eva soltes

On Screen Wednesday: Oregon’s greatest composer

The Northwest Film Center presents the Portland premiere of of Eva Soltes' documentary film "Lou Harrison: A World of Music"

One day in the late 1970s, the celebrated American composer Lou Harrison phoned Eva Soltes, then a student in her late 20s. “Hello, dear,” the deep jolly voice boomed. “Glub glub glub, I’m drowning in papers. Can you save me?” Harrison’s growing fame as a pioneering figure in American music, coupled with a car accident that reminded him of his mortality, spurred him to start getting his papers (music, files, correspondence) in order, and Soltes, who was producing 100 concerts a year at Berkeley’s chamber music organization, 1750 Arch Street, seemed to him to offer a solution.

Lou Harrison at his strawbale house in California.
Photo: Eva Soltes

They’d met earlier when Soltes was studying classical Indian dance with the famed teacher and dancer Balasaraswati at Berkeley’s Center for World Music. One day after leaving the class, she walked across the street and saw two bearded men making musical instruments, and occasionally playing them. The center had given the great composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) and his partner Bill Colvig the workshop space as part of Harrison’s teaching assignment there. Soltes often stood in the doorway, just to watch and listen.

They grew closer when she produced a concert celebrating the centennial of the pioneering American composer Charles Ives — whom Harrison had known. He’d edited much of Ives’s work and conducted the 1943 premiere of Ives’s Third Symphony that won Ives the Pulitzer Prize in music.

Soltes recognized the respect the brilliant, charismatic polymath Harrison commanded even then. “When you were in Lou’s presence, you’d stand straighter or sit taller or listen a little better.” Despite hating paperwork and already having a full time job, she agreed to help. Eventually she found him an assistant, but stayed in his orbit for the rest of his life, producing concerts around the country for him, bringing some order to the chaos of his burgeoning career and contributing to Harrison’s emerging recognition as the grand old maverick of American music.

In 1984, Harrison invited Soltes to an event honoring his old mentor, composer and critic Virgil Thomson, who was visiting San Francisco. She brought a video camera that she’d been given by a foundation to document the life of her dance teacher. If her life deserved preserving on film, then surely so did those of America’s homegrown creative geniuses like Harrison, whose prodigious career stretched from his early percussion ensemble concerts with John Cage in the 1930s through music inspired by Ives and his teachers Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg, and included ballet scores for choreographers such as Jean Erdman and Mark Morris, tuning experiments sparked by his friend Harry Partch, symphonies, concertos, solo works, and finally the multicultural fusions with the music of Asia, particularly Javanese gamelan music, that culminated his enduring legacy. That day, she shot footage of Harrison and Colvig walking arm in arm in a church — her first video of the legendary Aptos-based composer. But far from the last.

On October 17, the Northwest Film Center’s Reel Music Festival will screen the Portland debut of Soltes’ film, almost 30 years in the making, “Lou Harrison: A World of Music.” She will be in attendance.