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“A World in Music” salutes the leg­­­acy of composer Lou Harrison

Composer Lou Harrisstill from documentary 'Lou Harrison: A World Music' (2011) by EvSoltes. Phoby EvSoltes

Composer Lou Harrison, in a still from the documentary "Lou Harrison: A World in Music" (2011), by Eva Soltes. Photo by Eva Soltes

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IN MUSIC’ ½

Lou Harrison Documentary Project presents a film directed and produced by Eva Soltes. Running time: 92 minutes. No MPAA rating. Screening at 8 p.m. Saturday and 6 p.m. Monday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Updated: October 29, 2012 6:30AM

You might not have heard of the very independent California composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003). But after seeing “Lou Harrison: A World in Music” by Eva Soltes, a documentary decades in the making, you will feel as if you knew him, and you will want to hear much more of the music that flows throughout this engaging, warm and lively film.

Born in Portland, Ore., raised in and around the San Francisco Bay Area, except for a brief but pivotal period, Harrison was very much a man of the Pacific coast. For his last four decades, he made his home in a simple, expanded cabin overlooking the ocean in Aptos, near Santa Cruz. The schools where he taught, his major mentors (ranging from Henry Cowell to Arnold Schoenberg,) the festival (Cabrillo) he helped to launch and the lifestyle he embraced and shaped (hippie, gay, environmentally attuned, pacifist and directed toward Japan, Taiwan, Korea and, ultimately, Indonesia) all reflected the non-urban California coast.

A free spirit, he happily took lessons from all he encountered. He stayed close with Cowell when the older man was imprisoned for being gay (“I took my [composition] lessons through bars”) and became even more open about his own sexuality (perhaps so he could never be ensnared himself?). Many found Schoenberg intimidating. Harrison felt he got the revolutionary’s blessing to pursue simplicity and find strength in himself. When Charles Ives sent him a crate of papers, Harrison took this as an invitation to create the first performance edition of one of the craggy elder’s symphonies, the Third, and present and conduct its world premiere. From John Cage, he took the wide array of percussion but left the use of chance and games behind. From choreographers Merce Cunninghman and Jean Erdman, he found reinforcement for his core as “a kinetic person.”

His early trips to Asia were the most life-changing — for himself, and his colleagues and listeners. He became technically expert at understanding and performing music of other national traditions and found an inner connection that allowed him to combine East and West into a unique but convincing whole. When he met an exact contemporary, an outdoorsman with backgrounds in music and engineering, the two started building and assembling an American gamelan, a Javanese orchestra of percussion instruments. Harrison and Bill Colvig were life partners for 33 years until Colvig, builder and helpmate, died at 80. We watch their long hair and beards grow white while their love never diminishes.

Dennis Russell Davies, Michael Tilson Thomas, Mark Morris and other Harrison champions are heard from, as are friends from the earlier decades of his wonderful and varied life. Soltes, a dancer and presenter, fell into documentation and then filmmaking without a plan, and parts of the film might have benefitted from stronger technique. But she loved Harrison and her collector’s instincts are strong. She captures always the hunger of Harrison’s mind, his tremendous capacity for work, and the unbridled joy he took in life and poured into his music. As we watch the building of the straw-bale house that he and Colvig conceived for Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert, begun after Colvig’s death and finished just a year before Harrison’s, we have the sense of a man and artist in full, circling around to where death and birth are one with land and sound and silence.

Note: Director Eva Soltes will conduct a Q&A session after each screening.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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