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[whitespace] Robert MacNeil, Lou Harrison
Photograph by Joanna Eldridge Morrissey

Heavy Medal: MacDowell Colony chairman Robert MacNeil (left) gives Lou Harrison a peek at the MacDowell Award before the ceremony honoring the Aptos composer.

A Medal for Lou

An avant garde classical composer and conductor from Santa Cruz braves the summertime wilds of New Hampshire's MacDowell Colony to witness a landmark honor for Aptos composer Lou Harrison

By Phil Collins

THE ROLLING HILLS and lake-filled pockets of the Appalachians in northern New Hampshire seemed the ideal destination for getting away from it all earlier this month. Well, almost. The preeminence of local treasure and composer Lou Harrison of Aptos has been a global matter for some time now, and the celebration of his artistry is increasingly prevalent, regardless of where one travels. On the Sunday afternoon of August 20, Lou was conferred the prestigious MacDowell Medal 2000 for outstanding contribution to music. (Previous recipients of the medal in music include Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Virgil Thomson. Artists of other disciplines have included James Baldwin and Jules Feiffer. MacDowell only confers one medal per year.) As luck would have it, the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H. is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive south from my friends' summer home in the mountain hamlet of Chocorua. A longstanding curiosity about the legendary MacDowell Colony's retreat for artists, along with my desire to be present at this auspicious occasion honoring Harrision, provided sufficient incentive to extricate myself from my hosts' hospitality for a day.

The drive through New Hampshire's thriving landscapes--still unusually lush due to record-breaking rainfall--was in itself spectacular. The trip went by in no time, and once in Peterborough, it took only moments to tool through the city's quaint downtown before arriving at the MacDowell Colony. The entrance was plugged with cars--which surprised me. I'd expected the affair to be geared to the cognoscenti, particularly in light of Lou's West Coast-based renowned. I learned later that this annual event serves doubly as an awards ceremony and as the public's one time a year to picnic on and explore the Colony's 450 acres of pastures and woods. I, too, planned to indulge in both activities.

The Champion Is Revealed

AS I STOOD OUTSIDE the enormous white tent where the proceedings were about to begin, a familiar voice from the past startled me: "What are you doing here?" I turned around to see conductor Dennis Russell Davies, music director emeritus of the Cabrillo Music Festival (1974-1991) and presentation speaker for the day. "I was in the neighborhood," I blurted, being further surprised upon turning around by the sight of a shiny, shaved head instead of the isolated continents of hair I'd previously been accustomed to.

Davies' prominent role in the afternoon's ceremony was apt. During his tenure at the Cabrillo Music Festival, he annually programmed works by Lou, including several commissions. During the years since, he has remained a devoted advocate of the composer's music in concert halls the world around and via numerous recordings. My own acquaintance with Davies, although quite superficial, stemmed from three different capacities: that of copyist for Lou's Third Symphony (which Davies premiered at the Cabrillo Music Festival), guitarist in two orchestral works by Hans Werner Henze, which Davies conducted during the composer's 1982 festival residency, and as music critic for the Santa Cruz Sentinel throughout much of the 1980s.

Davies' presentation speech centered upon the intrinsic relationship of Lou's music and person and included a half dozen accounts of the profound impressions which his music has made on performers and audiences from Stuttgart to Cincinnati, from Amsterdam to Santa Cruz. Davies' participation supplied enormous clout; the fact that so distinguished, discerning and capable an interpreter of contemporary (and traditional) repertoire has devoted more than 20 years to performing and recording Lou's music was more than adequate endorsement from the music community. In a manner of returning the compliment, a gamelan work that Lou had composed for Davies, Gending Dennis, was performed as part of the ceremony by the Gamelan Lipur Sih from Lebanon, N.H. Ensemble director Jody Diamond was one of Lou's initial teachers in Indonesian music study and has been a close companion of his for some 30 years.

The Gongs Chime and the Luminaries Speak

THE ENCHANTING RESONANCES of Indonesian gongs and metalophones that issued from within the tent provided sound evidence as to the identity of the day's honoree. Lou--more than any living American composer--has been responsible for introducing Javanese gamelan music to Western ears. True to form, Lou's seat was amid the gamelan instruments throughout most of the proceedings, where he performed upon the low gongs before, between and after the speaking portions of the ceremony. He stepped up to the lectern but briefly to deliver his acceptance speech.

A brief round of speeches by four MacDowell Colony representatives opened the affair shortly after noon. Chairman Robert MacNeil's opening words eloquently acknowledged Lou's genius, noting that the composer's accomplishments as a poet would have warranted a MacDowell Medal had he never gotten around to writing music. Board President Carter Wiseman alluded to this summer's political conventions, contrasting their hollow-ringing hype with the timeless, indelible quality of Lou's vast body of work. Following a few words about the colony's operations and goals by executive director Cheryl Young, resident manager David Macy left the audience howling with marvelous "deconstructions" of a Dan Quayle tidbit from 1989--"People who are really weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history"--concluding finally with the hope that MacDowell Colony can "help make the world a safe place for weirdness."

The Composer Delivers His Philosophies

FOR HIS OFFERING, Lou spared the audience of excesses with a concise speech of uniquely intriguing substance. He introduced himself as "a philosophical pessimist" and justified the posture in light of the current Napster controversy over web music piracy. He cited an article by Charles C. Mann in the September Atlantic Monthly magazine ("The Heavenly Jukebox") and summarily coined the practice as "digitalis." Lou's "glandular optimism" followed suite with rosier observations, beginning with an account of recent discoveries in the arena of quantum physics that revealed subatomic wave formations--akin to that of a single vibrating string--to be responsible for generating the activities of quarks. This prospect Lou found especially encouraging because it would potentially substantiate Pythagorus' unified music theory, commonly known as "music of the spheres."

Lou praised the ecological and aesthetic virtues of kenaf paper--which he uses exclusively--as an alternative to tree pulp, and informed us on the emerging technology of straw bale home-building. He reported on the progress of the construction of his own straw bale residence in Joshua Tree, which includes the first straw bale vaulted hallway in the world. After five years of permit wrangling, Lou has at last been allowed to break ground. "I fear that I've become somewhat a martyr for straw bale cause around the world," he quipped. Lou concluded on the political front, describing his relatively recent membership in Fully Informed Jury Association, reminding us that juries are the oft-overlooked fourth branch of government and that historic legal actions have been affected through it. Barring histrionics, musical jargon and hyperbole, the 83-year-old composer delivered a mild whirlwind of provocation, then smilingly returned to the gongs. Meanwhile, the resonance of Lou's words lingered. How wonderfully quintessential of this remarkable artist, how illustrative of Chairman MacNeil's opening remark: "My only question is what took the MacDowell Colony so long?"

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Web extra to the August 30-September 6, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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