Lou Harrison, who pioneered world music and was among a line of iconoclastic 20th century American composers that included innovators such as Charles Ives and John Cage, has died at 85.
Harrison had a heart attack Sunday in Lafayette, Ind., while traveling from his home in Aptos to a weeklong celebration of his music sponsored by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and Ohio State University.
Harrison pioneered world music, and was among the first to create all-percussion pieces and to integrate the musical traditions and instruments of Asia and the West.
His work includes four symphonies, two operas, ballets, concertos, choral pieces, solo and chamber works. But he's best known for the works that cannot be readily categorized, particularly those intended for an international gamut of percussion instruments.
In fact, there was little that Harrison didn't try. His works incorporate medieval dances, Baroque sonata form, Navajo ritual, early California mission music, the Indonesian gamelan orchestra and Korean court music.
"From the start," he once said about his eclecticism, "I spread my toys out on a large acreage."
Harrison disliked flying and was traveling in a university van from the Chicago train station to Columbus. When the van stopped at a diner in Lafayette, he had a heart attack and died later at a local hospital.
"He was just such a great friend to music," said San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas, who commissioned an orchestral piece from Harrison to inaugurate his first concert season in 1995. "We're going to miss him greatly."
"What isn't fabulous about his music?" asked the New York-based choreographer Mark Morris, who started making dances to Harrison scores in 1985.
Harrison taught at San Jose State University and Mills College in Oakland. He also was an outspoken advocate for gay rights.
Harrison, who was born in Portland, Ore., moved with his family to Northern California when he was 9. A year later, he wrote his first piano piece. As a boy, he also played French horn, clarinet, harpsichord and recorder.
He studied music briefly at San Francisco State University before taking private lessons with Henry Cowell. Cowell introduced him to Cage, who would become a lifelong friend and artistic collaborator.
Harrison moved to New York in 1943, then taught for two years at Black Mountain College in North Carolina before settling in Aptos in 1953.
In 1967, he met William Colvig, an amateur musician and electrician, who became his life partner. Together they built an "American" gamelan, a homespun version of a metallic Javanese percussion orchestra, but with tin cans, steel tubing and baseball bats. Colvig died in 2000.
Harrison is survived by his partner, Todd Burlingame, and by a sister-in-law and two nephews.