For the Love of Microtones: Harrison House, Music, Arts, and Ecology

By Lisa Morgan

On the surface, it would seem that the dry, harsh desert could never nourish much other than the native Joshua Trees and cacti that dominate the area. But where there is great love and a strong will, and maybe just a bit of water and compost, any amazing thing can happen. Harrison House was built on such things and stands today as a testament to dreams becoming legacy.

Tucked away on one of the many roads jetting from Highway 62, this straw bale artist retreat, built by 84-year-old Lou Harrison in 2002, was purchased shortly after his passing in 2003, by long-time friend and collaborator, Eva Soltes. It was his love for the arts that inspired him to make his dream home a place where artists could gather and perform music, heard in its purest form. A master of multitudes of hand-crafted instruments, many say that the house itself was the finest instrument Harrison ever built. Thanks to Soltes, Harrison’s lifetime of experimentalism, activism, concern for the environment, and commitment to encouraging creativity in others is respectfully woven into the daily operations. Today the residence is known as Harrison House, Music, Arts & Ecology, and is located at 6881 Mt Lassen Avenue in Joshua Tree.

Harrison’s portfolio is particularly noted for incorporating elements of the music of non-Western cultures into his work, with several pieces written for Javanese- style gamelan instruments. Many of his instruments were built and tuned by Harrison and his partner, William Colvig. Much of the music he composed is written in just intonation, making Harrison one of the most prominent composers to have worked with microtones (intervals smaller than a semitone/any music using intervals not found in the customary Western tuning of twelve equal intervals per octave).

To hear music in the vaulted great room is an ethereal experience. Whether it’s as soft as a pin drop, or a voice singing alongside a piano or cello, this incredible structure captures every bit of nuance and texture. Since 2006, there has been a residency and performance program for international artists and environmental activists that awards great minds with the time to create and share their very best work in an historic and inspiring setting.

Producer, director, dancer, Eva Soltes, is the delightfully smart and experienced owner of the property today. After 40 years of friendship with Harrison, Soltes was uniquely poised to carry on his legacy and vision. She has decorated and furnished the house with Harrison’s own possessions and art she inherited. While Harrison’s official archive is housed at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Eva has amassed an extensive collection of video and photo documentation of his life and work, drawings and writings by the composer, some of which can be seen in her documentary film, Lou Harrison: A World of Music.

Soltes has also furthered Harrison’s vision by collaborating with local permaculture guru, Damien Lester, in creating a nearby sustainable ecosystem. This neighboring property is designed with pass through fencing for animal migration, landscaped to optimize rainwater, and recycles grey water. Egg and fertilizer producing foul abide safely on the property. A tour through this area is an education in the symphonic collaboration of man and nature.

A fundraiser for Harrison House will be held on November 27th, at 7 pm, wherein cellist, Eric Byers, will perform J.S. Bach, Cello Suites No. 1 & No. 6, Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, Le Retrouvé (Byers’ arrangement), Marin Marais, and Les Voix Humaines (Byers’ arrangement). To accomodate a larger crowd, the event will be held at Joshua Tree Retreat Center Sancturary. At 18 years old, Byers made his solo debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. As a founding member of the Calder Quartet, Byers has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, Wigmore Hall, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Salzburg Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Melbourne Festival, Ojai Festival, Kennedy Center, Disney Hall, Mozarteum, Esterházy Palace, and the Sydney Opera House. The Los Angeles Times exclaimed that Byers ‘performed with ethereal wonder.” Tickets are limited. Masks will be required. Purchase tickets at louharrisonhouse.org/events. For more information, call (760) 366-4712.

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