Arts & Events

New: Lou Harrison: A World of Music
Premiere Screening on Tuesday, March 6

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Monday March 05, 2012 - 04:58:00 PM

Eva Soltes' long-awaited film, Lou Harrison: A World of Music, is just as charming, playful and soulful as its titular subject. It is only now that Harrison (who died in 2003) is becoming recognized as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. A World of Music will certainly help bring Harrison's genius to a larger audience. 

In a nice break from documentary tradition, Soltes begins by reshuffling the familiar "family photo album" routine to show us images of Lou "growing down" —becoming younger and more innocent with each new snapshot. One striking realization: how much Lou, in his twenties, resembled another American prodigy—Orson Wells. 

Like Wells, Harrison was his own man and was not at all interested in following convention. His insistence on pursuing marvel over mimicry meant that much of his work vanished beneath the din of prevailing musical trends. During a time when dissonance ruled the orchestral world, Harrison continued to pursue "delight over duty," finding inspiration in "junkyard percussion," in the brass gamelans of Indonesia, in Korean dance, ballet, opera and in the cadences of Esperanto. 

Over his 60-plus years of composing, Harrison worked with fellow legends like choreographers Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris (both interviewed in the film) and avant-garde composers like John Cage. It was Harrison, in the early decades of the previous century, who worked with Charles Ives to hone the music that would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize. (And there is stunning archival footage of Harrison, as a young man, leading a major performance of Ives' work.) 

Harrison has a varied and eclectic career. He worked in the dance department at Mills College. He wrote music reviews for the New York Herald Tribune. He traveled to San Quentin for "lessons through bars" with his mentor, the composer Henry Cowell (imprisoned in the 1930s for "homosexual activity"). And, finally, he returned to the woods of northern California to devote himself, full-time, to the music that seemed to flow from his mind like unbridled rivulets feeding a greater river. 

One of Harrison's greatest accomplishments was pulling off a production of what may be the world's first, flat-out gay opera. "Young Caesar" celebrated the early loves of Rome's greatest emperor. At the end of the first show, one of the wealthy dowagers in the crowd remarked about how much she enjoyed the "colorful little birds" that could be seen flying about ht stage on nearly invisible strings. It came as a shock when someone explained to her: "Those were not birds, madam. Those were tiny flying penises." 

Soltes spent 20 years filming her friend Lou—traveling to gigs, composing at home, building new instruments with his partner Bill. And, given the massive amount of footage she must have acquired, Soltes imposed admirable artistic restraint by avoiding extended interviews and offering, instead, many small moments that stand out like gems. 

Soltes has not only managed to capture Harrison's impish personality and fierce professionalism, she also has created a visual composition that is wonderfully rich, colorful and layered. Photos ebb and flow behind the lines of handwritten letters enhanced by Lou's distinctive calligraphy. Soltes' camera moves over landscapes of manuscripts and books viewed at incredible proximity where the background is blurred and each new document relaxes into perfect focus as the camera drifts past. And there are sly visual puns embedded in the film (watch for the image on the screen as the film speaks of Lou "pushing the circle"). 

Soltes' cinema concerto beautifully compliments Harrison's music as small, telling details are caught by her lens to be sewn into a visual sonata of shapes and light. The image may be a small as a close-up of the curl of a resting hand or as grand as the powerful cloud of steam pouring from a locomotive, seen from above, as it rockets down the rails over an unending landscape. Other images that move and linger: The quiet happiness that radiates from Bill's face as Lou praises him for his ability and artistry. Lou hovering over Bill, dying in his hospital bed, and leaning down for one last kiss. 

Lou's music swells and prances throughout the film, seeping beneath the skin and leaving this viewer so sensitized that, by the end of the film, the mere image of a shadow falling across a painted door moved me to tears. 

SF Orchestra Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (who has done much to spotlight and celebrate Harrison's music) offers this perfect assessment of the gentleman and his music: "The greatest artists have the ability to make us really understand what it's like to be in their skin. And what makes [Lou] such a treasure is that, when you do realize what it's like to be in his skin, you say: 'Gosh! What a great place to be!'" 

Special Premiere Screening at San Francisco's Castro Theater on March 6 

To benefit the Harrison House of Music & Arts 

(With a special performance by Terry Riley on the mighty Wurlitzer) 

7:30 PM, $25