Have As Much Fun
Well, I knew who Lou Harrison was, and I knew of him because I was already interested in John Cage by the time I got out of high school. So, I had been introduced to the idea of Lou Harrison, but I didn’t really know that much about him.1 I mean I knew the couple of things; I knew Double Music, and I knew things like that. But through an odd quirk at Stanford, what happened was that Stanford was the place that pioneered all the music technology that was used to setup IRCAM in Paris. So, the year before I was a student at Stanford, Pierre Boulez and all the people who were setting up IRCAM came out to Stanford to see what they were doing in the Computer Music Center there, and decided that they wanted to take all of that equipment and all of that technology and all that knowhow.
So, when I got to Stanford, my freshmen year, the entire faculty for Composition and Computer Music was in Paris installing IRCAM.2 So, they had to get a leave replacement, and they got Lou Harrison. And so, I was 17 years old, I was super happy. This guy was just one of the most lovely people on the planet. And he was so funny, and he was so open and warm, and he was very — his eyes were open to lots of things, and he made us feel like that was our job as a composer, was to see everything, try everything, do everything, have as much fun as we could, and then distill out of it the things that we were going to be focused on.
So, he took a class — he taught a class on, essentially, tuning, which was — I forget what the name of the class was. It was something like western and Asian music or something. But it was essentially about tuning and even more specifically, it was about his tuning. And so, his approach to various different Javanese scales that he was into, and how to talk about the overtone series, how to measure them, how to use them, what they’re good for, I just thought it was fantastic. And it wasn’t rigorous the way that the tuning — people who were obsessed about tuning get super-obsessed.3
It wasn’t like that. It was very practical, and it was very much about kind of love, it’s like here are these beautiful sounds, which western music doesn’t have in them, let’s love them. And I just thought it was a fantastic thing, and I remember this really funny thing, where he had made this primer on tuning. And he said if anyone’s interested in this primer on tuning, I have extra copies, so you can buy them from me. So, I of course bought one of these primers on tuning, and it was in his beautiful calligraphy. He had hand-written it himself in his calligraphy, it was amazing.
So, he had hand-written it, and it was really beautiful, and it was this really kind of enjoyable introductory document to basically how he thought about the tuning systems that he used. And so, I asked him in the way a 17 years old freshmen only can ask, “Gee, how do you think I should read this? Do you have any suggestions about how to get the most out of this book?” And he looked at me and he said, “I think you should get some colored pencils and you should illuminate the first letter of every single chapter”. And I, being the dopey 17 year old fresh eyed freshmen that I was, I did it. And I loved it, and it was really fantastic. He was so fun. So, I was very shocked, because the next year all the hard line computer music people came back from IRCAM, and Lou Harrison left, and I didn’t have nearly as fun a time that year.