musical manuscripts he later edited. Harrison conducted the premiere of Ives’s Symphony No. 3, and when that composition won the Pulitzer Prize, Ives gave half the prize money to Harrison. He also worked with gay composer John Cage, with whom he wrote Double Music (1941) for four percussionists. During World War II, Harrison moved to New York and wrote music criticism for the Herald Tribune. Although Harrison was welcomed into the NYC musical circle of gay composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who promoted his works, he decided that he did not enjoy living in a crowded and stressful big city.

A few years later he moved to North Carolina, where he taught at Black Mountain College, the experimental arts college where John Cage and gay choreographer Merce Cunningham also worked. In 1947 Harrison suffered a nervous breakdown and moved back to California. Harrison found it hard to support himself with his music, and took a number of other jobs to earn a living, including stints as a record salesman, florist, animal nurse, and forestry firefighter.

At the age of 50 he found his life partner, William Colvig (on right in photo), a rugged outdoorsman whom he met at a performance of his own music at the Old Spaghetti Factory in San Francisco. Although not a composer, Colvig was a musician who had a knack for mechanical things (his profession was as an electrician). They lived in a cabin in the woods outside of Aptos, California, southeast of Santa Cruz, where together they developed and built musical instruments, including three gamelan. A gamelan is a set of instruments that includes xylophones, metallophones, drums, gongs, bamboo flutes and strings that are both bowed and plucked – all of them incompatible with Western music tuning systems. The two men, both distinguished by beards and long hair, remained partners until Colvig's death in 2000. Friends often commented that the pair looked like “mountain men,” while others noted an alarming physical similarity between Harrison and Col. Sanders, of KFC fame.

Lou Harrison House (below) in Joshua Tree, California:
The straw-bale house, not fully completed until 2002, was designed and built by American composer Lou Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig. Today it is used by composers and other artists in residence to work on projects:

Harrison wrote Young Caesar (1971), an opera that deals with homosexuality and the clashes between the East and West. He accepted commissions from both the Portland and Seattle Gay Men’s Choruses. In 1995 Harrison wrote "Parade for MTT" for the San Francisco Symphony’s celebration of the inauguration of openly gay music director Michael Tilson Thomas. MTT holds that position to this day. Harrison wrote symphonies, works for chamber orchestra, many concerti and dozens of compositions for gamelan. He taught in California at Stanford, Cabrillo College, Mills College, USC and San Jose State, where he was composer-in-residence.

Harrison died in 2003 from a heart attack in Indiana, at the age of 85, while traveling to a festival of his own music at Ohio State University. Celebrated as one of America's most venerated composers, and sometimes dubbed the "Santa Claus" of new music for his white beard, portly physique and ready laugh, he was mourned by music lovers the world over. Fortunately, his 300+ musical compositions continue to delight, challenge and inspire listeners of serious music.

First Concerto for Flute & Percussion (1939):

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