Lou Harrison & Bill Colvig: Iconoclast Centennials

harrison-charles color

Iconoclast Centennials is a historical exhibition of invented instruments created by Bill Colvig, including original Lou Harrison just intonation tuning diagrams. On display will be rare original mimeos of tuning diagrams for Harrison’s just intonation zither as well as Colvig’s gamelan-like Tubaphone for Bill Alves, Coffee Can and Steel Pipe Sarons, Triangular Kanong and Bonang Pannerous; as well as a rasp, Clock Chime Guitar, Jangles and the Harmonic Series Instrument.

May 14, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the composer Lou Harrison. This year likewise marks the birthday centennial of Lou’s partner and musical collaborator Bill Colvig, born a hundred years ago on March 13.

In this exhibit, we celebrate their shared centennial with a collection of some of their most interesting and representative instruments. Lou Harrison’s interest in percussion, Indonesian gamelan and just intonation were already in place when he met Bill Colvig in 1967. These interests were further developed by diving deeper into the world of musical instrument making, and as a craftsman, engineer, musician and highly inventive thinker, Bill was eminently suited as a collaborator for such an excursion. Together—with Bill as the lead fabricator—the two embarked on a decades-long exploration of the timbral and tonal possibilities of instrument design. Best known are the instrument sets they created for performances of Lou’s compositions inspired by Indonesian gamelan, in the first stirrings of what came to be known as the American Gamelan movement. In addition to the gamelan-inspired instruments, they built a variety of instruments for exploration and analysis of just tunings and the harmonic series. Along the way they made a diversity of other oddities and one-offs. The instruments reflected Bill’s characteristic style of craftsmanship—imaginative yet functional—and Lou’s personal ornamental and decorative sense. All were tuned to the carefully conceived just scales upon which Lou built his music.

We are grateful for the assistance, suggestions, information and instrument loans offered by Larry Polansky, Willie Winant, David Bernstein and the Mills College Department of Music, Charles Hanson, University of Santa Cruz Library Special Collections, and Steed Cowart.

William (Bill) Colvig (March 13, 1917 – March 1, 2000) was an electrician and amateur musician who was composer Lou Harrison’s partner for 33 years, whom he met in San Francisco in 1967. Colvig helped design and construct the American gamelan used in works such as the puppet opera Young Caeser (1971), La Koro Sutro (1972), and the Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (1974). His influence as an instrument inventor drove Harrison’s explorations of tuning and timbre, and inspired generations of instrument inventors, helping to create a nexus for invention in the SF Bay Area.

Lou Harrison’s (1917-2003) music is characterized always by exquisite sonorities. Central to his pursuit of this quality was his concern with the particular tunings in which his works were to be realized. He did not seek exotic or revolutionary tunings so much as he searched for whatever tunings would be most right, most natural, most beautiful for the work at hand. Among other things, he had a particular interest in historical tunings—tunings developed before the dominance of 12-equal. It happens that Lou Harrison had a way with an ink pen as well (his calligraphy was beautiful), and this can be seen in the charts seen here representing early European temperaments.
Lou Harrison Archive MS132, University of California at Santa Cruz Special Collections